What do Tanzanians perceive as American culture?

Before I answer this, I will preface my answer by saying that it is not representative of Tanzania in general, but based on the opinions of the biased sample of Tanzanians we have spoken with on our trip. The people in this sample all live in Dar es Salaam, one of the wealthiest and most urban areas of Tanzania; are all well-educated relative to the general Tanzanian population (either in college or graduated); are all young (age less than 35); all speak English quite well; and are all working in or studying technology. I think you have to meet Tanzanians in and out of sample to know how different this sample is from the general population. For example, this sample has (mostly consistent) electricity in their homes or dorms (only 20 percent of the country has electricity), has seen and spoken with foreigners in English before (mostly Indians and whites), has not experienced malaria extensively, and knows who Mark Zuckerberg is. Compare that to the Maasai pastoralists who live in small villages on the circumference of the massive Ngorongoro crater in northern Tanzania; electricity is so sparse that a Maasai person who wants to charge her mobile phone has to walk 2-3 hours to someone with a generator. The person with the generator actually makes a business out of charging phones.

Now onto the actual question. The question first arose when we (the Tech in the World team) were getting dinner at a burger place called Heineken. While we were waiting 1 hour for our burgers (see Pole pole), we noticed three large TV screens surrounding us on three sides with American music videos and TV shows. On the screen with the music videos, we saw Miley Cyrus’s “23,” Pitbull and Ke$ha’s “Timber,” Katy Perry and Snoop Dogg’s “California Gurls,” Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” and Fat Joe and Lil Wayne’s “Make it Rain“. The TV shows included Cops and MTV’s Exposed. Immediately we began to realize (with some horror) how these music videos and TV shows must influence Tanzanians’ perception of American culture. Rappers tossing around $100 bills, shows about nothing besides dating and crime, and guys and scantily clad girls partying all the time and everywhere—on the beach in California, in the Bahamas, in the Wild West, and at school. Even from this single data point at Heineken, it seemed possible that these music videos and shows might be some Tanzanians’ only information about the United States, and that made me wonder about what Tanzanians really thought about our culture. (Studying how the Soviet Union dramatically distorted its subjects’ perception of the United States as a land economically worse off by restricting information flow has impressed upon me the importance of thinking about who has incentives to bias information flow in certain ways.)

I’ve started asking a few of our Tanzanian friends, including our mentor Isaac, our Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology (DIT) contact Ashery, and some of the DIT students about American culture. Isa (a student) told me that while many Tanzanians might only see the partying and spending parts of American culture that are depicted in the media, those who are more educated (e.g. university students) tend to have a more nuanced idea that American culture is not just about money and girls. More interestingly, Ashery told me that many of the older generations (above the age of 26) are reacting negatively to a young generation (younger than 18) that is adopting the partying and spending elements of American culture in its clothing, values, and language (many young Tanzanians, including students, love mimicking Rick Ross’s claim that “he’s a boss”). This has led to an association of the word “American” with decadence and riches among older generations. According to Ashery, poorer Tanzanians often ask American tourists for money due to a perception that Americans have so much money that they can afford to “make it rain” in rap videos.

I find this interesting because I don’t think this perception of American culture is specific to Tanzania. My perception is that many other countries—even economic powerhouse China—simultaneously glorify (if you’re young) and vilify (if you’re older) the lavish lifestyle depicted in American music and TV. Even within the United States, I could anticipate many Americans have not interacted enough with other parts of the country to understand them beyond their depictions on TV, and I bet this fuels some of the political division in our country right now—a TV and the Internet are a much easier and cheaper way to get information about different cultures of Americans than multiple trips to the other side of the country! (As a quick proxy for that statistic, Gallup says that only 52 percent of Americans rode a plane in 2012, while 99 percent of American households owned a TV and 67 percent of Americans watched TV regularly during dinner in 2013.)

So far on this trip, I’ve been focusing my writing on new things I know about Tanzania, but this is the first time I’ve considered what Tanzanians know about Americans. This leads me to two questions. First, from the perspective of a social planner seeking to maximize some notion of global welfare, how “important” is it that people in Tanzania understand Americans and their culture as it actually is, and vice versa (and in general, for all cultures in the world)? For example, perhaps an optimal social planner would want to reallocate people who are currently working in global health in Tanzania to establishing cultural understanding through an exchange program, changing the depictions in the media, and other solutions. Secondly, if we agreed that cross-cultural understanding as defined in the first question is important enough that a social planner should reallocate people to work on it, what would be some good solutions (I listed some potential ones already)?

More Tidbits about Tanzanian Culture

Earlier this month, I posted on the Tech in the World blog about what the team and I learned about Tanzanian culture in our first week here in the country. Our team is learning more about Tanzanian culture everyday! Here are more tidbits, many taken from a conversation with our Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology (DIT) contact Ashery:

  • The average marriage age 25 for men and 22 for women.
  • Younger Tanzanians really like to listen to hip-hop and their own, smoother version of R&B called bongo-flava (see this song by Diamond, one of the most popular bongo-flava artists here). In fact, artists like Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Busta Rhymes have performed here. Apparently many students at DIT like Rick Ross.
  • I asked Ashery about Tanzanians who are admired by the general Tanzanian public. Ashery said that Julius Nyerere, the country’s founder, ranks pretty highly on that list because he managed to instill in the citizens a pride about their identities as Tanzanians, rather than as members of different tribes (there are more than 260 tribes) and different religions (40 percent Muslim, 35 percent Christian, and 20 percent Animism). One way he accomplished this was by including each group in his government (it just happens that presidents have alternated between Muslim and Christian for the last few terms) and his socialist message for equality. According to Ashery, this has been important to avoid the tribal infighting—political and violent—that has occurred in neighboring countries like Kenya (during election time) and Rwanda. Ashery (who is Christian) got really excited when he was saying this, pointing to his friend Abdul (who is Muslim) and saying that in Tanzania, different people coexist peacefully. Maybe Julius Nyerere has a biography worth reading.
  • Presidents Clinton, Bush (Jr.), and Obama have all visited Tanzania, and the citizens of Dar es Salaam got so excited that many of them left work to see the presidents.
  • David Cameron, the UK prime minister, has threatened to withhold aid from countries that criminalize same-sex marriage and other activities, which include Tanzania. Tanzania reacted strongly and is in fact relatively intolerant of homosexuality, as evidenced by Pew Global Attitudes survey that found that 95 percent of Tanzanian residents believe homosexuality is a way of life that society should not accept (the seventh-highest rate of non-acceptance in 45 countries surveyed). Ashery said that there has been much debate about this.

That’s all for now!

Shocker

I lie on my bed with my Macbook in front of me, writing a reflection on my first week in Tanzania. Feeling uncomfortable, I toss off my bednet, get off the bed and sit in a nearby chair, bringing my laptop over. I touch one of the ridges of my laptop. Ouch. Did that hurt? I can’t really tell, and touch it again. Is that how the ridge normally feels? It’s a bit sharp. Confused, I ask my roommate Erik to join me in touching the laptop. He (being the electrical engineering major) immediately pulls my Macbook charger out of the laptop and recoils upon touching the tip. “Static shock!” he says. “Really?” I say.

We begin to diagnose the problem. My charger is connected to a 6-outlet power strip and international adapter that we bought yesterday in a Tanzanian supermarket, which is connected to the wall. One of these is broken. Suspecting the Tanzanian-made power strip, we start testing all the outlets on the power strip and even substituting in one of our own power strips. But with each touch of the charger’s tip, we get shocked in greater disbelief. I begin to suspect my charger itself. Indeed, after plugging Ruth’s Macbook charger into the power strip, the shock is gone. So much for my Mag “Safe” Power Adapter; it probably suffered under the strain of Tanzanian humidity and the 240V outlets.

The shocking is entertaining though, so we bring another Tech in the World Fellow—Ramya—over to join in our discovery. Plugging my charger back in, I offer her the charger tip. She takes it in her hand, but… nothing. In confusion, I touch it but feel nothing! Erik finally touches it and recoils. Ramya and I look quizzically at Erik (who seems to be doubting his own senses), but he continues touching, and recoiling from, the charger tip. Ramya and I try again and again but just can’t figure out how to shock ourselves. Erik suddenly says, “Take off your shoes.” I kick off my flip flops and feel the cool tile floor, touching the tip again. Ouch!

Bajajis and Personal Ownership

This is the first in a series of short stories I am posting about my time in Tanzania as a Tech in the World Fellow. Stay tuned!

Bajajis (also known as tuk-tuks or rickshaws in India) are phenomenally nimble three-wheeled taxis. Ramya tells me that the tuk-tuk drivers in India are daring and skilled at navigating very chaotic traffic at high speeds. In Tanzania, these bajajis are our cheapest way to get around, so naturally they are the first type of transportation we try.

We’re going out to dinner at a beach restaurant; Google Maps says it’s 2 kilometers away. We wave over a bajaji and, in our broken Swahili, ask the driver to take the six of us to the restaurant:

Me: Mbalamwezi? Elfu tatu? [Name of the restaurant. Three thousand schillings.]

Driver: Four thousand [Tanzanian schillings]. Six of you.

Me: [Thumbs up.] [To other TITW students:] Let’s go.

We cram into the bajaji, three of us in the back seat and three of us sitting on the others’ laps. Already we get the premonition of this safety hazard leading to a road accident; our combined weight seems to precariously tip the bajaji from left to right as the driver begins to move. But the driver assuages our fears as he drives swiftly ahead—our forward velocity seems to straighten out our wobbliness (I know I’m in a safe spot in the bajaji anyway, since I am squished underneath Ruth and won’t go flying out the window).

We continue swiftly until we hit traffic, and the two-lane roads give us no option but to sit and wait. At least that’s my thought as I peek out from behind Ruth at the crowded street. But the innovative bajaji driver sees an “opening” on the pedestrian sidewalk to our left (the “sidewalk” is a 10-foot wide dirt strip on either side of the road). Seven men and women walk towards us on the sidewalk 200 meters away, but the daring bajaji driver decides to plow ahead on the sidewalk, passing the sitting cars to our right. He accelerates swiftly left and immediately we drop onto the sidewalk (which is not quite level with the road). The ride on the rocky, unpaved sidewalk is precarious—our heavy bajaji, stuffed with six people, tips ominously from left to right between a sewage ditch and other vehicles, including these big dala dalas. Each of us holds in the simultaneous excitement and terror we feel (with the exception of a few shrieks) as we swing from side to side, narrowly miss the oncoming pedestrians, and turn back into an opening in our original lane.

As exhilarating as driving on the sidewalk is, it feels safe to be back in the correct driving lane. But we hit slow traffic again. This time, our driver sees a new opening right about 10 feet wide, right in between the two directions of traffic. We swerve into this “lane” as cars brush by us on both sides as quickly as 40 mph. Our lane is so narrow that I can touch the dala dalas on our left as we pass them.

Our roller coaster ride ends as we see the beach restaurant on our right. As we continue to use bajajis as our main mode of transportation, I wonder how much more dangerous it really is to ride a bajaji here than it is to take a taxi in the United States. The notion of personal space is relaxed here (in fact, it is considered rude here to stand too far away from someone you’re greeting), and personal space on the road has been no exception. I have a hunch that the probability of getting into an accident in a bajaji here is not significantly different from the probability for taxis in the US, but that many of my US friends would perceive the difference to be pretty high upon reading this story or watching a video of a bajaji ride because of the close quarters in which Tanzanians drive and live.

Just as my US friends would perceive a bajaji to be much less safe than it actually is because of their discomfort with lack of personal space, I think that I and many of my friends overestimate our personal need for our own space, possessions, and privacy in the US relative to how much we actually need to be satisfied. An American culture that supports having your own car, house, and computer doesn’t help; examples of my desire for privacy this past year included the need for a single in my dorm, the need to have my own laptop (which I realized I didn’t actually need for most of my life while using a school computer), and the need to do yoga in my private space of my room (instead of at the gym). Yet living in Tanzania has showed me that I can live without “personal” everything and not lose much in the way of my values of personal growth and achievement. I’ve acclimatized to intimate working conditions, public transportation (including the people packed onto dala dalas—imagine 30 people fitting into this Toyota passenger bus), and dependence on the environment outside my possession and my fellow students for everything from food to sunscreen, power adapters, and money. I’m curious to exchange personal space and possessions for other things that may achieve my values better when I return to life in the US.