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)?

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