Quick reflections on Tanzania: Part 1, on Development

Now we’re back in school—what a change of scenery to be submerged in the Boston snow after four weeks in 90-degree Tanzanian weather! It’s helpful to take a step back from the rush of school (yes, including getting used to being surrounded by hundreds of peers) and think about my experience in Tanzania. In this series of blog posts, I’ll talk about the big things I learned, and then (the harder and more interesting question of) what changes in my life and my plans now.

The order of certain technological developments in Tanzania (at least Dar es Salaam) is different than those same developments in the United States. Cell phones are very popular now, and the order of developments in Tanzania has been widespread 3G and cell phones (even though only 20 percent of the country has electricity), then accessible personal computers, then widespread electricity and Ethernet/WiFi. Compare this to the almost opposite order in the United States. It’s interesting to think that many Tanzanians quite likely will never even use personal computers as their main devices for communication and other needs like transferring cash (see M-Pesa), instead defaulting to their phones (as Dave Morin has emphasized before). There are already many entrepreneurs and problem solvers, many of them local Tanzanians at incubators like TANZICT, who are taking this to heart and developing applications for the old Nokia mobile phones (not smartphones). Here is a likely opportunity to influence Tanzania’s technological development in the next 10 years.

Beyond the technological view on development, there is a lot of room to improve the general quality of life. In the next 20 years, it seems certain that Tanzania will need drinkable running water, cheap and well-distributed anti-malarial treatment (especially in rural areas), and a public transit system (since the traffic congestion is terrible enough that it is possible to waste 3 hours to drive 20 km to get to the airport). I am not as certain about the future of other possible improvements to standards that we have in the United States—such as a “modern” education system focused on teaching students how to think instead of the current pattern of taking tools/skills (e.g. Java) from the West and trying to adapt them to the students. Compared with the needs to stay hydrated, stay healthy, and get to places, the need for education is less well-defined; it’s clear that the purposes of the first three are critical to life, but the purpose of education—whether vocational training or cultivation of good citizens—is something that is still not even settled in the United States and thus could lead to a completely different form of “modern” education than the system in the United States today. Even just a hundred years ago, the United States and major European powers all had different purposes for education, which manifested in university systems that looked completely different:

[Speaking about 1890-1940:] Universities had long existed in Europe, where they took several forms: the classical studies of British universities, the scientific training of French grand ecoles, and the graduate and research institutes of Germany. The modern university of the New World, however, was a different creature than its European counterpart, for it served a far broader clientele of students and the state, yet increasingly strove to be a research center. [1]

I am very interested to see how the education system in Tanzania develops just as I am learning that different countries have potential to develop in completely different ways (which relates to cultural differences such as the lack of private space and ownership). Just as Tanzania is skipping personal computers to using mobile phones, and just as Estonia skipped from no internet infrastructure following Soviet collapse to using the internet to vote, do tax returns, and issue prescriptions, I expect the Tanzanian education system to skip to some of the cutting-edge work in education—including the use of online resources like Udacity—by virtue of not having an inertial university and secondary education system. And I’m especially excited about the creative solutions to be devised in Tanzania because it’s pretty clear that the rest of the world hasn’t exactly solved education yet. As my friend Jacob Cole pointed out, creative businesses like Habari Mazao (a website that Tanzanian consumers and farmers can visit to get fair prices for crops), which emerged from the first Tanzania-MIT Tele-Hackathon, would never have been thought of in the United States.

It seems that comparatively studying development, both in the economic and social sense, could be fruitful for shedding light on how to predict the trajectory of a country like Tanzania, which we couldn’t just say is where the United States was in the past, partly because Tanzania is starting from a different place in time and culture, and partly because she is surrounded by modernized countries that have already developed (but not finished) their own solutions to problems like education, energy and the environment, and effective governance. Studying comparative development might help one think about this problem and give useful case studies, but I am afraid that the lack of sufficiently many data points regarding development of different nations would lead to unhelpful generalizations. Who knows? I’ll have to take a look.

Action Items from Part 1, on Development

  • Look into research and classes surrounding economic development at Harvard.


  1. The Shaping of Higher Education: The Formative Years in the United States, 1890 to 1940. Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz. The Journal of Economic Perspectives , Vol. 13, No. 1 (Winter, 1999) , pp. 37-62. Published by: American Economic Association. Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2647136.

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)?

Simple Beauty

Paris is pretty in the obvious way. Drinking in the city view from the top of the Eiffel Tower is almost overwhelming – the stone arches, gardens, and ancient European buildings mingle before your eyes with the city’s pockets of modernity. The Louvre is the same way, with (literally) thousands of perfectly arranged pieces of artwork placed in carefully lighted and conditioned rooms. The grandeur at first blows your mind, but somewhere down the road (maybe after visiting Versailles’s huge gardens, with hedges trimmed to perfection) Paris’s obvious beauty – its grandeur – becomes almost excessive. The fanfare is overdone and raises expectations without bound. This leads to (as in the case of the Louvre’s Mona Lisa) grand disappointments.

Hints of excess appeared in other aspects of my stay in Paris. Even the tasty but overly rich dinners in fancy restaurants became tiring once the carb overloads set in and my body spent each post-dinner hour metabolizing. And I distinctly remember the line of wealthy Asian tourists outside of Louis Vuitton on Champs-Elysées, waiting for their turn to browse the store for a handbag on which to spend thousands of euros.

This is not to say that I did not enjoy French cuisine (in particular, the freshly caught sea snails and mussels were delicious) or that I did not partake in a little souvenir shopping. And maybe it is unfair that I compare Paris’s obvious modern excesses to its historical beauties, grand masterpieces constructed centuries ago that genuinely reflect ancient culture and artistry. Indeed, I greatly enjoyed walking through the Versailles I had read so much about in my history classes. But after too much indulgence, it is precisely this excess – this disregard for simplicity – that turns away fans of simple living like me.

I think this is why I found my couple days in Paris rather exhausting. (I was probably also tired of competing with Asian tourist groups for scenic picture-taking locations at every single attraction.) So my vacationing family and I decided to get a breath of fresh air in the countryside. One morning, we headed out on the long drive to the monastery and ancient seaport at Le Mont Saint Michel.

We stopped for dinner in a seaside village on the coast of Normandy. I was tired and hungry from the long drive, and stumbled out of the cramped car ready to eat. The town I saw took me by (pleasant) surprise. In one of the few times I have ever used the word, I said to myself, “Wow, this place is really cute!” The waves of the English Channel lapped gently into a small harbor, while horse-drawn carriages plodded along on cobblestone streets decorated with quaint little art galleries. The town truly looked like a city out of colonial times, even down to the cursive-like font on the restaurant menus. The hues of sunset mixed with the navy-colored rooftops beautifully. I remember thinking that the place was almost a fairyland, like the subject of a Monet painting, especially when I saw 30-year-old men riding ornate ponies on the merry-go-round at the pier’s center. Apparently the magic had gone to their heads too.

As I walked along the windy streets, I wondered how it was possible for the town’s residents to make a living, even off of the tourists who would give away money in the name of anything “French.” Possibly the restaurants serving €30 sea bass could get by, but how about the amateur artists each selling a slightly different painting of the same sunrise, or the owners of the galleries overstocked with these paintings? Then – in a brief relaxation of the assumptions of practical life – I considered the possibility that people resided here not to make a living, but because they wanted nothing more than to watch the colorful days go by and soak in the company of their fellow townspeople. Maybe all they desired was to wake up to a sunrise each morning and capture the moment with watercolor or pastel. Perhaps they sought an escape from the noisy world outside – the Louis Vuittons and Chanels in Paris, the screaming motorcycles speeding down Barcelona’s streets, or the quick-walk-no-talk jungle in New York.

And oddly enough, more than the sunset, the novelty of raw oysters, or even the wine, I think it was this simple living and calm solitude that made the town beautiful most of all. I was more melted away by this little countryside village than by the Palace of Versailles, with all its marble statues and ceiling frescos. The town was not so obnoxiously sunny and sandy like Hawaii, nor so concrete and high off the ground like Chicago. It was a simple place with content people, the kind of place that we all need for respite every now and then.

The funny thing is that I don’t even remember the name of the town. Sure, I could probably go look it up right now, but maybe knowing the name would spoil the magic. I would hate for some pretentious-sounding, overly complicated French name, with all its unpronounced consonants, to ruin a rare oasis of beautiful simplicity.