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Tanzania Culture

People and Culture

Maasai Woman in tradional attireTanzanian culture is a delightful mix of influences with over 120 tribes. Tanzania is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. From the tall graceful Maasai warriors, the ancient ways of the Hadza bushmen, the resourceful agricultural practices of the Wameru, the artistic talents of the Makonde to the Chaga farmers and traders. Each of the 120 different tribes in Tanzania have their own distinct ways of life but together, they gracefully unite to form Tanzania.

Languages: Over 120 languages are spoken in Tanzania, most of them from the Bantu family. After independence, the government recognized that this represented a problem for national unity, and as a result made the kiswahili language (Swahili) the official language. The government introduced it in all primary schools to spread its use. Kiswahili was the logical choice because a wide range of people were already informally using it along the coastal regions and it was a perfect language to help unify the country since it did not originate or belong to any particular tribe.

Given the conditions at that time, it was not possible to introduce the language in to the entire educational system, because the language was still callow and undisciplined. The task of formalizing kiswahili and writing kiswahili books for all schools was considerable.
The government decided to apply Kiswahili exclusively to all elementary/ primary education and use English (the colonial language since the end of  World War one) in high schools and universities. Kiswahili is still taught as a course in high schools and Universities.

Today, a great majority of the population have accepted and fluently use Kiswahili, thus English is generally well known. As a result of this linguistic situation, many of the 120 tribal languages are slowly withering away with every new generation.  Kiswahili on the other hand has grown into an international language that is widely used across multiple boarders. Kiswahili is ranked among the top 10 international languages. Apart from Tanzania, it is now used in Kenya, Uganda, DRC Congo, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique to name a few.
Kiswahili is also taught in universities around the world such as; Harvard, Oxford, Yale, Cambridge, Colombia, Georgetown, George Washington, Princeton and many more.


Tradional Drums (Ngoma)The Tanzanian national anthem is titled “ Mungu Ibariki Afrika” (God Bless Africa), composed by a South African composer - Enock Sontonga. The song is also the national anthem of South Africa and Zimbabwe. The music industry in Tanzania has evolved over the years. Due to the mixture of various cultures in Tanzania, native music is morphing into new music that is a combination of the old, new and imported sounds and rythms. Tanzanian musicians are among the  the best in Eastern Africa. You have legendary artists such as RemyOngala, Dionys Mbilinyi, Sabinus Komba, Siti binti Saad, Bi Kidude, Saida Karoli, Hukwe Zawose Nasibu Mwanukuzi aka Ras Nas, Jah Kimbuteh and many others. You also have new vibrant artists such as Imani Sanga, Judith Daines Wambura Mbibo aka Lady Jaydee, Rose Mhando, Joseph Haule aka Professor Jay, Ray C, Saleh Jaber aka Saleh J, Joseph Mbilinyi aka Sugu/ Mr. II/ 2-proud and many more. They mix native music with imported sounds and the result is a range of interesting flavors of music.
Traditional Tanzanian music includes; Zouk, Ngoma, Taarab and Ndombolo.  Some of these tradional music types have been incoporated into exported music to create unique sounds that are refered to as Mtindo, Sikinde, Modern Taarab, Bongo flavor, African hip hop, Bolingo and Reggae.

Traditional music instruments include ngoma, marimba, coconut shell fiddles, Filimbi ( whistles made of wood or bone) and Traditional trumpets made from bull/buffalo horns or ivory.


Traditional FoodTanzanian cuisine is unique and widely varied. The coastal region cuisine is characterized with spicy foods and use of coconut milk. Such foods are; Pilau(wild rice/ mixed rice), Bagia, Biryani, kabab, Kashata(coconut or groundnuts rolls), Sambusa(Samosa).
As you move inland you will find foods that are less spicy; Wali(rice), Ugali, Chapati(a bread), Kuku choma(grilled chicken), Nyama Choma(grilled meat), Nyama pori(wild/ bush meat that is either sun dried, grilled or cooked), Kiti Moto(grill pork), Mishikaki(skewed meat), Samaki(fish), Ndizi( Plantains/ bananas), Bamia(Okra), Mchicha( greens/ spinach), Njegere(peas), Maharage(Beans), Kisamvu(cassava leaves), kisusio(soup from boiled animal bones and meat or blood) and many dishes prepared the Tanzanian way.

Famous Snacks include; Maandazi (bread-like rolls), Visheti, Kashata (coconut or groundnuts rolls), Kabab, Sambusa (Samosa), Mkate wa kumimina, Vileja, Vitumbua ( rice cakes) ,Bagia, Firigisi (grilled gizzards), Tende (dates), Korosho, karanga ( groundnuts), Daga (fried nut-sized fish), Senene (pan grilled grasshoppers), kumbikumbi (pan grilled …) many others.

Modern Tanzanian BeveragesNative beverages include; Chai ( tea ) which is usually a breakfast beverage taken with Chapati, Maadazi, Mkate (breads), Ugali and/or Mayai (eggs ). Kahawa (coffee) is also another beverage. It is more commonly taken in the evenings, when the sun is cool and people are on the front porch, playing cards, Bao or just chatting. Many people drink coffee with Kashata (coconut or groundnuts rolls).
Other native beverages are specific to certain regions and tribes. These are; Mnazi/ Tembo (Coastal region), Mbege ( Kilimanjaro region ), Wanzuki, Gongo. There also various beers, wines and spirits produced in Tanzania. These include Kilimanjaro beer, Safarai beer, Serengeti beer,Konyagi, Banana Wine and many more.

Social norms and ettiquette


  • Men greeting Men – A handshake is appropriate in most situations.  Handshakes tend to be energetic and very often linger a bit.  It is also appropriate for two men to walk hand in hand in public. This does not have any implication on their sexual preferences, it's just a sign of friendship and closeness.
  • Women greeting Women – A handshake and/or bow is appropriate in most situations.  If you would like to show great respect you may also place your left hand over your right elbow when handshaking and bowing.  Handshakes tend to be energetic and very often linger a bit.
  • Meetings between Men and Women – Appropriate greetings depend on the nature of the relationship. If the man is Muslim a woman may bow and greet but handshakes are not appropriate. For all others a handshake and/or bow is appropriate but it is best to wait for the woman to extend her hand, otherwise a bow or a nod of acknowledgment will suffice.
  • Note:  Greeting is an important aspect of the culture and is very lengthy, lasting anywhere from one minute to ten. Elders are very respected in Tanzanian culture and are always greeted by saying “shikamo”, whereas they reply “marahaba”. Also, always use your right hand when shaking hands.

Communication Style

  • Indirect communication is considered much more polite than being direct and specific, especially when talking to superiors or your elders.
  • You may find that people address problems differently.  For example, instead of asking for help and then explaining specifically their reasons, they may tell you a 5 minute story about a problem they are having and only then begin to hint at the assistance you can give.  If you do not want to/ are unable to help, you can simply answer vaguely with a polite but firm excuse and that should be sufficient.
  • It is best in social and business interactions to not be too blunt about your problems/ feelings/ frustrations/ needs.
  • Urban Tanzanians will be much more used to direct communication, but you should be cautious not to offend people by rushing to your point quickly without introducing the topic and “talking around it” for a few minutes.
  • Humor plays a big role in communicating.  Most Tanzanians enjoy a good joke. 

Personal Space & Touching

  • Personal space differs from place to place based on tribal and religious influences. Generally, an arm’s length or a bit less is appropriate.  Personal space tends to be less between members of the same gender.
  • When two people of the same sex are talking, touching is acceptable.  It is common to touch the hands, legs, and shoulders.
  • When two people of the opposite sex talk there is very little to no touching. The only appropriate touch is a handshake.

Eye Contact

  • When talking to an elder, many people tend to look down out of respect.
  • When talking between colleagues or friends direct eye contact is acceptable.
  • Overly direct eye contact with a member of the opposite sex is usually interpreted as an intrusion of privacy or being rude. This is especially true with men looking at women.
  • A woman who uses direct eye contact and smiles at a man for an extended time frame will most likely be interpreted as flirting. Similarly, looking and then looking away and giggling will very likely be interpreted the same way

Views of Time

  • In most situations, Tanzanians have little to no concept of time and are not overly concerned with being punctual. 
  • In rural areas Tanzanians tend to give their time very freely. If you are living in a village it is expected for you to visit your neighbors numerous times per week, to sit and chat with them, and especially to eat meals with them if offered.
  • Visiting a friend or neighbor often takes hours and you may find that they run out to purchase sodas or run to the kitchen to begin cooking ugali upon your arrival. This is less pronounced in urban areas where many people are employed in paying jobs (and therefore more strict with time).
  • In business situations, time is less freely given. Important officials may require you to wait for hours before meeting them and they may only have a few minutes of time to spare. The waiting time partially is a demonstration of a person’s importance in society and it is best to be respectful and friendly even if you are frustrated. If you react with anger, the person will be less likely to help you.
  • Once you have established a friendly relationship even in a business situation, you may find that your host has a whole hour to spare and even offers you soda or tea.
  • The chances of a meeting starting on time are very slim. In many cases it can be up to several hours late.
  • Public transport is usually not reliable when considering set schedules and the like.  

Gender Issues

  • Tanzania is going through a transition when it comes to gender roles; however, it is still a male dominant society.
  • In rural areas women will most likely be housewives. They will be expected to cook, clean, do the laundry and take care of the children, as well as work their land.
  • In urban settings it is more likely to find women who work and have a career.
  • For women smoking in public is usually unacceptable. Women who smoke, drink at bars, and/or dress provocatively are often seen as prostitutes.  This is more so in rural areas vs. urban ones.
  • Foreign women are generally not held to the same standard as local women, but may be looked down upon if they engage in certain taboo behaviors.
  • Foreign women, especially in urban areas, can be expected to dress slightly less conservatively and it is acceptable. (In a small town – though not a village - you could wear jeans whereas most local women will not, for example.)
  • NOTE: that it is NEVER okay to wear shorts that are above the knee. Tanzanians are very polite and will not tell you that it is a problem. Furthermore, you may see other tourists wearing shorts. However, do not be deceived – everybody is watching you in a mixture of amusement and horror.
  • If you are in rural Zanzibar or anywhere on Pemba, wearing a headscarf is not necessary (although all local women will be wearing them) but you will probably find that locals are much more friendly and appreciative of your visit if you do wear even just a lightly wrapped hair covering.
  • Women tend to be more demure about sex – declining at first but then agreeing only after some convincing. So if you decline to have sex with a man, do not be surprised if he continues to try to change your mind. Be polite, be firm, and he will get the message eventually.


  • When gesturing or beckoning for someone to come, you should face your palm downwards and make a scratching motion with the fingers.  It is considered very rude to beckon someone with the palm up.  That is reserved for animals.
  • Pointing to a person with one finger is generally considered rude (although it is sometimes unavoidable). It's best to point with the whole hand or in a slightly more vague manner.


  • In many rural areas and in Zanzibar it is usually unacceptable for women to walk around in shorts, or tank tops, and in some cases pants. Women are expected to dress in a modest way; skirts below the knees and shirts with sleeves. In urban areas guidelines are more flexible and women are seen wearing long pants
  • For men it is inappropriate to wear short pants.
  • Tanzanians do not use their left hand when eating, or touching another person. Never eat with your left hand, hand something to another person with your left hand, or handshake with your left hand. Also, do not touch anything with your left hand, such as produce at the market. Some people may not be as strict about this but most are.
  • It is considered rude to let the bottom of one’s foot or shoe point at someone.  Feet should also not be propped up on chairs or tables.
  • Boys don't usually braid their hair. If you have braids and you are a man, it usually implies that you are gay, which is a major taboo in Tanzanian culture.

Law & Order

  • The legal drinking age is 18 and is not heavily enforced
  • Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal dr.ugs in are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines.
  • It is illegal to wear camouflage clothing. A hat is probably okay but pants or shirts that are camouflage are not okay. Police can stop you at any time and demand that you change your clothes and that you pay a fine.