Tanzania Culture and Traditions

Local tribe of Tanzania near huts with visitor celebratingThe people of Tanzania have a rich cultural heritage that goes back many centuries.  There are more than 100 distinct ethnic groups and tribes in Tanzania.  With such a diverse population, you might think it would be very difficult to properly understand their culture enough to behave with proper manners throughout your visit. Fortunately, the Tanzanian people are well known for being friendly and polite to visitors.  So even if you forget some of the advice below, you will likely not offend anyone too seriously.  However, it is always nice to learn some of the “do’s and don’ts” of their culture to be respectful.  Above all, be friendly and polite and enjoy their friendly culture!

Because of the more extreme experience of being on a high-altitude mountain like Kilimanjaro, your manners on the mountain can be a little different than while in town or relaxing at your hotel.  However, many of the general cultural norms will certainly follow you up the hill with your guides and large crew of porters .  So it’s great to know the basics of the Tanzanian culture first, then we’ll cover some of the more specific mountain etiquette.

Etiquette off the mountain in towns and cities

In general, life in Tanzania is not at the same rushed pace as it is for most Americans or many other Western European countries.  So, for just about everything you do throughout your time in Tanzania, just keep in mind that activities may move at a slower pace and may not always start or finish on time.  And, if you find yourself running late and worrying about upsetting your guide or host, you will likely find him or her saying “hakuna matata” to you which, in case you haven’t seen Disney’s The Lion King, means “no problem/no worries”.

Greetings

Greeting people in Tanzania is quite easy for Westerners and generally consists of a smile, a hello and a handshake.  Use your right hand to shake the person’s hand (as you would do in the USA or Europe).  The handshake may end up going a little longer than you’re used to which is simply a sign of friendliness.  You may even end up starting your conversation while you’re still shaking hands.

In more casual settings (like after you’ve gotten to know your guides and porters for a while), you may even end up doing the “cool hand shake” where you lock thumbs.  But most likely, the local you’re greeting will start doing this first and you can just follow along.  We’d recommend not doing this first as it may appear to be too informal (especially off the mountain).

When greeting several people at once, be sure to acknowledge and greet everyone in the group.  Even if it is obvious who the leader of the group is (such as your guide or your hotel host), if they are standing with others, be sure to greet everyone there or it may be seen as rude to the other people. 

Finally, when you greet someone new or someone you haven’t seen for a while, be sure to ask about the person’s day or work or family/children and listen respectfully to their answer.  Unlike in Western countries (where a fast pace and efficiency tend to dominate), Tanzanians place a strong emphasis on relationships and people.  So, walking right up to someone and immediately asking for something may come off as rude.  Plus, since you are on vacation anyway, why rush the conversation?  Enjoy the people and culture while you can.  Ask questions and learn about them and share your own stories as well!

Common Expressions

Swahili is the most common language in Eastern and Southern Africa.  It is estimated that approximately 140 million people speak the language.  You are certain to hear it spoken commonly in Tanzania, Kenya and the surrounding area.  It is not only fun to learn a few local expressions, but also shows a sign of respect to the locals.  Plus, while your guide will certainly speak English (they must be fluent in English in order to be licensed to guide on Kilimanjaro), many of your porters will not speak English very well.  So knowing a handful of expressions will certainly help better communicate with the crew of porters. 

Here are a few common expressions:

  • Karibu – Welcome!  
  • Jambo – Hello!
  • Asante – Thank you 
  • Asante Sana – Thank you very much 
  • Lala salama – Sleep well
  • Hakuna matata – No worries / no problem

And don’t forget the term you will most certainly hear many times while hiking on the mountain:  Pole Pole!  This is pronounced “Polay Polay” and means “Slowly, Slowly!”  Your guides will be saying this alot to ensure you move slowly up the mountain with plenty of time to acclimate to avoid altitude sickness.

Clothing

Fortunately, your clothing on while actually climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is pre-determined and you only need to concern yourself with the weather when choosing what to wear.  However, it is worth considering the norms of Tanzanian culture when selecting what to wear before and after your trek.  Of course this may differ somewhat depending where you are (villages, clothing in tansmall town, big town, beach setting), what you are doing and whom you are with.

In general, we recommend people dress nicely while in Tanzania since locals tend to respect those that are well dressed.  Even the poorest locals take efforts to dress nicely.  Thus, if you walk through town in stained or ripped clothes, it will appear odd to the locals in the area.  In general, both men and women will want to avoid wearing shorts unless you are hanging out in your hotel.  For women, shorts are generally considered to expose too much of your thighs (unless they are below the knee).  For men, shorts are generally considered to be attire more suited to boys (and the thought of an adult male being considered a boy is quite an insult to locals). 

For men, the ideal outfit would be khaki trousers and a dress shirt or polo style shirt.  Jeans and a dress shirt is quite popular for younger men as well.  For women, you want to respect the more conservative norms and not wear clothing that exposes your thights, torso, cleavage or shoulders.  Extremely tight fitting clothes is also generally discouraged. 

If you decide to go on a safari, you will be encouraged to wear colors that appear in nature (tan, light green, etc.).  Wearing extremely bright colors (even white or black) tend to attract the attention of the animals and might spoo them away if they are in close proximity.  Although it may be hot, it is still recommended to avoid shorts.  Not only for the aforementioned reasons, but also to avoid Tse Tse fly bites.  Looser clothing like khaki pants and ‘safari-style’ shirts are excellent because they tend to be cooler than tighter fitting clothes like jeans and polo shirts.

The evenings can get quite cool so it is a good idea to bring a light jacket with you or even bring your rain shell if you think it might rain.

If you plan to visit Zanzibar you should recognize that, unlike most of Tanzania, 99% of Zanzibar’s local residents are Muslim.  So the conservative nature is even stronger in Zanzibar.  There are no topless beaches.  However, it is fully acceptable to wear a swimsuit (even a bikini) on the beach.  For men, wearing a swimsuit and no shirt is also acceptable.  While in the rest of the hotel, it is a good idea for men to wear a shirt and women to cover up.  You might consider buying a kanga, which is a colorful thin wrap that local women use as skirts, headwraps and even baby slings.  It is a convenient way to cover up while inside the hotel.

If you decide to venture into a city (such as Stone Town) you should definitely cover up and not just wear shirts and a bikini top for women (or no shirt for men) as you might do at a beach in California.  In town, you will want to abide by the rules of not wearing any garment that goes above your knees or that exposes shoulders/cleavage/etc.  Loose, lightweight clothing is generally best as the sun can be quite hot and it would be considered to risqué to wear tight fitting clothing.  In general, you will get better service in the town if you abide by these rules.  Note that, despite being primarily Muslim, it is not necessary for women to cover their face while out in public.

Eating

First thing’s first:  wash your hands!!!  Yes, this is generally considered proper hygiene and etiquette around the world, but Tanzanians really take this to the next level. When walking into a more modernized restaurant, it is considered good manners to go to the washroom and wash your hands before you begin eating.  And in many smaller restaurants (and even in people’s homes) they will often have someone walk up to each person with a pitcher of warm water and a bowl.  They will offer you some soap, then pour the warm water over your hands (catching the soiled water under your hands).  They will come to each person at the table, so be sure not to refuse to clean your hands, as this will look odd to everyone else that is doing so.

Table with food in Tanzania showing fresh fruits and vegetables and chicken and bun

Second:  don’t visibly sniff your food.  This is quite common in the USA and may even be seen as a compliment to the chef and the establishment since you are taking the time to appreciate the delicious smelling meal in front of you.  However, the act could be seen quite the opposite in Tanzania.  There, it may be interpreted as you questioning whether the food has spoiled or is unfit (even poisonous) to eat.  For this same reason, you should always eat what has been served to you.  Even if you aren’t hungry eat a little bit to show respect to the chef.  In cases where you can serve yourself, take small amounts.  That way you can show your respect by requesting a second helping later (which will be much appreciated by the chef!)

Third: don’t be afraid to use your hands.  You will certainly see standard cutlery such as knives, forks, spoons at most restaurants as well as on your trek.   But some dishes are commonly eaten with your hands.  For instance most BBQ restaurants will serve a large communal plate of varying types of meats.  In this case, you are welcomed to pick up a piece (using your right hand if at all possible) and eat it with your hands.  Don’t be too surprised if you don’t even have a plate in front of you.  In this case, you can just set the bones on the table.  This can feel a bit unnerving the first time, but a quick look around the table will show you that it is common practice.

Bargaining

If you decide to get some souvenirs as gifts or to help remember your trip to Tanzania, it’s highly recommended that you go with a guide or one of their crew.  As you might expect,  when street vendors see foreigners they immediately raise the price compared to what they would charge a local.  If you have a local with you, he/she can get you a fair price on whatever it is you are looking for.  Oftentimes the guides will know several shops that have the best prices on your item (you can find many of the same exact items in multiple shops around Tanzania).

If you do find yourself on your own or without a local, it is absolutely acceptable to bargain for the best price.  Unlike some other countries, you want to keep things friendly while you bargain.  Charm will get you much further than aggressive arguing for a price.  If you ask the vendor for a price, we recommend counter-offering with a price that is less than half of initial price they gave.  That way you have some room for back and forth pricing and you can get it for around half the price or slightly more than half.  If you are firm and willing to walk away, you might be followed and offered the price you want.  If you are in an indoor shop with prices shown, they may not be negotiable, but you can always ask.   If there are no prices shown, you can almost always negotiate.

Tanzanite gems displayed in a case in an authorized shop in Tanzania

Several indoor shops sell jewelry made from a precious gemstone called Tanzanite, which can only be found in Tanzania.  It is often compared to diamonds and is a beautiful blue gemstone.  It is quite expensive but considering its rarity, it is surprisingly less expensive than diamonds.  It is highly regulated in Tanzania and you will notice that all the shops that sell it have the same brand.  Also note that, while they might show you the gem in its raw form (uncut and unpolished), they will not sell it to you for any price.  The government forbids the export of any unfinished Tanzanite in an effort to ensure that the country can benefit from the higher priced finished stones.  If you are interested in jewelry or gems, it is definitely worth going into the shop and having them describe the stones and their origin.

Etiquette while climbing Kilimanjaro

What you’ve learned about etiquette and manners while in the towns in and around Tanzania you can use just as well during your trek up Kilimanjaro.  However, there are some differences that are worth noting while you are on your journey to the Roof of Africa.  Below are several words of advice.

Be nice!

Even in your regular travels, you might find that the people you are with tend to get cranky and you have more arguments than usual – and that’s while you are staying in hotels and having leisurely days exploring new areas.  Now picture yourself sleeping on the ground with another person for 6-8 nights in very close quarters.  And each night you get more tired and get worse sleep than the night before as you move up in altitude.   Not to mention that almost everyone experiences some level of altitude sickness leaving you with headaches, nausea.

All combined, this can be a tough experience!  So do your very best to stay nice and friendly to your fellow climbers and also to the entire crew.  As hard as you may feel the experience is, remember that your porters are doing the same number of miles as you, but carrying upwards of 20-25kg (45-55 lbs), moving much faster than you and doing all the work of setting up and tearing down camps, fetching large amounts of water, cooking, cleaning and sleeping on much thinner pads with lots more people per tent.  So be nice to them and share the love!

Don’t complain, but tell your guide everything

While we highly encourage everyone to be nice and not complain during the trip, it is important that you don’t misinterpret that.  If you are not feeling well (unusually tired, dizzy, bad headache, bad nausea, etc.) you absolutely MUST tell your guide.  In fact, your qualified guide will be doing health checks twice a day and asking you questions about your sleep, fatigue level, headaches, etc.  Be 100% honest about these questions.  And if you suddenly feel worse in the middle of the day, do not wait to tell your guide at the next health check….tell them immediately!  Don’t confuse the term “complaining” with term “informing”.  Complaining constantly about every inconvenience will possibly make the trip less enjoyable for you (and likely for those around you).   But not informing your guide about how you are feeling bad could be deadly.

Be ready and available

First and foremost – never leave the camp without first telling your guide.  Your guide is responsible for the safety of every single person on the expedition and there is a tremendous amount of logistics involved.  So he may be busy coordinating fresh food runs, checking on the crew or communicating with others.  It would be a tremendous disservice for you to leave the camp for a quick day hike without telling your guide.  However, if you do feel like walking somewhere or doing something outside the camp, by all means ask them.  If there I ample time, it is very likely they’ll give you the OK and offer a time you need to be back for snacks, dinner etc.

On a similar topic, although the urgency factor on Kilimanjaro is quite low compared to other large mountain treks, proper etiquette is to be ready and be on time.   Be on time for meals.  Be on time (and fully packed and ready) for your departure in the morning. Just be on time.  It’s very easy to think “I can eat breakfast quickly, so I’ll sleep in an extra 30 minutes”.  The problem with this is that your guide has every activity scheduled to the tee.  Your meal often includes several courses being brought out in sequence.  So when you aren’t there at the start, it throws off the schedule and lowers the camaraderie of the group.  Of course, if you do feel you need the extra rest, be sure to tell your guide and they will make special accommodations for you. 

As the old saying goes:  “Only be last once.”  One way to stay on time, not feel rushed and generally have a better time is to get into a daily routine.

Eating on the mountain

Fresh food being cooked in the kitchen tent on Kilimajaro trekMost of the etiquette rules for eating in Tanzania transfer well up on the mountain.  In fact, in a way, they are even more critical.  Make sure that every time you are offered warm water for washing hands or face you take your crew up on that offer!  Remember, there is no freely running tap water on the mountain. So someone on the crew had to fetch the water from a stream, treat the water so that it is potable, warm the water (with fire from precious fuel that was carried up the mountain), then bring it out to your team to use.  To refuse to use it would be a clear insult to all that work!  Its also even more important to use it so maintain hygiene which is much more difficult on the mountain.

Likewise, the rule of eating a little bit of everything is also important.  Similarly, making food in a remote camp is exorbitantly harder in camp as it is in a restaurant (and equally delicious if you picked the right guide!)  Plus, as you reach higher elevations, you most certainly will start to lose your appetite somewhat.  But you need precious calories in your system with all the extra work you are putting your body through.  Not just from the daily hiking, but also your body is working much harder on everything: breathing, maintaining temperature, and getting oxygen to name a few.  So eating up is not just for etiquette purposes, it's also for your health (and improving your chances of getting to the top!)

Tent Etiquette

Inside a relatively small tent like the mountaineering tent you are likely to sleep in is without a doubt the most likely place where you will get on someone else’s nerves and someone else will get on yours! Regardless of whether the person you are sleeping with is a friend, spouse or stranger, the tent is where most of the human drama is likely to occur!  Unless you speak to your guide about having a tent to yourself long before the trip, you will likely be paired up with one other person in a sleeping tent.  Pro tip:  If you have the extra money that your guiding company will charge you, we highly recommend considering this option unless you are coming with a partner.

As far as tent etiquette, other than the normal manners you would expect in small quarters, we do have a few suggestions for non-married/non-domestic partners sleeping in a tent together.

First, sleep head to feet (in opposite directions) as opposed to both laying the same direction with your heads facing each other. While this might at first seem a little unpleasing option considering how hot and sweaty your feet get hiking all day, trust us on this one.  You will be sleeping in sleeping bags so your feet will be covered in thick baffling.  You are unlikely to have displeasing odors.  And the benefit of not having your buddy (or a complete stranger) breathing down your neck or snoring at your face is considerably better than the thought of being next to someone’s covered feet.

Next, keep your space organized.  This is much easier said than done.  And certainly you will have ‘stuff’ everywhere.  But be sure there is some organization to it and all of your stuff stays on your side.  It’s very easy to get your gear mixed up with your partners, which makes finding things more difficult and can be a little gross when your underwear ends up in your partner’s duffle bag.  And making a bunch of noise shuffling through your bag constantly while your partner is trying to sleep can be quite the annoyance.  In general try to come up with a nighttime and morning routine and you will be much better off.

Getting in and out of a mountaineering tent will most surely wake up all but the very heaviest of sleepers, so try and avoid that as much as possible.  One good idea is to use a pee bottle instead of making noise putting on a bunch of layers of clothing, unzipping the tent, letting cold air in, then zipping it back up (then reversing the process after you are done. 

Finally, its always good etiquette to know when to talk with your tent buddy and when not to.  Fortunately,  you won’t be spending much time in your sleeping tent (other than for sleeping), so this is far less an issue than on other mountains where tent buddies are sometimes forced to spend tens of waking hours together.  Still, read your partner when it comes to talking.  If he/she has put in their earplugs, its probably a pretty good sign they are more interested in not talking!