Saturday, February 12, 2011

My Tanzanian Family

I was welcomed my very first day in Dar es Salaam by my new Tanzanian family. It was strange to immediately adjust to their expectations of referring to one another as kaka (brother), dada (sister), baba (father), etc. My brother, Amani, is 24 years old, and a recent graduate of the University of Dar es Salaam as a Civil Engineer. You can tell we get along by that fact alone. Yeah engineers! He works full time at a construction company in Dar, and on occasional weekends he travels up to Arusha to manage construction projects for another company. Although he isn't home all the time, he likes to include me on silly adventures. He has a twin brother named Amini who lives in another part of the city, but I've only met him a few times. Amini likes to joke around... a lot. He brought a friend over once and convinced me that he was the chief of his tribe back home... of course I fell for it. I was pretty excited to meet this chief, and bombarded him with a million questions about his responsibilities at such a young age and how he manages to acquire his education so far from his people. Joke was on me...

Then there is my sister, Sarah. She is really sweet. She's actually my cousin, but all paternal cousins are called brother and sister. On the very first day, she took me to the “Dark and Lovely” salon where she got her hair done, and I stood awkwardly in the corner being stared at by everyone in the room. I guess they couldn't figure out why I was there... It was a fun experience though. She works at a company in Dar also.

There is a maid in the house, named Neema. This is very common in Tanzania, and she has become a member of the family. She cooks the most incredible food. Did you know that you can cook bananas a hundred different ways, and they can be the focus of the meal? It's so delicious! I'm in love with Tanzanian food. I warned my Baba that when I leave this country, I'm stealing Neema. I don't know how I'll ever go back without her. Communication with her is sometimes difficult because of my limited knowledge of Swahili, and her very small English vocabulary. It works though... we talk about all the important stuff, like when there's a big cockroach in the bathroom and I run out screaming. She saves me every time.

That brings me to Baba... he is very traditional. He is very kind, but his traditional customs are overwhelming. He also has some interesting perceptions of Americans, that he is quite confidant and vocal about. He actually lived in Iowa for two years, 25 years ago, so he thinks he knows everything about America—it's pretty comical. On the first evening, he explained to me that children of divorced parents are those that bring guns to school. They are all bothered and emotionally wrecked. I told him that my parents divorced when I was young, and I think I turned out fine... He seemed very concerned about me after that fact. I don't think it changed his perspective at all; he just views me as troubled... I'm sure he'll come around.
When I say Baba is traditional, I mean he maintains the old Tanzanian ideals of hierarchy in a family and society. Man knows best. This is very difficult for me to comprehend. I come from a society where men and women are generally considered equals. As an educated woman, I am respected. In this house, I am often treated like a child along with all the other people in their mid-20s. Except that Baba does not have many expectations for Amani—just the females in the household. There have been several occasions when he finishes his dinner and his hands are greasy. He will call to Sarah, no matter where she is in the house, and make her come out to wash his hands at the table. Logically, he could have walked 10 feet to the sink, but then she would not be able to show how she respects him... or something like that.
He also tells me when I must shower... and sometimes he won't allow me to leave the table until I eat all the food he wants me to eat. I think he is looking out for me, and that is why he often seems controlling. He wants to be sure that I'm eating enough of all the proper foods and that I sleep soundly because I have showered. Sometimes he'll back up his rules with “biology.” Did you know that the reason I wasn't eating enough (according to Baba) is because I hadn't showered before dinner? Biologically, my body needs to be clean in order for me to be hungry. I'd like to read the text book that came from. For a while I had to take a shower before anyone was allowed to eat dinner.

He teaches me how to be a good Tanzanian woman. Personality/submissiveness is important, but does not compare to a Tanzanian woman's ability to cook and clean. If she cannot cook, she could be the most beautiful woman in the world, but a man wouldn't care. Anyone who has ever seen me in the kitchen will agree that I'm never finding a Tanzanian husband...

You might be asking where Mama fits into this equation. She lives at their home in Morogoro, about an hour away. This is just a temporary home at the University because Baba works here. Every other weekend, Mama will come to Dar. On the other weekends, Baba visits her. Mama is so sweet! She greeted me with the biggest hug. She also has an incredible laugh and positive disposition. She took me shopping for a kanga—the customary Tanzanian wrap worn by women—and we got matching purple ones! Mama is a secondary school teacher, and she also runs a small farm at their other home. I don't know how she manages all that work! Of the few times I met her, I have never seen her rest. She is constantly helping around the house—cooking, cleaning, etc. One morning I walked into the living room where Baba was lounging and singing along to some music. I asked where Mama was, and he said she was cleaning his room. “If I cleaned my own room during the week, then what would Mama do on the weekends she comes to visit?” Hmm... maybe she'd be taking a break and listening to music... but what do I know.

I'm glad that I have the opportunity to witness this traditional household, because I don't think I'd actually believe it otherwise. I have spoken to many other students who live with host families, and they say that their fathers are not nearly as strict or traditional as my Baba. That is a wonderful thing! I'm very happy that this behavior is not considered typical anymore. But at one point, most families were managed in this manner. Baba grew up in a rural village, so he maintains those beliefs. The majority of families in Dar have become more modernized than that. I like to ask people my age to confirm the crazy stories Baba tells me about gender roles in Tanzania. More often than not, people will say that those are old Tanzanian customs, and not the way things are anymore.  


  1. I love this so much! Now that I know who you're living with, I can actually imagine what your daily interactions are like. Baba sounds difficult to deal with, but I'm sure it's such a learning experience. Tell your Tanzanian family hi for me :)

  2. yeah. he's really nice, but his customs are SO traditional and gender-biased. in general, he's a really great guy and he'd take a bullet for me. he has already stood up for me and the other girls a few times. i like having him around... conversations are always entertaining

  3. Well, at least you're learning something... And thanks for the post. I was reading it last night while I waited in line for two hours to see Phil Vassar and didn't get in. I read it out loud to Rob (who said to say hi) and a bunch of other people in line probably heard it too haha! Miss ya!

  4. Wait, are the twins really Amini and Amani?

  5. yes, the twins have practically identical names. but they all mean something