Meet Tassia de Cock, a 25 years old Belgian girl who moved to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, after a three-month internship with Art in Tanzania.
From the beginning, Tassia liked Tanzania and felt at home. She felt less stressed than in her home place. “I found people nice and liked the fact that there’s a lot of energy going on all the time.”
During her internship, she met John; a Tanzanian guy who soon became her boyfriend. When it came time to leave, Tassia had a choice to make. “It took me five minutes to decide: I’ll just move here. I was done with school, I didn’t really have anything waiting for me back in Belgium.” As she explained to me, John is not her main reason for her moving Even when she was a little girl, she knew she did not want to live in Belgium or the western world. “I wouldn’t say that it’s completely because of John that I’m here, the main reason is that I feel more comfortable living here. I get stressed really fast, and in the western world, there is a really big pressure on you to perform.”
As she explained, a place without stress doesn’t exist. Tanzania is not exempt from stressful situations. Tassia faces many cultural differences in Tanzania that can be difficult to deal with, including commonplace bribery, and the relaxed approach people take with their work. Despite the difficulties in overcoming this culture shock, Tassia still feels far less pressure she believes she would in Western society.
Which parts of the culture are the most difficult for you to deal with?
“I wouldn’t say that people are liars, but they say a lot of things to please you.” They will say what you want to hear, even knowing they can’t do it; promises don’t have the same meaning as in the occidental world. Because people don’t have schedules, you always must remind them of the things you planned with them. “When you’re on holiday, it’s fine because you take it slowly. But when you are living somewhere, sometimes you need things to be done. It’s easily frustrating for a western person. Everything takes time.” It’s the same for appointments; in Belgium, it is rude to be late to an appointment, yet here, people will never be upset if you are not there on time. Their perspective is that a lot of things can make you late, so it’s reasonable for you to be three hours late; at least, you are there now.
The good part is that people here don’t push others to do anything, so you can do your things at the speed you want, and everything is fine.
Social rules are also very different. You have to prove yourself a lot, that you can be part of this culture and this community. Because you will always be a mzungu (white person), so locals expect you to act differently.
Do you feel safe in Madale, Dar es Salaam?
Madale is a small village, everyone knows everyone. People look out for each other, and that makes me feel safe; the community is taking care of you.
“There are parts of the city where I wouldn’t go at night as a “mzungu” and particularly as a “mzungu girl”, of course, but Madale is safe.”
Criminal justice here is in the hands of the village. If you are a good person, you will be protected. For example, if someone breaks into someone else’s house, people will help take care of it. When the community knows that the person you are calling a burglar has a history of bad behavior, they will not hesitate to stone them. “But as a tourist, you will never experience that.”
How do you adapt to yourself here? What difficulties did you encounter?
In the beginning, it was easy because you know when you are traveling in a third world country, you expect things to be adventurous and different than what you are used to at home. A bucket shower is primitive but funny; you know you are going to go back home. After a couple of months, things are getting heavier because you know you are not going back home; this is your home. This is your new normal. Here you poop differently, you shower differently, you eat differently, you sweat differently, you drive on the other side of the road; everything is different. After a while, it kind of hits you how different things are and how different they will stay.
It took Tassia a month to adapt and become 100% comfortable living here. At the beginning, we want to prove ourselves; we want to prove that we are able to live like everybody else here. “You try to distance yourself from the «mzungu» characteristics, but after a while, you have to find a reasonable and healthy balance between your original culture and your new one so that you are comfortable with how you live.
There is a lot of little communities of persons from the same place or speaking the same language in every country. It’s easy to judge them and ask them to mix themselves with locals. “I think that I just never took the time to understand what they were living. It’s not because they love their culture more than ours, it’s because they need people to connect with and have support because they are facing the same issues. If I was still living in Belgium, I wouldn’t be able to understand their situation, because I wouldn’t have experienced that.” As Tassia said, you have to be out of your comfort zone to understand the power of community and the power of people understanding your issues and needs.
What about the cost of living?
Because I’m mzungu, I make more money than local people; for the same job. I hate it. I don’t agree with it. But I can’t say no to the job because there is no other job. For a mzungu, it’s really really hard to find work. Visas are a complicated thing here. The fact that I’m more paid just increases the image of mzungu needing and having a lot of money. I think that they need to give equal opportunities to Tanzanians. That’s why I want to start my own company, and I would never pay a Tanzanian less than a mzungu. A mzungu has the opportunity to move somewhere else if he wants to earn more money; Tanzanians don’t have that option.
There are a lot of people who are working for free and have been for two or three years because there are not nearly enough jobs for everybody. Companies take advantage of people’s limited options and will often pay them less than they deserve. They know that if people just have a small amount of money, they will stay. But a mzungu will not accept to be paid only 100 $US/ month. Companies know this and so they pay them 10 times the rate they pay locals to get them to stay. It’s such a common practice that even UNICEF are guilty of it. They pay their mzungu employees between 300$ and 800$ US/month, to live in Tanzania. You don’t need that amount of money to live here. My rent is 180 000 shilling (~80$) per month for a three rooms apartment.
Be confident and know what you want, don’t be afraid to ask people. Most people yell at you because they want to help you and they want to touch you because you seem exotic to them. This can make people feel that they are in danger, but it’s the opposite. I understand that people are just curious. Understanding Swahili helps you to understand that things that seem scary at first glance are not at all. I have never felt like I was in danger. I don’t get scared easily in life, I give people the benefit of the doubt so for now everything is fine.
You learn to truly appreciate the things you have. I’m just happy to live a simple life with few luxuries, and I really appreciate the small luxuries I do have. I don’t have a lot of stuff, which has reduced my stress level. When you feel hungry, you have to deal with what you have in your fridge because there is no supermarket around. It forces you to look at your priorities from another point of view, and that’s nice.