Answering Karen’s Question @ Tanzania

Promised I’d answer your questions about Tanzania, and here’s one from my friend Karen S.: Is American culture welcome there — or are locals worried about it supplanting their own culture?

Excellent question. I asked my tour guide / driver Nashon, and will also ask a few others for more perspective. But I’ve found that because I’m a tourist, I need to spend some time with people before they really open up.

Today, Nashon drove me to the other side of town for a tour of the Arabica coffee farm at Arusha Coffee Lodge (more on that later). There are 2 million people in greater Arusha, and the city just recently built one wider boulevard to handle the weekday traffic. Heads up: You drive on the left. Most streets are much smaller, but I’m grateful for the time to talk while we’re waiting on traffic.

Overall, Nashon appreciates the influence of American culture. He feels it’s bringing more development to the city. Still, there’s a waiting list to buy a home, and no 1BR homes at all to purchase. But it looks like the market is changing. I’m seeing many new 2 and 3BR homes, along with multiple large apartment buildings, under construction as we drive from one end of town to the next.

Masai Warriors: Caught Between Spears and Cell Phones
What Nashon doesn’t like is the fact that the influence of American and overall western culture means that almost everyone you see has a cell phone, or shares one with family or friends. Which in itself isn’t bad – you have to have a phone here if you’re going to do business. But among Masai children and teens, access to a cell phone is causing some to neglect or forget tribal traditions.

Is he worried that young people will choose to leave their traditional lives behind? Yes. NPR has a great article about how the onset of technology has affected Masai in Kenya, which shares a border and some of the same Masai traditions with Tanzania. My understanding is that Masai tribes can travel freely between Kenya and Tanzania.

Masai Warriors: Caught Between Spears and Cell Phones

A global social marketing blogger has a savvy article about cell phone use among the Masai in Kenya and Tanzania:

The Masai Tribe Goes Mobile

Nashon feels that with the onset of Western technology and other temptations, more young Masai are leaving tribal life. Some of the ones who stay are not respecting the traditions and wisdom of the elders, as previous generations have done.

The Masai village visits on most so-called cultural tours are very staged. The main goal is for tourists to purchase jewelry, spears and other hand-made items from the tribes. While I think it’s great – and only fair – that Masai can make money tourists, the idea of going to visit a tribal village sounded awkward and inherently disrespectful to me. I don’t even know how to say “Hi, how are you?” in any Masai dialect, yet here I am, may I see your hut and ask you a bunch of ill-informed questions?

Looking for another way to contribute to the Masai economy, we tried to find a fair trade Masai Women’s Fair Trade Centre in Arusha. They had a website, but we couldn’t find the shop and when we called the phone number no one answered. So in the end, it probably would have been better to just do a Masai tour, where presumably we’d be handing our money directly to someone in the tribe. (In a country where the poverty rate – people living on $1 US per day – is estimated at up to 80%, paying artists and craftspeople directly for their work is very important.)

Long story short, there’s a huge western influence in most parts of Tanzania. Nashon and others said many people are maintaining traditions. But it’s hard to hold on to the past when the present and the future are streaming on your cell phone every day. Hopefully the Masai and other tribes can hold onto their cultural traditions and languages. Only time will tell.

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