Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Tanzania

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In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with their host countries, Peace Corps is making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.
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In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.

Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Tanzania, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Tanzania.

Outside of Tanzania’s largest cities, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes.


The people of Tanzania are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present. We expect you to be understanding of the limited experience with American diversity that Tanzanians may display.

To ease the transition and adapt to life in Tanzania, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity discussions during pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

Overview of Diversity in Tanzania

The Peace Corps staff in Tanzania recognizes adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.


What Might a Volunteer Face?

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers

The notion of gender equality as Americans understand it has been slow to take hold in Tanzania. As an American woman, however, you may be viewed as having a higher status than a Tanzanian woman. You could view this as frustrating, or you could see it as an opportunity to help change people’s views. It is possible to become a role model—if Tanzanian women see another woman being given respect and functioning in a position of authority, they may be inspired to seek the same.

Of course, American women may also be treated the same way Tanzanian women are. In Tanzanian culture, men are considered the head of the household—they speak for the other members. A woman who seems to have knowledge, skills, ideas, and opinions may be viewed as pushy or out of place, or may simply not be taken seriously. Volunteers have to develop their own strategies for addressing this challenge with sensitivity.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color

The average Tanzanian is not exposed to the diversity of people and cultures that exists in America. If you are black, you are likely to be called Mwafrika (African); if you are Asian, Mchina (Chinese); if you are South Asian, Muhindi (Indian), and if you are European or Hispanic, Mzungu (foreigner). Be prepared to tolerate terms that are considered derogatory in America (e.g., “half-caste” or “colored”), an unfortunate part of Western culture that some may have unwittingly adopted.

African Americans are in a unique situation. While Tanzanians may voice their doubt as to whether you are “really American” (i.e., because you are not white, blond, and blue-eyed), you are likely to have an easier time integrating into the local culture than Caucasian Volunteers.


Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers

While Tanzanians generally have great reverence for age, Tanzania’s legal retirement age is 60, and there is the perception that those past middle age are getting ready to “rest”. Senior Volunteers will automatically be respected for their wisdom, which is a great advantage, but may be seen as oddities, especially as most Peace Corps Volunteers in Tanzania are young. Tanzanians are especially curious about older female Volunteers. They are puzzled as to why they apparently have no spouse or children (even if they have the pictures to prove otherwise) and why they would leave their extended family to volunteer in Africa.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers

Tanzania is a very conservative society. Some Tanzanians deny that homosexuality exists in their culture, while others note that it is against the law. A law in Zanzibar makes homosexuality illegal, with prison sentences of 8-15 years. Thus, any display of your sexual orientation will be severely frowned upon and may affect your acceptance at work and possibly even your legal status. While physical contact between two men or two women is not uncommon, it is not likely to be sexual in nature and you should not misinterpret its meaning. Previous gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers have had to be very discreet about their orientation to prevent adverse effects on their relationships with their community and co-workers. However, you are likely to find plenty of support and understanding among the Peace Corps staff and other Volunteers.

See also: Articles about Tanzania on the National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Peace Corps Alumni Association website at http://www.lgbrpcv.org/articles.htm

Possible Issues for Married Volunteers

Most Peace Corps Volunteers are single, but some married couples join the Peace Corps together, and in other cases, one spouse stays in the United States. Each of these situations presents its own challenges and rewards.

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers

You are likely to be asked to share in religious observances, whether it is going to church, breaking the fast during Ramadan, burying an elder in a traditional ceremony, or simply giving thanks to God by saying “Namshukuru Mungu” or “Al-ham D’ililah” as part of your morning greetings. You do not have to participate in regular religious services to be a successful Volunteer in Tanzania, but participation in the religious life of your town or village will provide increased credibility and a sense of community for any Volunteer who is so inclined. Religion is deeply ingrained in the culture, which you will notice just by walking down a city street, where signs for churches, mosques, and madarasat (religious schools) and stickers proclaiming thoughts like, “This car is protected by the blood of Jesus!” abound. When meeting someone for the first time, Tanzanians often ask what his or her religion is.

The religious makeup of the country is roughly split into thirds—Muslims, Christians, and traditionalists. Muslims are the predominant group on Zanzibar (i.e., Pemba and Unguja islands) and along the coast because of the influence of Arab traders and the Omani dynasties, which lasted until the 1800s. Christians (largely Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Pentecostals, and Anglicans) predominate in the interior, although Christian missionaries travel and live throughout Tanzania. Traditional religions are practiced mostly in the northern half of the country by seminomadic tribes such as the Masai, Hadza, and Barabaig.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities

Tanzanians with physical disabilities generally are treated no differently from other Tanzanians, but there is little of the infrastructure to accommodate individuals with disabilities that has been developed in the United States. That being said, as part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps’ Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodations, of performing a full tour of Volunteer service in Tanzania without reasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of your service. Peace Corps/ Tanzania staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations in training, housing, job sites, and other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.