6 cultural traditions to be aware of before you travel to Tanzania

Tanzania is full of welcoming and friendly locals, so it’s best to return the favour and brush up on Tanzanian culture and traditions before you go. Not only will you show respect to the locals, but you’ll get a much more authentic insight into the culture of this wonderful country. From greetings and public affection to dining and clothing etiquette, here are some common Tanzanian traditions, customs and handy tips to remember on your trip to Tanzania.

1. Ask before you snap

Tanzanian woman carrying bunch of bananas on her head Tanzanian culture

Tanzania is a beautiful country and you’ll often find yourself reaching for your camera to snap photos. However, you must always ask before taking a  photo of someone, as it is very rude not to in Tanzanian culture. Some ethnic groups also believe that a piece of their soul is stolen when a photo is taken of them. It’s important to be respectful and always ask permission. If you’re not sure, just put the camera away and enjoy the moment. You should also be aware that some locals and Masaai people expect a small tip in exchange for photos and this is normal practice.

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2. Mind your left hand

Tanzanian man in traditional dress Tanzanian culture

In Tanzanian culture, the right hand is considered clean and therefore used for eating, greeting people and giving and receiving objects. The left hand is considered dirty and is used for bathroom activities. When you are greeting a local in Tanzania, make sure you only extend your right hand for a handshake. And if the handshake seems to continue for longer than usual – don’t worry. Tanzanians have long handshakes to indicate friendship, although it can be more like holding hands for the entire conservation!

It is also disrespectful to rush a greeting in Tanzania. Greetings are very important and take time. Even if you enter a room with 20 people, you should greet each person individually, starting with the elderly first. If you are receiving a gift, you should use both of your hands, or just your right hand while touching your left hand to your right elbow, as this is a great sign of respect.

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3. Don’t sniff your food

While you may be used to taking in the delicious aroma of a meal before digging in, this is a big cultural faux pas in Tanzania. One of the most interesting Tanzania culture facts is that sniffing food is a sign of suspicion and distaste. Food is only sniffed at if there is something wrong with it and it’s very insulting to the cook. It’s also considered rude to turn down food that is being passed around. You should try a little bit of every dish, if possible.

There are a few other dining traditions in Tanzanian culture to be aware of. You must always wash your hands before a meal, and there are some dishes that are best eaten with your fingers. If you are reaching for food at a communal table, always use your right hand. If you are lucky enough to be invited into a home for a meal in Tanzania, you’ll likely find big platters of food like biryani and pilau, served on low tables. You’ll probably sit on mats on the floor around the table, and it’s always a big family affair.

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4. Avoid public affection

If you’re travelling to Tanzania with your partner, remember that public displays of affection are deeply frowned upon. While you may spot locals holding hands in the street, this is just a sign of friendship, and it is still disapproved of for people of different genders. Hugging, kissing and holding hands is something that should be done only in private in Tanzania, and especially the island of Zanzibar, which is home to a largely conservative Muslim population. So even if you’re on a romantic honeymoon, leave the PDA for your hotel room!

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5. Respect your elders

Most Tanzanians believe their elders to be much wiser with a wealth of knowledge, due to their many years on earth. Elders are treated with extremely high levels of respect and it’s a huge cultural offence to question their opinions or be discourteous in their presence. You should always say “shikamo” to anyone older than you, meaning “I hold your feet”. In response, you’ll likely hear “marhaba”, which means “You are welcome to do so” or “I accept your respect”. 

If you are shaking hands with an elder, you can also give a slight bow and hold your right elbow with your hand, as a gesture of deep respect in Tanzanian culture. If you are an older traveller, you can also expect a large amount of respect and courtesy to come your way from the locals. You’ll find almost everyone from tour guides to shopkeepers being extra gracious in your presence, all thanks to your age!

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6. Wear modest clothing

Tanzania, including the island of Zanzibar, is a deeply conservative country. Wearing revealing clothing is disrespectful and it’s always best to dress modestly. Traditionally, women wear long skirts, but it’s fine for visitors to wear trousers or jeans that aren’t too form-fitting. Always keep your chest, midriff and thighs covered. When in Zanzibar, you should never wear swimwear or skimpy clothing away from the beach. As soon as you leave the beach, both men and women must cover up in modest clothing. 

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Have you ever experienced Tanzanian culture? Let us know in the comments below!

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