Changes in Tanzania

(This accidentally published for about 3 seconds a few days ago – I blame some seriously bad UI for that. I’ve added photos and revised it since.)

It’s been 15 years since I was in Tanzania. Obviously, we’ve both changed a lot since then.

Here are some of my observations on how it’s changed… Keeping in mind that this is far from scientific so take my sweeping generalizations as just that.

Even the money has changed! Sadly, the bill with the giraffe was phased out years ago!

There were cleaner bathrooms in remote national parks than in most malls in America. The exception was Kilimanjaro, which were absolutely disgusting, but the game parks, airports, cafes, and even cheap hotels had very clean bathrooms which were tidied up regularly. People in Tanzania would be appalled at the state of restrooms in most malls and especially bars in the USA.

There are a lot more ads than I remember, but instead of billboards they are painted directly on buildings. It makes it a little tougher to tell what kind of store it is, but I like the colorful landscape it creates.

Obviously this is perfect marketing for a paint company.



Just about everyone has a mobile phone. We even saw Masai in traditional dress talking on their phone while tending their cattle. Most phones are much older, and when you do see a smartphone, it’s typically an Android. I suspect this is because of cost and also the need for dual SIM cards (different providers work better in different places – sometimes walking just a few steps made a huge difference). The only iPhone we saw belonged to our guide in Rwanda and it was an iPhone 4.

The way mobile service works is very different. You go to a kiosk to buy credit for your SIM. The clerk takes your cash, then makes a phone call to the provider to get it credited to your account. Then you dial a series of codes with the phone app to convert your credit to internet time, calling time, or make payments to various people/companies. (They’ve had mobile payments for years, so they are well ahead in that respect.) And if you don’t purchase one of their bundles promptly, it inexplicably gobbles up your credits. (It’s lucky we had help, else we never would have figured out the secret codes.)

Greetings are important. It’s pretty much required to say hello and have a short chat if you see someone you know. And there is a lot of hand-shaking, both when you meet someone for the first time or when you say hello or goodbye. (I kept thinking how my germ-adverse friend Assana would absolutely hate all the strangers touching her.)

Most roads are still not paved. While the main roads between the cities are paved, even within big cities like Dar Es Salam you’re mostly on rough dirt roads. This includes the well-traveled roads to the major national parks.

Walking is still a very popular mode of transportation. And while there aren’t nice sidewalks, there’s usually a clean dirt path set back from the road. You still see many folks transporting stuff on their heads, or piling things excessively high on a bicycle (then pushing it).

My Swahili was much better 15 years ago. (This wasn’t exactly a shock – I didn’t get much practice in SF.) It definitely got better after we’d been here a few weeks, but often people would get impatient and just switch to English since I was so slow to form sentences. Still, you could tell many people were surprised/intrigued that I knew more than the standard “hello” and “thank you” and “hakuna matata”. And by the end I was having no problem with basic conversations, asking directions, etc. I’m definitely going to sign up for refresher language classes when we go to Japan, though.

Most labour is still done by hand. We saw folks digging a ditch to lay a pipeline for water – this was all being done by men with shovels, no fancy ditch-digging machines. All the farming we saw was also conducted by hand, or the occasional cart pulled by cattle.

Honking is a whole language and never done out of rage. It means “hello”, or “be careful (pedestrian in the road), a car is coming” or “head’s up – i’m coming around a blind corner”. It always seemed casual and friendly, which is the exact opposite of the honking in the USA. (With the exception of Dar Es Salam, which was the worst traffic I’ve ever experienced anywhere.)

Depth of knowledge is specific, and often local. One of our safari guides wanted to know what kinds of animals we have in the parks in the United States… and he was shocked to hear we didn’t have many, and you can get out of the car wherever you like without an armed guard. This is a very reasonable reaction given his job but it struck me that most people’s knowledge is pretty local.

Though it felt like most local folks know a lot more about Tanzania than most Americans do about the US. I couldn’t tell you the population of San Francisco or the US, for example, but random taxi drivers had deep knowledge about their country, its history, and the people.

On the plus side, the only people who brought up Trump and the election was an Australian couple we met on safari and a divemaster in Zanzibar. Everyone in Tanzania loves Obama though! Most people responded with high fives or huge smiles and shouted “Obama!” when they heard I was American.


They have great signage. Sure, it may not be elegant, but it’s clear. And that’s the most important thing, especially in places of transit. Props to whomever made the Visa signs for the Kili International Airport.


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