Life in Africa, Vol. 2

A strong coffee, a thought-provoking book and way too much downtime on a Sunday afternoon results in this (read below).

Let’s talk culture.

I hope by now that you, dear readers, have a fairly good idea about Moshi, Amani and our daily life here. Next big topic to tackle, even if only in a preliminary sense because I can’t claim to have gained any definite insights in a matter of seven weeks, is Tanzanian culture, seen through the prism of working life at Amani. I think you can really gain insights into how a culture operates when you live and work embedded in the day-to-day life of a country. Amani, from a personal perspective, has proven enlightening in this sense, a microcosm of sorts of the simmering clash between traditionalism, religion and modernity.

Before I start with my cultural rant, I feel I need to put in a little disclaimer: Treat these as the lazy musings of an opinionated foreigner, over-caffeinated and bored with her book. And please bear with me – I’m afraid you’re in it for the long-haul with this post (take breaks if you must and most definitely grab yourself a cup of coffee or tea before you read on).

1. It’s all about meetings. Although I would not want to characterize Amani staff as anything but extremely committed to the care and education of the children, organizational development and sharing is highly prized here. Our Monday morning staff meetings – conducted to our chagrin almost entirely in Swahili (to be fair, someone does translate a good part of the proceedings) – can run up to three hours. And they’re a distinctly sharing-oriented and consensual affair. Rather than the director (a Dutch man) dictating the agenda or even directing the discussion, one of the local management team members usually takes charge of running through an often very long agenda and soliciting input from the whole staff on nearly all points. In addition to meetings, workshops focused on organizational development or team building seem to be well received.

2. The name of the game is consensus. The tendency to seek consensus on anything from how a children’s Christmas party will be organized (or even how the organizing committees will be organized) to how a child should be disciplined is very noticeable. My own possibly silly and probably rather superficial theory is that the roots of this consensus-seeking style lie both in African culture – the focus being on community and solving problems internally and through consultation – as well as socialism. The abundance of committees (groups responsible for a certain task) is in itself a pretty potent reminder of uncle Lenin’s legacy here in Tanzania. In nearly all instances, even when in the western setting a good manager would usually listen to a number of viewpoints and then simply decide and communicate that decision to staff, everyone here, from cleaner to manager, is invited to share their opinion. People listen politely, some nodding, some laughing, and some sharing their views. This can go on for hours and rarely seems to end in a clear decision being taken right there and then. Immediate, gut-feeling type decision-making, combined with listening – the kind that most western management books espouse – doesn’t seem to work here. The end result is that…

3. Things, even in meetings and in terms of organizational change, go ‘pole, pole’ (slowly, slowly). Meetings are long and decisions, let alone bigger strategic changes, aren’t arrived at quickly. This isn’t to say that organizationally Amani, for example, is stagnant (quite the opposite), just that all changes take a long time to be discussed, decided upon and finally implemented. Maddeningly long, sometimes. I suspect that new things or viewpoints that challenge local traditions and habits- despite people’s commitment to personal and organizational change – are usually regarded with a fair bit of skepticism…

4. Enter culture clashes. Tanzanians, rightly so, are proud of their consensual, friendly and distinctly (and sometimes painfully) non-confrontational culture. Although social norms are slowly changing, traditional values regarding gender roles and rights, or child rearing are surprisingly resilient, often with tragic consequences. The phenomenon of street children itself is a product of poverty and dysfunctional cultural and social dynamics in a difficult economic setting. For example, being divorced or widowed is almost always a socio-economic tragedy for a woman and her children, often causing the children to run away to the streets. The most interesting West-meets-Africa clash we’ve witnessed so far was the rather tense battle-of-wills between traditionally minded locals (a good 3/4 of the 40 staff present) and the Dutch director over the value and acceptability of physical punishment for kids at Amani. The line on the part of many educated locals was: this is Tanzania and this is how we were brought up and we don’t want outsiders dictating how we bring up our kids. Don’t try to push us too far. There was surprisingly little willingness to explore child psychology beyond the perceived benefits of a few spanks or whips of the belt although the topic itself was approached from a broad perspective. The director – himself a child psychologist – soldiered on, however, and by the end of a five-hour workshop he had made some headway in making the case for a hands-off approach as an alternative. Although it will stick because it is the official policy at Amani, I suspect most will only oblige out of necessity…

The battle to change some of these universal norms (children’s rights, women’s rights, human rights) – even if they are implemented less than perfectly back home –  will be long and hard-fought and nowhere is this uphill battle more painfully and tragically obvious than in the case of homosexuality. Before the topic is even broached the wall of cultural and religious resistance has already gone up and ears and brains have been shut. If that is the last frontier, the opening of debate on issues like children’s rights or women’s rights – particularly when it comes to the acceptability of violence – should lead the way to slow change overall. This change has to come at their pace, for as much as we’d like for change to come tomorrow, the complex net of social, economic and political problems closely linked to the realization of these rights will have to resolved as well. I don’t envy the growing pains that lie ahead, both for Amani and for Tanzania as a whole…

My brain is fried and my fingers cramping. Time to tune out and head to bed.

Good night from the promised land of crickets and howling guard dogs and thanks for reading,

-K&B

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2 comments
  1. Kurt said:

    Having taught in Taiwan and now in Morocco…these insights ring further than Tanzania’s borders. In my travels of over 40 some countries (most of the developing) I would say what you listed is the norm. Enjoy your time there, sounds like an awesome experience.

  2. Thanks for your comment and like Kurt! We really appreciate it.

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