Key points that a visitor to Tanzania should know:
Whereas Tanzania has more than 120 languages and dialects, Kiswahili (Swahili) is spoken by at least 80 percent of Tanzanians. Kiswahili and English are the country’s official languages. The continuing trend of adoption of Kiswahili as the primary language of young Tanzanians is one that will hopefully spread to other members of the East African Community.
Religion is important Tanzanians, with 33 percent of the population being Christians, 33 percent Muslims and 33 percent belonging to Traditional African religions or Hinduism or Buddhism. However, 99 percent of the people of Zanzibar are Muslims.
Tanzanians are warm, friendly and peaceful people. Like most Sub-Saharan Africans, use shaking of hands or hugging as a normal form of greeting. Exchange of greetings is an important social ritual that is mandatory unless what you have to say is of extreme urgency. Like elsewhere in the region, Tanzanian greetings can sound like a full conversation, often lasting several minutes. Enquiries about your health, your family, your journey and your country are often a part of the greeting. This can sound strange to someone from a culture where greetings have been abbreviated to a simple “hi” with a “hi” response before getting into the business at hand.
Like elsewhere in the region laughter, even with complete strangers, is normal in Tanzania. Humor is part of normal conversation, even with strangers. Standing close to someone during conversation is perfectly normal. Unlike Canadians, for example, who consider standing close to be an invasion of their personal space, Tanzanians, like other East Africans consider standing away from them a sign that they are unwelcome or you just don’t have time for them. The above are just a glimpse into the different culture that guides social interaction in Tanzania and East Africa. The visitor from Canada or a similar society does well to get acquainted with the differences before travel.
Music & Drama Tanzanians are well known for their vibrant cultures. Dancing is an in integral part of any important ceremony or special occasion and it usually signifies some thing.
The Kiswahili phrase “Ngoma ya Asili” is a perfect description of music. It means “Music of the Ancestors”, true of all music that has been around for more than a century. However, to the Tanzanians, as is true in the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa, music of the ancestors connects the living with the departed, celebrating them, educating us and not just entertaining us.
Each nationality has its own unique dance, and with 120 plus to pick from, we can only make a few general comments and examples.
The drum, of course is at the centre of the music. The Makonde are a good example of people who can make excellent music with drums alone. Their drumming gives rhythmic weight to the masked dancers in the Sindimba dance, for example.
Another interesting instrument is the Litungu, an African lyre played by, among others, the Kuria people and, on the Kenya side, the Abagusii (Kisii) and Abaluhya. This seven-stringed instrument has a sweet sound that reminds one of a plucked cello. Enchanting.
The Lizombe dance of the Ngoni people is reminiscent of the Runyegye dance of the Banyoro, a cross between the dance of the Baganda and Banyoro is more like it.
There is plenty of Modern Dance music, especially in Dar es Salaam and the other cities. One gets nostalgic about the music of the late Remmy Ongala who was a regular performer at the Toronto concerts of World Music And Dance (WOMAD). This Congolese-Tanzanian, whose full name was Ramadan Mtoro Ongala, had an impact on the Tanzanian and international music scene that made him a household name. Indeed his death in 2010 made it onto the Obituaries page of the New York Times, the Guardian and the BBC. His Ubongo beat and his intellectually, morally and politically challenging lyrics live on through the music of his successors.
A more recent development is the Bongo Flava, described by some to be Tanzanian rap. It is certainly highly danceable music that is a logical progression from the sound that the great innovators of the past, led by the Grand Master Lokanga Luambo Luanzo Makiadi, mixed with tinge of African American sound.
I recently discovered Taarab music. The ear that enjoys Indian and Arab music easily adapts to Modern Taarab, one of whose exponents is Leila Rashidi & Jehazi Modern Taarab.
I have also come across Youtube videos of Mwaka Kogwa Festival in Zanzibar; MaKuYa Festival in Mtwara, that whet our appetite for discovery of great music in our neighbourhood, but off the well beaten path.