Tanzanian village market

A River Divides Two Tanzanias

In the mist-shrouded mountains of southern Tanzania, a small river divides an even smaller village. On one side of the river, on the downward slope towards the city of Mbeya, the people have televisions, speakers and electric lights. On the other side, the people have battery-powered radios, and each other.

In 2016, I stayed in this village while studying abroad with Houghton College in Tanzania. The family I stayed with lived on the side of the river without electricity, and we crossed the river nearly every day to visit family, friends, or the church. My first day in the village, I asked for a tour, expecting to see the mountains, the soccer field, and maybe the family farm. Instead, I was given a tour of the people living in the village, from the pig farmer who welcomed us in and warned us of the mud, to the man living next door to us who offered us some of his mangos as we walked by. Everywhere the red-earth paths throughout the village took us, I was shown the value of the people. The scenery was a given, I could see it for myself. But on both sides of the river there was a shared value: what was most important was that we were spending time together.

There is something special about the way these Tanzanian villagers interact with each other. Where and how they live are not the most important things for them, but who they live with. This may not be the case forever. Tanzanians are resilient, and they may be able to keep their communal culture for years to come, but if Western societies are any indication, fast technological advances change both individual psychology and the identity of entire cultures.

I talked with people throughout the country about the effects of technology on their culture and found some significant trends. For one thing, those who resisted new technology in the hopes of retaining their cultural identity were overwhelmingly from the older generation. I remember talking to one gentleman who sat on a bench outside his home with a row of other older men in a small village outside Ruaha National Park. He laughed openly at his own jokes and the children running by.

The man told me that when he was younger, the culture was the most important aspect of growing up, and the voices for that culture were the wazee and the bibi (respected older men and women).  From traditional dress, to eating meals together and working for the good of the community, the culture brought people together over their shared values. Now, the young people were more interested in becoming like Americans they saw on TV rather than learning about their culture.

The river that divides the village I stayed in is small, but during the flood season it can overflow, and is in danger of overwhelming the bridges that tie the village together. So does the gradual introduction of technology into Tanzania have the ability to make the small fissure in the culture a large one that truly divides.

Tanzanian village market

iStock.com / MarcPo

As more rural young people lose a connection to traditional Tanzanian culture, perhaps in part because many migrate to cities to seek work, the river grows wider, and the beautiful sharing tradition I experienced in Tanzania is more and more endangered. As a Westerner, it is difficult to really provide a proper analysis of how this divide might be felt in the country, and if the old man I spoke to is representative. But I have seen how technology affects individuals in my own country. In the US, it gets in the way of community and feigns interconnectedness, while removing people psychologically from where they are. It is understood that young people rebel against their elders and see parents and grandparents as out-of-touch. “Culture” is learned through celebrities and the Internet, and community-wide tradition is largely lost.

I feel a desire to be connected to a traditional culture and to live in community, but these concepts are faint and distant to me as a Westerner. As young Tanzanians turn from these things that they so readily have, I feel a need to tell them “This hasn’t worked for us! We’re still sad and confused, but now we just do it alone, instead of with our community.” But they might say the same to me, as I romanticize a lifestyle which they feel has left them impoverished, and without opportunity.

The truth is, there needs to be a middle ground which accounts for all the effects brought about by new technologies. There is definite value in the communal culture that Tanzanians have cultivated over thousands of years. I felt it as I walked through the village with my host family, and as I talked to the old man.

The village divided by a river was only divided in concept; people worked together no matter what their technological differences were. They gathered together for church no matter what their home looked like, and they gathered together for soccer no matter what their faith looked like. This is the value of the communal culture of Tanzania, and this is what may slowly be lost, as technology and capitalism inevitably make their way into the deepest parts of Tanzanian society, and change the way that individuals interact with each other.

As a Western visitor, I am very conscious of the fact that I bring a particular perspective to the small slice of Tanzanian society where I studied. But not all outsiders are. Global corporations and nations tend to introduce “solutions,” both technological and otherwise, to what they perceive as problems in the so-called developing world without analyzing the culture behind them or their potential long-term effects. By being more conscious of the negative effects on culture and society from technological advances, Tanzanians may be able to avoid the future downfalls that technology can bring. And we, the international community, may be able to commit to a development strategy that is truly sustainable.