Tanzanian Culture and a Western Mindset-Venting Some Frustrations

I have been working in Tanzania for about two months now and I have noticed some disturbing trends in the ‘helping profession” here.  While we are far from perfect in the Western world, our more developed economy and social privilege give us certain expectations of competent assistance (though that to may be in short supply).  Here in Moshi, since I cannot speak for the whole of Tanzania, the role of welfare provider for vulnerable populations falls on the NGOs.  These NGOs, as I have noted before, are highly susceptible to corruption and deception.  However, there are some very dedicated people who work tirelessly to help the populations they identify most with to live and find success, however they define it.  I believe I have found two such organizations to work with, as again noted in past posts, but even here I am seeing a strange trend.

Some of my co-workers spend copious amounts of time doing nothing…waiting for someone to point them in a direction or make the suggestion to work. I really have to say that I am not putting anyone down or trying to stereotype or degrade anyone.  These are just observations I have made which led to discussions with these same individuals and other people at other agencies as well as neighbors and friends here in Moshi.  I debated with myself whether to post my thoughts on this issue but in the end here I am.  So if someone has a comment for me, feel free to post one and we can talk about it…..there, that is my disclaimer.  Now, I say this to demonstrate my belief that colonization and imperialism has far reaching consequences.  Perhaps, there is the mentality of “I will wait to be told what to do” or that “foreigners will do it for me if I wait and let them”.  There is no teaching or accountability. The idea of the Westerner coming to a “developing” country to “save” the people from their “backward ways” has caused more troubles and may have led to less sustainability for that culture than if they’d just stayed home.

This being said I do not want to turn this into a Western-bashing post either.  To say that everything Western is bad is childish and ridiculous.  While western countries may not have a stellar track record in some areas, there has been a lot of progress in modernization and social movements.  The Declaration of Human Rights being one of them. We need to take responsibility and be cognizant of the fact that atrocities have been committed but also stop the self-flagellation all the time.  There is no need to constantly feel like you have to apologize for things that you personally have never done!  The same can be said about different cultural practices.  Just because it is cultural does not always mean that it is right and should be held as sacred!  The Maasai practice of female genital mutilation is just one example that I can give.    So again, this is not a Western-bashing post, just as it is not a Tanzanian-bashing post, this is just frustrations and real dilemmas associated with being in a foreign country and trying to do social work on the ground.  Sometimes the techniques and skills I have learned work quite well and other times a situation calls for improvisation, and just as in music, sometimes it’s a beautiful melody and sometimes it’s just a bunch of notes.

I will give a few examples of what I am talking about this “do for” attitude.  One, some doctors from the West came to Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center (KCMC) several years ago with the noble….to help advance the medical community here in Moshi.  They brought a CT scan machine and donated the equipment to the center.  After a few demonstrations, the doctors left, probably feeling quite good about themselves that they did a good deed, which they did. But, and it’s a big but, they never properly showed the Tanzanian doctors how to use the machine or how to fix the machine if anything goes wrong.  The CT scan broke 4 years ago….and there it has been sitting….for 4 years.  There was no knowledge of upkeep or maintenance and no one has the money to send out for another or have someone fix it.  The closest Scan is in Dar es Salaam….an 8 hour bus ride away.

Second, the center I work at has very good assessment and evaluation forms but when I arrived the latest family assessment had been done in 2008! The forms were originally designed from a Western donor who wanted to help the fledgling agency with record keeping and efficiency.  The issue was that after that person left, no one saw the point of continuing with it.  There is no continuity and because of this, every time a new volunteer comes or a new person who is not familiar with the families in the area begins working, the process has to start all over.  The people who work at the agency do not see the point of writing anything down since they know the families; they live here and have lived here their entire lives.  Now here I come, asking questions and making suggestions and they all smile at me and say “yes, this is a good idea” but again, I know that if I do not work with my colleagues here and suggest points as to why this is a good practice, it will end as soon as I leave.  I do not want to be imperialistic and say “this is how you have to do it because it is the ‘right’ way” but I believe it will inevitably help the organization in both finding more donors and help the next volunteers and the agency itself have a better picture of the family dynamics.  This is my dilemma; do they need to change just because I think it will help?  Am I doing the right thing?  Sometimes I feel frustrated because there is more to be done and too much time deliberating over infinitesimal things, but again is that simply my perception?  It is split when I speak to certain locals about these issues there is agreement with me and then there is a slight pat on the shoulder and them saying, “That is the Tanzanian way”. I am reminded of the work of Ife (2012) and Illich et al. (1977) who state that social workers among other professions are need definers and may fall into the trap of using their professional position of privilege to define people’s needs for them.  In essence telling the client, “I know better than you about what you need”.  These are the thoughts running through my head every day.

Lastly, I have to speak quickly about my frustration with the policies and the implementation of these policies.  I am researching child welfare policies and their implementation (or lack thereof) in actuality.  The policies are very well written and very modern in their scope of defining the rights that all children should have.  For example, no child should be beaten (especially in schools), they have a right to a safe household, every child has the right to a quality education, children will not work under a certain age, etc.  The enforceability of these rights, however, is something that doesn’t happen.  The problem lies not in the policy but in the economy.  A child may have rights protecting them from working until a certain age or the right to a quality education, but that does not matter when the family is so poor that they cannot afford the school fees and every member of the family has to work somehow to get enough money for food.  Do you then scold the mother or father or aunt or uncle or whoever is taking care of the child?   You see?  How can there be policy enforcement when the most important thing to most people here are not laws and regulations but simple survival.

I have rambled enough on this blog; I apologize for its tangential nature but sometimes I need to vent and it turns out that this blog is a pretty good out let for it!  All this being said, I love the work here and would not trade it for anything.  I love to think on my feet and find the solution to the problem…it is so easy to find the problems but less so to pin down a solution that is both effective and culturally competent.  The culture here is amazing and rich; the communal nature is truly inspiring and welcoming.  There is an energy here, a sense that a big change is coming, and also the feeling that a real difference can be made as long as people are willing to work together to make that change happen.


Ife, J. (2012). Human rights and social work: Towards rights-based practice. 3rd Ed. Cambridge University Press:Cambridge

Illich, I., Zola, I.,McKnight, J., Caplin, J., & Shaiken, S. (1977). Disabling professions. Marion Boyers: London

4 thoughts on “Tanzanian Culture and a Western Mindset-Venting Some Frustrations

  1. Gabrielle Rosier

    I have to agree with the idea that you can westernize a culture or bring new ideas and try and implement them into a society but what happens if they decide not to continue doing these things once a person has left? It isn’t fair that in some countries there are still children left behind because of there far below poverty socio-economic status. I’m not even sure I would know what to do if I was given the opportunity to assist in a situation like this other than teach people what I have been taught. It isn’t just showing them modernized technology or new wave radical ideas for their particular culture its putting into place not only policies and procedures but making sure their are people who will continue to do these things once there aren’t people there to assist them. I guess teaching self-efficacy if its possible.


    1. atwatertravis Post author

      Thank you for your reply. It is a difficult situation but I try to just focus on what I can do and try to help the people I can. It is important to realize that change doesn’t come overnight. Teaching self-efficacy is truly the best option.


  2. Laura A Lewis, PhD, LCSW

    I’m sorry I’m only just now seeing your post. The questions you are grappling with here are important ones.

    I’m at the European Conference on Sicial Work Research currently and I can say you are in good company as the very themes you mention are being discussed here.

    We have a tall order as social workers; helping individuals while working towards more just policies.

    We can only do our best work when we face head on these difficult themes, reach out to others…and just maybe go on to make a difference.

    Congratulations to you for wholeheartedly “jumping into the fray” with your questions.

    I’ll say again as I’ve told you before that I think someday there is a PhD in your future, but whether you are doing research or doing practice your voice can help to move us forward.



  3. atwatertravis Post author

    Thank you Laura it is good to hear that I am not alone in my thinking and frustration. Things always seem dark before a shift in perception and a new hope emerges. I will consider the Phd after I get some more practice! Haha



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