Tanzania People & Culture


The current population in Tanzania is approximately 60 million, comprised of indigenous peoples and Pakistani, Indian, Arab, and European subpopulations. There are heavy population concentrations in the urban centers (including Dar es Salaam, Mwanza, Tabora, and Mbeya), in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, and along the coast of Lake Malawi.

Tanzanian culture is a mix of influences with over 120 tribes. Tanzania is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. From the tall graceful Maasai warriors, the ancient ways of the Hadza bushmen, the resourceful agricultural practices of the Wameru, the artistic talents of the Makonde to the Chaga farmers and traders. Each of the 120 different tribes in Tanzania have their own distinct ways of life but together, they gracefully unite to form Tanzania.

While each ethnic group speaks its own local language, almost all Tanzanians are also fluent in the national language, Swahili (Kiswahiliin Swahili), a coastal Bantu language strongly influenced by Arabic. After independence, the government recognized that this represented a problem for national unity, and as a result made the kiswahili language (Swahili) the official language. The government introduced it in all primary schools to spread its use. Kiswahili was the logical choice because a wide range of people were already informally using it along the coastal regions and it was a perfect language to help unify the country since it did not originate or belong to any particular tribe.

The second official language is English, a vestige of the British colonial period. Most Tanzanians with post-secondary educations speak both official languages fluently in addition to their tribal language. Nyerere encouraged the adoption of Swahili for all Tanzanians in a concerted and successful effort to enable people from different parts of the country to communicate with one another and to encourage them to identify themselves as one people. The use of a single common language has greatly facilitated trade, political debate, nationalism, information dissemination, and conflict resolution.

Today, a great majority of the population have accepted and fluently use Kiswahili, thus English is generally well known. As a result of this linguistic situation, many of the 120 tribal languages are slowly withering away with every new generation.  Kiswahili on the other hand has grown into an international language that is widely used across multiple boarders. Kiswahili is ranked among the top 10 international languages. Apart from Tanzania, it is now used in Kenya, Uganda, DRC Congo, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique to name a few. Kiswahili is also taught in universities around the world such as; Harvard, Oxford, Yale, Cambridge, Colombia, Georgetown, George Washington, Princeton and many more.


The Tanzanian national anthem is titled “ Mungu Ibariki Afrika” (God Bless Africa), composed by a South African composer – Enock Sontonga. The song is also the national anthem of South Africa and Zimbabwe. The music industry in Tanzania has evolved over the years. Due to the mixture of various cultures in Tanzania, native music is morphing into new music that is a combination of the old, new and imported sounds and rhythms. Tanzanian musicians are among the best in Eastern Africa. Legendary artists such as RemyOngala, Dionys Mbilinyi, Sabinus Komba, Siti binti Saad, Bi Kidude, Saida Karoli, Hukwe Zawose Nasibu Mwanukuzi aka Ras Nas, Jah Kimbuteh and many others. And new vibrant artists such as Imani Sanga, Judith Daines Wambura Mbibo aka Lady Jaydee, Rose Mhando, Joseph Haule aka Professor Jay, Ray C, Saleh Jaber aka Saleh J, Joseph Mbilinyi aka Sugu/ Mr. II/ 2-proud and many more. They mix native music with imported sounds and the result is a range of interesting flavors of music.

Traditional Tanzanian music includes; Zouk, Ngoma, Taarab and Ndombolo.  Some of these traditional music types have been incorporated into exported music to create unique sounds that are referred to as Mtindo, Sikinde, Modern Taarab, Bongo flavor, African hip hop, Bolingo and Reggae.

Traditional music instruments include ngoma, marimba, coconut shell fiddles, Filimbi (whistles made of wood or bone) and Traditional trumpets made from bull/buffalo horns or ivory.


For most Tanzanians, including those who live in urban areas, no meal is complete without a preferred staple carbohydrate—corn, rice, cassava, sorghum, or plantains, for example. Plantains are preferred in the northwest, ugali (a thick mash of corn or sorghum) in the central and southwestern regions, and rice in the south and along the coast.

The staple is accompanied by a fish, beef, goat, chicken, or mutton stew or fried pieces of meat, along with several types of vegetables or condiments, commonly including beans, leafy greens resembling spinach, manioc leaves, chunks of pumpkin, or sweet potatoes. Indian food (such as chapatis, a flat bread; samosas, vegetable or meat-filled pastries; and masala, a spiced rice dish), is widely available in all urban areas.

Breakfast preferences depend on income levels and local tradition: bread, sweet rolls or biscuits (mandazi), coffee or tea (sometimes with spices, sugar, and/or milk), buttermilk, and chicken broth are the most common foods. Finger foods sold on the streets include fried plantains and sweet potatoes, charcoal-roasted corn on the cob (with no butter or salt), small bags of peanuts and popcorn, pieces of dried or fried fish, samosas, bread, fruit, dates, hard candy, gum, and mishikaki, or shish kebabs of beef or goat grilled over a charcoal fire. In local bars selling homemade brews or bottled spirits and pop, it is common to eat roasted meat—beef or goat; often the meat will be flavored with hot peppers, salt, and fresh lime juice.

Without exception, all ceremonial occasions demand the preparation of enormous platters of food, such as pilau, a spiced rice, potato, and meat dish that caters to local tastes and culinary traditions. It is considered very shameful for guests to leave hungry from a ceremonial meal or dinner party. Except among religions that forbid it, alcohol is also an integral—and sometimes highly symbolic—part of ceremonies. Local beers and spirits derived from bananas, corn, rice, honey, or sorghum are served alone or alongside manufactured alcoholic beverages. Konyagi, a gin-like spirit, is brewed commercially in Tanzania as are a variety of beers and soft drinks. Certain beers produced in neighboring countries—Primus, from Burundi, for example—are also popular.

Social Norms and Etiquette Greetings

  • Men greeting Men – A handshake is appropriate in most situations.  Handshakes tend to be energetic and very often linger.  It is also appropriate for two men to walk hand in hand in public. This does not have any implication on their sexual preferences, it’s just a sign of friendship and closeness.
  • Women greeting Women – A handshake and/or bow is appropriate in most situations.  If you would like to show great respect you may also place your left hand over your right elbow when handshaking and bowing.  Handshakes tend to be energetic and linger.
  • Meetings between Men and Women – Appropriate greetings depend on the nature of the relationship. If the man is Muslim a woman may bow and greet but handshakes are not appropriate. For all others a handshake and/or bow is appropriate but it is best to wait for the woman to extend her hand, otherwise a bow or a nod of acknowledgment will suffice.

Note:  Greeting is an important aspect of the culture and is very lengthy, lasting anywhere from one minute to ten. Elders are very respected in Tanzanian culture and are always greeted by saying “shikamo,” whereas they reply “marahaba”. Also, always use your right hand when shaking hands.

Communication Style

  • Indirect communication is considered much more polite than being direct and specific, especially when talking to superiors or your elders.
  • You may find that people address problems differently.  For example, instead of asking for help and then explaining specifically their reasons, they may tell you a 5 minute story about a problem they are having and only then begin to hint at the assistance you can give.  If you do not want to/are unable to help, you can simply answer vaguely with a polite but firm excuse and that should be sufficient.
  • It is best in social and business interactions to not be too blunt about your problems/ feelings/ frustrations/ needs.
  • Urban Tanzanians will be much more used to direct communication, but you should be cautious not to offend people by rushing to your point quickly without introducing the topic and “talking around it” for a few minutes.
  • Humor plays a big role in communicating.  Most Tanzanians enjoy a good joke.

Personal Space & Touching

  • Personal space differs from place to place based on tribal and religious influences. Generally, an arm’s length or a bit less is appropriate.  Personal space tends to be less between members of the same gender.
  • When two people of the same sex are talking, touching is acceptable.  It is common to touch the hands, legs, and shoulders.
  • When two people of the opposite sex talk there is very little to no touching. The only appropriate touch is a handshake.

Eye Contact

  • When talking to an elder, many people tend to look down out of respect.
  • When talking between colleagues or friends direct eye contact is acceptable.
  • Overly direct eye contact with a member of the opposite sex is usually interpreted as an intrusion of privacy or being rude. This is especially true with men looking at women.
  • A woman who uses direct eye contact and smiles at a man for an extended time frame will most likely be interpreted as flirting. Similarly, looking and then looking away and giggling will very likely be interpreted the same way

Views of Time

  • In most situations, Tanzanians have little to no concept of time and are not overly concerned with being punctual.
  • In rural areas Tanzanians tend to give their time very freely. If you are living in a village it is expected for you to visit your neighbors numerous times per week, to sit and chat with them, and especially to eat meals with them if offered.
  • Visiting a friend or neighbor often takes hours and you may find that they run out to purchase sodas or run to the kitchen to begin cooking ugali upon your arrival. This is less pronounced in urban areas where many people are employed in paying jobs (and therefore stricter with time).
  • In business situations, time is less freely given. Important officials may require you to wait for hours before meeting them and they may only have a few minutes of time to spare. The waiting time partially is a demonstration of a person’s importance in society and it is best to be respectful and friendly even if you are frustrated. If you react with anger, the person will be less likely to help you.
  • Once you have established a friendly relationship even in a business situation, you may find that your host has a whole hour to spare and even offers you soda or tea.
  • The chances of a meeting starting on time are very slim. In many cases it can be up to several hours late.
  • Public transport is usually not reliable when considering set schedules and the like.

Gender Issues

  • Tanzania is going through a transition when it comes to gender roles; however, it is still a male dominant society.
  • In rural areas women will most likely be housewives. They will be expected to cook, clean, do the laundry and take care of the children, as well as work their land.
  • In urban settings it is more likely to find women who work and have a career.
  • For women smoking in public is usually unacceptable. Women who smoke, drink at bars, and/or dress provocatively are often seen as prostitutes.  This is more so in rural areas vs. urban ones.
  • Foreign women are generally not held to the same standard as local women, but may be looked down upon if they engage in certain taboo behaviors.
  • Foreign women, especially in urban areas, can be expected to dress slightly less conservatively and it is acceptable. (In a small town – though not a village – you could wear jeans whereas most local women will not, for example.)
  • NOTE: that it is NEVER okay to wear shorts that are above the knee. Tanzanians are very polite and will not tell you that it is a problem. You may see other tourists wearing shorts, however, do not be deceived – everybody is watching you in a mixture of amusement and horror.
  • If you are in rural Zanzibar or anywhere on Pemba, wearing a headscarf is not necessary (although all local women will be wearing them) but you will probably find that locals are much more friendly and appreciative of your visit if you do wear even just a lightly wrapped hair covering.
  • Women tend to be more demure about sex – declining at first but then agreeing only after some convincing. So if you decline to have sex with a man, do not be surprised if he continues to try to change your mind. Be polite, be firm, and he will get the message eventually.


  • When gesturing or beckoning for someone to come, you should face your palm downwards and make a scratching motion with the fingers.  It is considered very rude to beckon someone with the palm up.  That is reserved for animals.
  • Pointing to a person with one finger is generally considered rude (although it is sometimes unavoidable). It’s best to point with the whole hand or in a slightly vague manner.


  • In many rural areas and in Zanzibar it is usually unacceptable for women to walk around in shorts, or tank tops, and in some cases pants. Women are expected to dress in a modest way; skirts below the knees and shirts with sleeves. In urban areas guidelines are more flexible and women are seen wearing long pants
  • For men it is inappropriate to wear short pants.
  • Tanzanians do not use their left hand when eating, or touching another person. Never eat with your left hand, hand something to another person with your left hand, or handshake with your left hand. Also, do not touch anything with your left hand, such as produce at the market. Some people may not be as strict about this but most are.
  • It is considered rude to let the bottom of one’s foot or shoe point at someone.  Feet should also not be propped up on chairs or tables.
  • Boys don’t usually braid their hair. If you have braids and you are a man, it usually implies that you are gay, which is a major taboo in Tanzanian culture.

Law & Order

  • The legal drinking age is 18 and is not heavily enforced
  • Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines.
  • It is illegal to wear camouflage clothing. A hat is probably okay but pants or shirts that are camouflage are not okay. Police can stop you at any time and demand that you change your clothes and that you pay a fine.