Close Enough Posted on October 25th, 2009 by

Tanzania is the land of approximation.  The lifestyles, products and mindsets of Tanzania are all very approximate.  What I mean is Tanzania proscribes a different set of ideals and protocol to its people and products.

For example, if you happen down to the lumber store in Tanzania you’re bound to find irregular boards and sheets of wood.  The general shape is an approximation.  Some boards might be thicker than others and some might not be entirely straight.  On the other hand, the United States is a land of exactness.  If you find yourself at Menards you will see that each 4×4 is exactly the same size, shape and color.  New housing developments in the States are similarly exact.  Each house is identical to its neighbor.  Here, houses are much more unique.  Americans pride themselves on individuality but in reality they crave a sense of order. 

The state of the wood industry in Tanzania is mirrored in other businesses too.  In the market place, ‘new’ products seem less than new and silverware sets are rarely matched.  This makes a stark contrast to the neatly lined shelves of the traditional American department store. Marred merchandise in the States would be cast out where as a semi-crushed can of beans in Tanzania is commonplace. 

Land is an additional approximation.  Unlike the States, where if you set one foot on your neighbor’s perfectly manicured lawn you run the risk of giving the owner a hernia, Tanzania is very laid back about property boundaries.  Goats are let out to graze where ever they can find food; it doesn’t matter if its on someone else’s property.  Having lived in the Minnesotan countryside my whole life, it’s always startling to see people using our yard here as a shortcut to the football field or to scavenge fallen branches for firewood.

Though approximation may sound like a bad thing, it has a good side too.  Time is another Tanzanian approximation.  Americans are far too uptight about time.  We rush around from school, to work, to run errands and to home.  We cram every second with productivity.  Tanzania, however, is much more laid back.  Lunch at the college is an hour and a half – not unusual in this country.  If you are late to a meeting, there is no problem – perhaps you stopped along the way to chat with an old friend.  Life here is run at a much calmer pace.

Surprisingly enough, money is also an approximation in Tanzania.  Tanzanians could never imagine being harked by IRS agents who think you’ve cheated  eighteen cents out of your taxes.  As I’ve previously mentioned, bartering is a must.  No price is fixed.  And I discovered the other day that that includes the grocery store.  We had picked out our basket of groceries and had brought it up to the counter to check out.  Though when the bill was totaled, we found ourselves several thousand shillings short.  Since almost no shopkeepers takes any type of credit, debt or other cash card, we had to resort to taking something out of our basket.  But before we could decide what to remove, one of the shopkeepers (there were at least seven of them, even though the store was only about the size of a Holiday gas station ‘Quik-Mart’) said “Eh, close enough.” I like that kind of approximation. (As a side note, everything in Tanzania is done with good old fashioned paper money.  I much prefer this over the newfangled plastic money (credit cards etc.) except for the fact that the largest bill denomination seems to be only 10,000 shillings – less than eight US dollars.  This requires the carrying around of large stacks of bills that tend to add up in thickness quite rapidly.)

Some of this approximation will take time to get use to (my mattress, a sad sheet of foam only a few inches thick, is a very rough approximation of the mattress I am used to.).  Other approximations, namely time, are things that we could do a lot to learn from.


One Comment

  1. sam styker says:

    Hey Mara… good analysis. Fits my experiences closely. The Tanzanians are peaceful, kind, and accommodating… so they are OK with semi-crushed cans and non-standard lumber sizes. They are also very industrious, resourceful and adaptive. They can make things that are “approximate” work out. From another perspective, they really have no choice. Life expectancy here is less than 50 years, and GDP on a Purchasing Price Parity basis is less than USD$800 per year per capita. It is truly a survivor environment. You have to make do with whatever you have.

    Good for you that you have had the chance to experience this part of the world. Safari njema.