We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.

In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:

A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Tanzania

In general, tourists should wear modest or conservative attire, especially in Zanzibar, which is a conservative Muslim society. Western women should not wear clothing that reveals too much skin. ‘Kangas’, brightly-colored wrap-around cloth, are affordable, available throughout the country, and can serve as a discreet covering.

Tanzania culture photo

Photo by wwarby


The Masai people, with their colorful clothing, are tempting targets for any tourist with a camera. However, they expect to be paid for it, and you should always ask before taking pictures. It is common practice among Swahili-speakers to use ‘shikamoo’ (prounounced ‘she ka moe’ and literally meaning, ‘I hold your feet’) when greeting elders or superiors. The usual response from an elder will be ‘marahaba’. In Zanzibar, the equivalent of ‘shikamoo’ is ‘chei chei’.

The traveler will get along very well when using these verbal expressions of respect. In addition, a title after the ‘shikamoo’ is also a useful indicator that you are not just a dumb tourist — ‘shikamoo bwana’ for the gents, and, when addressing a female elder, ‘shikamoo mama’. Tanzanians will also comment if you are doing any work while they are not, with the phrase “pole na kazi”. It literally means “I’m sorry you have to work”. A simple “asante”, or “thanks”, will suffice in reply.

Many Tanzanian sellers are persistent and, ordinarily, a simple head shake, accompanied by “asante sana”, should settle it. However, as a last resort, a firm “hapana”, meaning “no”, will do the trick. Tanzanians find the word “hapana” quite rude, so please don’t use it casually — only as a last resort. Whatever you plan to do, do not tell someone you will come back to buy from them later when you have no such intention; better to be honest and say ‘no’ than having to avoid someone for days. They somehow have a funny way of finding you when you promised to visit their stall or shop! The most polite way to refuse something is to say “sihitaji” (pronounced see-hih-tah-jee)- “I don’t need it”.

With this, you had the primer on key facts about Tanzania, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Tanzania food and drinks:

Local food you should try in Tanzania and No miss drinks in Tanzania.

Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Tanzania? Please comment below.