Pole pole

Dear Wasungu*

Today, I would like to talk to you about the incredible kindness and modesty of the Tanzanians. My friend and colleague Frederik warned me “not to ask any yes/no questions – the answer will always be yes. You’ll see.” And see I did indeed. Let me give you some sample conversations that we had here.

Olivier: “When will my luggage arrive?”
Friendly lady at reception desk: “I don’t know”
Olivier: “Will it be tomorrow?”
Friendly lady at reception desk: “Yes”
– oh, no luggage so far (but Olivier manages pretty well to keep the flies away) 

Us: “Can we eat soon?”
Hotel: “Yes”
Us: “When?”
Hotel: “In an hour”
Us: “But we are very hungry”
Hotel: “ok in 30 minutes”
– We got our food 1,5 hour later, but surprisingly, we didn’t really mind 

The people here are so kind and patient, and it’s contagious. Our vertical jetlag** is over, and we have now totally adapted to Tanzanian time. The clocks here go pole pole (meaning slow). It makes us happy in a way, and we still get everything done, replacing our usual stress with a delay that gives us the chance to talk and joke around. The nonstop little jokes and unrestrained laughter – it’s so great, I know I’m going to miss this when I get home. So please, Belgium, give me a big smile and some juice*** when I get back.

Then there’s the handshakes. If you thought you had seen some groovy handshakes in “The fresh prince of Bel-air”, guess again. Tanzanian handshakes outrank them all. They’re not afraid to use feet, hips and arms in elaborate combinations, and the most basic handshake = normal shake + grasp each other’s thumbs + normal shake. If you keep talking to that person, you usually keep holding his/her hands for a few minutes, optionally snapping each other’s thumbs for a while. If your left hand is free, it’s customary to clasp the other’s right wrist while doing all that friendly shaking. If you like each other, insert some bro’ fists and fancy waves. Clap your feet, hit those hips, dance a little and be happy!

So now that we’re part of the “gang”, we’re receiving numerous invitations for lunch at other people’s homes. At the start, we were our Belgian reserved selves, but after a few handshakes and jokes, we gave in. So today, we had our first dinner at a lady professor’s home. She prepared six impressive dishes for us in an hour (including sugared spaghetti, confirming the rumors that it does, indeed, exist), and even made fresh mango juice served by her young son, who poured the water for washing our hands and said grace. The food was most delicious and the company pleasant. As a cherry on the cake, Olivier provided today’s quote of the day:

Student: “Have you ever been to Zanzibar?”
Olivier: “No, I have only been to Wikipedia” 

As for the classes, we are learning some Swahili opening sentences such as “Please, are we all ready?” and “I beg you all to start”, which are received very warmly by the students, incites their respect and motivates them to work harder. It reminds us that humility is maybe not such a bad thing, and that friendliness will get you farther than stern reminders and fixed rules.

Thank you, Tanzania, for welcoming us so warmly, and teaching us these lessons in such a sweet way!


* that’s what we’re called here: the white people 🙂 One msungu, multiple wasungu.
** that’s what happens when you move from North to South and there’s hardly any time difference, but you’re still tired
*** “juice” is what we call applauding here. Whenever someone says something nice, we applaud with single, double or triple juice. Though some people prefer “wine” (we haven’t found an appropriate way to applaud wine-style, any suggestions are welcome)


One thought on “Pole pole

  1. Sounds indeed like the warm charming people Africans are! We could learn a lot from there no-hurry-up and grasp-the-day with friendlyness culture!

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