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Respect! – The Social Currency That Governs Tanzania

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Tanzania is, undoubtedly, a beautiful country. The people are friendly, the food is great, and the music is rich. I live in the heart of Tanzania, Dar Es Salaam. The city is full of life (and traffic, but that’s another story!) and there’s much to discover if you spend the time to see what the city has to offer.

However, in Tanzania, we have this problem of holding on to grudges, and a lot of this has to do with respect.

Respect here is defined by your words rather than your actions. You could see a crippled old man struggling to cross the street, if you helped him to the other side but didn’t greet him, he wouldn’t be satisfied even after thanking you. He wouldn’t respect you because he believes you don’t respect him. He will hold on to that grudge for as long as he draws breathe. You may try to redeem things by greeting him, chances are he will not respond. It may seem strange to an outsider, but respect in Tanzania revolves a lot around how you speak to people, especially your elders.

No Action Speaks Louder Than Words

It can be frustrating to deal with at first, and reading this you may think Tanzanians are insane. In a way, we are. But every country has something strange about them, it just depends on the perspective of the observer. Tanzania, post independence, was ruled under socialist ideals.

Our most popular, and longest running President, Julius Nyerere, was a vocal socialist and even published poems concerning socialism and working together towards a common goal.

His ideology, along with his rule, continued for twenty-four years after Tanzania achieved independence in 1961. I’m not surprised that his influence in politics translated itself into the quotidian of our people. In Tanzania, the CEO of a multi-million dollar company is worth as much respect as the old farmer who grows his food.

Respect is a social currency in Tanzania. It isn’t valued more than money, sure, but it dictates who deserves to be treated with respect in social settings and society in general.


It’s frustrating but beautiful in it’s own way.

This is the way Tanzanians view respect. If that CEO is to pass by a farmer, and if that farmer is older than him, the CEO must greet the farmer with the formal greeting  “Shikamo“. “Shikamo” is a powerful word. It does not have a direct English translation. “Shikamo” is the word used to greet elders. If I walked into the office of the CEO of a company, and he was 15 years old, he would have to greet me with “Shikamo“, despite me not being nearly as important as he is. There is a neat little contrast in social and monetary worth when it comes to respect here in Tanzania.

The response to “Shikamo” is “Marahaba”, which also does not have a direct english translation.

The Perks Of Being Old

The younger you are, the more people you have to greet. Sadly, this is the way of life here.

We all start young, we all have to respect those who’ve lived longer than us, and ultimately, you will be the one crossing the street and having young people greeting you with “Shikamo“, and making you feel like a total bad-ass.


I’m 25 years old as I write this and currently live near a University, I have teenagers greeting me with respect and that is something I never expected to experience during my travels abroad.

It makes me feel incredibly old, but dignified as well. Being on the receiving end of respectful greetings has shown me why elderly respect is so valued here.

So, I suppose respect in Tanzania is delivered like a hazing in a fraternity. During your first 20 years, you’ll have to swallow your pride and greet pretty much everyone you meet with respect, but from then on, the next generation will do the same as you reap the benefits. Despite how tedious it can be sometimes, is teaching young people to respect their elders really such a terrible thing? Well, there is always an exception to the rule.

The Tragedy Of Being Young


There is a dark side to respect in Tanzania, and this usually happens in the households. You see, we are taught to always respect our elders, no matter what. Parents could be substance abusers who may impose mental challenges on your development. Still, you must respect them because they’re your “elders”. Which begs the question, how does respect work for those that do not deserve it?

In Tanzania, that question does not have an answer. Young people respecting elders is just the way of things. “It’s the way things are done here.”, you probably heard that phrase before, and it has been used to justify malpractice to outsiders for as long as one can remember. While the situation in Tanzania is not bad enough to rival cannibalism, the abuse of respect going on in households in Tanzania is rampant.

From the way I see it, part of the answer lies in tradition. 

Norms in general, whether codified or not, that are meant to provide peace and prosperity among different people, are prone to being misinterpreted.

These misinterpretations ultimately lead to conflict, and sometimes violence. So if tradition says that we must respect our elders, one may interpret that to mean those who are not elders are not worthy of respect, and as such they should have no voice on how they’re treated.

Respect For The Past, Concern For The Future?

Tanzanian tradition had younger people respecting elders for years, an ideology passed down from socialist regimes during Nyerere’s era, as well as tribal code even before our independence.

The goal was to make sure young people gave the respect to those that deserved it: The men and women that provided for them, that sacrificed for them, that gave their all for their children. They deserved respect from the young ones.

What about the young boy who has to beg in the streets to sustain his and his family’s livelihood? Who should hear “Shikamo” when he enters the house: The begging child?

The potentially irresponsible parents?

Tradition says the parents, common sense says the child. Since tradition is rooted in history, and common sense changes with the times, I’ll end this article by asking you, the reader,

can common sense and tradition coexist? Should it?

Original photographs by Eric Persha and Cecilia Schubert

Born in a village, raised in a desert, living in a city. Life is an experience that I've chosen to express with words, both written and spoken. (Tanzania)

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