Okay so “the Karibu Culture” is not a real thing, at least not that I’ve ever heard of. I made up the term, and here’s why:
As I explained in my post of random facts about Tanzania, the word “karibu” means welcome in Swahili. I think we heard that word more than any other Swahili word during our 3 weeks in Tanzania. It’s the word that welcomed us into the country, the word that invited us into shops, restaurants, and homes, and the word that responded to our chorus of “asante sana” (“Thank you very much”) each time we received food or assistance or kindness.
I think it’s fitting that karibu is such a frequently-uttered word because it seems like a great representation of Tanzanian culture as a whole. We have been lucky enough to meet kind and helpful people all over the world, but nowhere else have we encountered such a widespread culture of cooperation and friendliness.
As visitors, we always felt welcome in Tanzania. Even just walking down the street, people would greet us and sometimes stop to ask where we were from or what we were doing in Tanzania.
People were consistently happy to take time out of their day to talk to us and teach us about their country. While in Arusha, we dropped by the school where Lilly volunteered three years ago. The children were on holiday, but the teachers were working. When we showed up at Lilly’s old classroom completely unannounced, the teachers immediately welcomed us in and let us look around. Then they invited us to come back and visit with them the following day. When we returned, they spent an hour or so talking with us about what was going on at the school and updating Lilly on the students she had taught in 2013.
Similarly, we showed up totally unannounced at the home where Lilly lived in 2013 during her 9 weeks in Tanzania. Her house mom, Mama Liz, was at home when we arrived, and she immediately invited us all in and sat us down to have coffee and tea. Mama Liz also insisted that we return for a meal, so we scheduled lunch for two days later. That lovingly prepared (and delicious) lunch was hands down my favorite meal from our month in East Africa.
Mama Liz wouldn’t sit down and eat with us (Lilly said she never eats with the volunteers she hosts either), but after lunch she sat and visited with us for nearly 4 hours. We had the best conversations with her! Probably my favorite part was discussing politics (both in Tanzania and abroad). It was so interesting to hear her perspective on current issues like Tanzania’s new president, the Brexit, and the U.S. election. We couldn’t thank Mama Liz enough for inviting us into her home and working so hard to prepare a delicious homemade meal for us. And all of our thanks were, of course, met with “Karibu.”
In addition to making us feel welcome, people were constantly going out of their way to help us. Our first day in Arusha, we went to a street stand to buy Tanzanian SIM cards. It ended up being a bit of a challenge to get the cards set up and working in all 3 of our phones.We started off with just the owner of the stand helping us, but then another guy came to help, and then another. Ultimately, SIX guys spent nearly two hours working on it, and they were adamant that we not leave until they knew for sure that all of our phones were working properly. They admonished us to come back if there was a problem. Here’s the thing: that guy didn’t have to help us with setup at all. He could have just sold us the SIM cards and the data package and let us go on our way. He would have gotten paid the same amount of money either way. But he chose to take time out of his day to help us. That’s just one example of many.
Arusha had a central station for the dala dalas. (If you missed it, read more about dala dalas here.) I use the word “station” loosely because really it was just a giant dirt lot with dala dalas everywhere in no discernible order. There are no published route maps for dala dalas, so the only way we could figure out how to get somewhere was to ask. More than once, we asked a conda (the guy who collects the money), “Clock tower?” (or wherever we were trying to go), and instead of just shaking his head no, he would walk us across the lot to the correct bus. Even though he wasn’t going to make money off of us, he took the time to make sure we got where we needed to go.
The same thing would happen when we needed directions while walking. Sometimes we would ask, and instead of just telling us, the person would walk us there, going 5-10 minutes out of their way to make sure we didn’t get lost.
Time and again we witnessed such a strong desire to be helpful and a determination to not give up until they accomplished whatever they were trying to help us with.
Case in point: I dropped and broke my camera on the final day of our safari in the Serengeti. After our safari, we asked our safari guide, Ely, if he knew of anywhere I might be able to get it fixed. He didn’t just suggest a place, he actually came and met us there so that he could help us communicate. The people at that store said they couldn’t do repairs, so Ely had us get in his car and drove us to place after place trying to find someone who would try to repair the camera. Finally, at one shop, the man said he didn’t do repairs but he knew someone who might. No joke, that guy closed up his own shop to walk us (and Ely who was still with us) like 8 minutes away to another shop. There, the man had the equipment to at least open the camera up, and he agreed to look at it. Only then did Ely leave us. We tried to give him money for driving us around, and he wouldn’t even take it.
This spirit of helpfulness isn’t just reserved for visitors. To me, riding the dala dala is the perfect example because the whole thing is an exercise in cooperation. First of all, the dala dala is for everyone, which I think is beautiful in itself. People of all religions and socioeconomic classes ride together, from women in hijabs to men in business suits to children in school uniforms. On the dala dala, everyone is equal. (And by that I mean, everyone is equally uncomfortable as the conda attempts to squeeze more and more people on board.)
Second, riding the dala dala often requires you to trust and rely on strangers. If you’re sitting in the back then you typically have to climb over lots of people to get off. More than once I saw women with babies just hand their babies off to strangers. The baby would be passed up to the front first and then the mother would climb out behind him. One time I got on a dala dala, and a little girl climbed onto the lap of the woman next to her to make room for me on the seat. I just assumed the woman was the little girl’s mother, until 10 minutes later when the little girl got off the dala dala by herself while the woman stayed on. Turns out the woman and girl didn’t even know each other. That’s just what you do on the dala dala. As more and more people get on, you make room, and no one complains. (We, of course, followed suit, often sitting on each other’s laps to make room for other people.) Another time there was a woman who had to stand up kind of squished against the wall. She needed her hands to hold on, so she handed her purse to a random man sitting near her. The man just held on to her purse, and when she was ready to get off, he handed it back. It’s hard for me to imagine a woman handing off her purse to a total stranger in the United States.
I could ramble on with even more stories, but I’ll leave it here. I just felt that some of these stories were important to share for several reasons. I wanted to say thank you to the Tanzanian people for the kindness they showed me when I was a guest in their country. But more than that, I wanted my wonderful friends and family back home to hear these stories. Politicians and the media are constantly telling us how scary and dangerous the world is becoming and making it seem like humanity is predominately evil. That’s easy to believe if you’re sitting at home in the U.S. only seeing the parts of the world that the media chooses to show you. Please don’t believe it. Remember that the media makes money by showing you the sensational. Stories like the ones I’ve written about here don’t make the evening news, but they are happening all over the world every single day. The world is a beautiful place. There’s no denying that evil exists is our world, but our experiences have given us no doubt that the good things outnumber the bad.