What it means to be East African

I’ve made a list of all the things that really struck me in Tanzania. I have been assured that these are common to the whole of East Africa as well. So this Christmas Season, let me wax ad nauseum about what it means to be East Afrikan.


Everyone greets everyone. There is no ignoring, no crossing over to the other side of the street, no pretending you’re busy. You say hello to EVERYONE. No exceptions. And the greetings themselves are amusing and I can’t help but wish we had something similar in English.

Greeting 1: Hujambo – Is nothing the matter with you?

Response: Sijambo – No, nothing is the matter with me!

Greeting 2: Habari za Asubuhi/Leo/Kazi/Nyumba/Safari – What news this Morning/Today/Of Work/Of Home/Of travel?

Response: Nzuri/Njema/Salaama/Safi – Good/Safe/Peaceful/Great

Greeting 3 – this one has caused me some anguish and is the one that is most used on me because I am considered a superior for some reason. I turned it around by saying it first before the other person has a chance to say anything.

Shikamoo – I hold your feet

Response: Marahaba – Delightful!


By that, of course, I mean it’s relation to the rest of the world. East Africans pronounce their words exactly as they write it and write it exactly the way they say it and they do it with such ease that it would give our American friends a run for their money. For example: Voucher = Voucha, Adaptor = Adapta, Sister = Masista, Football =Futbol, Budget = Bajeti. Also, they seem to add an ‘i’ (eee – like the alphabet) sound at the end of every word that ends in a consonant.  Example, Bank = Benki, Elizabeth = Elizabethi, Simon = Simoni, Gift = Gifti, Good = Goodi.

At first I thought this was because of the accent and the way they were taught English. Later, I had the opportunity to help some of the teachers with computerizing child profile and I saw that their names actually are Arnoldi and Emannueli.

Another thing that really caught my attention was the names. Apart from the names that end with the “eee” sound, they are also named Witness, Lightness, Innocence, Charity, Junior. Sometimes they even name their child after Americans or places in the US (who they LOVE) – Florida, Texasi, Regani, Nixoni AND the best name of all, BARRACK OBAMA! I almost rolled my eyes till I realised that some of the people called Barrack or Barraka are actually too old to be named after Mr. President. I did some research and found out that Baraka actually means ‘to bless’ or ‘blessing’. Silly me! But there is a child here called Obama and it really cracks me up every time someone calls his name.

People here also say Jyamani or Maskini (oh my God!) a LOT. They also say Mungu Wangu (My God!) Yesu Wangu (My Jesus!) – this really makes me giggle because the people who use it the most are the religious ones who are taught not to use the name of the Lord in vain! (Touche!) Other words are just sounds to show surprise or happiness – it really is innovative (e.g. Hooooweeeeeeeeee! – pronounced who-we!).

3. FOOD:

Ugali (Stiff porridge) is the everyday meal of masses. It really can’t be nutritious cause all it is, is Maize powder mixed into really hot water. This is eaten usually with leafy greens – cooked lettuce, spinach, sweet potato leaves etc. But when it is a feast, its spicy beef fry (not at all spicy according to Indian standards), boiled banana and beef curry, roast banana’s, pilaf = pulav in India, chapatti, saladi (not a typo, I promise) and beer or soda.

Every guest is offered soda and it’s considered an insult if you refuse – even if you don’t like soda and would rather have coffee. Nobody here offers you coffee or tea, they are considered poor man’s drinks! (HUH?!)

Also, I don’t know why, but I never see African adults or children drink any water. One of the volunteers I met here made an observation that maybe it’s because there’s such a shortage of water here that people have been accustomed to go without it. I used to drink 2-3 litres a day and carry my water bottle all around. I got shocked looks and gasps when they found out how much I drink. I have now cut down and I don’t even know where my bottle is anymore!


I had made up my mind to go fall at my mother’s feet and beg her for forgiveness after I watched an African movie. It would give Indian soap operas a run for their money. There is an actor – kind of like the Amitabh Bachchan or the SRK of African cinema who appears in EVERY movie. In one, he is uncle JJ who is stressed out because the daughter of his dead sister is possessed by a demon. In the other he is a priest who has sex with a nun and gets her pregnant, in yet another he’s a rich, spoilt city boy. The music is dramatic, the acting is not that great and the camera work gives you a headache but everyone here follows it so intently and gasp and sigh and clap and curse at all the right moments. I have now watched 3 movies and have also copied them on my computer so that I can torture people I love when I go home and get drunk watching them! Trust me, they inspire you to crack open bottle after bottle.

People here are also very religious. If you carry visible signs that you are a Christian (crosses, rosaries, Christian kangas, walk around with priests and nuns etc), everyone greets you Tumsifu Yesu Christu (Praise to the Lord Jesus Christ) and you HAVE TO respond Milele Amina (Forever, Amen!). They have all Gospel radio stations that have masses and chanting of the rosary at regular intervals. They also play Christian songs. If you go to a house that has a TV, you will see people watching DVDs of Christian music.

Let me just point out here that Christian music anywhere else in the world – even those death metal ones from America – sound tame and boring when you listen to African music. It’s not lyrically or musically masterpieces. They are plain, most songs have the same beat – but man, they get stuck in your head. And every song has a music video attached to it. There is always a lead singer, 3 backup singers and then a horde of dancers. One of the songs that really got stuck in my head is Nibebe – it’s a big hit by a woman called Rose Muhando (If you can’t wait till I’m back to see the video, YouTube it. It’s really famous here so I’m sure it must be online)

People just naturally break into parts when they are singing. I can hear perfect alto, soprano, tenor and bass every time there is any singing – Children included. I don’t know how they do it but I will put up a recording on Tumblr sometime tomorrow. You MUST have a listen.

And what can I say about African parties? Everyone (ladies included) drinks beer openly – even if it is a lunch party in a church hall. For my non Indian friends – this is not really possible in India, hence the pleasant surprise. PTA meetings, funerals, weddings, graduation ceremonies – EVERY event boasts Serengeti, Kilimanjaro, Castle, Tusker (Not national parks – brands of beer!)

Dance – and man can African’s dance. I am always so envious when I watch them dance. The women are so gorgeous – they can carry off any look, any colour, any hairstyle. They are so graceful and I sometimes can’t take my eyes of them. And men, women and children all can move it in a way that would give all those dancing with the stars and so you think you can dance folks a run for their money. Rhythm is just so natural with Africans. But the thing that really caught me off guard was when everybody shouted for joy and clapped and danced unashamedly when they played the Twist! They even have African music with similar tunes so that every party can have 1 hour dedicated to the Twist.


I used to be completely shocked out of my wits when I used to watch Tanzanians wear what I thought were the most expensive of all clothes and shoes – puma, nike, skechers, crocs, lee, dkny, football jerseys etc, etc. This was before I went to Memorial, which is a huge market that sells second hand clothes and shoes for a really cheap rate. I think they are what the tourists leave behind – use for a day or two and then throw them away – really good quality stuff. But then Memorial is a HUGE 2 kilometre wide sardine packed market and surely there couldn’t be so many tourists.

I asked many of them where they got all these goodies from and they had no idea. I finally met one person who told me that these were aid materials sent from Europe and America.

Many people I have met have asked me if I have a garden. Yes I do. What do you grow? Half a basketball court. What else do I say? I do have an overgrown backyard that we call a garden. Mum has some Italian herbs and flowers growing in a very small corner. We have two papaya trees and a couple of Silver Oak trees and bang in the middle of this “garden” is a basketball court of sorts that my dad built for me so that I could practice for when I played for university.

I get severely laughed at when I tell them this until I tell them that many people don’t even have enough space to hang their clothes outside without it stinking up your neighbour’s house and then they feel sorry for me and my Indian brothers and sisters. Every person, no matter how poor, has a shamba (farm) and it is not ornamental (like mine was supposed to be). They grow all the food they need – maize, banana’s, cassava, beans, spinach, potatoes, tomatoes. If they are well to do, they also grow wheat and rice and their food is always garden fresh. They also have their own farm animals – kuku’s, cows, donkeys etc. And they harvest their rain water and use the dung of the cows to make Biogas.


I love AFRICA!

3 Comments Add yours

  1. I’ve smiled through all of this! I need to be someplace that gives soda it’s due ;P . I lurve it!


    1. cupitonians says:

      Haha. I thought everyone loved soda! 😀


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