Do’s and Don’ts While Volunteering in Zanzibar

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Tanzania is one of the most colorful, vibrant, and friendly countries in Africa. It’s no surprise that it is up there as one of the most popular volunteering destinations. Let us guide you through some do’s and don’ts, to make sure that your time here is the best it could possibly be!

The Do’s While Volunteering in Zanzibar and Tanzania

  1. Greetings
  2. Do cover your shoulders and knees (just for the ladies!)
  3. Do get used to the word ‘Mzungu’
  4. Do expect the unexpected

Tanzania is made up of 120 ethnic groups, each with their own beliefs, traditions, and customs, yet here are some general guidelines and tips for what to do while you’re volunteering in Tanzania:

1. Greetings

Get ready to meet your friendliest-self. Greetings are extremely important in the Tanzanian culture, and you’ll find that almost everyone you meet (including the strangers that pass you in the street) will be ready to give you a huge smile and exchange pleasant greetings back and forth. More often than not, these greetings can be very drawn out, so get ready to use almost all the greetings you know in one brief encounter!

It’s also good to know that while traditional handshakes aren’t very common in Tanzania, the younger crowd often perform special handshakes that involve twisting their thumbs to the air and holding onto the palm. Hanging with the locals? That’s your best way to find out what the best way to greet someone is.

Of course, you can also do some preparation before you arrive, so check out this article and learn common greetings in Swahili.

Be sure to meet and greet the locals – they’re some of the friendliest people | Photograph courtesy of K. Donoghue Photography

2. Do cover your shoulders and knees (just for the ladies!)

Casual, comfortable clothes are key in Tanzania. However, regardless of the heat women are expected to cover up, so ensure that you bring clothes that cover your shoulders and your knees; think sarongs, t-shirts, maxi skirts and wraps that you can throw on when you head into the village. Strappy tops and shorts are a no-go!

If you’re volunteering in Zanzibar, then do make sure you pack a bikini! While the island itself is predominantly Muslim, there are sections of the beach where tourists are allowed to wear traditional Western beachwear, so get ready for some awesome water-sports and relaxation time!

3. Do get used to the word ‘Mzungu’

You’ll likely be called this within hours (even minutes) of arriving in Tanzania, and it’s essential that you come to terms with this pretty early.

The term itself is used to describe people from Europeon descent in East Africa, and although it can be interpreted in a negative way, we assure you that it is not. You’ll soon come to associate it with the journey on your way to project, when excited young children are trying to get your attention, and it’s likely you’ll remember these experiences for the rest of your life (if you’re anything like us!).

Ladies need to be aware of the cultural norms in the area. This means covering up your shoulders and knees | Photograph courtesy of K. Donoghue Photography

4. Do expect the unexpected

No two days in Tanzania are the same, so expect the unexpected each morning when you wake up.

Firstly, it’s important to note that time moves a little slower in Tanzania; your classes may start late, your meetings may be pushed back by an hour, your bus may not turn up, but embrace it! Life is relaxed and slower than you might be used to, but this is something to be cherished compared to the rush and chaos of life in the Western world.

A phrase you’ll always be saying: Pole Pole, which means slowly, slowly. Trust us, this will become your mantra.

The Don’ts While Volunteering in Tanzania

  1. Don’t show public displays of affection
  2. Don’t smell or waste the food
  3. Don’t raise your voice
  4. Don’t accept the first price

While it’s important to always be respectful, well-behaved, and adhere to all customs and traditions while abroad, here are a few tips for what not to do during your time volunteering in Tanzania:

1. Don’t show public displays of affection

If you are travelling with your partner, or maybe just getting a bit too friendly after a few beers, remember that public displays of affection are disapproved of in Tanzania. Kissing, holding hands, or hugging in public areas are frowned upon between members of the opposite sex, and it is important to note that same-sex sexual acts are considered punishable by the State.

2. Don’t smell or waste the food

There is a number of considerations when it comes to dining with a Tanzanian.

Firstly, don’t smell the food, or be overly obvious about the aroma. Smelling the food indicates to a local that the food smells bad, as well as the cook.

Secondly, be sure to wash your hands, both before and after the meal and use your right hand to eat with!

Lastly, don’t say no! It is rude to refuse an offer of food, as well as to waste anything; Tanzanians are extremely welcoming, friendly people, so be sure to be as respectful as possible if you are invited to dine with them.

3. Don’t raise your voice

Tanzania offers such a different lifestyle from many other places around the world, and it’s slow nature can understandably be frustrating for some, yet it is important for volunteers to not raise their voice to anyone – at all! For Tanzanian women, it is considered bad taste to raise their voice, so it’s important the volunteers adhere to local customs and remain cool, calm, and collected at all times!

We’ve found that if you embrace the slow nature of life, you’ll actually find it incredibly eye-opening and take a little bit of that lifestyle home with you.

4. Don’t accept the first price

In many rural villages, including that of Moshi and the villages we work in on Zanzibar, foreign travelers are a big source of income. Local people are often the ones running tours, selling souvenirs, and of course selling food & products in street markets and shops. It’s understandable then, of course, that the price of something can be considerably raised for an international tourist (Where doesn’t this happen!?).

We would recommend that you always bring a local coordinator with you, who will be able to negotiate a better price or advise you on alternative options for your souvenir shopping. Travelling alone? Don’t worry, you can always negotiate, so take a deep breath and remain confident!

Bartering is your new favorite word. Be sure to get the best price on items in the rural villages | Photograph courtesy of K. Donoghue Photography

So, there you have it, our top 8 do’s and don’ts for your time volunteering in Tanzania!

If you’d like to learn more about our volunteer opportunities in Tanzania, pick a program:


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