Vignettes from my Tanzanian Experience

Bapu Satyanarayana

Bapu Satyanarayana, born 1932 in Bangalore, retired as Chief Engineer, Ministry of Surface Transport. At present, he is the presiding arbitrator of the Dispute Adjudication Board appointed by the National Highway Authority of India. He lives in Mysore and enjoys writing for various newspapers and magazines on all sorts of subjects, including politics and civic issues.

I went to Tanzania on foreign assignment in 1975. When I reported for duty at Dar-es-Salaam, I asked for a white sheet so that I could hand in my joining report. The duty officer looked quizzically at me and said there is no need for any formal report and that he had seen me in person. He merely recorded my presence in his register. That was my first surprise. Totally different from India.

I then shifted to my hotel accommodation immediately. I was one of the hundreds of expatriate Indians literally swarming the place. We would gather at a clean beach in the evenings nearby and sit and gaze across the Eastern horizon to the noise and bustle of Indian voices as they chatted away merrily. In this scenario there was no question of homesickness.

In fact Gujaratis with 80,000 strength formed a sizeable population of the city and held a stranglehold on commerce and trade. They flaunted all types of imported cars. In contrast the local people were very poor though the offices were headed by well educated young Tanzanians most of whom were graduates from the well known Makarere University in Uganda.

Food was no problem because the Gujarati families would supply vegetarian food at reasonable rates. I gradually fell into the pattern of living which was unhurried and far removed from the tensions and travails of working in India with eye on annual appraisal reports.

In the office, I had to report to an American on loan from the World Bank. He was happy to see my face when I met him. He was waiting impatiently to hand over the charge of a WB aided project. While we were talking to me he received a telephone call which he answered by saying that he was busy in a conference. That was my second surprise for I never thought that two people could make up a Conference.

Indian expatriates would put in their adjustment bills to claim reimbursement for travel from the prepaid port of travel to Bobay to their native place where they lived. Alternatively one could claim taxi fare. However, many Indians would claim that their native place was not connected by train and hence put in a claim for taxi fare which was many times more than the train fare.

Tanzanians took such claims by Expatriates at their face value and passed the bills. It was nothing but cheating. It was only later on when some South Indian auditors took over that they pointed out that many native places were actually connected with rail. Then the local people got hold of the railway time table to check the fraud. That is how they came to know a few more unsavoury aspects of the character of such Indians. The locals appreciated the exposure by South Indians and started calling them ‘those clever black people’. That experience was the next surprise.

In my office there were several expatriates from many countries, popularly known as experts. I was a little diffident in my interactions, possibly related to their colour, a hangover from our colonial experience.

Gradually, I realized I knew much more and I would wax eloquent about many technical issues of their special expertise and earned their appreciation. It was then I realised and admired about the quality of our technical education back in India. It was that very education in India which had equipped me to speak on any related technical subject with fair amount of authority and command.

My office was on the Fourth floor. A lift serviced the upper floors. A woman Minister headed the Ministry. Sometimes when I entered the lift the Minister would already be inside the lift and would inquire from me my destined floor and press the button. That was my third surprise.

Contrast this to what happens in India. In the Ministry where I was working when I was already in the lift and if the lift attendant perchance sighted the car ferrying the Secretary he would loudly announce ‘Secretary saab is coming’ with all solemnity and importance. It probably signified that either all those in the lift should step out and take the next car or use the adjacent lift. That was the prevalent servile attitude. Hierarchy was sacrosanct. Even now when I go to Delhi to NHAI office as a Chairman of the Arbitration Tribunal, the same syndrome persists.

In Tanzania when traveling in a taxi, one sits besides the driver as a tribute to spirit of Socialism, practiced in its truest sense. When I went to Nairobi in Kenya on some official work I realized the contrast when I took a taxi and sat besides the driver. He smiled at me and said ‘Oh you must be from Tanzania.’ Our Gujarati brothers staying there follow the local custom of using the back seat of the taxi. In my opinion, a purely a capitalistic tendency.

I remember another incident which throws more light on the Indian character. Once a Minister in Tanzania was traveling with a few Indian expatriates. Their car met with an accident. The Minister wanted to wait for the Police to come to record the manner of accident. Our Indian friends advised the Minister not to wait at the accident site as they would sort out the issue with the Police. He could leave in another car. But the Minister would hear none of it and said he would wait for the police and left only after completion of formalities.

At office I was in charge of allotting building sites and there were quite a number of people would wait in line patiently for their turn. On one particular day I discovered a Tanzanian who was the Secretary in another Ministry also in the queue. I knew him well. I made a sign asking him to come forward. (Old Indian habits die hard.) He came up to me and informed me he would wait his turn in the line. Naturally it was a chastening experience and I felt contrite for my behaviour.

In Tanzania when a person suffers a term of imprisonment for an offence he would be free to resume duty at his old job after the expiry of the term. There was no stigma attached.

Furthermore there is another Tanzanian characteristic that amazed me. The Tanzanians subscribe to the concept of the extended family very seriously. Whenever a Tanzanian invites his relatives from their native places for a get together the host meets the travel expenses and all hospitality at home. I once asked a Tanzanian friend when he came on a visit to his relative’s place how he was enjoying himself. He replied that he was looked after fully by his host relative. I then asked if he felt grateful to his relative. He answered very gently that ‘The food I eat goes away as excreta and why should I be grateful’? That left me stumped!

A lady stenographer was attached to my office. She would bring back the material which I had dictated. I would go through the draft, correct minor mistakes in pen and sign and ask her to issue. Instead she took the trouble of retyping the entire material irrespective of the enormity of retyping and obtain my signatures. Her reasoning was that it would be a black mark in her report if any mistake remained in the final letter unwittingly! To my Indian mind it was economy of the effort and money was that was more important but she would brook no such argument.

I learnt to my great consternation that the concept of urgent, immediate, out today did not impress the Tanzanians at all. I soon grew out of that habit as I realized they did their work better without any pressure.

There is another cardinal lesson that every expatriate learns while working in Tanzania. Whatever be the pressure or urgency one should not forget to greet every one in the office as you enter or meet elsewhere in their native language:’ How are you?’, ‘How is your home?’, ‘How are your children?’, etc.

The office business only starts afterwards. It used to happen sometimes that whenever I had to immediately dispose of a matter I would call my steno and start dictating. She would be resentful and show it in her attitude and when I asked her ‘What is the matter?’ she would say ‘Bapu, you did not greet me.’

By the way, use of the word ‘Sir’ as a greeting is confined to India.


Stick with it!

Bapu uncle. It's is very nice to read your experiences in Tanzania. Very informative. Thank you.

Very informative. Good to know about countries that are rarely in the news. Our country would benefit if good practices from elsewhere are also practiced by us on our return.

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