Created | Updated Jan 23, 2012
Tanzania is a land of contrasts. It has a fifty-fifty split between two traditionally warring religions, well over a hundred different tribal groups and some significant societal and economic problems. On the other hand it has an incredible diversity and beauty of landscapes and wildlife, the highest mountain in Africa and some of the biggest parks. Rarely a disaster zone, always more than a giant game reserve, Tanzania retains the capacity to surprise and uplift - once visited, never forgotten.
Tanzania may or may not be the cradle of mankind, but certainly some of the earliest evidence of human/hominid presence can be found in and around the Tanzanian savannah. The footprints of our ancestors1 can be seen in the museum at Olduvai - the signs of passage of a small group of hominids, preserved in the mud and estimated at 3.7 million years old were found at Laetoli. Other remains found in the region by the Leakeys and their helpers include one of the most famous hominid skulls, Zinth. A few million years passed, and the area was inhabited mainly by hunter- gatherers, a lifestyle still followed by a small population of Sandawe living hear Lake Eyasi. At around 1000BC, Bantu farming peoples began to move into the area from the west, followed later by Nilotic pastoralists from the north. On the coast, there were very early Arab influences, bringing Islam into the area from around 800AD.
The control of the coast had passed to the Portuguese by the early sixteenth century and then back again to Omani Arabs, based in Zanzibar, during the nineteenth century. The influence of traders and particularly slave traders moved inland as this commerce began to grow in economic importance. Millions of slaves transited through Bagamoyo on the Tanzanian coast, onto Zanzibar and then death or forced labour on plantations. In the opposite direction came many of the explorers and missionaries of central Africa - Livingstone, Stanley and the rest. Tanzania did not escape the wave of colonisation in the nineteenth century, becoming part of German East Africa2 and then integrating the British empire as Tanganyika after the first world war. Independence came to mainland Tanzania in 1961 and then to Zanzibar in 1964 after a bloody revolution leading to the overthrow of the Omani Arabs.
The first president of Tanzania at independence was Julius Nyerere, still widely revered in Tanzania, and known as the teacher3. Nyerere put the country on a course towards 'African socialism'. This was based on self-reliance, and the village unit or 'ujamaa'4. Unfortunately the creation of these units involved considerable displacement of the population, which was not popular. Equally unfortunate was that African socialism didn't really work in economic terms any better than the Russian version. What is undeniable, however, was that this period, and Nyerere in general, did a great deal to cement Tanzania as a nation, and avoid the kind of inter-tribal or religious feuding that has bedevilled other areas of Africa. Tanzanians are very proud of this unity and stability.
Although there are some serious challenges ahead, the future for the 36 million Tanzanians looks OK. Apart from the situation in Zanzibar, where there is considerable tension between the two major political parties and the October 2000 elections were accompanied by violence and allegations of electoral fraud, politically things are fairly stable. The Dar es Salaam bombing of 1996 was a big shock for the local population5. Another terrorist attack could prove to be a disaster for the economy, but there is little support for religious extremists in the country.
The political system is essentially a loose union between Tanzania and Zanzibar. Zanzibar retains its own immigration rules (you get another stamp in your passport, but don't have to pay for another visa) and control over virtually all its domestic policies. Foreign and defense policy are shared. The president of Tanzania for the period 2000 to 2005 is Mr Benjamin Mkapa.
The national language of Tanzania is Swahili, or KiSwahili to be precise. It was originally only spoken by one ethnic group6, but has now been chosen as the national language. Swahili is a vehicular language, combining elements of Bantu languages, Arabic, English and a little German. English is very commonly spoken, especially in cities. Conversely, if you head off the beaten track, you may meet people who speak only Sukuma, or Masai.
Economically, Tanzania is poor, no doubt about it. Tourism brings in money, but this doesn't always percolate throughout the economy. Other cash crops, such as coffee or cotton, have seen catastrophic falls in value on occasions. If you want to generalise, the Tanzanian economy is caught in the same trap as many other African states, exporting the raw materials at low prices, while others make the serious money in processing. 80% of the population work in agriculture, although a lot of this is subsistence farming. The reviving of regional economic co-operation with Kenya and Uganda can only help in the long term, even if Kenya tends to dominate the commercial exchanges. Corruption is a problem, but less so than in the neighbouring countries. Despite this, Tanzania achieved a fairly healthy GDP growth rate of 5% in 2003.
The local currency is the Tanzanian shilling. It is fairly stable, and handily usually converts at around 1000 shillings to the US dollar. Dollars can be used directly in most hotels (although probably not guest houses - the lowest rung on the accomodation ladder) and in tourist shops. National Park fees must be paid in dollars. Everywhere else you'll be better off changing your money first - traveller's cheques work and are a good way to carry your money safely. Credit cards are only accepted in the top end shops and hotels, on the whole.
As with much of Africa, AIDS is a major issue. Nearly 8% of the adult population have HIV/AIDS, with a particularly high rate of infection among young adults. There is a National AIDS Plan and Commission, and measures to combat the spread of the disease are beginning to gather pace. More information on what's happening can be found in a Health and Family Planning Overview for Tanzania from the U.S. Agency for International Development (PDF document).
For general facts and figures on Tanzania, see the CIA World Factbook. For further political sources see the official Tanzanian government gateway.
Tips for Visitors
It is possible to visit Tanzania in such a wide range of ways that you could have a conversation with someone and wonder how they were in the same country. The factors likely to influence what sort of trip you undertake are - as so often - time and money.
You can travel quite cheaply in Tanzania, as long as you don't want to go near a national park. You can get a meal and a drink for a couple of euro, travel quite long distances for very little money in mini-bus taxis, and find hotels for five euro a night7. The problem is that the Serengeti, Ngorongoro, and quite possibly Kilimanjaro are likely to be on your list of places to see, and for all of them you will be paying 25 US Dollars per person per day to the government just to be in the park, and that's before campsite fees (extortionate), and paying your safari agency (not cheap). So you can count at least €200 for a short trip through the Serengeti, and around €500 to climb Kilimanjaro. It adds up quite quickly.
Budget travellers could consider an overland company (but you will need a backside of steel and considerable tolerance of your fellow passengers to deal with the eight hours a day in a truck). Alternatively, the coast and Zanzibar is quite cheap for independent travel, central Tanzania is cheap for the bits you can get to with public transport, and it is possible to see some very beautiful scenery outside the parks. A wallet preserving option would also be to climb Mount Meru rather than its bigger neighbour. If you want the big five8, you will have to pay.
If money is not your problem, it would be possible to get through extroardinary quantities of the stuff. There are luxury safaris with fully equipped camps, five star beach resorts, light aeroplane services to all the places tourists want to go, and so on. You could do an entire trip without seeing a single poor person.
The more rushed your schedule is, the less you will be able to take ordinary methods of transport, and the more stressed you will be. In Tanzania, as in most of Africa9, it is quite difficult to say that you will necessary leave at an exact time or arrive at an exact time. If you complain that your coach is 30 minutes late, you can probably expect an amused smile. The further you head into central and southern Tanzania, the greater the level of unpredictability will be.
How long do you need to visit Tanzania? Three weeks would enable you to see a fair bit of northern Tanzania and have a week in Dar and Zanzibar. With five weeks you could add some of the the lesser visited destinations, climb a mountain or go diving. In eight weeks you could see most of what there is to see in Tanzania, including the bits that are rather complicated to get to.
Health and Safety
Tanzania is generally rather safe. Some basic advice:
Don't drink the tap water - but you can eat nearly all the food.
Do care about mosquitos - as well as your anti-malarial treatment, the best remedy is being bitten as little as possible - this means nets, spray, long sleeved clothing in the evening and so on.
Don't be paranoid about crime. But do be careful around bus and train stations, ports and in Dar. It is safe to walk around at night in Zanzibar, but probably best to keep this to a minimum, as in any other large town or city.
Don't put on barbecue sauce deodorant before sleeping next to an elderly lion. In fact, barring an act of stupidity, you will almost certainly not be eaten on your trip, but bear in mind that elephants move very quickly and it is always a good idea to avoid crocodiles.
Things to Buy
Please avoid anything containing bits of wildlife, rare trees or historical artefacts. Ivory is an obvious no-no, but other issues can be more complex. You will probably see statues in a very black wood. The vendors will try to convince you that this is ebony, but given the rather low price that these things sell at, it obviously isn't. In fact, if you look closely, you will see most of them have been treated with shoe polish. This means it is okay to buy them, but if you can pass the message on that you wouldn't buy it if it was ebony, this will help protect this endangered resource. Similarly, on the east coast beaches, you will see there are a lot of pretty shells and bits of dead coral. It would be better if you leave them where they are, where they can be reused by other marine creatures. Just because there are some prime specimens on sale at the shops at Dar airport, doesn't mean this is right.
Cool things to purchase include Masai blankets and knives10. Makondé sculptures, paintings, Sukuma jewelry, musical instruments, wooden goods, cooking ingredients, Swahili goods in papyrus, and so on. Tanzania has a rich art and craft heritage - try and buy from the small stallholders or from the artist themselves where possible - they get a better cut, and you will get a better price.
Photographing the animals is easy. See if they care. The IFS11 estimate that every lion in the Serengeti is photographed an average 227 times per year. Photographing the people of Tanzania requires more care and attention. Not surprisingly, many of them feel that carrying a jar of water on their head does not make them a tourist attraction. Ask first, and if they say no, respect their decision. In addition, many people consider that a photo of them is a transaction, and should be paid for. Agree the price first. If you buy a bracelet or similar object from a market lady, this will generally get you a free photo. You would be amazed at what distance this rule is considered to apply at - the Masai can spot a camera just as well as they can spot a hunting lion. A digital camera is nice as you can show the photos you have taken to local people, especially children. You'll probably still have to pay though.
Places to Go and Things to Do
Dar es Salaam
Very few African capitals12 are the best thing about their country and Dar is no exception. It probably had a certain charm at one point, with its mix of Arab and UK colonial architecture and its sheltered bay looking out to the Indian Ocean. Much of that has disapeared under urban sprawl as people leave the countryside to look for work. The two obvious places to stay would be around the Msangi peninsula or in the centre of town itself. Things to visit include the National Museum (a little dusty but worth a quick look) the Tsinga-Tsinga centre - the base for a distinctive local style of painting - and possibly the 'picturesque' fishing port. This latter destination is certainly lively, but take no valuables...
Zanzibar (Unguga and Pemba)
Magic name, magic place. You can't go to Tanzania without visiting Zanzibar, the original spice island. Not only does it have Stonetown, an architectural jewel, but there are some great beaches and a small section of indigenous forest. You could easily spend a few days just wandering around the narrow streets of Stonetown, soaking up the atmosphere and admiring the distinctive buildings. For food, the Forodhani Gardens is the place to go - you can get grilled meat or seafood with chips and salad to go for a few quid (GBP) - alternatively there are plenty of restaurants.
When you've explored Stonetown, head out east or north to the beaches, or go on a spice tour.
Zanzibar is listed in h2g2's Entry on great islands.
The 'Geneva of Africa' according to Bill Clinton, due to it having hosted a number of negotiations with the aim of resolving regional conflicts. It's currently the home of the penal tribunal dealing with the Rwandan genocide. In possibly its only other similarity with Geneva, it certainly it doesn't lack for mountains.
Many many tourists pass through Arusha on their way to safari or mountain, and the locals have geared themselves up to meet this demand. Newspapers, Internet, tour touts and 'afro-tat' can all be found easily (indeed often they will come to you) and there is a good selection of places to stay. One of the nice things about Arusha is that a number of Cultural Tourism Programmes have been set up in the area around the city. These generally involve a visit to a number of local businesses, artists or points of interest as well as a traditional meal. Not only will you learn something about how the inhabitants live and work, a portion of the money you pay normally goes to a village project such as a new school.
One of the most populated areas of the country, the main town is Mwanza but there are settlements of Sukuma fishing villages all along the shore. The sunset over the lake is very beautiful and it's a birdwatcher's paradise. Just don't swim. If the bilharzia doesn't get you, the raw sewage will.
Unguja and Pemba contain some of the best diving spots in the world. Also good, if more difficult to get to, is Mafia island, further south down the coast. Just be careful they don't give you a concrete overcoat...
Hey mister, wanna see some animals? The vast majority of the visitors to Tanzania come to see lions hunt, elephants waggle their ears and gazelles jump. Most of those content themselves with a three day trip around Ngorongoro and Serengeti, which are both some of the most spectacular spots and also can be easily reached at an accessible price. However, their accessibility means that they are becoming a little crowded, at some cost to the ecosystem and to the viewing experience.
Opting for a less frequented area of the Serengeti is already a good start (the park authorities produce maps with this information) and if you have the time and your own transport, there are magnificent parks in the south and west of Tanzania.
Mountains and Hills
The mountain that most people want to climb when they visit Tanzania is Mount Kilimanjaro.
If Kilimanjaro seems a bit much (and it is a challenging summit, often not taken nearly as seriously as it should be), then there are several other options for walking in Tanzania. Just outside Arusha is Mount Meru, the same sort of shape as Kilimanjaro but a lot lower. You still have to have a guide, but the costs are a lot more reasonable.
Lower still, but extremely good walking country, are the Crater Highlands of northern Tanzania - the Oldunya Lengai is the sacred mountain of the Masai, and it's an active volcano. This researcher was lucky enough to witness plumes of cinders shooting up into the air, as well as sulphuric steam and the ash coating of the summit. Apparently its due for a really big eruption... Walking along the ridges of the rift valley is also possible, and one of the best ways to meet Masai as they take donkeys or cattle along these ancient trade routes.
Less volcanic are the green and peaceful Usembara mountains and the lesser known Pare mountains, both of them situated in north-eastern Tanzania.
So, Tanzania, a country with a sad past but a happier future? No-one who has had the chance to visit could wish it anything else.
You can read about current affairs in Tanzania at IPP Media.
The official Tanzanian tourist board site is a useful resource. Or, for an alternative view, see the Lonely Planet page on Tanzania.