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Out Of Africa -- Washing away misconceptions about 'unclean' Tanzanians

During my time in Tanzania, I have had the pleasure of hosting many friends, family and professional colleagues during their travels in East Africa.

While at the outset of every visit is how best to plan to see natural wonders such as the Serengeti or Mount Kilimanjaro, it is often more remarkable that the common questions arising are much more practical in nature.

After obvious discussions about meals and accommodations, the inevitable concern is always about cleanliness.

Whether based on fact or largely driven by fiction, the overriding conception of Africa is that it is a filthy place and by association its people are equally dirty.

While the images of sprawling plains and soaring mountains conjure visions of the Earth’s last pristine landscapes, it is often heartbreaking that the media depicting people are those of town and villages in a nightmare of disease and squalor.

To be sure, a picture is worth a thousand words. It is true that many towns are literally ravaged by waste in the form of litter and insufficient sewage systems.

It is true that many villages are impoverished with few basic amenities such as clean water. However, it is a total myth that the people surrounded by these conditions are themselves inherently "unclean."

The fact of the matter is that Tanzanians are, by and large, the cleanest people I have ever known in my life.

Every morning it is almost mandatory to sweep the yard, including the sand, in front of one’s home.

Before every meal, I am presented with a jug of water and bowl to wash my hands.

I have been chastised in the village for wiping my nose at the table and reminded to wash my banana before peeling.

When shaking hands, if either party is doubtful as to their cleanliness, it is customary to present one’s wrist.

There is a reason that all schools require uniforms — it is frowned upon to go out in public without washed and pressed clothes.

Despite the local customs, the perception of Africa, and by default Africans, persist in the minds of many as one tarnished with grit and grime.

Yet more than behaviour or character, hygiene in Tanzania is largely constrained by a lack of the proper tools.

Without water, it is impossible to wash anything.

Without infrastructure like sewage systems, roads and waste collection, it is nothing short of fantasy to believe in maintaining modern washrooms, septic tanks or garbage dumps.

The oddest consequence to the circumstances of limited means among Tanzanians is their natural response and reaction to dirt in general. Namely, get it as far away as fast as possible.

For many who do not have running water, far less access to a sewage pipe, proposing an indoor toilet within one’s personal home is rightfully viewed as nonsense.

While there is abundant litter on many streets that could be disposed of at home, it should also be considered that there are virtually no public garbage cans, men or trucks.

In both instances, the answer among Tanzanians is always why on earth would anyone literally want to live closer to their waste when there is no means to remove it?

To an almost tragic degree, the confounding reality here is that there is so little in place to actually support the aspirations of what I can only call a culture averse to filth.

While the discourse on the "cleanliness" of Africa and its people is one that we would like to believe is delivered with dignity and decorum, do not be fooled into thinking that the message is perhaps being lost due to subtlety. There are very few occasions that I can recall when I have had to excuse myself from gatherings with Tanzanians due to emotion.

Among the lone times that I can count myself as being brought to tears among friends and loved ones have been upon listening and learning of their personal perceptions of being a "dirty" African and hearing their jesting reminders to "wash the black away."

At moments such as these, it is always the stain of my conscience, more than the spot on the shirt or the company I keep, that is insufferably unclean.

» Josh Sebastian is from Brandon-Westman and is currently working on international development projects in Tanzania, East Africa.

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition November 26, 2012

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During my time in Tanzania, I have had the pleasure of hosting many friends, family and professional colleagues during their travels in East Africa.

While at the outset of every visit is how best to plan to see natural wonders such as the Serengeti or Mount Kilimanjaro, it is often more remarkable that the common questions arising are much more practical in nature.

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During my time in Tanzania, I have had the pleasure of hosting many friends, family and professional colleagues during their travels in East Africa.

While at the outset of every visit is how best to plan to see natural wonders such as the Serengeti or Mount Kilimanjaro, it is often more remarkable that the common questions arising are much more practical in nature.

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