Every week I talk to a Belgian who moved abroad and built a new life there. This week Sofie tells us about moving to Tanzania.
1. Hi, Sofie! Please quickly introduce yourself. Tell us who you are, where you’re from, where you moved to and when/why you moved.
I’ll try to make a long story short. I’m originally from Oud-Heverlee and studied Germanic at the KUL. That’s where I met my boyfriend, who would later become my husband.
While I was still in university, I already got the chance to travel to Oxford for an exchange program and did an internship in Wuhan, China. So, I’ve always sort of had the ‘travel itch’. My boyfriend was doing an internship in Martinique at the time, so one could say we found each other in that aspect. When I graduated, we moved to Tanzania for his career. Technically speaking, you could say I moved across the world for love. We were on the same wavelength and he made it easy for me to follow my dreams.
I didn’t take long for me to find a job there as well. I got to teach Dutch to the expat children in the international school, so I never got bored. Tanzania and even Africa, in general, was never our first choice, but we were young and were open to trying anything and this was a great opportunity for us. So we moved to Arusha.
All of this happened 15 years ago. A lot has happened since, we got children, we got divorced, my ex-husband lives in Mexico now, I made a career change and am working in tourism now. My daughters have been living here their whole lives, they are 11 and 13 now. And I can’t deny it: Africa really gets under your skin.
2. What did you expect from Tanzania and life there before moving? Did those expectations hold up?
What I noticed – and still notice in outsiders or visitors – is that my knowledge of Africa was really superficial. We walk around with a lot of prejudices, combined with naive ideas and a great lack of knowledge. Most people still think of poor people in huts, tribes, dry and scorched areas… those things are partly true: the Maasai live in huts, some areas are really dry, but there’s so much more to explore here.
Above all, Africa is really beautiful. Nature here is amazing and some areas are very lush. The animal parks are a unique experience as well. And yes, people here have a lot less than Westerners do, but I often wonder if that necessarily means they are less happy.
Something I did have to learn, was how to deal with these prejudices once you’re in Belgium and people ask you about living in Tanzania. If you’re saying something positive, people will be quick to call you a preaching humanitarian. If you dare to say something negative, they will probably label you colonial or racist. I found it difficult to share my experiences in a nuanced way. Now I usually just tell people they should come and visit me to judge for themselves :-)
3. What’s the biggest difference between life in Tanzania and life in Belgium?
Oh god, where do I start… the differences are huge.
First of all, I’m white. Of course, that isn’t something you think about living in Europe. However, you’re very aware of it here. Its main consequence is that you’ll never get the chance to integrate 100%. At the market, I’ll always have to pay a little bit more for the same mango. Here in Arusha, they are used to tourists and superficial contact with whites. Most of the time, they are happily surprised when they hear me speaking Swahili fluently and I get a big smile from them. Another thing I noticed, is that the new generation here makes all these differences a bit smaller. A big part of them received a (higher) education and comes into contact with western influences through the internet.
Another big difference, and without a doubt the best one, is the climate. I think I would have a hard time adjusting to the seasons, the cold and the rain if I would ever move back to Belgium. Also, we live at a height of 1000 meters. This means that the climate isn’t as humid and tropical as it is at the shore, which is ideal. At night, it gets colder so you’re perfectly fine without air-conditioning. Anytime I plant something in the garden, it grows without any problems (with the one condition that I water it, of course).
I never have to think about what I’m going to wear when I wake up in the mornings. Almost everything, like restaurants, for example, are outdoors. In April we do get a long rainy season, in which the same amount of rain falls in 1 month as it does in Belgium in a whole year. During that month you’ll need a 4×4-jeep to get the children to school. But most of the time, people are really glad it’s raining here. And believe me, being glad it’s raining was a whole new experience for me as a Belgian.
We’re close to the equator as well, so the days are always the same: 12 hours of light, 12 hours dark. This is a really healthy rhythm, once you’re used to it. It is really convenient for small children as well, you can get them to go to bed in time without any problems.
A bit more difficult is the fact that infrastructure and facilities leave a lot to be desired. The roads are in really bad condition and are even worse after a rainy season. You have to do a lot yourself because the government doesn’t give a lot of support. Sometimes the electricity company here shuts off electricity and then you’ll just have to make sure you have a power generator. They don’t collect the garbage, so you have to come up with a plan for that yourself. Hospitals have improved a lot since I first moved here, but these are all private hospitals, so they are really expensive. The same goes for schools, a private international school is really expensive. If your employer doesn’t help you with those sort of things, it’s impossible to live here (a public school really isn’t an option).
A lot of products are imported, so they cost more than they do at home. We can get everything but add transport and import taxes and even a piece of cheese becomes a luxury product. These things sometimes feel like a curse, but they can feel like a blessing as well. It can make life a lot simpler, my kids aren’t materialistic or spoiled. But it makes me realize how well things are organized back in Belgium as well.
When you don’t need all the luxury, it is possible to lead an inexpensive life here. Rental prices are low and you get other kinds of luxury. We have someone to help around in the house and I’m able to give my daughter private horse riding lessons. It all depends on what you find important.
A final big difference is the mindset of the people who live here. Some of them don’t have a lot but are perfectly happy with it. Africans are quick to say “Hakuna Matata” to life and don’t know what stress is. When I want to get something done quickly in the office that can be frustrating of course. On other days, however, it makes me really happy and helps me relativize a lot. I once heard someone here describe stress as “the white man’s disease”, and that’s really what it is for them.
4. What’s the best part about living in Tanzania?
The best part is the weather, by far :-)
You only have to buy clothes for one season and you can decide to go swimming whenever you want. People are happier when the sun is shining and colors seem prettier and brighter.
I’m happier here when we get to go on a safari. Which we go on sometimes on the weekends, to escape the city for a while. Spending time in the bush can’t be compared to anything. These are the kind of experiences you get to read about in Hemingway’s books and get to see in “Out of Africa”. Driving a jeep through the savannah, spotting elephants, giraffes and zebra’s and sitting by the campfire at night while listening to a roaring lion. There’s not much that can compete with that.
5. What do you like least about living in Tanzania?
The attitude of the people here can be frustrating on a professional level. The lack of stress and time pressure cuts both ways of course.
I work at an international company and explaining why I didn’t meet my deadline to offices in other countries can be difficult sometimes. People who live in western countries find it hard to believe that the whole city was without electricity or internet.
6. What do you miss most about Belgium?
Now and then I do miss the fact that everything is well arranged in Belgium. There are a lot of facilities and institutions that make life easier. Yes, trains are not always on time but at least there is a train. In Tanzania we have to be very self-reliant, there’s not much help from the government. Worse still: there’s a lot of corruption.
Of course I miss Belgian food and drinks as well! Nowhere in the world, you’ll find chocolate, patisserie, beer and other treats of the same quality. When we are visiting in Belgium we take some of these things with us to Tanzania in our luggage. Whenever I’m in Belgium I will always eat some American and drink a kriek.
From time to time I miss the seasons as well. Celebrating Christmas in the tropics does feel a little bit fake. Sitting by the fireplace with a hot chocolate during winter, it can be pretty cozy. I never miss it that long, though.
7. Is there something about Belgium that you don’t miss at all?
We get traffic jams here as well…
I do remember catching a cold or the flu every single winter, back when I was living in Belgium. This happens a lot less frequently here in Tanzania.
8. Do you think you’ll stay in Tanzania? Or is there a chance you’ll move abroad again someday?
I’m definitely not planning on growing old here, that just seems impossible to me. Life gets unlivable here when you need a doctor or physiotherapist regularly. Lately, I have been thinking more and more about moving. That partly has to do with my job, if I want a career, the best thing would be for me to ask for a relocation.
For my kids (my daughters are 11 and 13), moving will be the best decision as well I believe. Tanzania is ideal for small children: you can afford help at home, they can play outside whenever they want and Africans love children. For teenagers, all of this gets a bit less interesting. There’s nowhere to bike or walk to, you always have to arrange transport and public transport is non-existent or simply not reliable. There’s not much to do here for teenagers in their spare time.
9. Do you have any tips or advice for other Belgians who consider moving to Tanzania?
Make sure you already have a job before moving here. There certainly are opportunities, because there’s not a lot of expertise here. Tanzania definitely is a country where you need an “expat package” from your employer to survive.
10. What are some tips you would give to people who are traveling to your region/city? Things they should visit or eat?
A safari is a really unique experience which everyone should have done at least once in his or her life. The Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti are counted among the wonders of the world. After that, you can go relaxing on Zanzibar, and you’ll have had an ideal vacation.
Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa. To climb the Kilimanjaro you don’t need any experience, the only thing necessary is a good physical condition.
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This interview was done by Paloma García Miranda, a talented Master’s Student of Business Communication who’s helping Sofie out here on WonderfulWanderings.com.