How to Survive Rural Tanzania: An Expat Resident’s Guide
When people hear the words “rural Tanzania,” a stereotypical image inevitably appears in their minds. Endless fields of savannah plains, punctuated by occasional baobab trees and thatched mud huts, paint a picture of rugged wilderness on the one hand and remote inaccessibility on the other.
As clichéd as that image may be, some of its components are actually quite accurate. Specifically, the inconveniences of daily life associated with being so distant from centers of commerce and production will require some coping mechanisms for people who are used to availability of top-notch products and services.
Thus, to become a long-term resident in rural Tanzania, one should be both physically and mentally prepared for these potential inconveniences.
How to Create More Varieties in Your Rural Diet
The culinary scene in much of rural Tanzania is quite monotonous. Locals tend to eat pretty much the same thing day in and day out. For breakfast, the cheap option is sugary red tea (with or without milk) paired with fried dough or potatoes. For a relative splurge, some go for beef or chicken soup spiced with lemon juice and salt. For lunch and dinner, the choice is of a staple in the form of rice, maize meal, fried potato wedges, or boiled plantains, paired, if finances allow, with a main dish in the form of fried fish, grilled chicken, or beef in tomato sauce. Each meal is supplemented with boiled beans and leafy vegetables, which serve as primary sources of proteins and vitamins for people who cannot afford to eat meat.
Usually lightly seasoned with salt and mild chili peppers, these dishes are quite palatable, even for foreigners, but given just how little variety is available, it is quite normal to become bored of local cuisine in less than a month if eaten continuously. Hence, it is rather normal for most foreigners to cook at home, despite ubiquitous availability of local food in makeshift eateries even in the smallest of villages.
The greatest challenge that comes with cooking for yourself is that many ingredients needed to make food from back home are not available. This is especially true for condiments. In many remote villages, the local shops do not carry anything beyond salt, sugar, and chili peppers for seasoning. In larger towns near main roads, Arab, Indian, and Chinese influences allow you to buy curry powder, and soy sauce, as well as spices such as paprika, cumin, and coriander. However, these are not very helpful for cooking Western cuisines.
How to Find Ingredients from Home
To truly find a more international selection of ingredients, you have to go to towns that thrive based on international tourist traffic. In these towns, supermarkets that cater to tourist needs are emerging, and they specifically stock items that they think tourists may want during their trips. Imported fruits, cheese, wines, meats, and snacks are widely available.
It should be noted, however, that these foreign products are offered at a heavy markup from their countries of origin. For instance, a small box of cereal or a jar of peanut butter can cost more than 7 USD, while high-quality cheese can easily be more than 10 USD for a small block. Considering that many foreign residents work in comparatively low-paid NGO jobs, such expenses can quickly add up to unsustainable figures.
Thus, even before coming to rural Tanzania, it makes sense to bring easily-packed, relatively light ingredients for cooking. Things such as spices and cooking mixes are especially good as they allow for a taste of home even while using just locally produced, inexpensive vegetables and meats.
Furthermore, it is not a good idea to send food items by mail. International packages that arrive in Tanzania are often charged with very high customs tax, often amounting to more than the total value of items inside the packages. For example, I was asked by the Tanzanian Revenue Authority to pay an equivalent of 85 USD on a package of food that was worth no more than 30 USD in total. As such, if certain ingredients run out, it is better to stock them up during trips abroad, in order to avoid both the high prices of locally available imports and high taxes of mailed packages.
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