Michelle Kaufman is a researcher that focuses on sexual behavior in the developing world. She globetrots regularly, engaging in ethnographic work along the way in order to inform the quantitative and qualitative research she conducts. Recently, Michelle visited Tanzania and investigated how people celebrate Valentine’s Day.
While in Tanzania last month, I asked everyone I met about Valentine’s Day. Do Tanzanians celebrate it, and how?
Who celebrates Valentine’s Day in Tanzania? First, Valentine’s Day is not commonly celebrated in Tanzania. Not surprisingly, it is viewed as a holiday for urban, wealthier people, and mostly for the youth. Those living in rural areas or those who are living day-to-day just trying to survive don’t give Valentine’s Day much thought (they are more focused on things like food, shelter, etc.). All my informants made it clear right away that this is a holiday for the well off with expendable income.
Those who do celebrate Valentine’s Day, however, tend to already be in relationships, such as married couples or those who have been dating for a while. According to my informants, those who are single or not in a serious relationship do not seek out dates on Valentine’s Day like Americans tend to do. The holiday is truly a day for lovers, not for those pining for love.
What should a Tanzanian Valentine’s Day include? The ways Tanzanians celebrate it sound very familiar to those in the developed world—couples go out to dinner and drinks. In fact, one organization that focuses on HIV prevention programming is running an Instagram contest for couples that post a photo displaying their love and commitment to each other (in an attempt to encourage fidelity and reduce sexual networks). The winning couple will receive a dinner on Valentine’s Day to Dar es Salaam’s only revolving restaurant at the top of a high-rise downtown hotel.
Several informants mentioned it is a good idea to take your lover to a club later in the evening if she likes to dance. In Dar es Salaam, people also go to the beach to hang out, drink, and eat barbequed meat (nyama choma). And since many people in Tanzania live with their parents or extended families, if you need a place to show your love physically, you might rent a hotel room for the evening.
One young man in his mid-20s that I talked with smiled sweetly as he told me how he treats his long-term girlfriend on that day: “To appreciate my love, I invite her out. We eat, we drink. I want to prove that I love her.”
What is considered a good Valentine’s Day gift in Tanzania? Another (unmarried) man told me, “No money, no honey!” In his view, the important thing about Valentine’s Day is getting a gift for your gal, whether it is flowers, clothes, or a new cell phone. Something small is fine; she just needs to feel special. This particular conversation led to a whole discussion of how expensive and demanding women can be, and why many men choose to stay single because of it. He assured me a Valentine’s Day celebration was not in his plans.
A group of 20-something males and females I spoke with told me that many people wear red to get into the spirit of the holiday and buy cards for loved ones, even relatives. One woman who is not currently in a relationship said, “I celebrate with my mother. I show her I love her.”
What do Tanzanians think of the American approach to Valentine’s Day? My questions to Tanzanians invariably led to them asking me about how Americans celebrate Valentine’s Day. We talked about the phrase “Hallmark holiday,” the expectation that single people will have a date, and the way that ads for jewelry and flowers and lingerie increase soon after Christmas in preparation for Valentine’s Day. Every single person I described this to laughed and shook their heads in disbelief.
While Valentine’s Day is not a big deal in Tanzania, those exposed to foreign media and social networking sites like Facebook and Instagram are starting to celebrate it. Fortunately, the emphasis in Tanzania is still on celebrating love rather than commercialism or feeling inadequate if not in a relationship.
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Dr. Michelle Kaufman – Science of Relationships articles
Michelle conducts research on sexual health and how power in heterosexual relationships influences sexual risk and family planning. She has conducted research in South Africa, Nepal, Tanzania, and Indonesia, and teaches a course on Qualitative Research Methods at Jimma University in Ethiopia.
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