Tackling Teamwork in Tanzania

As we’ve all come to know, group work inherently comes with peaks and valleys, high fives, handshakes and deep-seeded displeasure. Fisher makes a huge push for group work in the first-year curriculum. Whether it is the first-year core teams or this GAP project, group projects are part of every single class Fisher class. Fisher has adopted the “early and often” approach. We all learned about group dynamics throughout the year, formally and informally. Interestingly enough, we didn’t actually learn about it until second term, second semester in Dr. Tanya Menon’s Organizational Behavior course (not a coincidence, I’m sure). Most of the learning came from previous work experience along with trial and error from the first semester and a half.

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Our first week in Tanzania – still in the honeymoon phase.

Under normal circumstances, or in MBA talk – tons of homework, papers, projects, tests and group meetings, teams fall apart. It’s not what Fisher or any group wants, but it is reality. Take those normal stresses and toss in 24-plus hours of air travel, jet lag, culture shock and three weeks of close range, daily contact and you’ve got yourself a pressure cooker. The opportunities are amazing. The deadlines are strict. The potholes surround you (literally and figuratively).

None of us have traveled together, and you don’t really know someone until you’ve shared a bathroom (I’m sure a wise man or woman said that somewhere). Just like orientation period and the first few months of class, everyone is on their best behavior. No one wants to rock the boat. On one hand, it’s only three weeks together – we can do that, right? On the other hand, oh, crap – we’re here for 21 days, spending every waking hour together in a country we’ve never seen, eating food we’ve never had, talking to people who don’t speak the same language? Again, peaks and valleys, people.

Enjoying some traditional tea in a Maasai village.
Enjoying some traditional tea in a Maasai village.

All in all, we did just fine. We encountered multiple stomach ailments, a few cases of insomnia and jetlag, a deep-seeded desire for familiar food and reliable Internet, but hey, that’s nothing. As we work on the final critiques and edits for our final report, we can look back and say we successfully carried out what we set out to do from day one. We know the wealth of information we received will directly impact GWI’s efforts to better water access in rural Tanzania. The difficulties we encountered along the way are indeed potholes, but they’re also opportunities to grow as a team and gain insight into your teammates. When you strip it all away- the comforts of home and the familiarity of the routine- much more shines through than the buttoned up exterior many offer in class. I think I can confidently speak on behalf of all GAPers when I say, this is an amazing opportunity and an absolute must for future Fisher students looking to grow as business leaders in today’s global environment.

Our last picture before we went our own separate ways. Asante sana, Tanzania! Thank you, team GWI!
Our last picture before we went our separate ways. Asante sana, Tanzania! Thank you, team GWI!

Tanzania’s Own Island Paradise

Having worked through our first weekend in Dodoma, we carved out some valuable down time and found the perfect spot for a bit of rest and relaxation – the spice island, Zanzibar.


Tyler looks like he's about ready to stake his claim on Zanzibar.
Tyler looks like he’s about ready to stake his claim.

Throughout the centuries of the colonial age, Zanzibar was claimed, conquered and held by Portugal, Oman and, most recently, Great Britain. The island gained its independence in 1963 and merged with Tanganyika to become Tanzania in 1964. It’s obvious that Zanzibar’s place in the Omani Empire has the strongest historical and cultural impact on the island, despite Britain’s close temporal tie. Over 95% of Zanzibar’s 1.3-plus million people are Muslim. The traditional dress – schoolgirls and women with covered heads – and minarets dominate the island. Calls to prayer can be heard all over the island as each mosque’s loud speakers reach out to their followers throughout the day. It’s a very strange juxtaposition with Zanzibar’s tourist economy and reputation as a popular beach vacation spot for the rest of the world.

Lighthouses dot the beaches between resorts and seaside restaurants.
Lighthouses dot the beaches between resorts and seaside restaurants.

Resorts filled with foreigners and wealthy Tanzanians riddle the island’s many beaches. The tunes playing over the speakers are largely from the Western world, and the numerous bars are graciously serving plenty of alcohol, despite the more conservative, Muslim culture of the island. At one such resort, we sat on the beach, enjoying a cold Safari Lager (the best Tanzanian beer in my humble opinion – some teammates disagree), surrounded by many other Westerners sunning themselves in bikinis and short shorts while listening to a call to prayer from the local mosque. I felt guilty just holding the bottle, but such is life on Zanzibar. Tourism is huge, and as the tourists wants and needs go, so, too, do service industry providers.

With of all that said, the island is beautiful and, like any tropical paradise, sun, surf and sand abound. With a safari through the Serengeti under our belts, we thought we should complete the safari experience and enjoy a “blue safari” while on the island. I’d never heard the term either, so don’t worry. A “blue safari” is a snorkel trip on a traditional dhow (envision a very, very small pirate ship) complete with a seafood feast on the beach. Without a doubt, this meal was one of the best we had in country. Fresh grilled fish, slipper lobster, ugali, two types of curries and more fresh fruit than anyone could ever hope for was the menu. After lunch, we climbed a 500-year-old baobab tree left from the time of Portuguese occupation – a full 260 years older than our country. Basically dragging us from the beach, the captain told us that our day trip was over, and it was time for our choppy, seasick-inducing trip back to shore. I won’t go into too much detail here- you’re welcome.

We had a great O-H-I-O on top of this behemoth, but forgot our shirts.
We had a great O-H-I-O on top of this behemoth, but forgot our shirts.

All said and done, Zanzibar was great. It’s picturesque and unquestionably exotic. The history is tangible. The culture is unique and deep-rooted. What more can you ask for?

Our trusty dhow - the Salale.
Our trusty dhow – the Salale.

Adapting in Tanzania’s Business Environment

Initially, we planned on writing our second business blog about our first meeting with our colleagues at the University of Dodoma. There’s plenty to say about the differing style including: how and when to introduce yourself (Swahili has a structure of greetings based on familiarity, respect and seniority) and the concept of time. Since that meeting, we’ve come to recognize more evident and frequent differences in the business setting – let’s call it “operating in a less structured environment”.

Two notable differences we’ve encountered so far: structure and cell phone usage.

Our colleagues provided a day-by-day schedule for our time here in Dodoma. Like all schedules, we knew this would change, but hoped it would include most of our meetings and remain mostly accurate for the duration of our stay. During our time here in the capital, some changes were communicated in a manner we’re quite used to – i.e. tomorrow’s visit will include village X rather than Y. Other changes were communicated with gaps in information, such as: “We’re meeting with an NGO tomorrow morning. See you at 8 a.m.” This message, despite our follow up, included no information about the name of the organization or what they do. And the final category, the most trying from a Western point of view, is the unannounced meeting. In this scenario, the car stops at a government building, and we’re given a two minute heads up that we’re meeting with the municipal water director for Dodoma.

The unnamed NGO, Maji Na Maendeleo Dodoma.
The unnamed NGO, Maji Na Maendeleo Dodoma.

These occurrences are, at times, very difficult for a Westerner, especially for those of us who need high structure. Going into two meetings blind and totally ignorant of the organizations’ efforts can be nightmarish. The peak of unpreparedness, we had to ask the terrible question, “So, what do you do here?” With notification, we would have created an in-depth set of questions to gather as much information as possible and facilitate a lively discussion. We were compelled to improvise and think on our feet in order to conduct these meetings. They’ve been challenging meetings and great tests of quick thinking. We’re still acclimating to this style of business to try and better mimic our Tanzanian colleagues.

One of our trusty, noble steeds - the Rav4.
One of our trusty, noble steeds – the Rav4.

Less of a frustration and more of a surprise, we’ve had multiple internal discussions about cell phone usage here in Tanzania. Throughout our village visits and official meetings, we have been interrupted by the screeching ring of a cell phone and the person conducting the meeting and speaking at that very moment, will stop the meeting to take the call. It’s almost been difficult to get through a meeting without multiple ringing phones or the out-in-the-open texting of a meeting participant. It has served as good practice in redirecting our conversations to better capture their attention. Not to say that this is the case with each visit. We know cell phones are now ubiquitous and provide an ever-present distraction – just look around class during lecture. It’s just been surprising to see the distinct nature of the cell phone first, meeting second approach.

The Land of the Masai

Mention East African culture or the dominate language of Swahili to a Westerner and you might just stir up images of brightly clad Masai people with gauged (stretched lob piercings) ears, elaborate jewelry and lethal spears. Ironically enough, the Masai have their own language, yet four warriors grace the cover of my own Swahili phrasebook. Go figure! Anyway, we’ve all seen the scene on TV or in the pages of National Geographic. For many tourists, the Masai village visit is an integral part of a safari. For $80 you can see a “spontaneous” traditional dance and take your picture with the warriors!

Luckily for us, we visited the Masai under a different context. The village leaders of Akaria invited us to their village to see their current water infrastructure and learn more about the delicate relationship the Masai have with their native land and their desperate reliance on water. Long story short, large-scale tilling and agriculture eliminate the lifeblood of the Masai livestock, namely, hearty pasture grasses. The village is intermixed with acres and acres of corn – some planted by city dwellers who “hijacked” the land for farming purposes.

A young Masai boy watches over his cattle.
A young Masai boy watches over his livestock.

To begin, we took tea (along with a wide variety of samosas, fried breads, rice cakes and cassava chips) with our host multiple times before getting started. We couldn’t put down a teacup without immediately being offered more! Their generosity was amazing. With the proper protocol followed, it was time to begin. I kid you not – we sat through a PowerPoint presentation about pastoralism. We did not see that coming.

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Masai woman gathering water from 100 year old well – all the more dangerous without the help of our driver.

With more knowledge, full stomachs and satiated thirst, we took a tour of the village, taking in a rain capture system (initially built by Italian immigrants in the early 1900s), the village school and new community center, as well as the village’s last three water tanks. The village seemed to be doing relatively well – in large part, we think, because of our host’s efforts. He seemed to be spearheading each and every project we saw. Repeatedly, though, he stressed the importance of water and the dire situations the village has faced and will face again. A few miles away from the village, there’s a local dam that services part of the area. Our host told us that the villagers have learned, from experience, to up and move within six hours if the dam dries out – or potentially face death from dehydration. So tenuous is the region’s water supply that mere hours can change everything. To more vividly illustrate this struggle, our host told us about an instance in which a delivery tanker full of water (ordered during a particularly bad drought) overwhelmed the water tank, destroying the structure and sending precious liters of water onto the dusty ground. The villagers took to grabbing handfuls of the newly created mud and sucking what moisture they could from it. The tanker driver was so moved by the scene he broke company regulation and returned with another load.

The GWI team with a few of our Masai hosts.
The GWI team with a few of our Masai hosts.

In the end, we thanked them graciously for their time and hospitality. We wanted to help and thought of a few quick fix ideas, but it hardly seems like enough. Our project is long-term and will require much, much more than three weeks of research to effectively roll out. Dry season is descending upon Tanzania, and these very villages we continue to visit will face tough times. It’s amazing that after millennia of living in the same climate, the Masai are still faced with a new environment year after year. Nothing is guaranteed except that they will continue to endure.

Tanzanian Lunch Meeting at a Greek Restaurant…Wait, What?

In true Fisher networking fashion, we landed a lunch meeting with a local water solutions manager – a tentative third degree connection to our group. Our first business meeting on Tanzanian soil went well, despite the distant network link and unavoidable jet lag. Vincent runs a drilling and construction company in Arusha, a former division of a company focused on bore holes for water wells. Drilling did not fit directly under our scope of work with GWI, but meeting with an industry expert, regardless of the role, proved interesting and provided a lot of background for our future interviews and village visits.

Throughout our coursework for GAP, we continually focused on the cultural differences between the U.S. and Tanzania, especially in terms of relationship-building and business etiquette. We knew we had to start slow, building trust and a relationship before we even thought about bringing up the business questions we had. Although Vincent attended university in Canada and had plenty of experience with Western business norms, we discussed his experiences, his company’s history and the family business with interest.

Vincent, Tyler, Jeff, Drew, Jake, Alec and Dadrien enjoying George's Tavern
Vincent, Tyler, Jeff, Drew, Jake, Alec and Dadrien enjoying George’s Tavern

Truth be told, after the pleasantries had been exchanged and Vincent prompted us, we peppered him with questions. We thoughtfully and graciously paused during the actual meal – a Greek restaurant with some dynamite burgers (Vincent’s choice)! All too eager to get things going after 7-weeks of coursework, class and twice-a-week meetings, we hit the ground running and began gathering the information we so desperately wanted for our final report.

After the meeting, we were able to debrief and discuss some of our strong points – along with “areas for opportunity,” aka “weaknesses”. Vincent’s Western education enabled us to conduct ourselves in a slightly varied, but typical manner. In hindsight, it was a great transition opportunity for our team. Rather than the immediate shock of a heavily traditional Tanzanian meeting, we had the luxury of a buffer meeting to smooth out the kinks.

Beyond the Lions and Elephants in Arusha

I don’t want to claim that our first few days in Tanzania were tops among GAPers, but I challenge any location in the world to compete with the awe-inspiring Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. Seeing huge horizon-to-horizon herds of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle followed by pools of massive floating families of hippos and, of course, the fierce predators lurking in the bush was an amazing experience. Although, in our case, the predators were either trotting along the dirt road, looking like cuddly creatures, or lounging in the shade of ubiquitous acacias. We were lucky enough to see the “Big Five” (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino). Despite its dire history, this term was coined by the big-game hunters looking for the five most difficult animals to hunt on foot. For us, it meant that we had an extremely lucky three and a half days. It’s amazing where you can end up just 72-hours after your last presentation of the semester.

The terrifying, deadly leopard...taking a nap.
The terrifying, deadly lion…taking a nap.

Despite the grandeur and breath-taking beauty of these areas, I think it’s safe to say that our team was just as pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome we received from the people of Arusha who serve the major nature reserves nearby. Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, is also nearby, but located in the opposite direction of the Serengeti. Understandably, touristic hubs cannot provide for countrywide generalizations. In these areas, tourism is king and positions like a safari leader are highly coveted and diligently studied for. Still, the warm welcome we received from locals during our walks. and the selfless nature of our bed and breakfast staff was touching. For a little insight, one team member lost his wallet the first night during a taxi transfer. Charles, the bed and breakfast manager, took it upon himself to track the taxi down and ensure that the contents remained untouched  – hours after the initial loss. Needless to say, the wallet was returned immediately upon our return from the safari in pristine condition. Continuing to go above and beyond, the other employees taught us Swahili every night, while we dined in the communal outdoor dining room with the B&B’s other guests. Coming with little more than the essentials (jambo, asante, kwa heri) we tried our best amidst the friendly laughter of our teachers.

Our fearless leader, Salum, and the GWI team on safari.
Our fearless leader, Salum, and the GWI team on safari.


Tanzania and its people certainly have not disappointed. We can’t wait to see what lies beyond Arusha as we continue on to Dodoma, Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam.