A visit to Tanzania proves to be educational with its fascinating history, cultural diversity and spectacular wildlife. The sense of pride of its people who overcame adversity and are thriving on its natural resources is palpable and something the rest of us could take a page from. 

VISITING a new country brings a degree of caution: regardless of how much research you do beforehand, nothing really prepares you for the actual sounds, sights and smells that await, ready to overturn assumptions. It’s particularly disorienting if a youthful imagination has taken hold before arriving: when I first visited London as a child, I was expecting to see streets paved with gold, so taken was I by the story of Dick Whittington and his cat.

Similar assumptions from popular culture dominated my mind when I visited the United States or Japan for the first time.

Even as an adult, when visiting countries that I was repeatedly told are authoritarian, corrupt and backward, I have found that essentially all human beings have similar needs and desires and there is always value in trying to understand a society.But the greatest gap between my ignorance and reality occurred on my first trip to Sub-Saharan Africa this month.

Although I had visited Morocco and Egypt before, they are culturally and geopolitically in the Maghreb and Middle East and my well-travelled friends said “those don’t count as Africa proper”.

Indeed, with Africa being the world’s third largest continent (although the Mercator projection usually used for world maps fails to capture its true size), the breadth of variety and differing national experiences is huge.However, since there are few historical, emotional, religious or economic reasons for most Malaysians to visit Sub-Saharan Africa, prejudice about this vast continent continues to fester.

With little incentive to appreciate the intricacies, the images of war, poverty, squalor and disease that we see in the media are often assumed to apply to the entirety of the continent.

And of the people, the stereotyping is fuelled not only by descriptions of poor governance and corruption in innumerable news reports, but also perceptions of Africans on our shores: namely, accounts of Nigerian scammers, drug traffickers, criminals on student visas, and involvement in gangsterism.

The vocabulary used to describe such people is often less than polite, with the racism against foreigners often said to be an extension of Malaysians’ own domestic racism. That is why my several days in Tanzania were among the most educational of my life. This is a country that experienced German and then British colonialism, a socialist revolution and a union in 1964 of the two territories of Tanganyika and Zanzibar.

The ending of Arab hegemony in that former sultanate killed thousands, but since then the multitribal, multireligious community has been living in relative peace, following a deliberate attempt to keep tribalism out of politics.

Although officially a unitary state, some institutions resemble federalism with a semi-autonomous government in Zanzibar and reservations for the territory in the national parliament. (However, many more seats are reserved for women in both the national and Zanzibar legislatures.)

There is no equivalent to the genocide in Rwanda (to its west) or the civil war in Mozambique (to its south) and Tanzanians seem proud that their politics is free from the tribalism that influences Kenya (although new Kenyan friends claimed that Tanzanians like to exaggerate this point as part of a long-standing rivalry between the two countries).

It is true that I was in the tourist areas, surrounded by educated Tanzanians who are used to interacting with foreigners but there was certainly a consistent effort to show how peaceful and stable the country is. I suppose it is the equivalent of us Malay­sians proving to ignorant foreigners that we aren’t backward either.

One particular point of pride is the early establishment of national parks and conservation areas – now 38% of the entire country’s land area – that are so vital to tourism and the economy today.

However, this is not without controversy since the British evicted the local Maasai from the Serengeti in order to protect the flora and fauna.

But the knowledgeable Maasai who accompanied us on safari seemed to embrace the fact that today, hundreds of thousands of tourists pay good money to see the spectacular wildlife.

We were lucky to see the “Big Five” – lions, leopards, elephants, buffaloes and a rhino (albeit from a distance) – apart from thousands of zebras, gazelles and different species of birds.

That was the other profound learning experience: regardless of how many nature documentaries you have seen, there is no substitute to seeing the animals first-hand in their natural habitat.

Many of my Tanzanian interlocutors knew good things about Malaysia, in terms of political stability and economic growth. But with the sightings of tigers, killer whales and sun bears outside their normal habitats in Terengganu in the past week, we can certainly learn a thing or two about conservation from the Tanzanians.

Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin was on safari. He is founding president of Ideas. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.