Strangers are strange, but so are our friends, right?
Socializing with the locals can be as rewarding as it is risky. In many developing countries, Americans and/or white people are thought to be rich. In reality, there are many poor Americans, especially college students. Regardless of the explanations provided, convincing local people in Tanzania that I am not rich is almost impossible. Unfortunately this perception may lead some individuals to create American friendships with ulterior motives. Our study abroad program warns us against such events by stating “don’t trust anyone” and informing us that if we invite locals to social events they will expect us to pay. Sure, there are often incidents in which an American has trusted a few local folks, only to be later set up and robbed. But my motto in everything is, ‘it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it’. Keeping this in mind has enabled me to develop friendships of numerous nationalities and social classes.
In order for me, a seemingly rich American, to establish a friendship with Tanzanians of a poor class, I must be aware and sensitive to their situation. Even the kindest of hearts of may seek an economic opportunity when presented with the chance. Despite this risk, I would never tell an traveler not to mingle with the local population. Doing so is perhaps the greatest aspect of travel. But how can American travelers safeguard themselves from negative intentions? By exercising patience, persistence and common sense. The following is my advice for befriending locals
Take time to establish trust. If a person is overly demanding of your time upon your first encounter, he/she may be scheming to get you into a vulnerable position. Locals understand that you as a foreigner face a high risk of being robbed. Therefore if the person has pure intentions they will be considerate of this and encourage you not only take your time with putting your trust into others, but also in them. Many locals will advice you, “do not trust anyone”. But some say this with the implications of “but you can trust me”. Be cautious but not accusatory. During your first few engagements with local people, make plans to meet in public locations. Even if they offer you a ride, avoid that as much as possible.
Consider one’s economic position. Of course, the size of a person’s wallet cannot speak to the size of their heart, but it can speak to their level of comfort or desperation. Crime is a product of poverty, robbery is a means to a gain. You’re much more likely to be pick-pocketed or robbed with a machete by an individual that is desperate for money than by a well-known shop owner. Likewise, it is more likely that a well-educated, English-speaking local will seek to engage in an intimate relationship with an American for ulterior reason than it is likely a limited English-speaking street vendor will. Why is this? Opportunity, and what opportunities best fit the desires of a local. The more a person has, the more he has to lose, but if he has nothing, he only stands to gain. This must be taken into consideration when meeting locals. Be mindful of the type of questions they ask you – money, finance, your plans for the evening, etc. You must answer each question with caution and also ask many questions of them. Look for consistency in their answers. If there is anything that appears to be inconsistent, beware.
While some of the poorest people I have met are also some of the sweetest, it is hard to partake in many social activities I enjoy with them. The reason is that I understand they cannot afford to go out to eat, or to a dance club. If I offer to pay for them, it will always be me paying for everything. Doing so would confirm their suspicions of me being rich, and quickly drain my funds. So how can I go dancing with locals? Befriend the locals that can afford to socialize as I like. Thus far, these relationships have been with young entrepreneurs and embassy/government workers – the young elite class. Free or cheap activities such as lounging at the beach or having tea and conversation I reserve primarily for my poor friends, and expensive restaurants and dance-clubs I enjoy with my wealthier friends. I’ve also made a few friends that are poor or unemployed but well-connected to fun social-scenes.
With the right attitude and a proper understanding of the local culture and what it is like to be poor, making friends with foreigners can be easy, safe, and tons of fun!!