What did I learn as an exchange student in Tanzania?

This text is not a travelogue and not even the most current description (anymore) of what it is like to be an exchange student at the University of Dar es Salaam.

This article is a description of my experiences during my time as an exchange student that left a permanent impression on me, so much so that I can still remember them after a decade. 

As it is, this year marked the 10th anniversary of my history studies in Tanzania. 

1. The best way to learn a language is to live in a country where you need it every day (really: no hope otherwise)

Swahili is not the only language in Tanzania.

However, it was the only language for me to communicate with at the marketplaces, at the taxi station and with the housekeepers at the student dormitory.

Before leaving for Tanzania, I discovered an old Swahili language textbook at the library amidst the clearance books shelf. 

I completed the exercises during coffee breaks at my workplace.

As I left for Tanzania, I noticed that all I could say in Swahili were basically phrases like “hello” and “how are you”.

I had expected more (since I thought that I had done good work with my textbook).

The longer I had stayed in Tanzania, the more I learned. 

I also noticed that necessity is the best motivator to learn a foreign language.

So, if you want to learn a new language, the best way is to live in a country where you can’t manage with English.

This method is not easy, but it is effective.

Encouraged by the experience, I have since traveled to other countries whose native language was not familiar to me prior to the trip.

2. I am not a good dancer, but I don’t mind 

As I left for Tanzania, I had poor dancing skills.

During my stay in Tanzania, I danced frequently, but that did not mean that I learned how to dance.

I have no sense of rhythm and my movements could be smoother.

I was often given feedback on my poor dancing skills.

At first, I was amazed that my incompetence received that much attention.

Gradually I came to accept that I am clumsy and not a very good dancer. 

I still can't stay away from the dance floor, though.

I love to dance, and I don't care how it looks.

I apply the same concept in other situations also: if I enjoy something (and it does not inconvenience others) I do it despite what others might think.

3. An introvert does not turn into an extrovert overnight

My idea of an exchange student was of a social person and one that would make as many friends as possible.

I suffered from anxiety, as I did not enjoy partying any more than I had in Finland.

I wondered if I had not succeeded as an exchange student and was wasting the best opportunity of my life.

Little by little, it dawned on me that it's OK to be yourself abroad as well.

I enjoy spending time alone, and if that makes me happy abroad as well, I don’t have to change my habits.

The success of the exchange period can’t be measured by the amount of new phone numbers one has acquired or how much they have partied.

Unrealistic expectations can cause unnecessary stress.

It is good to remember that an introvert does not turn into an extrovert just because they have gone to study in another country.

4. The best way to protect against malaria is to use a mosquito net

This is a very practical advice and one that has been helpful on many other trips also in Africa and Asia.

The best way to protect against malaria is to use a mosquito net around the bed. (Wearing long-sleeved and legged clothing is also helpful.)

My roommate didn't have a mosquito net and had malaria three times, while I (thankfully) was healthy.

You should prepare yourself with a traveler’s insurance just in case you might catch malaria or some other disease.

I recommend that you carefully read the terms and conditions on your traveler’s insurance to be sure you are sufficiently covered for the entire duration of your studies.

5. You should choose a country where you want to return

Exchange student period will make an indelible impression on you.

If you enjoyed your time as an exchange student, you’ll want to return to the country repeatedly.

That is why it is a good idea to choose a country where you will want to visit later also.

You might think that is a silly advice – if you have never visited the country, how would you know you’ll want to return?

However, I think you understand what I mean by this.

I don’t think anybody would want to study abroad in a country they are not (at least in secret) in love with.

I had never been to Tanzania before, but I had read all the books I could get my hands on about the country since elementary school. 

I waited for years to be able to travel to East Africa.

After my time as an exchange student, I have returned to Tanzania and the neighboring countries whenever possible.

Even the travel time of 33 hours one-way has not deterred me.

Those trips have inspired me on my career as a writer. You can read my texts for example on the blog www.kultainto.com.


I suppose I might have had a similar learning curve regardless of which country I chose.

Furthermore, I do not suggest that my experiences are in any way original.

It has been a good lesson (at least for me) to realize that the exchange student time does not have to be a life-changing period.

The life at the location consists of basic student lifestyle, and the exchange student will remain the same person before and after the experience.

Exchange student period can be the best time of your life, but for some it can also be a negative experience.

Personally, I enjoyed my time immensely and wouldn't trade my experiences for the world.

Of course, there are bad moments also (just like always in everyday life).

Had I not embarked on the journey, I would have regretted it for the rest of my life.

If you are pondering whether to go to Tanzania or anywhere else as an exchange student, you should go!

You can always cut your stay short in case you learn something negative about your environment (or yourself).

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