Coastal Tanzania: A Westerners Perspective

November 25, 2013 11:17 am0 comments by:

Part 1 Dar es Salaam

In October, I spent two unforgettable weeks traveling the Swahili Coast of Tanzania. Using Dar es Salaam as a springboard, I was able to travel in all four directions, visiting very different areas for work and pleasure. As an avid traveler, I have had the opportunity to visit over 30 countries and live on four different continents. Therefore I believe my experience and knowledge of traveling is extensive, providing me with valuable insight to compare to my experience on the Swahili Coast. None of my travels provided the same adventure that I had in two glorious weeks in Tanzania. I will be writing three pieces on my undertaking in Tanzania; the first one will be on Dar es Salaam, the second rural Tanzania and finally, Zanzibar.

As I left the airport, traveling with one of my partners in the non-profit organization the ACA Initiative, I received my first taste of Dar es Salaam, a city of over four million inhabitants which remains the centre of finance and governmental bureaucracy in the country. Although Dar is not the capital, which is Dodoma, the city contains all of the elements of an international capital, embassies, government buildings and headquarters of local branches of international organizations.

Entering Dar in the middle of the afternoon displayed the absolute pandemonium and total chaos that I can only compare to downtown Denpasar in Bali, but on steroids. Dar houses almost five times as many people and it seems that everyone owns some sort of vehicle (although that is certainly not true). With the cars, vans, motorcycles and the reckless fleets of bajaj taxis all attempting to crowd into one or two lanes simultaneously coupled with the absence of sufficient traffic controls to manage the plethora of vehicles, the masses of motorized conveyances becomes a jumbled free-for-all. Traffic would prove to be a constant problem traveling around, as well as in and out of, Dar es Salaam throughout the trip. We often had to leave hours in advance to appointments just to ensure that we made it to the destination on time. Learning the roads and routes throughout the city seems an impossibility as there is no semblance of a grid, and road signs are not common. Although the sheer lack of roads in general makes it easier since there is much less to learn, but this would also prove to be a problem throughout the trip.

I found the people of Dar to be quite friendly and their liveliness makes them a wonderful and beautiful people, especially the smiling faces of the children. The women parade around in colorful, traditional garb impossibly balancing unimaginable amounts of weight in baskets or buckets on their head, with no hands needed for balancing. When wandering down many of the side roads (if you could call them that, more like dirt trails populated with deep pot holes and ruts that make it seem closer to four-wheeling), the realities of life in this bustling metropolitan become evident. The pride of the average person reveals itself as inhabitants are seen sweeping the dirt from a dirt lot in front of their residence as their small flocks of livestock (goats, chickens, etc.), scoot around trying to find a morsel of food or a spot in the shade. Despite the seemingly constant horrid traffic jams, busloads of lively school children lumber by as the kids sing a cheerful song in unison to pass the time. When they spotted us, many would wave and smile, the epitome of innocence and joy.

The sheer size of the Dar es Salaam province from one end to another baffles the mind as you can travel hours in one direction (albeit at excruciatingly slow speeds) and still be within the city limits. It is commonplace to become lost in the madness of the side roads, even for people that live there. A shy person would be eaten alive in Dar, as the community is dependent on information from other motorists regarding road closures and traffic jams and many of the community members solicit favors from strangers due to their busy schedules. For example, when returning from the north in one of Dar’s infamous traffic jams, our driver enlisted the help of a motorcyclist to transport charcoal back to his home because he would not make it back in time to give it to his wife. The two men did not know one another, but our driver provided the man with directions and a payment. To my surprise, the charcoal arrived safely at his house that evening. That sort of dependence and trust is a rare occurrence in Western cities, but there seem to be no strangers in Dar. At each traffic light (although there are very few for the size of the city) and traffic jam, dozens of eager merchants patrol the small gaps in between the cars peddling various goods. Aside from typical newspaper merchants found on the street corners of most cities, young men sold household items like towel racks and stools, while even younger children sold snacks. I was informed that many of these people earn a decent living as Tanzanians are forced to do their shopping as they find themselves constantly stuck in traffic, which I find to be simultaneously resourceful for both the buyer and seller.

The buildings of downtown Dar are a mixture of old and new. While the old buildings may not be that old (the city itself is not very old), the harshness of the heat and the fact that they have not been properly cared for makes them appear more decrepit and weathered than they should be. The new buildings come from new investment and based on the signs in front of construction sites where new buildings were being built, the majority of the investment is Chinese. One particular area we visited near the beach was a ritzy, upscale area populated with diplomats and littered with resorts. Despite the overwhelming sense of chaos within Dar, the need for patience is a necessity. There is no timetable in Dar as traffic slows down the simplest daily minutiae. Accidents are common and unexpected construction even more so.

My experience in was an incredible one, but one filled with frustration at the lack of infrastructure present. While the strange combination sounds, noises, sights and smells are a frenzy for the senses, I found myself most alive in the rural areas outside of the bustle and madness of the city.

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