12 October 2009

dar es salaam, intro to tanzania

Dar es Salaam spent most of its history as a quiet fishing village and didn't receive its current name, which means Haven of Peace, until it was bestowed by a Zanzibari sultan in the mid-1800s. Today, Dar is Tanzania's largest city with a population of three million, but it still retains some of its mellow heritage.

I thought the air smelled sweet as soon as we stepped off the plane. Downtown Dar is small and easy to cover on foot, people stroll at a leisurely pace, groups of men can be found in front of almost every building, just sitting around, chatting and people-watching, and you'll hear more bantering than arguing in the streets of Dar.

Former president, Julius Nyerere, who served from 1961 until he retired in 1985, is credited with uniting Tanzania and inspiring national pride. Because people here identify first and foremost as Tanzanian, tribal rifts which are common in many other African countries are almost nonexistent here. (Nyerere, who is affectionately referred to as mwalimu (which means teacher-- and yes, he was actually a schoolteacher), is so well-loved that Nyerere Day is coming up on October 14th, and his photo (especially this one, above) seems to grace more walls than that of the current president, Jakaya Kikwete.)

The 'locals' in Dar refer equally to the Swahili women in colorful batik as it does to the Indian women in bright, sparkling saris or the veiled women in long, black robes revealing nothing but their eyes, to men in neutral-colored button-down shirts and slacks or men in kanzu (traditional robes, often white) and kofia (cylindrical caps, usually with intricate embroidery), and to the traditional Maasai warriors, draped in red shuka (Maasai blankets, often striped or plaid), with their wooden staffs. And you'll see all these people (plus the occasional mzungu, the local term for white person), not in segregated neighborhoods but all together, walking by the same fruit stands and interacting daily.

The architecture is equally varied: old buildings with wooden shutters and balconies sit next to crumbling pastel concrete structures, beautiful mosques with detailed geometric designs and towering minarets, simple cream-colored churches, huge glass-covered skyscrapers and construction sites everywhere.

The city hums along during day with constant activity, but at night, everything shuts down, and the constant flow of people disappears. Day or night, however, taxis and SUVs careen around blind curves with equal tra la la, as if just hoping no one will be there to get in their way. (Crossing the street is an excellent survival-of-the-fittest exercise.) The uniformed security guards stationed 24 hours a day in front of all of the foreign exchange bureaus and cell phone stores with their huge guns remind us not to get too comfortable or complacent, either.

I have been reluctant to take too many photos yet, but, generally, Dar feels safe, and I don't worry too much. (It helps that my partner, at 6'2", towers above almost everyone else here.)

I have so much I want to share about Dar, about Tanzania, about the locals, and about everything I've seen and done so far, but I'll stop here, as my recent posts have been a little long-winded. Thanks for reading. :-)