A QUICK HIT OF THE HIGH LIFE
It felt like the inside of a hot air balloon. After seven months of Kenya’s arid heat, the humidity of coastal Tanzania was more than I could handle. I fanned myself frantically while clearing customs at Julius Nyerere International Airport, regretting my decision to dress warmly for the plane. Twenty minutes later, stamped, signed and sweating profusely, I grabbed a local SIM card from a booth outside the terminal, and hopped into a cab for the 13-kilometre ride southwest into Dar es Salaam (about TSh 30,000 or USD 15).
It was February 2015. As my contract with Nation Media Group in Kenya approached its end, I decided to visit this East African neighbour, and spend some time in Dar es Salaam’s Citizen newsroom with some Tanzanian reporting friends I had lived with in Nairobi. I bounced around for a week before ferrying off to Zanzibar for a proper vacation, but only after finding a good human rights story to sink my teeth into. Below, you’ll find my reflections on a week in Dar, along with a couple of recommendations on what to see and do before making the worthwhile trip to Zanzi.
Day One: Karibu Sea View
In Arabic, Dar es Salaam means “residence of peace,” named so by the Sultan Majid bin Said of Zanzibar in the mid-19th century, who built the new city on the periphery of the Indian Ocean trade routes. Driving in from the airport, however, it’s tough to find anything peaceful about Dar – the city has some of the worst traffic jams in East Africa, with residents regularly caught up in gridlock up to four hours per day. The capital of Tanzania is technically Dodoma, but Dar is where it all happens: it’s the largest and richest city in the country, home to more than five million people, and reportedly on its way to becoming the next African Megacity. Admittedly, Dar isn’t usually the reason people come to Tanzania – more of a necessity for those passing through to Zanzibar, making their way to Kilimanjaro, or safaris in the Serengeti.
I bunked with a friend living on the coastline, in an incredible residence called Sea View Apartments. It’s just off Barack Obama Road, nestled at the tip of the neighbourhoods of Upanga East and Upanga West. My first thought as I dropped by bags in the air conditioned flat was that I could definitely get used to this. The balcony overlooked the ocean and coastline leading to the downtown core, and offered a perfect view of the building’s helicopter pad, which I checked promptly every morning for the arrival of someone important. It was a wonderful place to watch the sunset, and observe the rise and retreat of the tide. When the tide is low, the city’s urban poor scour the ocean floor for garbage, clams and other leftovers – anything useful and potentially sellable. Roughly 70 per cent of Dar’s residents live in slums, far away from the glamour of Sea View Apartments.
Day Two: The Citizen
I was sorely mistaken in my assumption that I would adjust to the humidity in Dar. I spent every minute of my second day in the city sweating, even while enjoying a cool fruit smoothie and breakfast wrap from Epi d’or, a beautiful terraced café on Haile Selassie Road in the Masaki Peninsula. Most meals go for between TSh 8,000 and TSh 20,000 (CAD 5 — 12) and the WiFi is strong enough that it’s quite a pleasant place to work. I hid in the shade of its veranda and gardens until I could justify staying there no longer, and caught a cab to Morogoro Street, the hub of public transit in Dar es Salaam.
If you want to catch a bus to any part of the city or its outlying suburbs, Morogoro Street is the place to be. The city recently became the first in Africa to win a global sustainable public transit award for improvements made to its Rapid Bus Transit system, which has cut commute times in half for many daily commuters. It’s quite a spectacle — all the bright blue buses, bicycles, cars, motorcycles, zebra crossings, and street vendors — worth a visit just to see how the system works. Had such enhancements been in place while I was there, I might have risked bussing it to The Citizen, but I was not, at the time, willing to bet my whole afternoon on the flow of traffic and my ability to ask for directions in Swahili. I flagged down a boda boda and asked the driver to take me to Nelson Mandela Road, where Tanzania’s top journalists work in a newsroom smaller than a soccer field.
CRACKDOWN ON JOURNALISM
I was just in time for lunch. My colleagues, Ndaya and Audax, were pleased I had come to visit and walked me to the cafeteria for rice, beans and stew. We had all lived in a downtown Nairobi apartment together while they were on exchange at The Citizen‘s sister newspapers in Nairobi, The Daily Nation and Mwana Spoti. All of the papers are owned by Nation Media Group, the largest media house in East Africa, with whom I had an eight-month contract. We reminisced about the Kenya newsroom, Ndaya’s incredible cooking, and my (apparently amusing) inability to cook anything but beans and eggs. Ndaya invited me to dinner later in the week at her home in Kimara, and I looked forward to meeting her family.
We also discussed the state of journalism in Tanzania; I had noticed a number of empty East African stands on the streets, and inquired why they had stopped selling such a prominent regional newspaper in the country. It was, after all, a sister of The Citizen, owned by Nation Media Group and funded by the Aga Khan Development Network, like many reputable English and Swahili publications in East Africa. Now looking quite serious, Ndaya and Audax explained that the Tanzanian government was cracking down on local media outlets, blacklisting all that produced unfavourable coverage of its activities. The president of the day, Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete — who would be voted out by the end of the year — wasn’t a fan of The East African’s analysis and opinion pieces. This of course, is a tragic violation of press freedom, and meant that the public health story I would write in just a few days would go unread by its intended audience, published by The East African from Nairobi. I still had an hour or so before my boda boda driver would return to take me back to Sea View Apartments, so I went for a walk through the fruit, vegetable and spice markets down the road from the newsroom.
Day Three: Cocktails on a Catamaran
I put thoughts of press freedom and reporting aside for a day to enjoy an afternoon on the water. Some friends and I booked a catamaran tour with Tanzaquatic Ltd., which would take us snorkelling around Latham Island, an isolated sand bar in the Zanzibar Archipelago, known locally as Fungu Kizimkazi. From the port in Dar es Salaam, a chartered half-day catamaran trip usually costs around $1,000. With our numbers, we paid about USD 70 each, inclusive of beer and a delicious barbecued lunch.
As soon as the tide was high enough, we met at a small dock in between Sea View Apartments and the city centre, where a small rowboat was waiting to take us to a beautiful white catamaran. We waved to fishermen as we passed, and watched the towering buildings of downtown Dar get smaller and smaller.
After two days of sweating it out in the city, I was euphoric to be sailing on the Indian Ocean, a cool salty breeze flipping through my hair. The water was beautiful; deep sapphire as we pulled away from Dar and bright turquoise as we dropped the anchor by Latham Island. I hopped off the catamaran, mask in hand, and went for a swim around the perimeter. The island’s shallows are home to breathtaking butterfly fish, sea cucumbers, urchins, eels and corals. The waters were calm, the sand was white, and life was very good.
It could not have been a more disparate afternoon from the one that would follow.
Day Four & Five: Reporting on Rubbish
Living abroad, it’s easy to fall prey to one’s own privilege bubble. When you have the means to live richly in a developing country, sometimes you forget (or choose to ignore) the harsh realities faced by many of its residents, and privilege gets the best of you. I felt a bit that way sailing on the catamaran — guilty for the luxury I could afford in Tanzania. It felt like a step back into my comfort zone, and further from the people I was there to support through journalism.
When I’m overseas, I try to leave as much of my privilege behind as possible and live like the local middle-class: I rent from and room with locals, take public transit, buy from markets, and avoid the opulent expat cocktail circuit when I can. I understand and empathize with the reason many expats flock together at dinner parties, gentrify neighbourhoods, and avoid what they perceive to be ‘dangerous’ (read: poor) parts of the country — when you’ve thrust yourself out of your comfort zone by living abroad, it’s only natural to seek comfort in the familiar. But the end result, intentional or not, is the upholding of an exclusive, classist system that ‘others’ less privileged citizens on their own land, and an artificial experience that perpetuates ignorance. I can’t excuse myself from this system: even with my deliberate choices, I experience a tremendous amount of privilege while travelling by virtue of my skin colour alone. I think there’s a healthy balance that can be struck between enjoying privilege and making positive contributions to the social and economic wellbeing the country where you are a temporary guest. In my case, I give back through journalism.
A CRISIS ON THE MSIMBAZI
In Dar es Salaam, few are further from cocktail circuit than the residents of Magomeni, a small ward in the Kinondoni district. They live along the Msimbazi, a chronically polluted river that flows 36 kilometres from the Kisarawe Hills to the shores of the Indian Ocean. It’s the site of a serious health crisis: according to a recent Water Witness International report, the Msimbazi River’s water quality fails the standards used for Tanzanian wastewater, with levels of ammonia and fecal matter that exceed the country’s industrial runoff. Along the most contaminated stretches, its acidity levels are capable of causing skin burns, while its concentration of carcinogenic Chromium IV is 75 times the legal limit.
More than 65,000 people live downstream of the Msimbazi’s most polluted areas, but the Tanzanian government does little to address the issue. The trash problem, I’m told, is complicated.
“I will live here until I die,” said Magomeni resident Mussa Kibwana, crouching in an ankle-deep pile of decaying garbage.
LIVE-SAVING WASTE WALLS
I spent two days interviewing residents within 200 metres of the river bank, along with environmental scientists who are studying solutions to the crisis. All of them said the same thing: the urban poor have nowhere else to go, and nowhere else to put their trash. It’s a double-edged sword, Kibwana explained — the garbage makes them sick, but when the rainy season comes, it’s also the only thing that keeps their homes from flooding. Residents use it to construct “waste walls” that keep the rising water at bay; the only kind of flood protection they can afford. So the dumping continues in a toxic cycle: cheap waste disposal, cheap flood prevention and the chronic illness that ensues.
“Fungus infection is very common,” said Happy Shaibu, clutching her six-month-old son Hemedi in Hananasif, a ward next to the Msimbazi. “When there is water everywhere, I tell my children to stay in the house. I teach them not to go in the water because it’s toxic, it’s not safe.”
I struggled to find the words to describe how bad it is: in the slums along the river bank, garbage is the only available material for infrastructure. Compressed, it forms roads, bridges and shelving units. It’s a paradise for malarial mosquitoes, and one boy who waded across the river while I was visiting came out with powdery white rings around his legs. He told me, through a translator, he makes the crossing often, as the nearest hospital is on the other side of the water. It was, and remains, the filthiest stretch of land and water I have ever seen, and I couldn’t fathom that the Tanzanian government did not see fit to commission proper waste disposal for the area. Dr. Robert Ntakamulenga of the Tanzania National Environment Management Council shed some light on that inaction: most of the river’s residents are “squatters” who “invaded” the shores, he explained, as they can’t afford land in areas with urban planning. The government never advised that the banks be settled due to soil erosion and vulnerability to flooding, and the residents took the risk on their own. Besides, he added, the country’s solid and liquid waste management systems have enough challenges to deal with already, without the Msimbazi River. People continue to settle there today, I’m told, due to its proximity to the business district, cheap property taxes and unlimited access to water for irrigation, washing, cooking and livestock.
I published this story in The East African, which was sadly banned in Tanzania at the time. The article likely never reached many of those who could have used it to push for change.
Day Six: Kitenge and Kariakoo
My tolerance for Dar’s humidity was growing thin. Cold showers didn’t help — I was sweating again before I had even dried, and when cutting my hair off to keep my head cool started to seem like a good idea, I knew it was time to go. I had two days left before Zanzibar — time I spent scribbling my story in Sea View Apartments, and visiting with friends from Nairobi.
We were keen on exploring the Kariakoo Market. Terhas and Basmah had just arrived by plane, and were ready for the chaotic experience of dozens upon dozens of indoor and outdoor stalls, selling everything from vintage sewing machines to mysterious herbal medicines. Kariakoo opens around 6 a.m. daily, and stretches several city blocks. It’s easily accessible on foot from the downtown core — I don’t recommend trying to cab there, or you’ll be caught in a traffic gridlock that could last all day. Get a ride to the outskirts of Jamhuri or Swahili Street, and walk the rest of the way.
Kariakoo is the place to shop in Dar. You can find almost anything there, including popular kangas and kitenge. For a better selection of fabrics however, try the wholesale vendors in the nearby district of Mnazi Mmoka. You won’t get as good a price there, I learned, but you’ll walk away with sturdy Africana in whatever size and colour you want. Terhas, Basmah and I roamed Kariakoo until we could take the stimulation no longer — from the smoke of roasting food vendors outside, to the smell of a thousand plastic bowls inside, the market can be a little bit draining. To be honest, I’ve seen better, and with a reputation for pickpockets and traffic, Kariakoo isn’t for everyone.
AZANIA FRONT LUTHERAN CHURCH
After wiping ourselves out at the market, I decided we were in need of a good meal and a cold beer. Make sure you ask for your beers baridi (cold in Swahili), or they’ll be served to you warm or at room temperature. The same goes for Kenya and Uganda. Tanzania has 12 domestic brews, and though I didn’t have time to try all of them, the Serengeti and Kilimanjaro lagers are affordable and certainly palatable.
We chose a restaurant near the water in downtown Dar, within walking distance of the office where we could book our tickets to Zanzibar. The New Africa Hotel’s Sawasdee was the perfect spot, and served up an excellent spread of Thai food (a most welcome break from rice and fish). The view of of the Azania Front Lutheran Church from the dining floor is an added bonus; this attractive, Bavarian-style church with a Gothic interior was built by German missionaries in 1898. It’s one of Dar’s most well-known landmarks, and is certainly worth a walk-around, if not a visit on Sunday.
Day Seven: Dinner in Kimara
My final day in Dar was blissfully quiet. I had a last-minute interview at the Oyster Bay Shopping Centre, a swanky place in the northern half of the city to drink, buy overpriced crafts and groceries, and hit the gym. After a quick chat and hibiscus tea, I made by way back across Morogoro Road to the Citizen newsroom on Mandela Road. I was going to Ndaya’s house for dinner in Kimara, a ward on the city’s outskirts where she tells me it’s still affordable to buy land and own a home. We met at the office (I was thrilled to learn she had just been promoted) and hopped on a bus to the nearest fish market. We picked up some veggies, paid about Tsh 10,000 for our big silver fish, and made our way via cab to the her place at the edge of Kimara.
Ndaya owned one of the most colourful houses I’d ever seen: bright pink walls with lime green trim propped up vivid purple curtains and couches — none of which were as attention-grabbing as her large collection of fake flowers and garland. The more colours in a home, the more beautiful it is, Ndaya told me, as she introduced me to her youngest daughter (who hid from me for most of the evening). She whipped up a dinner of spinach, rice and grilled fish in coconut sauce, with a side of refrigerated banana. Apparently, the latter is commonly served as a side dish in Tanzania. We spent our evening chatting about journalism (including rampant corruption in our respective East African newsrooms) along with career goals and family. Toward the end of the evening Ndaya’s husband came home, sorry he had missed the party. It was a wonderful evening to wrap up my stay in Dar, before moving onto Zanzibar. Ndaya and I are still in regular contact today.
Click here to follow my itinerary from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar.
Know Before You Go
- Tanzanian visa can be purchased on arrival at Julius Nyerere International Airport for USD 50. Have the cash on hand, in case you run into obstacles with local bank machines.
- Pay no more than TSh 30,000 or USD 15 for a cab ride from the airport into town. Most cab drivers will try to get you to pay in USD, but if you say you only have shillings, you’ll likely get a better rate.
- For an even cheaper ride into town, walk a few metres onto the main road, where you can likely hail a cab for between TSh 10,000 and 20,000. I wouldn’t advise this manoeuvre at night.
- Traffic in Dar es Salaam is BRUTAL. If you need to catch a flight out of the country, leave yourself a ton of extra time to get to the airport – up to two hours extra is my recommendation.
- There are many boat and yacht rental companies in Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar, but Tanzaquatic Ltd. has among the best rates, a casual vibe, and the willingness to adapt its tours to suit your needs. Book in large groups to get the best rates.
- For the most peace and quiet, visit the Kariakoo Market on a weekday rather than a weekend. Try to walk there if you can, to avoid getting caught in downtown gridlock.
- There were plenty of things I didn’t see or do in Dar, from the National Museum, to the Botanical Gardens, to the St. Joseph Cathedral. But it still isn’t a place I would spend more than two days – or skip altogether if you’re tight on time on your way to Zanzibar or elsewhere. Nairobi and Kampala are more interesting East African capitals in my opinion, if you have to choose.
- Book your ferry tickets to Zanzibar a day or two in advance at Azam Marine Co Ltd. across from the St. Joseph Cathedral on Sokoine Drive. A ticket costs USD 35 each way from Dar.