TANZANIA: LIFE INSIDE THE BUBBLE OF PRIVILEGE
It felt like the inside of a hot air balloon. After seven months of Kenya’s arid heat, the humidity of Tanzania was more than I could handle. I fanned myself frantically while clearing customs, feeling like a hot potato trying to get an entry visa for an oven. Twenty minutes later – stamped, signed and sweating profusely – I made my way into Dar es Salaam.
(Travel Tip: A Tanzanian visa can be purchased on arrival at Julius Nyerere International Airport for USD 50. Pay no more than TSh30,000 or USD 15 for a cab ride from there into town)
The commercial capital of Tanzania is the largest and richest city in the country with a population of more than four million people. In English, Dar es Salaam means “residence of peace,” and as I soaked up the sand, sun and scenery, I confess to feeling an unusual inner sense of calm. I stayed in Dar for one full week in a beautiful, luxury beachside apartment. The ocean-view complex came with a balcony and helicopter pad, which I promptly checked every morning for the arrival of someone of major importance. I spent time on the balcony every day in Dar, listening to the waves and watching the sunset.
Life was good. Too good.
As an expat, it’s easy to fall into what I call The Bubble of Privilege. In East Africa in particular, the facilities exist to live a “First World” lifestyle in a “Third World” country, casting a veil over the harsh realities many of its residents are forced to endure. As a journalist, I try to remain aware and restless, preferring to live on the perimeter of The Bubble rather than directly in it. But every now and then, daydreaming gets the best of me – especially when it comes in the form of a catamaran with snorkeling, sand dunes, beer and a barbecue.
But peering over the balcony in the apartment, something shook the inner calm I had found upon my arrival in Dar es Salaam. As I watched the magnificent transition between high and low tide, I noticed the urban poor flocking into the receding ocean. They scoured its floors for garbage, clams and other leftovers – anything useful and potentially sellable. It was a stark reminder that roughly 70 per cent of the city lives in slums, far from reach of The Bubble of Privilege.
In Dar, few may be farther from The Bubble than the residents of Jangwani, who live along the chronically polluted Msimbazi River. It’s the longest river in the city and flows 36 kilometres from the outskirts to the shores of the Indian Ocean. According to a recent Water Witness International report, water quality in the Msimbazi fails the standards used for Tanzanian waste water, exposing more than 200,000 people in adjacent areas to the health risks associated with severe pollution. I spoke with a number of people who live in slums along the river and depend on its water for irrigation, livestock, washing and more. They admit to polluting the river themselves, and evil born of necessity: The garbage they dump along its banks serve as a barrier between them and flooding during the rainy season, guarding their homes and families from toxic encroachment.
I spent my last few days in Dar es Salaam hiding from the brutal humidity while enjoying the company of new and old friends. A Tanzanian journalist I had met in Kenya last August welcomed me into her Kimara home where I was served a delightful dinner of spinach, rice, and grilled fish in coconut sauce with a customary refrigerated banana on the side. Before leaving the city, I also checked out the market in Kariakoo where I marvelled at antique sewing machines, homemade baskets and sky-high piles of plastic and cookware. From there, I turned my attention to my next destination in Tanzania:
It was a smooth and beautiful ride from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar despite the scorching heat of the crowded ferry port. It took an hour and a half using Azam Marine services, and for the first time in my life, I upgraded to a first class ticket (at a cost five extra dollars) to sit in the boat deck with air conditioning.
Life inside The Bubble of Privilege.
When I arrived on the main island of Unguja, I immediately knew that I liked this place. There was something different about the vibes of Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania still untouched by the detachment and hustle of urban living. I stayed for three days in Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the old part of Zanzibar City, whose coral stone buildings and cobble stone streets earned its well-known name.
(Travel Tip: Many cab drivers will tell you that hotels and tourist attractions are far away, but Stone Town is quite small and almost everything can be reached on foot)
The architecture in Stone Town dates as far back as the early 19th century, and its famous verandas, wooden doors and baraza benches are the result of Indian, Arab, Persian, European and African traditional styles. Its maze of alleys – many of which are too narrow for cars – are lined with bicycles, motorbikes, bazaars, and shops selling sparkling purple Tanzanite at unbelievable prices. Once again, I was filled with an unusual sense of inner calm as I slipped back into The Bubble of Privilege: A seaside patio with cinnamon gelato.
I found my rude awakening the very next day at two of the island’s main attractions. Stone Town was home to one of the world’s last open slave markets, presided over by Arab traders until its closure in 1873. The slave quarters – suffocating underground cellars without windows or toilets – are now found beneath St. Monica’s guesthouse, and open for viewing at a cost of TSh7,000. My tour guide Christopher, who is also known as the island’s resident Morgan Freeman lookalike, escorted me into the depths of the claustrophia-inducing prison, and lightened the mood – perhaps insensitively – by pointing out that its mock human shackles are actually snow chains from Canadian Tire. Our tour wrapped up at the nearby Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ, whose altar is built upon the former site of the whipping post, where slaves were tortured to test their mettle and determine their worth at an open auction.
I spent my last day in Zanzibar at Upendo (“love” in Swahili) Beach, roughly an hour and a half outside of Stone Town. Despite being on my way to white sands and mimosas, The Bubble felt small as I drove through the rural parts of the island where more than half of the population lives below the poverty line. But the beach was beautiful – a prime spot for collecting seashells – and home to the famous seafood Rock Restaurant, which I’m too picky and frugal to eat in.
(Travel Tip: Pay no more than TSh60,000 for a cab ride out to Upendo beach. Remember to check the times for low tide before heading to any beach in Zanzibar, or you’ll be disappointed when you get there to find that all the water is gone)
My (work) vacation ended with a party and a midnight snack at Stone Town’s famous Forodhani Food Market. If you eat anywhere on the island, I recommend eating here – the market opens at dusk with dozens of chefs whipping up a variety of treats under the muted glow of table lanterns. I would be cautious around the seafood, which may or may not be fresh, but the Zanzibar pizza, made with egg, dough, cheese and veggies is always a favourite of locals and tourists. Each dish goes for between TSh2,000 and TSh8,000, and the market is worth a visit for its carnival-like atmosphere alone.
My trip back to Dar es Salaam was as uneventful as it was on the way to the island, and after 10 days of Tanzania’s uncompromising humidity, I was ready to return to Kenya. Unwilling to part with five extra dollars twice, I sat in an economy seat and peered over the ocean as the ferry whizzed past fishing boats and catamarans. It occurs to me now that no matter where you go in the world, it’s a fact that The Bubble of Privilege – like any bubble – is transparent, invisible. You can live as far inside it as you would like, but if you open your eyes and look around you, you’ll always be able to see people living on the other side. Life begins where your comfort zone ends, and even though The Bubble is nice, every now and then, it’s good to pop it.