I like the way Tanzanians pronounce Dar es Salaam. It is organic and respectful, almost sacred, probably like how I would say my grandfather’s first name, when he is in an adjacent room, reverent whisper in awe of his greatness. They say it like their tongues were first immersed in oil, slithering out unperturbed.
It maybe be the tenderness of the Swahili language that makes a speaker sound like a poet reciting intimate narratives, while also conscious of the delicate text.
Swahili must be a language cooked in love. If languages were tangible commercial commodities, displayed in designer shops, Swahili would be wrapped in white silk, sealed in dark purple ribbons. It would be packaged in chocolate brown wood, scented in Egyptian oils. Swahili has the authenticity, only real wood can symbolise. It is validity wrapped in delicacy.
The people I met in Dar es Salaam are just as tender, soft spoken with the tendency to speak in a near whisper. I can’t recall the number of times I asked them to ‘please speak louder’, in those two weeks. One of our drivers attributes their calmness to the frustrating traffic. He says the time they spend in the cars is a boot camp. They have thus given up on being angry and anxious, he says.
Tanzania is a big country of about 57 million people, and about 4 million of them live in Dar es Salaam. It is a busy city, with people everywhere, selling, lifting and balancing heavy loads on their heads, vending hot coffees on street corners. They have abundant food, you encounter informal eating places on every street, grilling fish on open fire. Their fish will most likely be served with Ugali, a type of maize porridge from East and Central Africa that is similar but not as refined as Southern Africa maize meal, and this would be washed down with Coconut water.
The people fill up all the public spaces, they are there, living their lives, making a living. They are tough, kind people, walking to their commercial stalls somewhere along the road, or calling out to a passers-by, from their makeshift shop. They citizens are busy, doing one thing or the other, they don’t seem to worry about what the next person would say or think. There is life to make, families to feed and clothe, children to educate and aging parents to nurse.
You arrive here and it suddenly feels like the end of our world is nearer than you had thought. It is an urgent place. The people are focused, busy negotiating businesses, convincing passers-by to buy from them, against other competitors, with similar products. Every other person seems alert to either the imminent end of the world, or the reality of their mortality. They seem too mindful of their responsibility to leave an inheritance for their children. The city centre is a big market place, people are calling out to each, whistling, cars and boda-bodas blowing horns. In fact, I have not been anywhere, where people use a horn like they do in Dar es Salaam. And this makes it one of the noisiest places I have ever been to.
Dar es Salaam does not to sleep. It is probably the African version of a ‘city that never sleeps’. Vendors seem to work on shifts, when some retire to bed, others take up the stall for the overnight shift.
Dar es Salaam surprised and thrilled me.
The people who visited her before me, and had tried to create a picture of the place, missed it. But I understand, it is a city that needs to be experienced, it cannot be visualised in absentia. Even as I write, I feel inadequate to capture Dar es Salaam. In retrospect, I understand their struggle in helping visualise the place. It is hard, even now, to find words, in my vocabulary, succinct enough to do justice to the place.
And since my return home, my answer to ‘how is Tanzania’, has been short; ‘it is different, amazingly different’.