Dar es Salaam
Even though Dar es Salaam, at the time (we are talking 1987, here), already counted some 1.5 million inhabitants, you wouldn’t say so, if you wandered through the city centre. Essentially low-rise, either in the form of old colonial architecture or cheap 4-to-5 story apartment buildings, it had mostly a small-town atmosphere, although traffic could be horrendous. This because of old, battered cars that would drive very slowly, or not at all anymore – and the concept of pulling a broken down car off the road was completely alien. Or because of animals, goats or cows, on the road, or peacocks, a donation of some foreign head of state to the president, who kept them, mostly but not entirely, in his palace garden in central Dar es Salaam. Or scooters and mopeds, or people walking on the road. Or busses, who would be unilaterally defining the main traffic rule: size matters.
As a fair share of the coastal population is Muslim, thanks to years of influence of Arab traders – and not the least, the aspirations of the Sultan of Oman, who claimed not only Zanzibar but also tracts of land along the coast -, Dar es Salaam had quite a few mosques, often small, unobtrusive affairs that blended in nicely. It also created a stark contrast in the streets, between rather lightly clothed Christian women and fully covered Muslims.
The first few days after my arrival I stayed at the Kilimanjaro Hotel, one of those huge multi-story buildings , supposed to be providing luxury accommodation. Luxury was relative, in those days in Tanzania. The biggest draw of the hotel was its rooftop restaurant, with views over Dar es Salaam. And with a menu of at least 60 pages, of which almost every dish was unavailable: usually, the choice boiled down to chicken or fish – and then not even the fresh fish available in the market almost opposite the hotel, no, nile perch from Lake Victoria. In other hotels it was a bit better: Oyster Bay Hotel did serve fresh lobsters, occasionally – although I never had any oysters, there. But the best food could be had in some of the small Indian restaurants that were located in the more obscure neighbourhoods of town: good, and spicy, Indian fare.
the fish market
There were many fish markets in and around Dar es Salaam, but the best one, we thought, was right at the end of Ocean Road, at the entrance of the natural bay that is the city’s harbour; the harbour where fishing boats, dug out canoes and traditional dows vied for space with ocean going freight ships.
On a small stretch of beach the catch of the day was landed early, and put into ice-filled Styrofoam boxes, out of which it were subsequently sold to customers. Huge fishes, huge lobsters, prawns, absolutely fresh, absolutely fabulous – that made for an attractive hardship posting!
By the way, I saw that Ocean Road has now been renamed Barrick Obama Drive. But the fish market is still there!
Daily life was, for Tanzanians and for Westerners alike, challenging. Fresh products, vegetable, fish and meat, were mostly available from the various markets, although imports, like apples, were usually impossible to find. But for most of the time that I lived in Dar es Salaam there was no bakery, so you needed to make your own bread. However, shortages of flower, but also of sugar and other processed products, were common, which led to hoarding as soon as they were available again. Which then let to shortages again. Another issue were beer bottles, a key commodity: there was enough beer, all right, but you could buy only if you would return the empties. And all of this in an environment of inflation, of course. The largest Tanzanian bank note, of 200 shillings, was worth no more than a dollar, or so, which meant that for major purchases you needed a carton box to transport the local currency. Better, of course, to operate with US dollars, which commanded a serious premium on the black market – an advantage for expatriates, not for the local people.
Many of the foreigners – expatriates – lived on a peninsula north of the city, slightly outside town, called Oyster Bay. So commuting into town became, at least partly, a beautiful drive along the coast, where coral limestones alternated with idyllic beaches, the Dar es Salaam skyline in the distance, and picturesque dows in front.
Most of the buildings were new, residential, and often in the form of gated compounds, but one stood out: the Ocean Road Hospital, which was inaugurated in 1887 as the German Government Hospital, and served as Nobel-prize winning German physician Robert Koch’s research center for malaria and other tropical diseases. It is now Tanzania’s Cancer Institute.
Negotiating is an integral part of East African life. Every two or three days I would buy my fruit and vegetables, on the way home, on the market in Oyster Bay. I would walk all the way to the end of the market, to the stall I always bought. From far, my friend who owned the stall saw me coming, and started calling out. “Mr, Bluno, how are you? Look what I have today, beautiful tomatoes, all the way from Morogoro! 120 shillings a kilo, only 120 shillings!” He and I both knew that that was way above the real price, so I started my opening bid, at around 40-45 shillings. “Noooo, impossible, Mr Bluno, these tomatoes have come a long way, from Morogoro! Expensive. Well, specially for you, 110 shillings”. And so we went on for a while, in a loud voice, he claiming I would bankrupt him, me threatening to go to his competitors – who all keenly followed the conversation, of course. Until, at around 80 shillings, my friend would lower his voice, and whisper “what about 75 a kilo”? And we would agree, only to start haggling, loudly again, over the rest of the vegetables, always amicably agreeing on something acceptable to both of us. Three days later I would return. And my friend, seeing me approach from far, would open the negotiations with “Mr, Bluno, how are you? Look what I have today, beautiful tomatoes, all the way from Morogoro! Only 120 shillings a kilo!”
Now you may argue that all this negotiating was totally unnecessary, and in any case a complete waste of time given that the few shillings I saved that afternoon amounted to peanuts, really. But the savings, that was not the point. It had everything to do with respect, you don’t just buy something, you are expected to spend time buying it, and negotiating is the mechanism. Once a local artist, who made small clay figurines, came at my door, from previous experience knowing that I could be interested. And I was, but it was late, I had had a gruelling day in the office, perhaps half an hour bargaining in the market, too, so when he named his price, I straight away agreed, not wanting more haggling. He looked at me, astonished. And said: “Mr Bluno, but that is far too much, I cannot accept that. You must negotiate!”
the sports scene
For physical activity there was the Gymkana club, which had tennis courts and a nine-hole golf course, right in the centre of town – the golf course had ‘browns’, of heavy, oily sands, instead of unmaintainable greens. And there was the Yacht Club, where the main activity was actually lifting glasses after work, or in the weekend, although some people did have a small sailing boat. One of the most hotly debated characteristics of the Yacht Club was a remnant of British colonial times still not revoked: its quarterdeck, the main terrace, was out of bounds for children. Most expatriate members wanted this changed, but the mostly British Board was loath to give in to any modernizing pressure.
the ebony market
A little outside town is what used to be called the ivory market, but with the ban on ivory, had, already in 1987, been renamed ebony market. A sheer endless row of garage boxes, each turned into a shop and workplace for local artists, who were extraordinarily skilled in turning the black ebony tree trunks in elegant little – or larger – sculptures.
No photo blog on Tanzania is complete without people, of course. The most important element of women’s dress was the kanga, a colourful, printed cloth that was wrapped around the body, or waist. And status determining: I couldn’t see the difference, but Tanzanian women knew perfectly well which kangas were expensive, and which weren’t. These are pictures from a celebration in Dar es Salaam where we had been invited to by some of our local colleagues. Tanzanians, mostly, were fabulous people, friendly, hospitable, and often unusually direct and honest in expressing their opinions.
next: north of Dar es Salaam is Bagamoyo, and a few other attractions