Thursday 15 August 2013

o : Dar es Salaam

A Tea Room
Morogoro Road and Jamhuri Street
Dar es Salaam

Dear o,

One of the reasons Al and I wanted to go overland all the way from Europe to Tanzania (see the original route) was to experience the slow change of culture, language and geography.  Though going by our own wheels, or in trains, buses and bush-taxis, is still too fast and boxed-in, the journey up to now did not disappoint.  The shifts in geography were typically gradual: the rolling light greens and humid browns of Meditteranean Spain and Morocco died out to form the immense, hazy, hostile Sahara, which slowly became the parched, red-tinted but vibrant Sahelian belt of southern Mauritania and Senegal; through the rainforest coasts of Guinea-Bissau and the rainforest plateaus of Guinea, and then onto the mudbrick house-dotted plains of Burkina Faso and Benin; all these transitions took days.

Changes in the way people live and work were usually more sudden.  The cultural crossing from Spain to Morocco actually occurred in Algeciras, the Spanish port from which we embarked for Africa.  The central market was more like a souq: hectic, loud and colourful, with skins a little darker, signs in Arabic, and transactions interrupted by midday prayers.  Just across the Strait of Gibraltar, the landscape was almost identical to Iberia, but everything else was altered: the architecture got hardier, squarer, more temporary, the urban soundscape became louder and more songlike, goods were transported on carts pulled by donkeys, mint tea and round bread were omnipresent, and yes, women were treated differently.  In Tangier, there were row upon row of chairs outside huge, atmospheric tea houses, and every single person reading the paper and sipping sugar was a man.  When Al sat down, everyone looked, some frowned, but still the tea was served. 

Though French is the lingua franca of West Africa and remained a constant anchor, the shifts in other languages were just as distinct and sudden as society.  The vast majority of Mauritania occupies the western Sahara desert, but its southern border is demarcated by the Senegal River, which is wide, powerful and life-giving.  The people of the Mauritanian right bank are the same as the people of the Senegal left bank: the Wolofs, distinct in appearance, history and language from the Arab-Berbers of Nouadhibou and the interior.  They speak French and Arabic only as asides to a deeper, faster, more gutsy – and indigenously African – tongue.

There were other fast transitions: the sudden and isolated Portuguese of Guinea-Bissau; the bizarre, shameless propoganda of the equally bizarre, shameless dictatorship in the Gambia (the man cures AIDS on TV, did you know?); and the devil exorcism day in north Benin.  But how do any of these compare to crossing the Earth’s second-largest continent?  How could such changes hold a candle to jumping on a plane from the heart of the former European slave trade in lush West Africa, to get off in the safari-famous East African nation where Dr. Livingstone was lost and presumably found again?

To be honest, I don’t know.  We haven’t yet left Dar es Salaam (literally, “House of Peace”), and maybe it’s just the big city, but there are lot of small differences.  The people are for the most part friendlier, more welcoming, and more easy-going than we’re used to; could it be the refreshing prevalence of English, or the obvious preponderance of tourism? As to the latter, I’ve seen more westerners in 24 hours in Tanzania than in a month in West Africa – and more 20-something backpackers in that same period here than in the entire time since we crossed the Sahara.  I recognise that’s in part because of the difference in seasons (it’s wet north of the equator where we were, and dry to the south where we are now), but the sprawling, spoiled-for-choice tourist infrastructure here suggests a higher premium placed on visitors from abroad.  There are daytime walking and cycling tours from several companies on offer, hotels of every range and ATMs of every colour (Visa and Mastercard both accepted), and billboards advertising the adventure-travel option everywhere.

Tourism aside, the day-to-day life of the city is also a half-world apart.  There are mosques with singing muezzins, heaps of Indian restaurants, and not so many national flags flying at major intersections.  Perhaps because of the strong Arab influence, the walking-about-town culture is significantly more conservative: women don’t show their shoulders, kids are out of sight (and the ones seen are often in British-style school uniform), and the colours people wear are muted.  Contrast this with the West: bare skin all around, almost celebrated in the sun, kids playing and dancing at every glance in the same shirt as yesterday, and that gorgeous, party-like plethora of colour on every shirt and scarf and hat.

Tanzania’s linguistic culture too is distinctive.  Swahili isn’t just the common language, like Wolof in Senegal or Fon in Benin; it’s the language of every day, in government as well as business, shoptalk as well as on the street.  The Immigration Office we visited only had some of its signs in English; the rest in Swahili, and most of the applicants we saw inside were using Swahili forms.  The local African television station showing in a hotel restaurant was exclusively in Swahili, sung and spoken, and most of the papers on the newsagents’ racks are in Swahili, with a couple English ones in the corner.  Again, contrast this with anywhere we’ve been in West Africa, where even if the common man or women only knows a few words of French, almost all big business, big media and big government are conducted in that imported European tongue.

What about the similarities?  It’s harder to point out what carries over when you haven’t left, and beneath the superficial changes listed above, there is surely a bedrock of unity I haven’t yet dug deep enough to find.  But there is one thing I found here that reminds me of West Africa, and it’s something that’s been bothering me for a while.  Go ahead and mark it as the worst generalisation I’ve made so far, but I’ll say it anyway: African countries don’t like each other.  African countries don’t trade with each other.  And Africans in Tanzania don’t visit Africans in Sierra Leone.

How can I possibly assume this?  Well, the subject of pan-African insularity is one worthy of its own letter, and the evidence is out there.  While sub-Saharan Africa’s economy is growing fast and furious, and putting most if not every other region of the world to shame, the rise in intra-African trade is nominal and pathetic.  Bureaucracy at borders stifles anyone who wants to start a cross-national business, while rampant corruption sublimates most transfer of goods over national boundaries to the black market.  As a British-French agricultural consultant explained to me in Cotonou, Benin, governements have signed countless trade agreements and created a number of customs-free zones, but to little or no effect.  The enviable and hopeful economic growth across Africa consists mostly of internal success and trade between African countries and the rest of the world (notably the US, EU and China) – and that kind of intercontinental trade roughly translates to the big global players paying bottom-floor prices for Africa’s treasure of natural and labour resources.  And let’s not forget, most of this continent’s boundaries were drawn last century on a different continent by arbitrary assholes in suits, and that these lines to this day divide histories, languages, cultures, ‘nations’, even families.

I won’t go on about that now, but suffice it to say I’ve seen evidence of this problem across Africa, and now here too.  It seems I cannot find a single money exchanger in the whole of 3-million strong Dar es Salaam who will buy West African francs for Tanzanian shillings.  Not only that, but 9 out of every 10 merchants don’t even know what a West African franc is!  When I showed a CFA 10,000 note (worth about €15), both clerks and their managers held it, turned it, put it up to the light, and asked, “which country is this from?” to which I responded, “it’s from 14 different countries in Africa.”  I could have gone on to say that, combined with the Central African franc (or Central CFA, identical to the Western CFA in all but name, and just as alien in Tanzania), it is Africa’s single most-important, widespread currency, that it is permanently pegged to the euro for a guaranteed rate, and that it services over 150 million people (about 15% of Africa's population).  At one bureau de change (funny how they’re still called that here), I asked, “So, does no one from Tanzania ever go to West or Central Africa?”  No, was the flat answer.  Is there any trade with West or Central Africa?  No.

So, is this just the rambling complaint of a traveler stuck with a useless currency? I think not.

West Africa is not that far away, and Central Africa is even closer.  The big barrier is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, part of French-speaking (or, to recall its tragic history, Belgian) Africa, which uses its own currency.  Maybe it should be obvious to any follower of current events why there is so little or no trade through the eastern corridors of the DR Congo, and thus between East and West.  Perhaps the insularity that is so apparent in western nations is not such a problem here?  Maybe Tanzania and Kenya get along just great, and send all kinds of goods and services back and forth.  Maybe Mozambique sends manufactured products to Malawi in exchange for foodstuffs, and maybe Ethiopian truck drivers figure Uganda is a better route to Burundi with their shipments of…

No, I’ll stop while I’m ahead.  I know it’s not true.  Someone in the Ivory Coast asked us where Tanzania was.  I don’t think it’ll be long before someone here asks the same in reverse.

In the meantime, the breakfasts are much improved: I guess I’ll thank the British for that one, and on the other side of the great divide, blame the French for bread and butter.



10,000 West African francs
together with 10,000 Tanzanian shillings:
a sight never seen?