The ABC’s of Life in Dar es Salaam

Azam Ball Cones

Azam is an enormous manufacturer of food products (and probably other things) in Tanzania. Juice, flour, milk(ish), you name it, and Azam probably produces it. However, the crowning achievement of Azam’s manufacturing genius is the ball cone. The Azam ball cone is simply a scoop of vanilla ice cream atop a cone and covered with chocolate, but they are delicious and addicting. The best (or worst) part is that they are marketed using ice cream bicycles that ride up and down the streets during the worst traffic, offering cold ice cream to the people sitting in their hot vehicles in the traffic. Its genius on every level!

Azam
Instagram photo by @wraggz

Boda Boda

The boda boda is essentially a motorcycle taxi piloted by a kamikazi style driver. The boda boda drivers are known for their death-defying (and death-inducing) driving, but when you are in a hurry, a boda boda can get you there.

Boda Boda

Chipati

Chipatis are similar to tortillas, but are thicker, heavier, and often contain copious amounts of oil. They are a staple food, most often eaten with chai (tea) in the morning for breakfast. In many parts of town, women sit on the side of the street or at bus stands and make chipatis to sell to passers-by for just a few hundred shillings a piece.

Chipati

Dala Dala

The dala dala, or public bus, was my primary mode of transportation for the last nine months. The bus can’t get you everywhere, but it can get you a lot of places, and cheap! For 400 Tsh, or $0.25, I was able to ride the bus to school every day. For $0.50, I could take the bus into town, or to the peninsula. If you don’t mind a bit of body odor or being smashed like a sardine, then the dala dala is a great way to get around. However, getting home late at night can be difficult, as the busses don’t follow the same routes, or as frequently past about 7 p.m. And, I must say, one of my favorite parts of riding the dala dala is watching the personalities of the condas as they call passengers, announce stops, and collect fares.

Dala Dala

Electric Fences

Many homes in Dar es Salaam are isolated inside walled compounds, often topped with electric fences, barbed wire, or cut glass embedded into the concrete of the wall. Windows are all barred, doors have a second metal gate, and there are multiple padlocks on everything. Despite these security measures, the number of home invasions in Dar is ridiculously high. It is weird for me now to think that in the U.S., I didn’t even carry a house key because the house was never entirely locked down–there was always at least one door or window unlocked. Here, if I lose my house keys, I’m deep-sixed. I would first have to climb over the electric fence, then find some way of breaking down the steel bars on every door/window, and then manage to break through a window to get in my house. Crazy.

Electric Fence

Fundis and Floods

Fundis, or workmen, are the bane of nearly everyone’s existence here in Dar. But they are also our lifesavers. If a pipe breaks, you call the water fundi. If the electricity has a problem (and its not Tenesco’s fault), you call the electricity fundi. If your car breaks down or you have a puncture (flat tire), you go to the car fundi. The problem is, such fundis are often unreliable, don’t come when they say they will come (if they come at all), don’t actually fix the problem, and sometimes create more problems than what they started with. On the other hand, without fundis, nothing would be accomplished. Better late than never, right?!

And, also beginning with “F,” the one thing that perpetually needs fixed in Dar is the flooding. Every. Single. Year. Dar floods. With the heavy rains of the tropical rainy seasons, come floods and all the death and destruction that follow in their wake. Progress is being made, but it is terribly slow–and the rains continue to come and the floodwaters rise repeatedly.

Floods

Guard/Gardeners and Genges

In addition to the aforementioned home security measures of bars, gates, and electric fences, most people I know employ either a guard or gardener or security service to help maintain their home and increase security. Most businesses also employ guards to stand out front and/or watch the vehicles parked outside. It is still a bit creepy to hear someone walking around outside my bedroom window at night, but its also comforting to know that if someone tried to break in, someone would at least alert me of the event. My night guard also stays on Saturday mornings to take care of the garden (yard) by trimming the bushes, watering the grass, and burning the biodegradable trash/lawn clippings.

Genges are another beautiful part of living in Dar. On nearly every corner is a makeshift stand filled with fruits and vegetables for sale. They are a colorful and convenient part of the landscape–and something I miss terribly when I go back to the U.S. and find myself lost without somewhere to buy fresh bananas, mangoes, and avocados on my way home from work.

Genge

Hamna Umeme

This phrase, meaning “no electricity” is increasingly common in Dar. Due to the not-so-recent closings of the hydroelectric plants in Tanzania, gas-powered electric that isn’t fully functional, and whatever other reason is presently relevant (blame what you want), the power cuts here have been more and more frequent. It is not at all unusual for people to be found congregating at coffee shops or friends’ homes to charge their phones/laptops from their generator-powered electricity.

092db1d83d51ac0eabe428d1db0e7a86
When free wifi and electricy gets a bit too serious. 🙂 Photo by Stephanie Van Hoppe

Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean is the gem of Dar in my opinion. I love Dar–the people, the architecture, the culture–but the Indian Ocean just can’t be beat. It is always there, sparkling turquoise-blue, inviting me to come and play!

Indian Ocean 2

Jambo?

This phrase, often thought to be a “proper Swahili greeting,” is really only ever heard when a Tanzanian thinks you are a tourist–or if you are a tourist attempting to speak Swahili. In either case, the Tanzanian in the conversation will typically be excited that you are making any attempt at all to speak Swahili. If you want to improve your Swahili, try the more correct phrase, “Hu Jambo?” which means, roughly, “Do you have problems?” The accepted response is simply, “Si Jambo,” or, “No problems.”

Jambo

Kiswahili and Kahawa

In Swahili, if your are talking about a language, the prefix “ki” comes before the name for that language. Therefore, in Swahili, the language is actually called “Kiswahili.” Swahili is the national language of Tanzania, and is also a relatively easy language to learn–at least the basics! Once you get beyond basic vocabulary used for greetings and “getting around,” the seven noun classes can get a bit confusing, but most Tanzanians are extremely gracious and willing to correct you amidst a bit of laughter when you get mixed up!

Kahawa, the Swahili word for coffee, is an interesting dichotomy in Dar (and the rest of Tanzania). Aside from the few cafes (and the coffee you can get on the street, which is really black and really strong and really good), if you order coffee at a restaurant, it is usually instant coffee, called Africafe, that is, in my opinion, awful. The dichotomy is that Tanzania grows, produces, and exports delicious coffee, but here locally, most people drink nasty instant coffee.

Kahawa

Lines and Lions

Lines. What lines? In Tanzania, lines are not really a thing. It is much more common to circumvent the line, push through the line, or just move forward in a giant mob towards the intended goal. There are exceptions to this cultural phenomenon though, such as during the recent elections, where photos of voting booths all over the country showed Tanzanians standing in perfectly neat and straight lines for hours while waiting to cast their vote.

And, hey, did you know there were lions in Tanzania?

Lion

Mishkaki

This is one of my favorite Tanzanian delicacies–meat on a stick! Mishkaki comes in many varieties–beef, chicken, fish, goat, and sometimes even pork. Oftentimes, the meat is well-marinated, and the best mishkaki is tender and delicious! Mishkaki is best paired with chipsi (french fries) and some pili pili sauce (hot sauce).

Mishkaki is also the term for when three (or more) people are piled onto a single motorcycle/boda boda!

Mishkaki

Nam and Naomba

“Nam” is Swahili for “what,” (actually, I don’t know if that’s what it really means, but this is how it is used) this word is heard often during phone conversations, as participants regularly ask each other for clarification. “I nearly was hit by a bajaji today with my motorcycle.” “Nam?” “I said, I nearly was hit by a bajaji today with my motorcycle!” Or something like that!

“Naomba” is actually far more common, as it is Swahili for “please.” “Naomba saidia mimi,” or “Please help me” works, or just “Naomba maziwa” to ask for milk at the local duka. The Tanzanian culture is very polite, and so “Naomba” can even be used to preface what would be considered a very rude request for someone to leave.

Naomba.jpg

Ongea? Ogelea? Angalia?

These Swahili words constantly confuse me. I never know whether the word I need is ongea (to speak), ogelea (to swim), or angalia (to see). Multiple times, on the way to the beach with my dog, I have told people that I am walking to the beach to understand, which always brings hearty laughter, as they realize that, once again, I have mixed up these words.

Ogelea.jpg

People

The Tanzanian people are a large part of what make Tanzania beautiful. Tanzanians are beautiful, friendly, welcoming, and kind. They work hard and desire to see their country improve. They laugh hard. They understand what it is to live in community. In three years of living here, I met my first truly “grumpy” Tanzanian this past weekend–a wizened old man who was upset at our bajaji driver, upset at foreigners for coming to Tanzania, and upset at young people. Because he was such an anomaly, it was a hilarious experience.

People 2

Quizzical looks

As a “mzungu” (white person / foreigner) in a land of Tanzanians, I get a lot of quizzical looks. I also give a lot of quizzical looks. Many Tanzanians don’t understand why I own a dog as a pet that I take for walks, play with on the beach, and allow in my house. I don’t understand why many Tanzanians find it perfectly okay to throw their trash on the ground. Such cultural differences make room for LOTS of quizzical looks. Besides, staring at someone else doesn’t seem to be unusual (or rude) here…

Quizzical Looks.jpg

Right now? Sasa hivi? 

“Sasa hivi” means “right now,” and it is something that is often quite stretched. If I call my bajaji driver and ask him where he is, he might tell me that he is on the way “right now,” when in reality, he is still dropping off another passenger in another part of town. Like other parts of life here, “sasa hivi” is flexible, variable, and very rarely actually means “right now.”

People

Speed Bumps and Samaki

Speed bumps (or “humps,” depending on where you are from) are every where here. They are also typically unmarked and extremely large. It is not unusual to see dirt paths around the speed humps where motorcycles have circumvented, or see small traffic jams leading up to the speed bump as drivers attempt to maneuver their vehicles over the bumps in the least damaging way possible.

One of the benefits of living right on the Indian Ocean is fresh seafood, or samaki (fish). Going to the fish market to get fresh fish straight from the ocean is always an adventure–but grilling it for dinner with friends is always a special treat!

Samaki

Tinga Tinga

Tinga Tinga is a form of painting that originated in Dar es Salaam. It features bright, cheery colors and cartoon-like animals. Originally, the colors were made using bicycle paint, thus the tendency towards basic and vivid color schemes. The Tinga Tinga paintings are popular tourist souvenirs and fun and cheery additions to a room.

Tinga Tinga.JPG
Image from http://www.africanart.com/images/producs/detail/3990_Adamu.jpg

Underwater Life

Tanzania’s coastal waters are home to a plethora of underwater life, not least of all, the enormous whale sharks that have made Mafia Island their home. The warm Indian Ocean that laps against Tanzania’s shores also hosts a wide variety of coral, fish, and other marine life, making scuba diving and snorkeling an exciting and productive recreation.

Underwater Life

Viatu

Shoes. Here is another area where my culture and Tanzanian culture differ. Tanzanians wear shoes everywhere, even at the beach. I, however, prefer to go barefoot…almost everywhere. It is not uncommon for me to be walking along the side of the road, carrying my shoes, and some passerby to ask why I am not wearing my shoes. At the same time, I do love wearing the Masai beaded sandals–they are typically comfortable once broken in, and always unique!

Viatu 2.jpg
Image from https://weekendescapade.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/03092011300.jpg

Water Sports

Water sports are not actually very popular among Tanzanians, as many Tanzanians, even a number of the fishermen, don’t know how to swim. However, among the expat population, Dar es Salaam water sports are an ever-growing market. Scuba diving, fishing, sailing, surfing, kitesurfing, boating, stand-up-paddleboarding, open water swimming, and kayaking are all options for those who aspire to spend some time enjoying the beautiful waters of the Indian Ocean.

Water Sports

Xtreme Driving

There is no other way to describe the driving habits of Tanzanians. In Tanzania, especially Dar es Salaam, or the highways traversing the country, the only rule that matters is that the biggest vehicle always wins. If there is space, you take it, and if there is not space, you make space. In this manner, a relatively simple traffic jam often becomes a huge “fuleni” (traffic jam) as vehicles are forced in from every direction, without progress being made in any direction. Add motorcycles piloted by kamikaze boda boda drivers, bicycles, oblivious pedestrians, and the unstable three-wheeled bajajis to the confusion, and it is a test of anyone’s ability to drive and survive.

Traffic

Yanga & Simba

Simba and Yanga are Tanzania’s two largest football clubs, and always provoke a fierce sense of loyalty and rivalry when they play each other. Every local bar and restaurant will show the match, or play the radio coverage, and people everywhere sport the red and yellow opposing colors. When the team bus passes through, or one of the teams win, parades instantaneously develop in the streets as people celebrate their favorite team with cheering, waving of scarves and flags, and music.

Simba Yanga.jpeg
Image from www.tanzaniatoday.co.tz.

Zebra Crossings

This isn’t a uniquely Tanzanian feature, but only in Tanzania (and a few other African countries) do zebra crossings (or, as I have always known them, “cross walks”) sometimes serve the double purpose of both pedestrian and actual zebra crossings. In fact, on one of the cross-country highways, there are signs listing the fines for hitting zebras (and other animals) that happen to be crossing the road.

Zebra

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Cheryl says:

    Just read through your “ABCs”. Thanks so much for sharing glimpses into your life there in Tanzania. Love the adventures!

  2. One spelling correction, ANGELIA could be ANGE -LIA (one word) but that means “He/she would CRY ” LIA = CRY.
    What youmeant was ANGALIA = look/see/watch.

    Many SWAHILI or KISWAHILI words have an Arabic or Persian root, like SAMAKI is SAMAK in Arabic. The WASWAHILIs “add” an “i” at the end of most words.

    Very nice article.

    Mohamedtaki Esmail, Daressalaam.

  3. Abdul Quayum Khan says:

    Very interesting comments and observations.
    Naam can loosely be translated as yes, it is a word meaning that you are in agreement.

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