My first, and thus far only, experience on the continent of Africa is as a graduate student doing research with a think tank in Dar es Salaam. I was admittedly nervous about what I might witness in Tanzania, but generally held no clear expectations for what I would encounter. There was this common tendency for those who had previously travelled to the continent to ask whether I had been to Africa before – I noted that it didn’t seem to matter which country, the question is posed as a binary option in which all answers of “yes” versus “no” hold the same amount of respective weight. This is odd, because if the desire is to gauge the lowest living standards that an individual has experienced then certainly a visit to Botswana or South Africa is not equivalent to Somalia or Sierra Leone. Alarming rates of absolute poverty do not exist solely on the African continent either, nor is income inequality properly captured in indices that categorize countries such as China or India as “middle income” despite continual struggles with absolute poverty.
Julius Nyerere Airport in Dar es Salaam, named after the country’s first president, is a small fraction in size of international airports I have previously encountered. Stepping through the arrival gate one finds that visa processing occurs at a desk only a few steps to your right, baggage claim consists of only a few conveyor belts just beyond that and the exit to the parking lot is easily within sight. I deemed this to be comforting; the building is extremely manageable for a first time arrival. It was a hot day in Dar es Salaam, however, and I found myself immediately regretting the choice to wear jeans and boots – combine my attire with an absence of air conditioning in 30 degree weather and the wait for visa processing is admittedly less comfortable than the solace in a modest airport size.
The trip from the airport to where I stay in town takes an hour by car with no traffic. Luckily enough, and previously unbeknownst to me, I arrived on a public holiday. This made traffic quite light by Dar es Salaam standards. As Tanzanians enjoyed Union Day, a marking of when Tanganyika and Zanzibar joined as a republic, I attempted to juggle small talk with taking in the new sites. My eyes were met with scenery primarily composed of palm trees, sand, small houses and stands of vendors selling groceries. This flitted quickly to seemingly random bouts of modern, tall skyscrapers. I say “seemingly random” because these tall buildings were few and scattered amongst the previous scenes; and the contrasting views simply failed to complement one another.
Before I knew it, we were in a district of town called “Namanga” and turning into the neighborhood I currently reside. I was surprised to find unpaved, dirt roads and deep potholes filled with rainwater – not because I hadn’t spotted unpaved roads along the drive, but because I knew from photos that the house I would be staying in is quite nice. As we navigated the small streets to my destination, the car frequently took precarious dips down and up again. Had the road been paved, the distance we travelled probably would have taken a quarter of the time that it did. When we finally reached the gate, Rodrick (the kind Tanzanian man who picked me up from the airport) assisted with carrying my bags to the front door before wishing me well and disappearing. I looked around the empty courtyard and up at the large house. I knocked.
I was greeted by a housekeeper who introduced herself as Jackie. Jackie is Tanzanian, and I quickly learned that she is fluent in only Kiswahili. I was not surprised by this, I had already been told not to expect locals to speak English despite it being one of the country’s official languages. The next person I met was another housekeeper, Rehema. I am not confident in my ability to assess how old either woman is, but they both appear to be around the same age as myself. The stark differences in our life trajectories that exist regardless of merit, and can only be fairly attributed to disparities fueled by privilege, does not escape me. Jackie showed me to my room and I weaved through schoolchildren to deposit my bags inside and shut the door behind me. I felt as if the sitting room had at least five or six small humans playing within it when I passed through, but I learned the following morning that there were only three.
I spent my first evening organizing my new personal living space and attempting to acclimate to the heat. I did not step outside of my room again until the next day, despite arriving no later than 5:00 PM. Once I did, I discovered that I shared the house with quite a few tenants, almost half of whom are also doing research.
There is a Finnish woman pursuing a PhD in Social Policy who stays in the room next door. A Norwegian and German both live in the small guest house and are doing PhDs in Anthropology. There is a couple staying there as well. The man is Ugandan, but seems to have grown up primarily in the West and currently works in Holland. The woman is Tanzanian and studied law. Upstairs, there is a hairdresser from Lebanon who will not hesitate to remind you he is actually a citizen of the world. The woman I’m renting the house from, Alessandra, also stays upstairs with her two children; she is Italian and I’ve gathered from context clues that her children are half-Kenyan. She works in media and seems to do everything from photography to production.
Alessandra’s daughter is nine and her son is five; Moeni and Noah, respectively. I quickly learned their ages because the first interaction I shared with the children was initiated by Moeni politely demanding that I guess how old they are. The other day, Moeni showed me a large birdhouse she was constructing from a cardboard box. She told me that “just like us!” multiple bird families could reside inside. Then she pointed to a smaller birdhouse that already hung on the porch and compared it to the small guesthouse where the others stayed. The title to this post has a dual meaning: Dar es Salaam literally translates to “House of Peace” in Arabic, but such a label just as well represents the comfort I have found in the tiny community here.