Meet Dar es Salaam


Exploring the streets Dar es Salaam – a city known for its traffic jams, growing high rises and expat enclaves, it’s hard to believe it was once a sleepy fishing village. The city known as “The House of Peace”, with it’s more than four million residents (these statistics belie the true number, which is greater, some say), is the commercial hub of Tanzania. Accompanied by guides at Afriroots, I spent a few days connecting with the people who work, not in skyscrapers signing multi-million dollar deals, but around town, tending to the needs of locals – coffee sellers, second-hand clothes vendors, chapati-makers and herbalists. In my interaction with them, I finally got to see past the busyness of the roads crawling with SUVs and packed dala dalas, and the rooftop bars teeming with the young and the fabulous. I enjoyed a glimpse of the “real” Dar.

Coffee and peanuts

Kizito Lufunga, lithe and dreadlocked, is animated as he runs me through the complicated and colourful history of the city. Together we traverse the city to places that tourists hardly ever venture to, meeting regular folk as they go about their day.

On the outskirts of Mwananyamala, we walk past a busy bus terminal where rows of women in bright kangas, a local outfit consisting of a long skirt and shawl, draped like a sari, stand like pretty baubles against a drab background. We dodge bicycles that glide by in a cloud of dust and vendors with large baskets of bananas and ripe mangoes perched aloft their heads.

Away from the street, in a tranquil corner, Phineas Elieza serves kahawa, the local coffee. At the start of the day, his friends and family will gather here to sit on makeshift benches, under a tin-roof awning to sip from small porcelain cups. The coffee beans, a blend of locally grown Robusta and Arabica, are roasted and ground into a powder in an old-fashioned giant pestle-and-mortar or kinu na mti, a gift traditionally presented to a couple on their wedding day. Many gifts in Swahili culture, I learn, are symbolic and practical.

Coffee on the streets of Dar.

Coffee-time on the streets of Dar Es Salaam.

Like many of the city’s coffee sellers, I’m told Phineas hails from Dodoma, famous for its peanuts. And one can’t have a cup of coffee without a piece of kashata – the local peanut snack, similar to peanut brittle. Phineas makes his with a chewier texture (kinder to the teeth, Kitizo explains, and Phineas smiles) with the addition of flour. It’s not as easy as it looks, Kizito says as Phineas stirs the peanuts into a large pot of simmering caramel. He moves it off the stove quickly, stirring smoothly while it cools. The coffee is similar to Turkish coffee, a pleasant chocolate taste on the tongue, with murky grounds filling the bottom of the pot. Phineas isn’t based at this spot though. He walks a beat all morning, running what is essentially a mobile coffee trade. He slings a handmade, portable “stove” filled with charcoal and ash over his shoulder, freeing up the other hand to carry a container of kashata and the coffee cups. A day’s trade is done when all the kashata is sold, and both coffee and snack go for 100 TSH a pop. That’s roughly 60 South African cents each. I ask for a second cup of coffee and Phineas smiles. “Karibu,” he says. Welcome. A phrase you will hear said with kindness all across Tanzania.

Coffee drinkers

Local coffee drinkers pose for a photograph.

Breakfast with Ma Amina

In Mwananyamala, a poorer part of town, where 98% of the residents are Muslim, I’m informed, Ma Amina sells her freshly made morning chapati and masala chai from a container vessel. With low benches and a table at one end, she sits, her face perfectly made up, in front of a portable stove at the front. Her’s is a popular informal diner and she feeds the neighbours throughout the day. The Tanzanian chapati, Kitizo says, is different to the Indian version in that it’s fried in oil. Ma Amina’s chai is milky and sweet and, while we eat, Kizito exchanges pleasantries with her. It transpires, that after five minutes of consultation, she offers to fix me up with a regular, a neighbour who appears in front of her and smiles shyly as he sits close to the cooking fire. When the last of the chapatis are fried, she will start with preparation for lunch. Ma Amina has a small board outside – there’s small fish she’ll fry for lunch, very popular with locals. Departing, we ogle the walled-up mansion across from her container, contrasting sharply against the adjacent ramshackle houses with boarded-up windowpanes like missing teeth on young children, and sloping patched tin roofs, an oddity by any measure. Kizito tells me that Ma Amina once lived on the large property with overgrown grass next to the mansion. Her husband sold it, unbeknown to her, abandoning Ma Amina and their daughter without a word. She’d always sold food outside their house, so the new owners of her old house took pity on her and offered her the container from where she runs her little restaurant today. As we wave goodbye, Ma Amina tickles the disappointed neighbour sitting next to her and we all laugh. “Asante sana, Ma Amina,” I say, repeating the Swahili words people say to me all day. “Thank you very much.”

Herbs and ‘roaches

We find Bibi Zaitoni bent over a pot on the ground, a little gas stove hissing softly. There’s a pungent, aromatic smell that fills the area around her backyard in Tandale, a low-income township. We’ve walked in the midday heat, past the large baobab trees and litter-strewn rivers to reach her small house and garden patch filled with medicinal herbs.

She’s brewing a headache remedy, Kizito says and proceeds to tell me that a cockroach is one of the star ingredients. From this potion, a balm will be made and applied to the temples, after a slight incision is made with a blade. The headache sufferer should be cured of the malady within an hour, but it only works, like with all of the traditional remedies administered by herbalists like Bibi Zaitoni, if you believe that it will. I touch the bottle of Panado tables rattling around reassuringly in my shoulder bag.

Bibi Zaitoni

Midwife and crafter, Bibi Zaitoni.

Bibi Zaitoni has earned the respect of the community by assisting pregnant women in the area for most of her working life – as a midwife who works for no pay. To survive, she makes crafts to sell, along with her son who creates impressive paper mâché animals. Bibi Zaitoni sews little decorative pillows made of colourful fabric offcuts she finds thrown outside the tailors’ shops, with clever zips at the back, where you can store something precious or sentimental. This is especially useful Kizito explains, if you live in the six-roomed houses like we one we visited earlier, owned by Mama Jasmine, where each room houses one family. There’s little privacy, so a letter or a precious item can be safely stowed from prying eyes at the back of the pillow. We bid Bibi Zaitoni farewell and, with a little pillow tucked under my arm, we jump into a bajaj, the local tuk-tuk for an adventurous ride, swerving around enormous potholes and clutching onto each other, out of Tandale and to the colourful, noisy markets in Kariakoo.

Mama Jasmine

Kizito Lufunga with Mama Jasmine. All images by Ishay Govender-Ympa

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