The Real Dar >> a letter of hope and a plea for acceptance

Dear Dar es Salaam,

I’ve been living here for 2 months now, and part of me feels like my life has been a make-believe world. I’m not going to lie, I’m struggling a bit coming to terms with this sudden lifestyle-of-the-rich-and-famous living of which has been served up on a silver platter. This lifestyle that includes hired help, roof deck soirées, barbed wire fences, and a yacht club membership. While it’s not completely unnatural to me (a point that scares me a bit), and of course it’s quite nice to have someone work our garden so we don’t always have to, it’s not real, not in the scope of where I’m living. But you know that.

Bagamoyo Beach

Side of the Road

So when friends from home ask, “how are you doing?”, it’s with a genuine smile but much hesitation when I say, “I like it here”. Sure I’m settling in, but I have a feeling that I might never really experience the real YOU, nowhere near as real as I experienced during my time in China. And that saddens me, that I can live in a place and call it my home, yet never really know its substance and its inner-workings.

I’m learning, though, and seeing, and observing. It’s taking awhile to see, but I’m seeing little things. For example, the fist that you hold in the air. A fist wound tight and held palm forward, in place of a wave sometimes, or simply as a gesture of recognition. To allow me to pass in traffic. I can’t yet hold my fist up in the same way, with the same amount of effortless finesse, but I’m sure after two years I’ll be throwing my knuckles up with the best of ’em.

It’s an American fascination, perhaps, to immediately expect to understand and acclimate to a culture, to blend in, and to be recognized as “one of them”. One of you, actually. While I’m starting to come to terms that this won’t be fully possible in my two short years in Dar es Salaam, I hope to at least gain a more than just a glimpse into this city and this country, much more than a kind, yet distanced, fist in the air will tell me.



This weekend, on my first trip out of your city, I drove along 75 kilometers of the real Dar es Salaam. The Africa that scholars, novelists, economists, and peace corps volunteers describe so much better than I am able to. It’s the real Africa, the Africa that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Blood Diamond so often mutters, so succinctly, with the three letter acronym: T.I.A.; This, Is, Africa. I kept saying it to myself in the car as I drove down the long stretch of highway. This Is Africa. This Is Africa that keeps passing me at 100 km per hour while I’m driving at no more than 80. Pole pole!, or, slow down!, please!!!


All traffic critiques aside, This Is Africa, that lives in poverty, surrounded by community, plagued with disease, swathed in fabrics, rich with history. It’s an Africa that has separated us from them, me from you – out of obvious wealth differential, cultural disparity, and a more subtle yet deeply subversive historical context. Damn you, colonial expansion!

Anyhow, I drove past a vast valley of shacks and shanties along that long stretch of Bagamoyo Road, where many of your residents call home. The topography was not unlike my home state of California – a stretch of highway road, dropping down to a barren valley of homes speckled with dry greenery, dusty footpaths, and a view further out extending and dropping into a blue and expansive ocean.

dar highway views

And while I arrived home Sunday afternoon thankful to be connected to wifi once more, thankful to have access to my filtered water and icebox and collection of too much stuff, I thought of the scenic likeless between my home state and that strip of highway that I witnessed. And wondered what other likenesses there are between myself and my new home. Hopefully, really, it is with GREAT hope that I have, I’ll be able to recount other likenesses, more personal likenesses. It’ll be a challenge – between the crime and the how-many-different-levels of how I simply don’t fit in here. But hopefully, I’ll see the real Dar in these next two years.

Respectfully yours, with a fist in the air,


11 thoughts on “The Real Dar >> a letter of hope and a plea for acceptance

  1. Hello! I am catching up on your blog.

    I love this: “This is Africa, that lives in poverty, surrounded by community, plagued with disease, swathed in fabrics, rich with history.” The juxtapositions in developing countries are so stark: a neighborhood of aluminum-roofed shacks next to a mall. Housekeepers commuting by bus and on foot into gated (and here, guarded) communities of mansions with luxury foreign cars in their garages.

    I felt like it took me a long time to see the “real” El Salvador. And days can go by where you don’t really see it, going from nice USG-provided housing to work to the embassy to stores and restaurants in the “safe” (i.e. wealthy) neighborhoods. It definitely takes effort to get out and explore beyond the bubble. But it looks like you are doing a good job!

  2. Reading your post, I was right there with you. I’ve lived in Africa (Kenya, Ghana) and other poor countries and I know what you mean. It’s easy to stay in the comfortable bubble of expat life, but stepping out when possible and seeing and trying to understand the real country is showing respect and is ultimately more rewarding.

  3. Hi Jessie —

    I lived in Dar es Salaam for 6 weeks in 1992 and then again for much of 1995 and 1996. Your writings and photos take me back…

    It’s amazing to see the photos and see how much Dar es Salaam today looks like it was when I was there. The economic disparity (between the majority of expats and locals) was there too — but I do feel that connections can be made across that huge gap.

    Re the photos: did you take them from a car? When I lived in Tanzania, people were really anti-photo taking of them if you weren’t friends of theirs. I remember people saying things like “I’m not an animal” — because they equate strangers taking photos of them to tourists taking photos of animals on safari.

    BTW, I’m originally from Malaysia. And I think you’ll appreciate that in Dar es Salaam, people use to call me “mtoto China” — even though I was an adult already when I lived there. 🙂

    • Hi! I would love to hear more about your experience. From what I’ve heard, though a lot of the city looks the same, people have said there’s been huge changes in the last couple of years alone. Last weekend I heard they’re building a port in Bagamoyo, with the intent to unload some of the congestion at the Dar ports. We’ll see!

      You know, the hardest thing here has been taking photos – a lot of the photos were taken from the car, or hopping out of the car for a sec, or by discreetly wielding my camera on my hip. I am used to the constant clicking of nice cameras in asia, where people don’t seem to mind as much. They might glare, but they don’t do a thing. I definitely hear what you’re saying about people being anti-photo. I was shocked the first couple of times, too, when the subjects I was shooting on the street demanded a payment, or for me to buy something from them. I mean, I get it, I’m totally the voyeur….but still….

      Thanks for dropping a comment. Keep on stopping by!!! I see you’re in HK now. Amazing!

      • Hi again Jessie —

        Am not sure where to begin to talk about my experiences in Dar. I have blogged a bit (but just a bit, mind) about my time in Tanzania.

        I get the feeling that things have changed in Tanzania since I was last there — but maybe not as much as in other parts of the world since that time?

        But to give you an idea of what Dar was like in 1992 and 1995-1996: we’re talking about a place without ATMs and US fast food outlets (like McDonald’s) but a few people with mobile phones along with regular electricity rationing and lots of potholes as well as dala dalas on the streets and roads. Oh, and the Tanzanian shilling was around 650 shillings to US$1 when I left (in July 1996).

        So… has much changed since then… or not? 🙂

        • Haha, as you know, I lived in Guangzhou for two years, and thus my views of how much a country changes is very skewed. Skyscrapers can be built in a couple months, right…? 😉
          Though the skyline in Dar hasn’t exactly gone through the type of change that the Shanghai Bund skyline has gone through, I think that in the past few years alone dramatic changes have taken place. There are plenty of ATMs available, and most people have mobile phones now. Have you heard of mpesa? It’s actually a method to pay via phone, and a lot of urban and rural Africans are using this to pay for their utilities and what not. It’s more reliable, and corruption-free, than going through actual people! And get this- the first KFC opened right before I arrived (still no McDonalds). I’m so curious about this KFC – it’s in Mikocheni, on Old Bagamoyo Road. It’s definitely the new cool place to be for the local Tanzanians… I might try to visit and blog about it!. Definitely plenty of dala dalas making their way around the city still, that hasn’t changed much – it’s still one of the only forms of “public transit”. Potholes, too, though more roads are starting to get paved, I’ve heard that after every rainy season they’re still plagued with potholes.
          And, regarding the conversion rate, I’m not quite sure what to think! These days $1USD is 1621 TSH.

          • Hi again Jessie —

            Thanks for the updates.

            Yes, I’ve heard of mpesa — it’s originally Kenyan, right?

            Re the conversion rate: oh my re how things are now… but it figures. The first time I was in Tanzania, in the summer of 1992, it was US$1=380 TSH at the beginning of my trip but had become US$1=420 after six weeks.

            Another question: is there still regular electricity rationing in the dry months — because, as I remember it, much of Tanzania’s electricity is via hydroelectricity? Also, is there much talk these days (still) of Zanzibar wanting to break away or not?

  4. Thanks for the honest reflection, Jessie. My wife and I recently moved from the United States to Tanzania and are going through a similar adjustment process. We are currently studying Kiswahili in the Mara region and will be living in Mwanza. Like you, we keep a blog of our experiences with weekly updates.

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