Bagamoyo >> past, present, future


The importance of Dar es Salaam in East Africa today – with its ports and its new economical growth and the very recent political attention in the eyes of a world powerhouse – this seat was once held by the little sleepy town of Bagamoyo. There’s not much left of this once-imperial Bagamoyo, other than a few massive stone pillars that jut out onto the beach where in my imagination, were pillars that supported a large, bustling, and prosperous port (in a Travel Channel documentary, this would be the cue to cut to the historical re-staging of a large, bustling, African port. Morgan Freeman narrated, of course).


What was once the capital and the seat of government and economic prosperity for East Africa when Germany had rule over the region, the capital was moved away in 1891 to Dar es Salaam. (And then consequently in the 70’s, to Dodoma – although people often forget this little fact about Tanzania, that Dar is not the capital). But enough with history. It is with this little tidbit of information, as well as an email chock full of recommendations, that the DiploMan and I decided to make a trip to Bagamoyo. Just 75km outside of Dar es Salaam, it was a manageable distance from this new home of ours.




We decided to spend two nights, which translated into a short 36 hours, in Bagamoyo. Our main purpose was not to check out the food or the ruins or these things that are typical to DiploMan-Peeps travel, but rather it was an excursion with the sole purpose to get out. Well, that, and we also heard the still-unknown dive and snorkeling scene was pretty amazing. Rather than plan a weekend full to the brim of exploring and sightseeing, we figured we’d spend a day getting our feet wet (literally) outside of Dar, and if it went well, we’d schedule another trip to check out the nearby ruins and check out the town itself.

And thus, it is because we had no plans, that we found ourselves with nothing to do but take a stroll down the strip of beach that Friday of our arrival. Here on this strip, we approached a 4pm frenzy of pre-dusk excitement, where fishermen and boatsmen were reeling in the catch and other goods of the day.




From the boats, men were swimming back and forth to the shore, anchors thrown haphazardly on the banks of the wide beach. Strung tight from the shore, the only thing preventing boats from drifting off to sea were thin, faded homemade ropes. Looking onto the boats, there were clusters of men that stood, scurrying like little ants working together, standing in log-like boats. These boats, seemingly rudimentary in their appearance, were likely quite sustainable, weathered more than usual thanks to the lack of GPS, radar, and other fancy mechanisms.


The catch was loaded directly onto the shore, plopped right onto the sand, where mostly women and a few young men sat, clothes covered in sand, legs splayed out, with a pile of fish in front of them. There they worked, scraping and gutting at the fresh catch – tiny fish the size of a man’s palm. Fish guts and sand everywhere. Back home, in the aisles of Whole Foods, one might scoff as to the bony little filets of fish. But here, a basket of these fish meant life, and sustenance, not only for the family that it ultimately would feed, but for the fishermen and the dock workers and fish cleaners and vendors, all the components who worked together to reel in the catch.


I would have bet my bottom dollar that the mixture of sand, ocean, fish guts, boats, men, and garbage would have called for a nostril full of stench, but the ocean breeze seemed to have wiped away any foul smells. Only a warm, saline breeze lingered in my nose. Slightly up the shore, just 10 meters or so, old boats not fit for sailing were taken apart or upturned and used as platforms to host fishmongers. While indistinguishable to me what separated the salesman from the buyer from the onlooker, it was clear that they all knew where they stood.


It was this chaos, as well as a few good stares, that prevented both the DiploMan and I from approaching too close and from staying put too long. Also, the fact that most of these guys were walking along the beach with shiv-like knives gripped tightly in their fists, making this end of our leisurely beach stroll a little more tense.

As we shimmied back towards our hotel, eventually slowing down to a saunter, I realized that despite its outward appearance as a rural fishing village, Bagamoyo was a busy little city, a city rich in history, with hardy roots tracing back to German colonial rule. In fact I later discovered it was once the main port connecting Africa’s trade to Zanzibar and the European colonies. The tradition of using its waters as a main lifeline was obvious in the lively fishing and shipping culture we witnessed that day.

And perhaps, once again in the future, too. We were later told by the hotel manager that there are plans to build a port in Bagamoyo, to relieve the strain from Dar’s already-congested ports. A little online search confirmed the news. Not just any port, but a massive billion-dollar port. According to wikipedia: “China is investing US$10B to make Bagamoyo the most important port in Africa by 2017”. Yowza.

If you hadn’t known about Bagamoyo before, in ten years’ time, I’m sure you’ll have heard of it.


How to get there: From Dar es Salaam, drive (or, book a reliable taxi) take Bagamoyo Road until you hit Bagamoyo. Seriously, these were the easiest and most foolproof directions I’ve ever taken.
Where we stayed: New Bagamoyo Beach Resort; as of writing this post, it’s the only resort offering dive and snorkeling trips. Because there aren’t many tourists yet, the coral and marine life is pristine and you feel like you’ve made a discovery all to yourself. But if I may venture a guess, they’ll soon be joined by others. For the two nights we stayed, we also dined at the restaurant under a thatched roof just up the beach. It wasn’t the most adventurous of our trips, but it was fulfilling in its simplicity.
What to do: Bring a book, and relax. If you’re feeling more adventurous, in addition to a day of snorkeling or diving, you can walk into the city center, where remains of the old stonetown are still intact. Or, take a drive just up the road to the Kaole ruins.
For more pictures, click on over to Flickr.

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,