About a month ago, I finally came back from Tanzania. Those were the shortest 5 weeks I have ever experienced. To my friends and family it felt like months, but to me it was more like one long day. Or rather, a holiday.
Not surprisingly, everyone I’ve met since keeps asking one question – how’s Dar? Here’s the short answer. It’s a bigger, hotter Nairobi. Way hotter. You need a bottle of water everywhere you go (except the bathroom). There, handkerchiefs serve a different purpose; not to blow your nose, but to wipe off the excessive sweat sitting on your shiny face.
The one perk, you only need a few bathroom visits a day.
Why was I in Tanzania, you ask? Well, to experience a new culture, teach kids at an orphanage, and meet young people from countries I have never visited.
So yes, I abandoned my friends and family in Nairobi to spend the December holiday there. Christmas breezed past in the hilly Morogoro town. The new year began by a bonfire at a deserted Dar beach. It was like no other holiday I had ever had.
There’s a lot to say about the big city directly under the sun. Here are some things I learnt about Dar in five short weeks.
Tanzanians are the masters of one thing. Staring. They will stare at anyone who acts, talks or looks different from the norm. Especially if your skin is lighter than most. It can get uncomfortable, but you just have to develop a thick skin.
One superpower they have is they can sense a non-Tanzanian from a mile away. They even know how Kenyans speak, it’s as if we share a common accent. As soon as they notice you’re not one of their own, they act different. Speak different too. Pull out their unpolished English card. Hike prices of cheap items. And immediately you feel like a foreigner, even as a mere East African.
The biggest fisis I have ever met, are in Dar. They are simply no match for Nairobian ones. They see a woman and their first instinct is to say something suggestive. Return the greeting of a guy, and it will soon turn into a flirting session. Whether it’s a boda boda guy, a random stranger in a dala dala, or a shop vendor.
Gentleman skills are lost on most of them. They are not ashamed to make inappropriate comments as you pass by. They speak exactly what’s on their mind. If they find your ass pretty, they will say it out loud. Absolutely no filter I tell you.
But there’s a certain kind of boldness in them. As an attractive woman, Kenyan men will stare at you from afar. However, Tanzanian men will approach you as soon as they have the chance. Like when a guy seated next to me in a dala dala suddenly asked what my name is. I was so startled by his question the first thing that came out of my mouth was “why do you want to know?” He said nothing after that.
Didn’t they tell him that I was a savage.
The beach boys are not left behind either in approaching you out of the blue, and asking for your home address. It can feel like harassment to someone who is not used to it. Their strange behavior greatly puzzled me. Is it due to the seeming shortage of women in the area? Or is there a fisi gene that is yet to be discovered?
Nevertheless, Tanzanians are generous people. Willing to offer help and directions to strangers. They are also polite, using words like naomba (I ask) to buy something in a shop. In Kenya you say nataka. I want.
Even the few beggars in the city ask for money politely. No street kid will harass you to give up that water bottle you direly need. Or that remaining ice cream swirl from KFC.
They are also respectful. Many times I have seen a young person in public transport stand and give up their seat. To a man mature in his years (old is too cold) or a woman carrying a child, either inside or outside. For instance one hot afternoon an aged man boarded a full dala dala, and I instantly had an itching feeling to offer my seat. Luckily, a primary school student seated in front beat me to it.
In the five weeks, I did not see any woman working as a driver or conductor. I guess they haven’t reached there yet. But it’s not strange to see a girl or a woman riding a metal bicycle in her full kanga.
There is plenty of eye candy out there ladies. Tanzanian men are hot, and not just temperature-wise. I once saw a guy in a car who resembled Ali Kiba. He stared back at me as the car cruised by, as if he also recognized me.
I just wish they were gentlemen too.
Tanzanian guys have this one look. Colourful branded tee, fitting jeans, designer shoes, and a cool tapered haircut to top it off. That which is called swag. It may have something to do with all the open-air markets that sell as much cheap male clothing as female.
On my first week, I thought of getting a haircut to tame my wild sides. I was attracted to a nearby barbershop, with its flashy decor and blasting music. One night, I decided to go for it. Asked the flirty barber for a tapered cut. And by the end of it, I looked like one of the boys.
Thought it would deter those pestering fisis. Boy, was I wrong!
Dera is the national wear for women. City women look decent in the long loose colorful dresses, sometimes with a matching headscarf (that can also be tied on the waist). Stylish kitenge dresses light up the beachside city too. Modesty truly never looked so good.
I walked around admiring them everyday and wondering where I could get one of those beautiful deras.
It’s almost impossible to find a woman in a crop top or short shorts. During the day that is. Unlike in Mombasa, Wanadarisilamu shy away from showing skin despite the extreme heat. They are a conservative people. However, older women are not shy to tell you to cover up your stomach or to sit properly.
Because of these fashion rules, I was afraid to wear my long black sheer skirt – with the short lining inside. Rebelliously, I eventually did – and got the stares I had bargained for.
One interesting thing I noticed was that many clothes sold on the street carry the marijuana leaf logo (Okay, we’re adults here, we can call it weed). It is branded on socks, bandanas, even boxers. I once saw a heavy chested woman on the street wearing a branded shirt, the green leaf spread out on her wide bosom. Do the police follow her around? I wondered. Especially since the medicinal herb is illegal in the state, together with shisha?
Either Tanzanians are passionate stoners, or extremely oblivious. Or maybe, they just like how the herb looks like.
If there’s one thing I love Tanzania for, it’s the food. You will find it everywhere you go. All the way from the estates to the city center. All kinds of fresh fruit are sold on the streets, the colourful mangoes in season and sweet fenesi with its ugly alien-like skin. (Google jackfruit).
There are also lots of fast food joints lined up on the roads, selling everything from popcorn to chips to fish. Chips mayai – we call it zege in Kenya – is one of the most popular meals. You will also find many local cafeterias or vibanda, selling local African food at competitive prices. Nairobi needs more of those.
On days I ate out, I would get a full meal for Tsh 2000. Rice, beans and beef stew for 1500, and a glass of fresh juice for 500. In total, that is slightly less than 100 Kenyan shillings. I don’t know any place in Nairobi where food is that cheap. Except in some public university cafeterias, or so I hear.
Some items on their menu will surprise you. The local pizza does not look or taste anything like Italian pizza; it reminded me more of a kebab. You have to visit Pizza Hut in the city center for the real deal.
I did not find my favorite there, passion juice. But Tanzania comes with it’s own juicy flavours. Tamarind or mkwaju juice will sufficiently quench any thirst from the Dar heat. Give me that over a cold soda any day (Anyone know where I can buy some around here?)
They also have sugar cane juice laced with ginger, something I had never tasted before.
Thanks to Tanzania, I can now make a mean chapati maji – their version of pancakes. All you need is a few eggs, no milk, and a lot of water. And some sugar or salt to taste. Trust me, they taste better than they sound.
The delicious mtori, or plantain meat soup, is next on my list.
Before I got there, I was aware the main form of transport was daladala. This is the equivalent of a matatu van or mini bus. What I didn’t expect was it to be so cheap; 400 shillings is the standard fare to most places in Dar. That is slightly less than 20 Kenya Shillings. And students pay half price. Can you believe that?
The most expensive fare I have ever paid to move around the city is Tsh 650. And that is to use mwendo kasi. This is their long express bus, with its own lane and designated bus stops.
The first time I entered one I was completely fascinated. The doors automatically opened and closed by themselves. The blue high seats were well spaced out. There was even a section for people with wheelchairs to sit. It looked like something out of a European city.
After a couple of trips in it I soon realized it’s not so express. It stops every 5 minutes at every single bus stop. And I mean EVERY. If you’re standing you find this annoying and the journey too exhausting.
Still, it offers speed and convenience. There is a female voice (or sometimes male) that announces every stop so you know where you are. I wondered if it was automated, or that was someone’s job every single day.
You also avoid the hectic jams common in Dar roads with them. And Dar has a lot of those, whether it’s day or night. I wonder if it’s to do with all those traffic lights.
Despite its length, a mwendo kasi has almost as many seats as a dala dala bus. The wide walk through ensures there’s space for more people to stand than sit. That is what we call irony boys and girls.
In Nairobi, standing in a bus is a traffic offence. But here it is commonplace. In fact I think Tanzanians like to stand. The vans have a high roof that allows that. The mwendo kasi also has handles fixed on the roof bars to hold your unsteady self onto.
Avoid getting into one during rush hour as it’s a complete nightmare. As soon as the doors open, everyone pushes and pulls to enter the bus. It’s amusing yet painful to watch grown men and women scramble for the few seats available, like little children. Whether your organs or bones are injured is the least of their problems.
So if you ever use public transport, expect to stand at least once. Squeezed in between bodies of strangers. Feeling hot and extremely uncomfortable. Your legs getting more tired by the minute. They soon start to ache. Your only refuge, is a seat, preferably next to an open window.
At least there are plenty of boda bodas and bajaji (tuktuks) which are more comfortable. But also, pricier.
Another unpleasant thing is the drivers. They drive too fast, from the smallest of bikes to biggest of trucks. It’s as if they are on a constant road rage, racing towards an unknown destination. Death maybe?
On my first day in Dar my friends and I were almost hit by a daladala. Facts only. The driver could see us standing at the stage but he still sped on forward. If it wasn’t for our quick reflexes, God bless our souls.
In spite of this, it is easy to spot a driver using their phone. While we struggle with Snapping while driving, they are comfortable with chatting and driving. And according to the road signs, the road authority cares more about the weight of your load than the speed of your vehicle.
There is this one behavior I failed to comprehend. Motorbike or boda boda riders never move when they see you on their path. They will head straight at you, expecting you to get out of their way. Move or get hit, your choice.
There is rarely loud music played in public transport. As a Kenyan this was strange. And yet relaxing. For you are guaranteed you will alight a bus without a thronging headache or aching ears.
I was pleasantly surprised to see the crowded dala dala buses with a dustbin. Even mwendo kasi have their own tiny tin cans.
It’s refreshing to see the vehicles obey traffic lights, even without a policeman in sight. Traffic flows smoothly at junctions and in an organised way. Unlike in Nairobi, not all the dala dalas go to the city center. There are bus stations all around the city where you can connect buses from one place to another. Even though this takes more time, you will hardly experience our crazy congestion in their CBD.
Drama that erupted abruptly in public transport truly amused me. When passengers put up a shouting match against guards at a mwendo kasi bus stop over a missing ticket. A conductor being assaulted by a boda boda rider, then narrating the story to everyone in the quiet daladala as if making a press conference. Or a woman hurling insults at a conductor for bundling up passengers, reminding him that we are clearly human beings and not cows.
Dar is an interesting combination of Nairobi and Mombasa. A big city by the sea. Also a sleepier Nairobi. It is not strange to see a mother and her child lying on a mattress outside their house on a hot afternoon.
Life is easy and relaxed. You can buy ready-made breakfast, lunch and supper at a local for a healthy price. The essentials: food, clothes and transport are all cheap. I mean, what else do you need dear brethren?
Now if only people would mind their own business.