I was born in a (then) central private hospital in Dar Es Salaam. I spent most of my early childhood years in this city which I still call my native city. At the age of eight, my family packed up and moved to Finland
, in search of better quality education. We were only meant to stay a few years, until my parents finished their Master's programs. It's been 14 years, and we're still here.
But back to Dar es Salaam. It's a stark contrast to the city I now live, work and study in - Tampere, Finland. The first thing you notice when you step out of the airplane and onto the ramp at Dar es Salaam airport - apart from the immense heat - is the strange melange of smells. After the air conditioned fragrance-free atmosphere of the interior of the aircraft, the smells of the exterior world are intense, and seem overwhelming at times. It takes a long time - for me it took days - to get accustomed to it.
The airport building was built sometime in the 60's. As the economy slowly but constantly deteriorated the government owned airport deteriorated as well. Efforts to fix it have been made, and it's not in complete shambles. On the contrary, it seems to be efficient enough for day-to-day international flight operation, and the interior is comfortable by international standards. The gardens around it are well-kept and beautiful, with rows of tropical trees and plants creating lovely patterns.
The older parts of the city (closest to the harbour) boast some magnificent Arab and German Jugend-inspired architecture. They're not very well maintained, but I've always thought their ricketyness added a bit of charm to the place. The coastal flora and fauna as well as the traditional fishing dhows that sail in around the coast make for some very picturesque scenes.
There are various parts of Dar es Salaam which are kept tidy and luxurious for tourists. The hotels, the airport, shopping centres and large banks are all places where tourists are bound to visit, so they're all highly maintained. In the north lie many of the prestigious beach resorts and other posh areas - the residences of foreign expatriates, embassy workers and rich Tanzanians. The houses are bungalow-type mansions with usually high walls topped with broken glass, barbed and/or electric wire. The most affluent residents will hire an armed guard to keep watch of their property. Security is something taken very seriously (and purposefully so) in Tanzania, and those who can afford it don't take any chances.
Then of course there are the parts they don't advertise in travel brochures. Most of Tanzania's population live below the poverty line, and most of Dar es Salaam's population is classed as lower class or lower middle class. I grew up in a family that was well off enough to be classed as upper middle class. I grew up with flushing toilets and showers. I had toys and countless storybooks to amuse myself with. When I got sick, I was taken to private hospitals. That doesn't sound like much - and back then, i had no awareness that things were different for other children.
When I returned to Dar es Salaam, older, I saw the devastation of poverty as I had never seen it before. I saw children whose parents can't afford to send them to school, so they spend their days helping their parents try to gather the little bits of money they can just to survive. Many of these families live in makeshift houses built on the edges of the towns, many without electricity and almost all without what westerners would call efficient sanitation. Water is bought or fetched from nearby wells, which has to be boiled before used, in fear of cholera and other illnesses. The adults run their own tiny businesses, selling whatever they can produce with their hands. The children help (if and when they are not at school). The worst aspect of the poverty manifests itself in the health of the population. Even basic healthcare is far too expensive for the average citizen. Many have AIDS, but have no hope whatsoever of receiving adequate healthcare. Malaria keeps killing children because the drugs available at clinics are outdated and the mosquitoes have become resistant to them.
Despite this, the lives of average Dar es Salaam citizens are not sombre, quite the contrary. There's a constant laid-back attitude among the people there. African societies tend to be deeply religious, and people would rather place their fates in the hands of God (the gods) than worry about their futures. All the children that I've met have been extremely sociable and happy kids, despite their poverty.
The days in the city are busy and bustling with life. The city is chaotic and dirty. Mini-buses that ooze thick black smoke from their exhaust pipes (bursting at the seams with people packed in like sardines) race through the narrow streets at amazing speeds. On the streets are peddlers of all sorts of things; sweets, fruits, fake Rolex watches, and chickens. In the central market of Kariakoo, you can expect to find just about anything. The centre is a maze of tiny (and some large) Indian and Asian-owned businesses. A large part of the population is of Asian origin, and the true nature of this city lies in its ethnic mixing of food, language and culture.
Some of my favourite 'Tanzanian' foods are actually Indian or Arab. Such as pilau - spicy rice with meat and/or vegetables, sambusa(samosa) - a hot meat or vegetable-filled pastry, and chapati - flat baked 'pancake' made of wheat flour. A widely acknowledged favourite food of Dar es Salaam citizens in nyama choma - grilled meat served with lots of pepper sauce - usually accompanied by ice cold beer. You can buy nyama choma and any other snack from the aforementioned street vendors, but I recommend buying some from a comfortable bar.
Traditionally, I am referred to as being from Kilimanjaro, since in Tanzanian custom, a child belongs to the tribe of their father. My father is from the Bantu tribe of Pare, which lives in the Kilimanjaro region. My mother is of Swahili origin, a member of the Zaramo tribe. So I'm a mongrel. In the end, I have no clear identity of belonging to either group. I don't even feel 'African' in the same way my parents feel 'African'. When I go back to Tanzania I'm as much an alien as a foreigner would be. But the caress of the Indian ocean at my feet, the nasty smell of fish near Oyster Bay, the tightly packed busses and smells of spices and grilled meat all bring back some kind of subconscious feeling of home. It happens every time I go to Dar es Salaam. Nowhere else.