Dar es Salaam is a city bursting at the seams. It is a haven of peace (its literal Arabic meaning) in the broadest sense, with its lack of political violence and remarkably civilized millions living cheek-to-jowl on impossibly small incomes. But the city is a chaotic traffic jam of hustlers, petty traders, impoverished roustabouts, a thin but highly visible layer of nouveau riche, and a large class of aspiring middle classes trying to maintain a dignified appearance as the chaos threatens to engulf them. The government has improved the roads and built as as-yet-unused dedicated-lane rapid-transit bus system. But there is no way any new administration is going to keep up with the city’s exploding population and rapidly churning economy. Neither the physical nor institutional infrastructures suffice, and because they are co-dependent their weaknesses continue to debilitate each other.
The locals call it “uswahili”: swahiliness. It’s like calling something “hillbilly” in the US, but with the implication of half-assed efforts, short-cuts, and shady dealings. It is seen as a sort of moral defect: it functions as an insult when middle-class people use the term describe the hustles dreamed up by the ubiquitous small businessmen struggling to make a living, or it is a supercilious description of coastal mores by straight-laced yuppies from upcountry. But at some level, uswahili does describe a set of habits that tend to create distrust, undermine bureaucracies, and generally make human institutions inefficient and dysfunctional.
But uswahili is also something more historical. It is part-and-parcel of the cultural complex described by Achille Mbembe’s tragicomic postcolony. It is a set of habits rooted in a history of slavery, colonialism, and postcolonial population bomb. Nothing quite works in Dar es Salaam.
The city began as a sleepy port established as a colonial headquarters by the Germans in the late 1800s. Prior to this, Bagamoyo, to the north had been the main port of call and terminus of caravan routes where young men seeking their fortune carried elephant tusks, grain, and various other upcountry trade items to the coast, for thousands of miles, on their heads. Zanzibari Arab trading elites envisioned the protected harbor of Dar es Salaam as a profitable port, but it only really developed when the Germans settled there, making good use of its underdeveloped state to build according to their own needs. They established a tiny city center with a Lutheran church and a few blocks worth of red-tiled buildings of coral stone and sandy mortar, a handful of which still stand together with the church.
Immediately the city’s population began to multiply in unplanned settlements segregated between European, Indian, and African quarters. Uswahili took root as the coastal Swahili culture, already shaped by the cynical relations of master and slave, adapted and improvised to its subject status under these overlapping hierarchies, with little control over its own destiny. Fatalism became a necessary philosophy as life became a hustle with little sense of control over the nature of the new society being cobbled together under the authority of Europeans in a tropical coast, far from home.
Every new government, including the independent government that came into power in 1961 laid the blame for the disorderly street life on the young men whiling their time away searching for the fortune that the growing city seemed to promise. Seeking to keep them out seemed a more realistic strategy to ruling authorities than building up an urban infrastructure that could absorb the rapidly growing population. Life in Dar es Salaam settled into an atmosphere of constant hustle, and sense of permanent disorder came to rule the African side streets. Then, amidst an economic crisis brought about by a failed socialist/nationalist policy in the 1970s, the municipal infrastructure–institutional, political, physical, ideological–collapsed.
Since then, demographic growth continually crushes this broken down infrastructure. Privately owned mini-buses, or daladalas trundle recklessly through the streets in a desperate attempt to make maybe a thousand 25-cent fares add up to enough to cover the vehicle rental, gas, and leave a little for the driver and conductor. Pickup trucks with water obtained from dubious sources sell by the bucketfull to neighborhoods where city water pipes either don’t exist or rarely work. In the wake of socialist era shortages, people learned to push resources to their very limit. Two dozen people aboard a mini-bus was not unusual. Now most daladalas are town buses about half the size of an American city bus. Full means about fifty passengers
The liberalization of the economy that emerged from the crisis has allowed innumerable young people to establish themselves as small businesses that offer dignity if not income, selling cheap household goods, groceries, and hand-laundered used clothing bought by the bale. En route to that stage, others wander through the traffic jams in the hot sun with armloads of gadgets and trinkets and newspapers selling to their captive audience in a cloud of carbon monoxide.
Underpaid and ill-equipped police occasionally take it upon themselves to enforce law or assure security. But, with little taste for putting their lives at risk for this hopeless task, they more often save their energies for cashing in on their ability to identify crime and criminals and realize a profit from that mediating role. Thousands of private security guards, at various salary levels, seek to pick up the slack on behalf of specific employers who can pay for their services. If pay is insufficient, then the backhanded bobby strategy appears with equal attraction.
The government occasionally imposes fragile attempts at order, with mixed success. Traffic cops in bright white uniforms seem to offer a marginally higher level of professionalism, but still are really at a loss about how to manage intersections amidst traffic problems that came with recent economic growth and the possibility that young professionals could get “new” cars–as in new in country, with 100,000 km on them from their previous use before export from East Asia. In the year 2000, the government had the truly revolutionary idea of simply requiring the daladalas to paint a stripe around the vehicle denoting its basic route, and terminal names stenciled on the front. The small act provided an image of order and a minimal level of consumer protection, as drivers could be held to stick to their licensed routes.
But everything is nevertheless accomplished with the assumption that rules are mere guidelines, and those guidelines subject to constant negotiation, lubricated by a bit of money, here and there, for “tea” and “food for the children.” This is not just the bribery of officials, but also the constant demands of everyone involved in the whole, constantly renegotiated, system. Some are tips, some are protection monies, some bribes, some legitimate payments in an economy entirely constructed upon the rules of informal economies, often called black markets. These responses, as noted above are historical, and they derive from the ongoing experience of government regulation and cultural habits that are really quite impossible to sustain under the circumstances.
Young people seem to react to this crazy reckless hustle in one of two ways. Some subject themselves to some higher authority: a wealthy patron, a religious order, family responsibility. Others throw themselves into the devil-may-care world of the streets and make a day’s wage with whatever opportunity may come, and find in it an adrenalin rush that eases the boredom. They survey their small world as an existential comedy of little meaning. Mere cultural habit sustains their recognition of social niceties, when it strikes their fancy, rather than belting out a flatulent bark that echoes down the block, letting all be appraised of their presence.
Under these circumstances, there are myriad dangers that Dar es Salaam presents to every resident and visitor. Some criminal, some negligent, some the inevitable shortcomings that result from this demographic conquest. A lot of small things, some of them merely comical, and laughter tends to be the go-to reaction to uswahili.
At the airport for example, the plastic bins that you empty your pockets into during the luggage x-ray process are of cheap plastic and all of them have holes in the corners where the plastic has broken, and your spare change, watch, and phone accessories fall through the rollers to the floor. In this era of Al Qaeda, metal detectors are now placed at the entrance to many buildings. One throws a few random objects from one’s pocket onto the table beside the metal-detecting threshold which then beeps madly as each person passes through because they have neglected some other metal object on their person. Staff might then wave over you with a magic wand, but usually you just walk on through, having accomplished nothing in the exercise except expose the contents of your pockets, and the phantasmal would-be terrorist is by no means deterred.
The same absurdist attitude toward security points exists everywhere in the city, as guards go through rituals of procedure that are akin to acts of obeisance performed upon entering a king’s court, but in fact only waste the efforts of security personnel and equipment that could be far more effectively utilized. Despite this negligent attitude at security points, Dar es Salaam is not a place where there is much political crime. The last known terrorist event of any scale was in 1998, and was an early Al Qaeda strike that parked a car bomb outside the old US embassy housed in a 1970s building that once housed an Israeli embassy. It was in a pre-9/11 era when security procedures were relatively lax everywhere.
One system that seems to function fairly well, perhaps because the information it produces is useful to so many people throughout the political system, is the network of internal spies. Unseen, and networked through both formal payroll and informal employment, are people who report what they see and hear up through a chain of command. It is a remnant of an era when police states were the norm in much of the world, but now it serves as a substitute for the pervasive electronic surveillance that now prevails in the so-called developed or ‘first’ world.
Although this system might be useful as well for monitoring common crime, it does not seem to be used very effectively for that purpose, perhaps because the same politicians who use it to monitor political crime would prefer it not also report on the activities of criminals and embezzlers that they themselves may profit from and protect. So common crime is common, and people often perceive small-time “vibaka” as mere agents of “big men” employing them. It may well be the case that the same networks that report information up a chain of command can also be deployed for ill-gotten gains up a chain of command.
Construction in the circumstances of uswahili is predictably haphazard, as workers in flipflops roam amidst concrete constructions of uncertain ratios between cement and sand. Roads come into being between an initial hasty assault of heavy equipment that upends entire neighborhoods, then sometimes years of lingering unfinished details. Thus cavernous pits, and more dangerous manhole sized shafts are an everyday obstacle for all pedestrians. I would guess the injuries from these number in the thousands per year, but perhaps Tanzanians are so habituated to a certain caution in their step that they avoid them. City waterworks in some neighborhoods consist of nothing more than plastic piping laid a few feet below ground, and therefore always cut and compromised. Middle class neighborhoods usually have big enough plots to contain their own septic system, another pit latrine, and then sufficient plastic water storage tanks to ensure a supply of clean water, even during shortages. Poorer housholds, in densely populated neighboods buy water from private sellers on a day to day basis, and may use communal pit latrines or underconstruted septic systems that leave the entire neighborhood vulnerable to occasional cholera outbreaks.
Traffic–which is to say pedestrians, cyclists, rollerbladers, motorcycles and motorcycle taxis or bodabodas, bajajis (three wheel motorized rickshaws), cars of every size, and buses of varying sizes, together with large semi-trucks bearing pendulous shipping containers and oil tanks–lurches through the clogged streets in a slow uneven crawl that fills nearly every inch of roadway. All drivers in Dar es Salaam are attentively defensive drivers, always ready for anything, even as they have to also be gently aggressive, poking a nose out into traffic to signal a desire to merge or turn or pass through an intersection of uncertain governance. Traffic cops occasional direct traffic in a beautiful if not necessarily effective show of expert traffic management.
Major intersections have traffic lights, but they are taken by drivers to be merely advisory. Drivers are aware of the sort of violations that traffic police do monitor, but I have yet to figure out any systematic attitude towards traffic lights. That they often don’t work is probably the first reason for their lack of authority. At night, if there are no oncoming cars, drivers see little reason to stop at a traffic light and wait merely for the sake of performance, in any case being stopped at a dark intersection is an invitation to criminals. During the day, with massive traffic jams, lights can seem to be more of an obstacle. If a traffic cop is there, he or she will direct traffic according to a human whim rather than mechanical timers. If no traffic cop, then drivers will cautiously negotiate their crossings in an unspoken language of size, signals, and lurches.
All of which to say, accidents do happen. Better that they happen in a slow motion traffic jam than a high speed maneuver of the type that I once witnessed leaving an SUV upside down in a sandy median surrounded quickly by crowds of onlookers who gather at the site of every accident large or small, and who occasionally take it upon themselves to punish a reckless driver who is adjudged to have caused the death of another.
The same sort of violent mob justice may be brought upon the head of a thief caught in broad daylight. Such retribution may help to reduce street crime in certain neighborhoods where there is a general interest in securing the streets in the absence of effective police. But the real reason for mob violence seems to be its utility as an outlet for the crowds of bored and unsatisfied young men, whose desires count for so little and are thereby so thoroughly suppressed day after day, that the passion of mob justice provides welcome relief. In such cases violators are fortunate to find the presence of police on the scene, even at the price of a gratuity to be paid somewhere between the crime site and the police station.