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.
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.
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,