Discovering Dar es Salaam – a Taste of the Real Dar
A mini guide on Uncovering Dar es Salaam for a first time visitor
With more than five million residents (the guide books under-quote the numbers, I’m told), Dar es Salaam, the “House of Peace” is recognised as one of the fastest growing metropolises in the world. According to a report by the U.N, by 2020 (a mere five little years away), Dar, as the city is affectionately called by Tanzanians, will be the most rapidly urbanising region in the world.
Today, the city is known for its merciless traffic jams, expanding businesses and wealth of international investment. If you plan to settle in the city as an ex-pat there are easily available guides at bookstores and gift stores even, to help with the matter of catching a dala dala – a shared mini bus taxi, hiring domestic help, finding schools and attending Swahili classes. It further points to the popularity of Dar es Salaam as a city to work and live.
I had my first visit to the city a few weeks ago – previously, I got as far as the airport when our airplane from Zanzibar stopped over to refuel, and I wanted not just to visit, but to experience the city a little deeper. I wanted to Discover Dar Es Salaam.
The wonderful folks at the Tsogo Sun Dar Es Salaam located in Garden Road, with a delightful little but lovely botanical garden next door, stepped in with all sorts of tips and connections. I was introduced to food blogger Juliet Mlingwa of Swahili Coast Foodie who generously sent me a list of her favourite food stops for all kinds of cuisine, and I was advised to connect with AfriRoots, a local tour company run by social campaigner and visionary Mejah Mbuya.
Things I Loved in Dar
- The parties! This city knows how to have a good time.
- Bright and elegant kanga worn by local women
- Politeness to strangers. (Karibu, Asante sana)
- Gentle use of spices in Swahili cuisine
- Cardomom-infused local kahwa (coffee)
- Potential for growth
Bright Lights, Party City
And so, my first evening in the city sees me leave from the bar at the Tsogo Sun hotel on a balmy evening with Mejah, his girlfriend Maria, an entrepreneur who makes fresh juices, and Ruth, a young Belgian undergrad student who has just arrived to conduct a semester-long project on the upcoming elections.
We start the evening with nyama choma and chicken choma (grilled meat and chicken), tandoori chicken, masala chips and ice-cold sugar cane juice with ginger at Mamboz Corner. Grillers tend succulent marinated meat and chicken on charcoal braais and the pavement spill with diners sitting cosily – mostly locals, with the odd table with foreigners. After, we wipe our fingers clean and hop into a private taxi that Afriroots had arranged for us. Our goal? To party with locals in different neighbourhoods to get a taster of the “real” flavour of Dar. Well, Dar by night at least.
And we start with a fun hip-hop show at Alliance Français, a collaboration between the organisation, the U.S Mission to Tanzania and the University of North Carolina and Chapel Hill. It is an undeniably proud moment watching the Tanzanians who came through the programme rap and dance with respected international artists. It’s also my first glimpse of Mejah’s graffiti art abilities – they would be many interesting murals across the city I’d see with him later on. As the energy of the party slows down, we head north to a large bar/restaurant, Samaki Samaki, a small chain by a Swahili-speaking, eye-patch wearing Spaniard. Here, expats and high-income earning locals hang out over mojitos, beers and platters of snacks and spend some time dissecting the current political climate over beers and wine (that would be me).
Thereafter, 8000 TSH a pop gets us through a white sheet covering a gate in a “backyard” club in Tandale, a low-income suburb. The thrum of the very popular Twanga Pepeta band (African Stars) vibrates though the open yard. On stage singers belt out the notes, occasionally handing out envelopes of money (I still need to brush up on this, and why I wasn’t called up!). Female performers in clingy apple-green tracksuits and male dancers in American baseball caps and impressively spotless white denims and white vests mesmerise the crowds with energetic performances, as I try, with little luck to keep the dust off my open sandaled-toes and trouser bottoms. The mosquitos seem as full of energy as the performers, and at 2 am, with their blood-lusting buzzing in my ears, and after a night of just a single hour of sleep, I have to throw in the towel.
I continue my Dar es Salaam exploration with some late afternoon shopping at the much talked about Msasani Slipway Market on Sunday. In my search for a drink and a nibble, I happen upon a really banging (who am I again?) party on the rooftop of the Terrace Restaurant and Bar, where a perfectly made-up MTV VJ-type is on deck and all hands are in the air. And to say all I’m after is a decent spot for a good photograph of the sunset. Oh, it’s so much more than that. Watching people party is hungry work, and with no snack procured, we leave to dinner.
The trade with Indians and their settling in the country over the decades has had a profound influence on local cuisine and tastes. That evening I dine at Alcove Restaurant Sea Cliff Hotel that serves “authentic” Indian (and Chinese) fare with nice crockery, views and service. I find the food a little on the dull side, but the lovely dining room and history of the place makes it one you shouldn’t miss.
(I return to the Slipway Mall a few days later to shop at Green Room and for speciality coffee and chocolate at the little outlets on the ground floor.)
Folks of Dar Es Salaam
On Monday it’s back to full-on cultural immersion, as Kizito Lufunga, also a guide with AfriRoots relays the country’s past, foray with African Socialism and politically where it stands today. And naturally, where it could be. The tour is called the Dar Reality tour and runs by bicycle too. The highlight for me remains meeting regular folk like khawa (coffee) maker Phineas Elieza, eating chapati and drinking milky chai with Ma Amina at her container-diner, visiting Mama Jasmine who rents out rooms in her 6-bedroom house to families, and meeting herbalist and respected midwife Bibi Zaitoni who has delivered babies in her community for no money, for all of her working life. She makes wonderful little pillows from tailors’ scraps with little zips at the back to keep your precious items, and I bring one back with me to Cape Town.
Taking a baijaj (tuk tuk) that somehow manages to defy gravity and water-logged potholes the size of craters, we visit bustling Kariakoo and learn about kanga and kitinga fabrics, the vegetable produce vendors and the auctions held for second-hand clothes.
The latter is a huge, complicated and thriving business here: second hand clothing in Tanzania. Containers of donated clothes from Europe and the US are sold and then resold to “buyers” who bid for each item after careful inspection. Kiztio points to his shorts and his shirt – all second hand. Most clothing items, shoes and accessories are bought gently used (“even by TV stars who say they buy from fancy shops,” Kizito says) by most strata of society. In fact, we start the day by walking past the little “shops” set up formally in rows, selling brightly coloured heels and good-as-new pumps and fashion handbags.
Can’t Miss Dar
My beat is always to get up to speed with what people are thinking, feeling and acting upon today – the bigger the range of people, the better. Believing in the power of threes, I engage the services of Afriroots yet again (worth every penny), and this time Mejah and an apprentice of his, the very kind and bright Maki. Together we explore significant architecture, the impact of visiting revolutionaries, like Malcolm X and Samora Machel who had an influence on Tanzania and the concept of black empowerment.
In between all this, a mid-morning visit to the fish market provides a lively bird-eye view of a working trade that is essential to the survival of so many locals. I get a tour with a fisherman who’s now a manager and watch the auctions and fishing in action.
Past symbolic monuments and queues in front of the pineapple and watermelon vendors, we chat to passersby. In fact, there’s hardly a street we venture to, where someone, suited or clad in shorts does not greet Mejah by name and by hand.
A popular campaigner for change, Mejah has focused his energy on upliftment – he employs around 50 people, and to larger-scale solutions for the city from the fight for more bicycle-friendly paths as a practical answer to the traffic problem and pollution, to growing social expression via streets art and revamping Tanzania as a country that thrives on the effort of interested citizens. Holding the belief that regular people can achieve as much as the bureaucrats in power, by the sheer effort of their will, Mejah campaigns tirelessly for social reform.
In Mosque Street, where patrons fill the old diners that haven’t changed much over the years, maintaining a loyal following who “like it just that way”, we chat about a Dar es Salaam that is more than its busy streets and business deals, a city crackling with the energy of newness, of citizen pride and promise.
My Dar es Salaam Picks
The Alcove Restaurant, Indian and Chinese cuisine: www.alcovetz.com
Akemi Revolving Restaurant – International menu, great views. Book before sun set: www.akemidining.com
Mamboz Corner BBQ: 3 Libya Street, Morogoro Rd, 255 683 626 269 (go after 6pm)
Patel Brotherhood: (simple Gujarati food): unnamed road off Makatba Street – opposite Holiday Inn, open for lunch and dinner
Chef’s Pride – simple, Swahili and local food. Very popular, more a diner than a restaurant. Biriyani, pilau rice, coconut fish, samosas etc. Chagga St, +255222134491
Terrace Restaurant and Bar : Msasani Slipway, +255 755 706 838. Good food and drinks, live acts on Sundays, best for sundowners.
Check out AfriRoots for a range of clever and fun tour options: www.afriroots.co.tz
Tsogo Sun Dar Es Salaam: http://www.tsogosunhotels.com/hotels/dar-es-salaam/pages/overview.aspx
Disclaimer: Tsogo Sun Hotel Dar Es Salaam kindly offered to host my stay in Dar Es Salaam. All tours were booked and paid for myself. As always, all opinions and impressions formed, are my own.