Dar es Salaam, “Haven of Peace”

30 06 2010

Every time I meet a new Tanzanian (which happens at least once a day), the conversation goes like this,

  • them: Ah so you just arrived! How do you find Tanzania so far?
  • me: I like it! It’s a very nice city. I was in Moshi two years ago which I liked, but it’s nice to see somewhere else in the country.
  • them: Ah yes, Moshi is a nice place. Dar is better. It is too hot in Dar for you?
    me: Yes, it is very hot. And there is a lot of traffic!
    them: Oh yes, we have terrible traffic in Dar. Very bad traffic!

A nice little conversation with two points about the city: its hot, and has terrible traffic. Now, I realize my summer project is focused on malaria, but I am after all an environmentalist. I am getting a master’s degree in environmental health, which includes malaria, but includes a lot of other things too. To me, environmental health refers to the ways in which the environment where we live impacts our well-being. So, I can’t help but write about some of the things I have observed about Dar es Salaam that fit into this category, and I think fit quite nicely with the observations every Dar native has shared with me, but probably doesn’t realize is environmental health.

So first: Dar is very, very hot! It’s a low-lying coastal city in the tropics. Despite this being the winter season, it has been in the high 80s to 90s every day, and humid. While this aspect of geography and climate influences health in many ways, there is one in particular that I’ll focus on.

In Tanzania, the majority of fruits, vegetables, juice, milk, and eggs are not bought from grocery stores where they sit in refrigerated aisles. Instead, they are bought from men carrying baskets of produce on their bikes, from woman sitting protectively over a mound of tomatoes on the street corner, or at one of the many little open stands (dukas) that line the streets. Fruit and vegetables are ripe, practically just picked when you buy them, which is delicious! And, they are very cheap (about 7 US cents for a banana, 50 US cents for a huge mango, or 3 tomatoes).  I’ve often read about how large-scale agriculture and meat production, and the dependence on imported foods (and, if not imported, shipped across our very large country from the farm to your plate) not only has tons of negative environmental impacts that I could go on forever about, but often has less nutritious value (because it is picked before it’s ripe, or grown bigger and faster with chemicals) AND adds a high cost, which inhibits many lower-income families from eating healthy. Then there’s all the details about processed foods and the lack of diversity in diet that this causes… If anyone wants the details, let me know and I’ll point you towards some interesting things 🙂  So, in some ways, the extent of local, unprocessed foods and small-scale food production that forms the staple of most Tanzanians’ diets could be a good thing.

However, ripe fruit and vegetables do only one thing when you don’t eat them right away: rot! Milk products and meat spoil when not refrigerated. Now usually, in the US, I go to the grocery store maybe once a week, more likely every two weeks. I walk around the one store, picking up all the foods I’ll need, and then stick them in the fridge when I get home. In Tanzania, you can’t find less-than-ripe produce, and you most likely don’t have a refrigerator to store it anyway. Or if you do, the power goes out frequently enough that you’re refrigerator isn’t always cold. The same goes with milk, yogurt, eggs, meat….and I’m sure we all know that it’s not good for these “fresh foods” to sit out in 90+ degree weather, baking under the sun. Even foods that we don’t necessarily refrigerate in the US just don’t last in this heat: a loaf of bread is covered in mold in 2 days (I quickly learned to put mine in the fridge…a shocking combination of mold and bugs in literally just 2 days.) Which means for most people living in Tanzania, you need to buy your food as you eat it. Since most foods are sold from small specialty dukas, you need to go to several places to get what you need, and you probably walk or bike to them all because you don’t have a car and the roads aren’t drivable anyway. It takes more time and effort, and still leaves me wondering whether those eggs that say “fresh laid” really are, or if they have been sitting out on the counter in the heat for a few days.

Since Dar is a huge, rapidly developing, internationally-influenced city, you can see the transition away from this type of life. MANY, many more people have refrigerators (though, like I said, that doesn’t guarantee it stays cold). Larger grocery stores are more common, so you can get all your items from one place and it might even be kept on a refrigerated shelf. But, those grocery stores come with a higher price, and while it is a huge, wealthier city, the disparity in standard of living is astounding.  On my short bike ride to work, I pass mansions where the well-paid businessmen, bankers, government officials, and wazungu (white people, foreigners) live, homes that I know myself and my family could not afford. But I also pass tons of small stick and tarp structures, under which women are sitting on the ground cooking meals over open fire pits, for their husbands and sons who spend the day fishing, selling fruit, or harassing people stopped in traffic to buy odd goods like DVDs or screwdrivers. I pass taxis parked on the side of the road that look like their driver slept there all night. And I pass an incredibly friendly Maasai family who happily (and most ordinarily) set up “home” under the billboard next to the police station.

Oh, and the traffic! It really is absolutely horrendous. There are a few main, paved “highway” roads through Dar, and every working citizen takes the same roads to and from work. Along these few good roads are some nice natural bottlenecks—for example, there is only one 2-lane bridge connecting uptown to downtown.  My coworker Stella said it takes her almost 3 hours to get to work each day, and that is not unusual. Dar’s version of a public transportation system is the minibuses (dala dala) that run all over town, and all over Tanzania. The dalla dallas, along with the taxis and motorcycles, don’t follow rules of the road (I’m pretty sure rules of the road don’t exist actually. If they do, not a single person knows them. You just drive how you want to drive, turn when you want to turn, and hope the other cars are watching out for you…) In between the cars are bikers and walkers, who most definitely do not ever have the right of way! The amount of accidents is atrocious. While lane lines exist, they don’t mean anything. Many of the people I see walking or just hanging out on the side of the road are missing limbs, on crutches, or clearly deformed body parts, and I can’t help but wonder how many of these injuries are due to the traffic. And as the environmental health kicker to the ranting about the traffic: the exhaust coming from most of these vehicles is the blackest of black—the type of exhaust that makes you hold your breath and think “I am going to die from cancer if I breathe in.”

Luckily, I’ve learned a few “shortcuts” on my bike that aren’t actually shorter, but go along dirt roads running more or less parallel to the main highway where all the cancer is. And while it takes about just as long on my bike and feels a lot safer, I can see why no car would bother. They are the dirtiest dirt and gravel roads and have so many potholes, it’s like mogul skiing on a bike. They are not so much potholes as tiny hills and valleys. Unless of course it rains, like it did today, and you are weaving around lakes and getting absolutely covered in mud (It’s a really good thing there is a shower at NIMR). Though, biking over it is better than when we go out in a car (which, our house is on one of these streets so you need to at least start off on it) We drive like 5 miles per hour and the car still bounces so hard, your butt comes up out of the seat.

The side roads are nice without the traffic, and are much safer for me to bike on and for the many people I see walking around. But at the same time I do wonder how much dust I am breathing in, and if there’s really much of a difference between the black exhaust of a dala dala and the heavy smoke coming off the open-flame cooking pits lining the side roads. I think I’ll stick to the side roads though, because at least the cooking fires smell nicer, and I’m acknowledged with friendly “habari” and “mambo vipi!” (a polite “whats the news?” and cooler phrase “hows it going?”), rather than beeping horns and too-close-for-comfort side view mirrors.

I do have one last observation about the environment in Dar, which interestingly to me no Dar resident, native to Tanzania or wazungu, has ever mentioned. I haven’t brought it up when someone asks me how I like Dar, because I don’t want to sound insulting. But I’ll have to save it for another posting. This one is already long enough, and I’d like to learn more about this last observation before I write about it anyway. Anyone who so kindly read this whole long post is welcome to make guesses about what the third issue is!

-Kristen Pfau




6 responses

30 06 2010
beverly pfau

Hmm wonder what the observation is, could it be something to do with sanitation?

30 06 2010
uncle pete

well you will be skinny when you return i am sure of that! drink plenty of coke you can trust that to be pure! stay safe see you when you get home.

1 07 2010
Kevin Pfau

I swear I didn’t talk to mom and yet I guessed the same as her.
I guess that’s what 27 years of marriage can do to you.
Or is it 23 years of you that led to that guess?

2 07 2010
Lindsey Pfau

I met a man in Finland and we spoke briefly about how you were in Tanzania, working on malaria and he said “Do you know what the #1 killer in Tanzania is?” So I said …. “ummmm….no. Malaria??”
And he said “No, traffic.”

6 07 2010

close guesses Mom and Dad! and that is so funny Linds. And Pete– I have DEFINTELY been drinking my coke 🙂 made with real sugar over here, not corn syrup! mmm it’s good. I actually drink the regular coke, not diet like at home! (They call it “coke light” here)

6 10 2010
Lauren v R

I really enjoyed this post. i’m busy doing research on just how hectic the traffic is infront of the grocery stores in Pugu rd – can’t find any though – but enjoyed your post.

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