Place as Palimpsest: A Postcard from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania

Dar es Salaam’s brand is difficult to find—the city does not have its own website. What is more telling of Tanzania is the way that it begs to be seen: a country where you can scan lush mountain ranges and dip into silken waterfalls. Scrub yourself with sand hot enough to free you of your sins. Find yourselves in crystal water. Make love to the sight of lions mating in the wild. This is not the Dar es Salaam I grew up in, but it is certainly the one I am visiting.

It’s too complicated to tell the tourists (myself included, now) ‘yes, we want your money, but also the white folk did a number on our city!’ To explain that society and urban planning in Tanzania has been shaped in direct response to white colonialism and its remnants. This is where you pay $100 for a visa on arrival.

The first president, Julius Nyerere, is featured in a biography on They tout his accidental political career, his peaceful transition to power, and negotiation with leaders of the Zanzibari coup to form a new Tanzania. He did not rise in a relaxed saunter—his takeover from the then British rule was a sweat-browed and sun-beaten grab at the country that he wanted to save. This is where you can walk along the beach, opposite the state house. The president lives here. There is a fish market another mile up the road!

My father’s uncle, melting into his peeling black leather sofa, tells me stories of the day he learned that dollar bills don’t burn. Asian Slums, a term used by M.G. Vassanji in his memoir, And Home was Kariakoo, were isolated parts of the City Center of Dar es Salaam that fell into poverty during the period that Idi Amin claimed Uganda for Ugandans, and removed all South Asians. African South Asians ran out of countries in droves, leaving behind empty businesses and buildings. During a process of nationalization, homes in the Asian Slums were raided, and my father’s uncle was worried he would be the next to be jailed. When setting fire to bills didn’t work, he drowned them in the depths of toilets instead. Meanwhile, the rest of the family dug holes to bury things not Made in Tanzania in parking lots under the deep darkness that only springs from power outages in the abyss of summer. This is where you can escape the heat—there are generators here so the air conditioning stays on!

The police presence is minimal here; violence comes from seekers of vigilante justice. I once saw a man stuffed, his brown flesh readying for reddening, into a roll of tires. Our kamwari—housekeeper—pulled me from the dust-tinged metallic mesh in the window, letting the tangy taste of rust linger on my tongue, as we both heard screaming from the street a floor below, smelled the bite of burning flesh. This is where I grew up, in that apartment over the marketplace—it’s easy to find vegetarian options in this part of town.

The Tanzanian flag is made up of four colors: blue for the ocean, green for the land, yellow for natural resources, and black for our socialist president, who eventually apologized for the state of the state, once he was done. Black also for the (perhaps rightly) uncomfortable victims of his nationalization. Black also for my kamwari even though she left home one day, purse stacked with money from the cupboard and milk from the refrigerator, and never walked back. Black also for the burnt shell of a man, perhaps still resting in his tire instead of a grave. Wish you were here, too!

Jhanvi Ramaiya is a nonfiction MFA candidate at George Mason University, and holds a degree in Sociology from Gettysburg College. Originally from Kutch, a tiny territory in northern India, she is fourth-generation Tanzanian who now lives in America, and spends a lot of time thinking and writing about the distance between those places. Follow her on Twitter @jhanviactually.

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