The Immigrations officer at Dar Es Salaam’s Julius Nyerere International Airport is struck by my first and last name – “no other names?” he asks. I compensate with a series of Swahili words – mostly greetings or one-word commands, mostly nonsensical when concatenated – and he nods me through, amused at this girl with no middle name.
The drive from the airport is replete with stories and giggling – 3 months of gossip and random ponderings with my long-lost roommate to catch up on, after all. “Karibu,” she squeals, which means ‘welcome’ and is a popular way to greet a newcomer or guest. A few men nonchalantly straddle traffic medians selling mobile phone accessories and cashewnuts, and I wait for the next layer of poverty – the beggars – to knock on our windows, but no one follows. Large billboards tell us to choose the CCM political party – loved in the villages; disappointing to the urbanites, Hamsa tells me – and to get Visa credit cards. Shoprite is the fancy supermarket run by South Africans; the majority of Dar shops at smaller stores and road side marketplaces. Hamsa points out the large Swami Narayanan temple – “karibu” – built for the large and self-segregated community of Indians. They own most stores in Dar and local Africans work for them, complicating relations and making it rare for the 2 communities to mingle socially. One of Hamsa’s friends is a medical student, keen to specialize and begin his own practice so he doesn’t end up working for someone (especially an Indian).
We pass the Muhimbili Hospital and medical school on our left – one of 4 medical schools in Tanzania, and very highly reputed; the student body is entirely scholarship-funded. Population Services International (PSI) has painted elaborate murals on the walls around the university and the adjacent school, warning students, pedestrians, children, loiterers – anyone – of the dangers of AIDS. Use protection, focus on your studies, don’t talk to strangers, and so on.
Hamsa’s building is tall, parrot-green with a perimeter of parked cars. The gate is manned by friendly security guards who, like the airport officials, strangers and taxi drivers I’ve met so far, welcome me with a smile and a “Karibu!” “Asante!” I thank them. Hamsa lives in a beautiful, spacious 3 bedroom-2 bathroom apartment that would make any New Yorker cry. The floors are tiled and there is a veranda in the back to hang-dry clothes. New to me are the mosquito nets hanging above the 3 beds; they are helpful reminders for the malaria medication I need to take once a week.
We go for a walk. Hamsa tugs at my arm as we turn out of her building and I think she has forgotten something. “Pole pole,” she says, meaning slowly. “You aren’t in New York anymore.” She’s right; everyone here walks very slowly. She jokes, “people in Africa walk slowly because we have nowhere to go!”
There’s a fruit seller on the corner, a vegetable shop across the street, a restaurant down the block with the persuasive name, “Delicious Foods,” opposite “Yes Restaurant” on the other side of the road. Men and woman chat and laugh as they saunter home and children return from school in crisp uniforms. Oranges are in season and fruit sellers tempt our noses as they rapidly peel the fruit for on-the-go consumption. An ice cream seller trundles past on a bicycle playing music; he gives us a toothy grin. It feels like a quiet street in Madras, but with a fraction of the people.
The best part? Tanzanian men aren’t aggressive or lecherous. Everyone minds their own business and I walk around completely relaxed, barring general alertness that my bag or camera not be stolen. Compared to India, Egypt, and even New York City, I feel free. I slow down a little more.
We walk past a dala dala stop – a bus stop; what a fun way to say bus! – where several mini buses are lined up and filling with passengers. “Filling” is an understatement; these little vans are crammed to capacity with colorfully dressed men and women sitting standing leaning elbowing bending to maximize the space inside. No one hangs off the sides or rides on top, as they do in India, but the bus is impressively stuffed with scarf-swathed heads and lean limbs. Accidentally meeting eyes with a stranger does not invite lewd stares; I peer into the dala dalas with unabated curiosity.
We meet 2 of Hamsa’s friends for dinner at a street stall on a dark street with no street lights. The vendor has a grill for meat skewers and a table with several upturned bowls for the stew we’re about to eat, urojo. He points to 2 benches on the sidewalk where we settle ourselves. 10 minutes later, 4 bowls are produced, filled with stew. A yellow liquid is poured into each and 2 kinds of pickle – tomato and mango – are provided. Urojo is hot and tasty, an array of textures in every bite. Ingredients include potato, cassava chips, onion, herbs and spices. We eat in the darkness, debate vegetarianism and share travel stories. Karibu, the stars twinkle at me. Asante, I answer, my mouth full.