Friday, September 24, 2010

Mambo? Poa!

[Dar Es Salaam]

Hamsa and I leave the house bright and early to meet some friends for breakfast. The employees at Glory Café serve food with a smile and dollops of sunshine; glorious, indeed. It’s bang opposite Helen Keller International, where Hamsa is volunteering for 6 months, and a 5 minute walk from Hamsa’s apartment (which becomes important later, when I break my shoe on the way back from her office). But back to Glory Café. There are a few tables outside where flies and crows aggressively buzz around, eye and attack our plates of food, which includes boiled eggs, chappati (a cross between an Indian roti and a crepe), bananas and other fried delicacies.

Hamsa introduces me to her colleagues: Rafiki angu Aditi—this is my friend Aditi—from New York. She recommends that I visit Slipway, a bazaar of shops and restaurants by the beach, and return to her office in time for lunch. One of her colleagues calls his friend Anton, a taxi driver, to ferry me there and back, and we enjoy catchy Bongo Flava music – a mixture of reggae and pop – during the drive. Anton and I chat a little and he teaches me a few more Swahili words. Mambo is ‘how’s it going’ and Poa is an affirmative response: going well, cool. We drive along the beach past large, pretty bungalows and bougainvilla trees swishing in the sea breeze. This is the posh part of town, away from the traffic and city center, where diplomats, ambassadors and wealthy expats (forgive the redundancy) live.

Slipway is an indoor and outdoor market place selling all kinds of fantastic African crafts. The unfinished sign on the long roof above the row of shops reads “The ” – I wonder what it was meant to say. I start in the outdoor section where Anton drops me off. It is barely 9am and the stalls are just being opened. Owners are splashing water on the floor and cleaning their spaces; I’m impressed at how many of them are women. The stalls are numbered, most have names – “Anna Ndeja”; “African Antiques.” It is reminiscent of the Christmas markets that sprout in Union Square and Bryant Park in New York, or the maze of stalls in Bombay’s Fashion Street. Being so early in the morning, the crowd has not yet arrived – nor all the stall owners – and I am free to wander in and out of the few that are. Slipway is on the beach, and between the markets and the inviting blue of Msasari Bay is a boat yard with boats in varying states of repair. The inviting hotels here include a playground, sheltered seating with a view of the water, and a pub.

The sole customer, I am treated to singular attention by the vendors. I assure them all their wares are mzuri—beautiful—and promise to come back after I have been to all the stalls. Large canvases of Tinga-Tinga paintings hang on and are propped up against the stall walls. Each stall is maybe 6x4 and there is just enough space for me to stand inside while the vendor points out key chains, necklaces, and sugar pots. There are belts made out of coconut shells, bookends with elephant heads, animal print scarves and dresses, jewelry made out of paper, zebra napkin holders, masks, toy safari trucks, sandals, rings, placemats, pencils, hippo paperweights, plates, bowls and cushions, to name a few.

A cheerful looking man calls out to me, mambo! Poa, I respond, and he is delighted. His name is Samson and this is his store, he has made all these things. His friend has done these paintings and that is his sister’s store but she is not here today. He shows me the toy safari jeep, shows me how the roof opens. He points inside: wazungu!—Swahili for white foreigner. He imitates them standing up in the safari jeep as they drive through a national park, calling out, elephant, giraffe! It is hilarious to watch him make fun of safari goers; that’ll be me in about two weeks. Our conversation continues:

Samson: What is your name?

I repeat it several times, he finds my name difficult.

Samson: Married?

Me: No.

Samson: Friend? (I assume he means boyfriend.)

Me: Yes. (That’ll stave off questions, right?)

Samson: Where from?

Me: India. Are you married?

Samson: No. I want a wazungu friend. Swahili women are…meh.

I am cracking up by now. But I must be supportive.

Me: There are so many wazungu here, coming to buy things. Do you talk to them?

Samson: No. I want a good one.

Pondering his final statement, I let another vendor accost me, she talks non-stop, assures me good prices for being her first customer – a superstition I learn from Hamsa, that if the first customer buys something, the store will have good luck for the rest of the day. Another vendor insists I remember her store, #22. When she sees me 2 hours later, she waves – “I am waiting for you,” she reminds me. A third shows me her necklaces, including the Big Five necklace –the 5 animals that make a safari an official success: lion, elephant, rhino, giraffe, leopard. Mambo, rafiki, they say; welcome, friend. Habari dada – how are you sister. I feel completely welcome and safe, left to browse and smile and leave empty handed without any hassle.

The indoor souk has scores of jewelry, clothing, footwear and other trinkets on display. Inside ‘A Novel Idea,’ the bookstore, I am most taken by the children’s books: The Greedy Zebra and The Handsome Hog are brightly illustrated and Tom and Jenny go to Tanzania is a funny comic strip by David Chiko about an American couple visiting Tanzania for the first time.

Anton returns to pick me up 4 hours later. We drive back to HKI along the shore; Anton points out Coco Beach and I watch the blue of the ocean for as long as I can. Back at HKI, Hamsa and I order lunch from Glory Café and 3 large plates, like South Indian thalis, are delivered to the office almost immediately: rice, bananas, kidney beans, spinach, pickle: delicious, and all for $1.

Post-work, we embark on a frustrating series of attempts to withdraw money and buy our plane tickets to Rwanda, where we’re headed 3 weeks later with some of Hamsa’s friends. We exceed ATM withdrawal limits and lose money exchanging Tanzanian shillings for American dollarsfifteen hundred shillings to the dollar. My traveler’s cheques are worthless and one of 10,000 shilling notes Hamsa withdrew from the ATM is a fake; we watch the woman with tired eyes at the Bureau de Change rip it up. We conclude our ill attempts with local beer at the Hotel Movenpick Bar, which the bartender serves with a mixture, the Indian take on a bowl of peanuts. We gobble down 2 bowlsfull, watching WNBA on one TV and cricket on another while wealthy wazungu order pretty cocktails and the Japanese men next to us light their cigarettes; I forget that I’m in “Africa.” Back home with bursting pockets and an empty stomach, we finish packing for Mt. Kilimanjaro—we leave for the foothills tomorrow—and watch John Wayne in Hatari! about a group of people in East/Southern Africa catching wild animals for zoos around the world. Hamsa perks up at every Swahili world and I picture myself on a safari. Goodbye for now, Dar Es Salaam.

1 comment:

  1. Mambo my friend? Every line you write makes me smile - I can't help falling in love with you :)