I sit down in the front seat of Dr. Shirima’s fancy new car and exchange morning greetings – “Habari za asubuhi?? Nzuri sana, asante” – before my eyes inevitably focus on the bottle of yellow liquid on the dashboard that reads “Pure House” on the first line and “Car Fragrance” on the second. Gets me every time. We wind through the municipalities of Ilala and Temeke on our way in to the office, my eyes constantly focused on all that’s happening on the streets. There is so much color, so much life, so much activity. Motorcycles, apparently having become a huge hit since my last stint in East Africa, weave in and out of the cars and particularly enjoy the middle route between the cars in each lane. One of them zips by with a mud flap that reads “GROLY TO GOD.” They all wear helmets, but their undone buckles flap behind them in the wind. “Better than nothing?” I wonder to myself.
Stopped in traffic, I look at all the people passing by the windows of cars trying to sell almost everything under the sun – gum, soda, water, snacks, inflatable soccer balls and flamingoes, maps of Tanzania, a poster of the English alphabet, fruit, newspapers, tarps…. I pause when I see the man with the tarps. “Who would need a tarp when they’re sitting in traffic?” I think to myself. About thirty seconds later, Dr. Shirima honks his horn and signals to the man with the tarps – “Just what I’ve been looking for,” he says in all seriousness. Touché, tarp man, touché.
Men on bicycles line the outside of the roads, some transporting goods and some not. I am most impressed by those carrying furniture (including an entire sofa) and those bringing eggs to sell in the city. They carry what looks like about 48 eggs per carton, with layers stacked so high I’ve seen them rise above the height of the person transporting them. This would not be a good job for me, I think, picturing myself in a pile of hundreds of broken eggs on the side of the road. Dr. Shirima explains that there’s a huge poultry farm just outside the city where they bike in from every morning. I wonder if this is the most efficient way, but then look around at how much faster bikes can move in this traffic and imagine that it may indeed be faster.
We turn down a side road to take a short cut, passing by a corner where men sit and smash big rocks into smaller rocks all day in order to sell them for building material. I am reminded of the other day when Dr. Shirima and I stopped at a shopping center and there were three people working each gate to the parking lot. How many jobs in the developed world have been replaced by machines?
Passing through the gate at the Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries Development, things around me become quiet. But my mind keeps thinking about the city. I’ve been living in Dar for two weeks now, and every day I reflect on how different life is here than what I experienced in the Arusha region. One of the draws to my internship was that I would finally get to experience a major African metropolis – up until now, my time in big cities here has been short but sweet – a day in Windhoek, two in Maputo, maybe three in Johannesburg and Durban. I spent about three weeks in Cape Town, but it’s hard to really put Cape Town in the same category… My mind starts to wander…
My second night here I am taken down to the bar at the place I’m staying by the niece of the woman who owns it. She is a year younger than me, a primary school teacher on her holiday break right now. She, along with most of the other women I see, is wearing pants. Normally, this would not strike me as odd, but I have not seen a woman in pants since I arrived in Tanzania (save my safari guide, but that’s really a practical decision). Women do not wear pants in the villages – when some of my female students wore pants in the villages we were asked why they were wearing men’s clothes. Here at the bar, a few other women walk past with short, skin-tight dresses. I have not seen legs or cleavage since I arrived, either. I am also told that colorful patterned kangas I so adore are not in style in the city – they’re “something your Aunt Mary wears.” That being said, I see women in kangas every day here, just not among the more modern crowd that frequents this bar. She asks a friend for a cigarette and tells me that her mother doesn’t know she smokes. In the city, if you smoke and you’re female it’s a sign that you’re a prostitute. She likens it to what she’s seen in movies about wigs being a sign that you’re a prostitute in America. It’s a combination of the dress and the location, I say, realizing that most of what I know is probably from the media, too.
I look over and see a couple making out. “!!!!!!” is how my brain responds. I am not only scanning my memory to think if I have EVER seen this amount of PDA anywhere in Africa (again, note my lack of experience in big cities) but also remembering a conversation I had with the Maasai not too long ago that made me think “!!!!!!” as well. In that instance, I was being told that men and women never kiss. Kissing is for a parent to their child, they said, but never between a husband and wife. Up until this moment, it had never even occurred to me that kissing your partner was not simply a part of being human. This sends me into a swirl of questions about whether or not kissing is a biological human impulse and how we express love in different cultures and who were the first humans to kiss and why. I have gone from “no kissing” to public displays of kissing in this country in but a few short weeks. How fabulous.
I have been noticing a man in his underwear and nothing else – small, tight grey briefs. I am also thinking how different this is from village life when my new friend tells me that he is gay. These words come out of her mouth with a mixture of acceptance and disgust, which is a hard line to walk. Homosexuality is not just frowned upon, but illegal many places in Africa (save South Africa where even gay marriage is legal – once you come out of apartheid saying everyone is equal I guess it’s hard to keep institutionalizing discrimination in any form, even though most South Africans are still quite homophobic). Her face, and her later interactions with him, makes me wonder about the role that urban youth in Africa may play in changing this situation. I remember one of Putney students, a girl from NYC, running up to the leaders in joy after seeing two men holding hands – “I saw a gay couple!!!!” she exclaimed. “No you didn’t,” we all reply in unison, crushing her dreams just a little. Here, it is very normal for people of the same sex to hold hands. Two men holding hands is a sign of friendship and nothing more, because the “more” that we speak of does not exist – at least not on the outside. Soon enough, grey underwear guy comes over and introduces himself. Although I learn his real name, I am told that no one would know him by that name because he is called “kichupi” – little underwear. I smile. I need no explanation…
“Ok,” I say, my mind finally coming back to the office after its meanderings through city life. Time to get to work. I know I have the ride home to continue to soak it all in.