The Heat of Dar es Salaam

Nadia Owusu

“I am not African because I was born in Africa but because Africa was born in me.”—Kwame Nkrumah

On the day I was born, the air was a supple stew—heavy with overripe fruit and armpits, ocean salt, and slow-roasted goat meat. Of course, I don’t remember that day, but I was born in the Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam—just ‘Dar’ to the locals—and the viscosity of the air is the first thing that visitors remark on. It is what they remember most. More than the satin white sand and the warm-bath ocean of Kunduchi beach, the children who scuttle up the coconut palms to fetch the hard shells to crack, sweet flesh to eat, cold milk to drink. More than the sticky dough of the greasy fried mandazis sold by women walking car to car with colorful kangas wrapped tightly around their breasts, Swahili wisdoms printed at the hems—Fadhila za punda ni mateke (the donkey expresses gratitude by kicking) and Mgeni siku mbili, siku ya tatu mpe jembe (Treat your guest as a guest for two days; on the third day give him a hoe). More than the dala dala motorcycles and the boda boda minibuses: Dar’s over-crowded, under-regulated version of public transport. It’s so hot there, tourists say once they have been deposited back in a more temperate climate by KLM or Delta. They drag the backs of their hands across their foreheads, the mere thought of Dar raising their body temperatures, slowing their movements.

My parents did not belong to Dar es Salaam. They had temporary visas and diplomatic plates on their cars. My Ghanaian father had just been hired by a UN agency after finishing his PhD in the US. My Armenian-American mother was thrilled to get out of Massachusetts where she had lived her whole life. I was their first-born child, their Tanzanian baby. When I was born, they decided that I looked like the locals. Many Swahili people are an ethnic mix of Black and Arab and Indian.

In Arabic, Dar es Salaam means the residence of peace. And, indeed it is a peaceful city, particularly when compared with other major East African metropolises—Nairobi, Kampala, Bujumbura, Kigali—that have all seen varying degrees and various brands of horrific violence. Genocide, coups, civil war, rampant armed robberies, terrorism. Tanzania is often pointed to as a shining example, rare in Africa, of what is possible when leaders adhere to the constitution, when division and extremism are rejected. Ask any Tanzanian how she feels about her country and she will tell you about the poverty, about how survival is a struggle for far too many. She will tell you about how people must wrestle a salary from the earth, the sea, or the tourists because other jobs are scarce. But she will also tell you, with a clear sense of pride, about peace. Then, if you are speaking to a resident of Dar, she might make a joke about the weather: Who has the energy to fight in this heat? If you are a foreigner and you laugh at her joke, if you agree with her about the weather, she might slap you on the back, and say, but hakuna matata, right my sister? 

Hakuna Matata is a Swahili phrase that Disney spread to the world. Its inclusion in that catchy song from The Lion King likely stemmed from a song written by a popular Kenyan hostel band, meaning a band that made a living playing for muzungu (white) tourists. Perhaps one of the composers heard it at a safari lodge or a beach resort. The song sounds nothing like the one from the cartoon, but it repeats the jolly refrain, meaning no worries, over and over again, interspersed with other basic Swahili phrase book fodder: jambo bwana (Hello, sir), habari gani? (How are things?), nzuri sana (very well). There are several recorded versions of the song by several different bands. It is ubiquitous in all establishments where muzungus can be found supping Tusker’s beer and eating giant kebabs of zebra, antelope, and alligator. People in Tanzania, however, are more likely to say hamna shida than hakuna matata when speaking to each other. On the surface, it means the same thing. The hostel band might have chosen the less colloquial hakuna matata for its number of syllables, its rhythm. But, it’s clear from the way people shrug and smile when they say hamna shida, that the sentiment is not quite the naive happiness expressed in the Disney cartoon; the naive happiness locals express to muzungus with hakuna matata and a slap on the back. It’s not about ‘no worries for the rest of your days,’ but rather about carrying on despite those worries. It’s about acknowledging that there are things in this world beyond your control. Things like the economy and the weather.

I too remember the heat of Dar es Salaam. I remember it as a permanent imprint in my nerves, in my flesh, in my blood vessels. Are you feeling alright? Your skin is so warm, men have said to me when we share the same bed. I am a hot-blooded animal, I tell them. My circadian rhythm follows—seeks—the warmth of the sun. Humidity is my preferred climate. I shun air conditioning and sleep under a billowy duvet, even in the summer. I live in New York. As soon as the first snowflake lands on my head, icy water tickling my scalp, I prepare for hibernation. My bed becomes an island where I read by red wine and candlelight instead of going to holiday parties. I pile on scarves and sweaters and thick woolen socks. In the event I have to venture out, I keep a running list of restaurants, coffee shops, and bars that have fire places or overactive radiators. I mourn the mugginess of New York summers. I resent the need to resort to artificial heat. It dries out my hair and makes my eyes and my heart itch, messing with my vision and my motivation. The winter fills my mind with dark sounds—grating, repetitive, angry. It seems as though all of the worst days of my life have been in winter, though this might very well be a sensory error caused by weather bias. We color in the outlines of our memories with our beliefs.

I remember myself aged four, running naked, crying, and covered in baby powder, being chased by my Somali nanny who laughed and clicked her tongue, calling to me in a guttural language I did not understand. She spoke English perfectly well. Maybe she was cursing, or maybe the words wet on her lips in such a moment were the words she would have used with her own children. She wanted to dress me; I wanted my pores to breathe.

I remember a little Indian boy who was my friend—perhaps the son of one of my father’s colleagues at the UN. Ratul or Rahul? Something like that.  We sat in the back of a white Pajero, swimsuits on, arms squelched into inflated orange armbands, on our way to one of the beach hotel pools. Our tiny bodies sprang into the air as we flew over the rocky dirt roads. Every time we landed, we dislodged sparkling dust from the old polyester car seats and sprinkled it in the air, creating magic out of filth. We never wore our seat belts. Country music played on the radio. My father’s driver, Francis, sang improbably along in his Swahili accent. Tanzanians love country music. I think they like the gritty sagacity, the stories from an America that is more familiar to them, more like home, than the skyscrapers of New York or the glitz of LA. The American landscape that is bucolic and coarse and full of God-fearing people who corral bovine beasts on open plains and tell stories around campfires.

Tanzanians believe in God. They believe in the Muslim version introduced by merchants from Oman and Persia who came to East Africa in the seventh and eighth centuries to buy and sell ivory, cloves, and slaves. They believe in the Christian versions brought by the German Lutheran and British Anglican missionaries and colonial authorities. Growing up, after my father married my Tanzanian stepmother, whenever we were in Dar over Christmas or summer holidays, we would attend the Lutheran church on Kivukoni Road with her family. I would stare, instead of at the portrait of the fair-skinned, blond-haired Jesus behind the pulpit, at the walls that were so clean and white that I could paint the ocean on them with my mind. Instead of singing along with the choir, I would close my eyes and listen hard for the sound of waves coming into the harbor that was so tortuously close. Dar is where I first fell in love with the ocean. I wasn’t sure that I believed in any god, but I believed in floating, in clear blue above me and clear blue beneath me. I believed in the silence that I could find only when I was lying, weightless, in salt water. In salt water, there is nothing looming over me, nothing that might collapse.

Tanzanians believe in the Hindu and Sikh gods brought by the large Indian population who first came to East Africa to build railroads for the British. And, they believe in the versions of god that came before the muzungus—the versions that even my very Lutheran step-grandmother turns to when the capital G god does not seem to be listening. The versions she has paid traditional healers to commune with in order to “save” a grandson from his homosexuality, to cure a daughter’s (my stepmother’s older sister’s) cancer. On the latter, her prayers and libations were answered, on the former they were not.

Here on earth, Tanzanians believe in hard work; in long days swinging machetes in banana fields, picking corn, and digging up beetroots from dirt. They believe in Dolly Parton.  And, long before Francis learned the lyrics to Jolene and to songs sung by George Strait, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash, he believed in cowboys. He knew the tribal dances of the Maasai: Tanzanian cowboys and cowgirls. When they dance, they leap into the air, their tall thin bodies reaching straight as arrows for the clouds. The men grow their hair long, braiding it down their backs, reddening it with mud to match the deep red cloth they drape over their shiny black skin. The women shave their heads. They wear layers and layers of butterfly-colored beads around their necks. The Maasai are some of the most beautiful people in the world. But, their beauty belies their toughness. They have maintained their way of life for centuries, coming in and out of the modern world as they see fit. They have gone up against the government when that way of life has been challenged to make way for more tourism. They believe in a god they claim gave them all the cattle in the world. They used to raid other tribes to take back what was rightfully theirs. That happens less now. They have enough battles—with the government who threaten every few years to evict them from their land, with the warming planet that threatens the grass they need for grazing. But cows are still their currency, their primary food source, the center of their world.

At sixteen, I stood outside a traditional Maasai cow-dung and mud hut. I wore long, ripped denim shorts, a Wu-Tang t-shirt, and converse sneakers. In my JanSport backpack was a large plastic bottle of Evian water, some Italian salami and Camembert cheese wrapped in tinfoil, a disposable camera, a Seventeen magazine, and a paperback copy of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. The cheese and salami were for my family’s picnic lunch. The magazine and book were for ignoring my family during that picnic lunch.

We were on vacation in the Serengeti National Park, and our safari package included a Maasai guide and a cultural tour of a Maasai village. The muzungus took photos of the hut. They took photos of the children, some of whom wore traditional dress, but most of whom wore ratty t-shirts and frilly pink dresses that probably found their way to this cow dung and mud village from a Goodwill donation box somewhere in Iowa or Vermont. They took photos of themselves standing next to Maasai warriors holding spears. They took photos of the women drinking cow’s blood—plunging a sharpened spearhead attached to a gourd into the beast’s jugular artery and letting out enough blood to fill the gourd but not enough to kill. The Maasai women took turns drinking from the gourd, smiling as they passed it on to their children, revealing their stained red teeth. I was as fascinated by the Maasai as the muzungus. Their way of life was only slightly less foreign to me than it was to the safari suit-wearing Swedes and the Americans with fanny packs around their bulging midsections. My Africa was not this Africa. I had taken one photo with my disposable camera, but I stopped, put it away, because I felt suddenly embarrassed. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.

Years later, I was walking to a bar in Bed Stuy when I noticed a white man wearing a backpack. An elaborate-looking camera dangled from his neck, and he held a subway map in his hand. He was talking to three older black women who were sitting on lawn chairs on the sidewalk in front of a housing project. The women had on house slippers and were sipping what I assumed to beers from brown paper bags. They had gotten together to watch the world go by under the fluorescent lights of the building’s entrance, to gossip about their neighbors. As I got closer, something made me slow down, remove my earphones. The man was asking to take the women’s photograph.

“Get the hell outta here,” said one of the women.

“White boys,” said another, shaking her head as the man hurried past me, toward the A train.

I too hurried away. I felt the same smarting on the back of my neck that I felt that day in the Serengeti. It was the photographs, I realized, that disturbed me most. Human beings photographing other human beings as though it were the same thing as photographing the sleeping lions and the bathing hippos. “There they are in their natural habitat,” they—we—might as well have said.

“Thank you,” I said to our Maasai guide as we climbed back into our jeep.

“Hakuna matata,” he said, waving goodbye.

Tanzania gained its independence from Great Britain in 1961 under the leadership of Julius Nyerere. His obituary in The New York Times in 1999 noted that he ascended to power without a single shot being fired. It remembered that he introduced free and universal public education and brought the nation’s extremely low literacy rate to eighty-three percent; that he united a land of nine million people with 120 tribes who previously had no common language, under the lingua franca of Swahili. Nyerere did not intend for Swahili to replace other languages, but rather to create, in addition to tribal allegiances, an overriding Tanzanian identity and consciousness. Swahili was an appropriate choice as it started as a fisherman’s language, believed to have been a hodgepodge of several tribal tongues, spoken on the coasts of Tanzania and Kenya. It was spread, by means of trade, to what are now Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi, and Burundi. As it spread, it absorbed words from Arabic and English and Hindi.

Nyerere was a humble man who was committed to egalitarianism and peace. He chose as a title, rather than the President for Life moniker preferred by the likes of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, the Swahili word for ‘teacher’—Mwalimu. However, not all of his policies aimed at national unity and shared prosperity were as uncontroversial as the proliferation of Swahili. The best-known of these policies, Ujamma, was a blend of the kinship and mutual assistance that was central to the traditional African way of life, the ideal of Christian brotherhood, and the socialism he had studied while at graduate school in Scotland.

Ujamma encouraged, or in many cases coerced by means of the withholding of government services and assistance, Tanzanians to relocate to newly created villages in rural areas. In those villages, people were to reject materialism and the accumulation of personal wealth—values that Nyerere argued had been forced upon Africa through colonialism and had created a dangerous form of inequality that threatened Tanzania’s future. Residents of the Ujamma villages were, instead, to administer those villages collectively and to own and work the land together. In his book entitled Freedom and Development, he wrote, “We can try to cut ourselves from our fellows on the basis of education…we can try to carve out for ourselves an unfair share of the wealth of society. But the cost to us, as well as to our fellow citizens will be very high. It will be high not only in terms of our own satisfactions, but also in terms of our own security and well-being.” Egalitarianism, to Nyerere, was not just a question of morality. It was the foundation upon which nations should be built. On that, he was willing to walk the walk, never taking more than an $8,000 a-year salary as President. Rather than being accompanied by a motorcade, he was driven around in an old beat-up car. And, he wanted, more than anything, for the new Tanzania to be self-reliant. A poor country cannot run itself if it relies on foreign help was a slogan that he had painted on public buildings. I remember reading it out loud when I was a little girl and determined to read everything out loud—showing off for my father. I had to squint to make out the faded letters on old brick in the brash sunlight.

“Very true,” my father said, tapping me on the head with his newspaper. Nyerere was one of his favorite controversial heroes, those African statesmen like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara who tried to create an African system that was not expressed solely in relation to the ‘isms’ and ‘ocracies’ as defined by the West. “We in Africa have no more need of being converted to socialism than we have of being ‘taught’ democracy,” wrote Nyerere. “Both are rooted in our past.”

Ujamma failed in the late 1970’s. Food production declined dramatically as many of the Ujamma villages were unwittingly built on sterile soil. Many poor farmers refused to give up their traditional lands to work on the new farms. Some local officials took things too far, moving from tactics of persuasion to tactics of intimidation: burning down homes and threatening arrests. Nyerere reprimanded them for being over-zealous, but he also took to the radio to lecture Tanzanians about not holding up their end of the bargain, asserting that they had been given free education and health care and they were being ungrateful. Industry and banking were crippled as Nyerere focused entirely on rural development, even moving the nation’s capital from Dar es Salaam—a center of commerce—to Dodoma, a sleepier city in the country’s interior that provided easier access to the Ujamma villages. Meanwhile, global agricultural prices fell, complicating an already precarious situation. By the end of Nyerere’s twenty-five year rule, Tanzania was one of the poorest countries in the world. In 1984, when the government defaulted on its interest payments to the US, the Reagan Administration suspended all aid but emergency food allocations. A food emergency had been declared a few years earlier. It was that emergency that led to my father being stationed in Tanzania by the UN agency for which he worked; that led to my being born in Dar es Salaam.

In the evenings, after our days at the pool, my little friend’s mother would show up with clean, dry, clothes and a comb. She would call to him to get out of the water, strip him down so that, from where I doggy-paddled, I could see his bare bottom that was so much paler than his umber-colored skin. She always combed his hair carefully, patted him on the head when she was done. She always thanked my Somali nanny for watching him, made small talk with her about the heat (what else?). She waved to me as she led my friend off by the hand, and he called out that he would see me tomorrow. I waved too and kept on doggy-paddling. I refused to get out when my nanny said it was time to go home. She was not my mother. She hadn’t even brought a comb. My mother had left us. She lived beyond the horizon, in America, with a new husband and two new daughters who had taken the place of my father, my sister, and me.

Once, when I was visiting my mother in Massachusetts, she told me that she would love to retire in Dar es Salaam. She too loved the ocean. She loved to swim into its depths, away from the roar of the heaving ground. Dar was the place, she said, where she felt most at peace. This was surprising to me as Tanzania was the place where my parent’s marriage fell apart. It was also surprising because she had often complained about the heat. Of my birth, she said that it was long, and too hot, and that she almost lost two teeth—her hormones went haywire and weakened them, the doctors at the (scary, she said) hospital did not do anything to stop her from grinding her jaw. When I reminded her of that, she laughed and said that it was still one of the best things that ever happened to her. That, despite the fine dark hair that covered my upper back and forehead until I was a month old, she thought that I was the most beautiful creature she had ever seen. For a year, she carried me around in the style of Tanzanian mothers, in a kanga swaddled tightly to her breasts. My sweat seeped through her thin cotton dresses. My breath warmed her neck. The unformed soft spot on my skull pulsed softly against her chin. At a year old, when she was pregnant with my sister, she tried to phase out the kanga, to put me down. I would scream and throw my legs up into a perfect split so that I would not be forced to stand on my own two feet. I applied such a tight lock to her neck that she struggled to breathe. Once, I almost split her earlobe in two when I clasped for her hoop earring. The look on my face, my mother said, was always one of pure terror as though she were trying to lower me not onto a soft green lawn, but into boiling water.

Despite the failure of Ujamma, despite the fact that Tanzania remains a poor nation, still very much reliant on foreign aid, Nyerere’s legacy is one of peace. It is, as he hoped, the value that is central to Tanzania’s national identity.

I was born in a hot city with many gods who don’t always answer prayers. The Maasai did not get to own all the cattle in the world. Some of them must make a living giving cultural tours. My step-grandmother must accept her grandson’s homosexuality. My mother and I never floated side by side in the turquoise warm bath ocean. In the end, I could not stop her from lowering me onto the lawn. Hakuna matata, say the fishermen, farmers, and front-desk concierges to the muzungu tourists. And, hamna shida to each other. Some things are beyond even the gods’ control. We must all, in the end, make peace with that.