Sunday, April 23, 2006


“A Dala-dala is Never Full” or “Dala-dala Bill Y’all” or “Pimp My Dala-dala”

What follows is an ode to the dala-dala, my preferred mode of transport these days. Dala-dalas comprise the public bus system here in Dar and indeed all over Tanzania. Though perhaps ‘bus system’ is a bit misleading, since calling a dala-dala a bus is a bit of a stretch – and their operation is not exactly systematic…

Dala-dalas are usually 12-seater, Hitachi minivans, though again this is a bit of a misleading description as I’ve had the pleasure to ride with at least 25 other passengers at one time. I remember the first time I rode one with my coworker Elisabeth. She let me enter first and I initially thought we’d have to get off, as all the seats were taken and there wasn’t much standing room. But then the other passengers folded down two tiny seats in the aisle. Ah, I thought, now it’s full. (We were about 14 at that point). But no, at the next stop I counted about seven more people get on, and by the end of the ride we had proceeded to pick up a few more.

As for etymology, the term has something to do with U.S. currency. According to my Swahili teacher, there was once a time when one Tanzanian shilling was equal to one U.S. dollar (a bit hard to believe as the U.S. dollar now buys about 1,200 Tanzanian shillings…) and that was how much it cost to ride. So “dala-dala” = “dollar, dollar,” which is what the “conductor” would have called out for passengers to pay. Something like that. (A brief aside: An American friend and I were discussing some of the great, English-influenced names we’ve encountered here. He told me he once met a guy named U.S. Dala. Clearly this person is destined for a successful career in the hip-hop industry…)

Fortunately (for those of us on a budget) it no longer costs a whole dala but a mere 200 Tanzanian shillings (about 17 cents) to go anywhere in Dar. The route the dala-dala will take is indicated by a colored band around the bus, as well as a placard announcing the destination on the front. In addition, most dala-dalas are adorned with graffiti-style paint announcing various slogans or names, which pay heed to Islam and American pop music. For instance, “INSHALLAH” (God willing), “ALLAH AKBAR” (God is Great), “Boyz II Men,” and my personal favorite, “TRACY CHAPMAN,” emblazoned in sparkly, silver bubble letters at the top of the windshield.

Most of the stops are clearly designated, but there are no schedules. A classmate of mine at Swahili school recalled asking someone what time the dala-dala was scheduled to leave. The response: What time? Why, of course when it’s full!

As an mzungu (literally, European, but generally used to refer to all white folks in Tanzania) riding the dala-dala, one is bound to be a bit of a novelty, since most ex-pats prefer to get around in Land Rovers. Perhaps they are heeding the warning featured in the State Department’s Consular Information Sheet for Tanzania, which I recently received in my e-mail inbox. It describes the dala-dalas thusly:

Travelers should be wary of using the ubiquitous microbuses (dala-dalas), which are frequently overcrowded, poorly maintained, a common site of petty theft, and whose operation is generally unsafe.

Nothing like living on the edge…


A Night Truly Different from All Other Nights

This post is terribly overdue, given that Passover is now over, but I think the novelty of my attending a seder here in Dar es Salaam is still worth writing about. Anyway, during my first week here, I met two other American young women who will also be in Dar for two years and who are also members of the tribe. (That’s the Jewish tribe, for you non-chosen people.) One of them is now my housemate, Michelle. The two of them thought it would be nice to observe Passover in some way, either holding their own seder, or trying to find one to attend. Word got round, as it tends to do in the ex-pat community here, and on the Sunday before the first day of Passover, Michelle received a text message from a woman named Pamina, who said she had heard we were looking for a seder.

Michelle called Pamina back and we were summoned to her house that evening to consult on plans for the seder. In the movie version of this story, Pamina would be played by a slightly younger Anjelica Houston…. She is Israeli, 56 years old (over 20 of which have been spent in Tanzania), a chain-smoker and font of unsolicited and often excessive, personal information. It was a bit unclear as to why she needed us there to plan the seder – perhaps she just wanted someone to kvetch at besides her three adult daughters (all of whom have spent almost their entire lives in Dar and speak English, Hebrew, and Swahili fluently). She explained that she was used to hosting large seders here (50 people or more) but had been away from Dar in the past couple of years, and since then the small Jewish community seems to have splintered. But she was determined to resume her hosting duties this year as she had been contacted by two American rabbis who were spending three weeks in East Africa.

After we had been at Pamina’s restaurant for about an hour, the rabbis came to join in the preparations. When I heard that rabbis were coming, I was expecting older, staid men of few words (at least not for a non-religious Jew such as myself). Rather, they were both 22, fresh out of rabbinical school, and only too happy to talk with us, in their strong New York accents, about anything and everything, at great length and with great enthusiasm. They were thus a good match for Pamina. When one lamented his lack of life experience and worried that this would affect his ability to advise members of his congregation, Pamina said, “Well, you may not have experience, but I do. Here are some stories.” And launched into the complete stories of her two marriages and subsequent divorces…

In keeping with their strict dietary restrictions, the rabbis had brought enough food over to hold them for the entire three weeks. Their stash included 100 kilos of chicken schnitzel, which they had frozen, wrapped in newspapers, and packed in suitcases!! This level of precaution was met with a fair degree of scorn from Pamina and her daughters, who explained to the rabbis that Dar’s large Muslim population means that it’s possible to get halal meat everywhere, and halal is the same as kosher. The rabbis were of a different opinion, and proceeded to get into a very heated debate, which Michelle and I were finally able to escape when I was no longer able to conceal my yawns. (At this point we had been “planning” the seder for a good three hours, it was past 10 PM, and we still had not eaten dinner!)

The seder itself was a bit anti-climactic. Or at least different from what I had expected. There were only about 16 of us, and Michelle and I managed to be late, which further soured our hostess’s bad mood. The rabbis were clearly very nervous, and I think in what was an attempt to not offend or bore anyone, they skipped over or rushed through a lot of key elements of the seder. Despite some of the guests grumbling that we were not doing things properly, we cut the ceremony short to eat, as Pamina informed us that the food would burn otherwise. The chicken schnitzel had been transformed into meatballs, which were served “Chinese style,” “Cajun style,” and “Tanzanian style.” All very tasty, but I actually don’t think the rabbis ate ANY after all their protesting. I think they still were not satisfied with how it had been prepared… I also think one of them was coming down with something, as he put on his jacket midway through dinner, and it’s really NEVER cool enough in Dar to merit putting on a jacket…

Food and a bit of too-sweet kosher wine put everyone (with the possible exception of the rabbis) in a more relaxed mood, and we were able to resume the official business of the seder after eating. We concluded by singing the songs that more than one person could remember and were finally sent home with excess homemade matzo (also imported from New York City).

I can only hope that the rest of our rabbis’ visit has been a success. The “Tanzanian way” of accepting and adapting to one’s circumstances with limited worries and stress is not exactly conducive to a strict adherence to the laws of Orthodox Judaism (or a strict adherence to anything that matter). But if nothing else, I’m sure they’ll return home with a few good stories.

Thursday, April 13, 2006


Compendium of Inevitable Clueless-American-in-Foreign-Country Moments

So when I started this blog, I made a promise to myself that I would do more than talk about how DIFFERENT everything is when you're living in a **FOREIGN COUNTRY**. But, I'm sorry, sometimes everything is just really, well, different when you're living in a foreign country. These differences can have a number of consequences -- some frightening, some embarassing, some just downright weird. In the past few days, I've had a number of such experiences, and so I now feel compelled to list them without further ado:

(I will try to write a more comprehensive update soon... Just to keep you in the loop, I have returned to Dar with some competence in the Swahili language, and have moved into my house!!!)

So, to begin, a bathroom story... On Sunday I got to spend another 8 hours of my life on a "luxury" bus (it was actually pretty nice and we even had a stewardess and 2 movies!). Despite my best intentions I had managed to drink enough on the ride that I needed to use the disgusting bathroom (I haven't quite adjusted to the squat toilets...) at the highway restaurant where we stopped for lunch. Knowing what to expect, I had brought my own toilet paper, so I thought I was prepared. But then I couldn't figure out how to flush. There was nothing on the tank, so I thought I'd try a faucet in the middle of the wall next to the toilet. Well it turned out that I had managed not to flush the toilet but to turn on THE SHOWER. I managed to not get totally soaked, but my hair did get visbly wet, as did my shirt and pants... Let's just say I got even more weird looks than usual when I finally emerged from the bathroom, and the rest of the ride was not so pleasant.

My theme of embarassing myself continued later that night when I checked into my budget motel in the center of town (sadly my guest house was full, and I didn't yet have a bed so couldn't move into my house, so work had set me up with a room at the Econo Lodge, described by multiple people as "not great, but OK." I'd say it lived up to the description.). I had gone out to dinner so was getting back at around 9... I went to get in the elevator and right before the doors shut, this short Tanzanian guy ran to join me. (We were the only people in the elevator.) He did not push a button and proceeded to get out at my floor. I thought I'd let him go first since he kind of creeped me out, but he kind of hung back and ended up following me to my room. When we got to my door, I turned sharply and said in a loud voice, "UNAKWENDA WAPI?!!" (Where are you going?!!) He then explained that he was hotel security..... So I laughed and apologized and tried to explain, which potentially made him think I was coming on to him. ("Oh... where did you THINK I was going..." *suggestive eyebrow raise*) But I was relieved, to say the least. I concluded the evening by thinking I had locked myself in the bathroom (about 5 minutes of sheer panic, especially considering the fact that the only person who might hear my cries for help was the somewhat sketchy security guard) but fortunately I was mistaken once again.

Other incidents of note in the past few days have included my cab ride with the police... I was riding home with a friend who got dropped off first. As soon as we turned the corner we were stopped by 3 policeman, all of whom proceeded to enter the cab!! My look of horror convinced the 3rd one to get out and avoid sitting on my lap, so then I just got to ride with two... They insisted that I "worry not," complimented me on my Swahili, and assured me that they were just dealing with a "previous offense" that the driver had committed. I was of course certain that they were not real policeman, but friends of the driver, who would proceed to drive me out to some godforsaken corner of Dar and beat me up and take all my money. Fortunately this did not occur; I just got taken to my motel and they went on their merry way. I felt a bit bad for the driver, but less so after he conveniently did not have any change and I ended up paying him about 5 times my fare.

And to conclude, a few words on shopping for a bed, Tanzanian style. In Dar es Salaam, it is possible to buy absolutely ANYTHING along the side of the road. This proved quite convenient on Monday, when I purchased my bed from a parking lot along the main road. Fortunately, a Tanzanian friend had gone to the bed vendor earlier in the day to secure the price, but when we arrived later we were still MOBBED. As soon as it became clear that I was going to buy something, I was surrounded by about 40 men vying for my attention (I could get used to this... OK not really) and passing mattresses over my head. When I had finally selected the bed I wanted, they proceeded to disassemble it and stuff it into the back of the world's most dilapidated taxi... The poor car was seriously on its LAST legs: We stopped for "gas" which entailed taking a gallon jug of some clear liquid out from under the hood, but not turning off the engine, because if we had we would have needed to start the car again... But we and the car made it alive to my house, and then the driver carried my bed inside and put it back together again! Now that's service...

But now I must be off as we have a 4-day holiday for Easter, and I have a trip to plan! (If all goes well I'll be in Zanzibar at this time tomorrow)

Sunday, April 02, 2006


Chakula cha Tanzania

In the three weeks that I have spent in Tanzania thus far, I have been fortunate to sample a variety of food (chakula), often in rather copious quantities. Thus, as part of Dar es Salaam Diary’s stated mission to inform and entertain, I would like to use this post to take you on a gastronomic tour of my new home.

Every Friday afternoon here at “camp” is set aside for “cultural time,” meant to help us wazungu cope with adjusting to our new home. Last Friday the theme was time management, Tanzanian style. We saw a skit and participated in an in-depth discussion with the main point being that people here do not like to hurry. They will be late for meetings, will notice your being late but never own up to being late themselves, and that there’s nothing much we can do about it, so we should just accept it as a fact of Tanzanian life and deal. Hamna shida. Hakuna matata. (In just two weeks of Swahili lessons, I’ve learned approximately 6 different ways of saying “no worries.”) If you know me at all well, it’s likely that you’ve had the experience of waiting around for me at some point, so this is one cultural barrier that I think I should have no great problem with.

Anyway, the theme for this Friday’s cultural time was food, as a number of us had expressed a desire to learn how to cook traditional Tanzanian dishes. So, at around 2:30, my classmates and I gathered with one of our teachers, mwalimu Rehema, and four of the chefs here who had graciously agreed to show us how to prepare chakula cha Tanzania. Four and a half hours, and at least as many cups of oil later, we had made a feast!

As for what we made… The primary staple of the Tanzanian diet is ugali, a stiff porridge that is something of an acquired taste. (Though it’s actually rather tasteless…) None of us have quite developed the appreciation that ugali perhaps merits, but we were still curious to see how it’s made. Basically, it’s just water and maize flour, but the process of boiling and stirring can get a little tricky (especially when you’re squatting over a small, hot charcoal stove!) Fortunately, no one expects you to eat ugali by itself. Rather, it serves as a base for stews of meat (nyama) or veggies (mboga).

Tanzanian food also includes a number of dishes with Indian roots. We made two of these: chapati and sambusas (samosas). In each case, the main ingredients were flour, water, and a generous amount of oil. The sambusas were filled with a delicious mixture of ground beef, onions, garlic, ginger, and peas. Quite fun to make, though rolling the dough thin enough proved rather difficult.

Next on the menu was spiced chicken (kuku), which was marinated in a mix of ginger, garlic, salt, pepper, and lime juice, and then fried in boiling oil for about 15-20 minutes until brown.

We also made okra (bamia), stewed veggies (mboga), fried green bananas, and beans with coconut milk. And while we were washing up, our patient teachers prepared stewed spinach, carrot salad, and cut up some fresh avacadoes.

As perhaps inferred from the time, this was a rather labor-intensive process. Case in point: the coconut milk. Rather than simply opening a can, we had to shred fresh coconut by hand using a nifty little folding-seat contraption with a spiky bit coming out of one end. You basically straddle it and then use the spiky end to scrape all of the flesh from the inside of a half coconut. Those with a bit more experience make this process look easy and quick, but I would say I averaged about 20 minutes per half coconut, and my back was rather sore afterward… Once you have all the shavings, you put them in warm water, and squeeze, then run through a strainer.

Our hard work was finally rewarded with a delicious (though rather heavy!) meal, pictures of which you can see here.

On Saturday I was still recovering from the feast, but had promised a fellow classmate and one of the MS-TCDC drivers that I would go out for nyama choma (grilled meat) so I got to have another culinary adventure that evening. The nyama in question can be chicken, goat, beef, or mutton (also fish at some establishments). Before sitting down, you go to the counter and select your meat. Sometimes it’s already cooked, I am told, but in our case I got to point to a big hunk of raw beef hanging from a hook in the ceiling to indicate how much I wanted and from what part of the animal. (Not exactly a vegetarian-friendly dining experience…) We then sat down to wait for it to be prepared, with some cold Kilimanjaro to help pass the time. After about 30 minutes, we were presented with a large silver platter of grilled beef chunks and some more fried green bananas. Also hot chili on the side. No silverware, as nyama choma is always eaten with one’s hands. Another round of beer was necessary at this point to counter the spice of the meat. All in all, a thoroughly delicious meal, and definitely a value (About $9 for 6 beers and food for three…)

Dessert does not appear to be such a big thing here (perhaps it’s superfluous by that point?) but one’s sweet tooth can certainly be satisfied by the delicious fruit and fruit juices. In particular, mango, pineapple, guava, passion fruit, and papaya.

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