Today, at about 10:00 am, all the women in my office disappeared.
I asked A, one of the law students who is working at the Centre for the summer, where everyone had gone. He pointed at the large whiteboard in the hall, which read: Kikao cha Vicoba and explained that the women were conducting a Vicoba meeting in the boardroom. Vicoba is short for Village Community Bank and is a microfinance lending project that was initiated by some of the women working here last year. Each member is expected to contribute between 5,000 and 50,000 tsh per week (approximately $3 – $30). The funds are used to provide loans to members who want to start businesses, pay for weddings, or fund another type of endeavour. Members are allowed to borrow up to three times the amount they have contributed. There is no interest or collateral, but there is an expectation that members will not default on loans because “everyone knows everyone else, how much they make, and when they get paid”.
A is an avid fan of the Hollywood movies that play weekly at Mlimani City near the University and he sums it up like this: “You guys have all of those book clubs and we have Vicoba”.
Mikocheni A. Mikocheni B. Kinondoni. Kijitoyama. Ada Estate. Msasani. Kigamboni. Garden Road. Mlimani. University of Dar es Salaam.
ER and I have toured all of these neighbourhoods this week while looking for an apartment. We have probably looked at about 20 apartments, but it feels like hundreds. Each apartment viewing is a three to four hour time commitment and is all too easily derailed by one of many potential complications.
There is no Craigslist in Dar. Instead, the rental market is ruled by the dilali (real estate agent). Prospective renters must contact a dilali and explain what type of apartment they are looking for, their budget, and their preferred neighbourhood. The dilali will then schedule (and I use that term as loosely as possible) viewings at the various apartments that are available for rent.
Our first difficulty was locating a dilali. Our monthly rental budget is $800 but most of the agents that we contacted refused to show us anything below $1500.
We finally found two agents that would show us apartments that were more reasonably priced, but appointments generally involved a lot of waiting. And waiting. And more waiting.
A productive apartment-searching-day involves waiting for the dilali to show up (1 to 2 hours), taking a circuitous route around the city via bajaj to locate keys and arrange permission to see several apartments (another 1 to 2 hours and a small fortune in bajaj fare), and then, if all goes well, waiting around at an apartment for the landlord to show up to negotiate rent. At that point, the landlord usually informs us that the rent is significantly higher than originally reported by the dilali. It is in the dilali‘s best interest to push the rent as high as possible because he receives a commission of one month’s rent if he is successful in finding an apartment for us.
A bad apartment-searching-day involves waiting for hours for the dilali to show up for a scheduled appointment, becoming resigned to the fact that the dilali is not going to show up, waiting a bit more, and then returning home several hours later without seeing a single apartment.
We thought we had a good lead when a dilali told us that he had found us an apartment in a nice house in the up-and-coming “best bite” neighbourhood. Best bite? I thought maybe I had heard wrong, or there had been an error in translation, until we turned the corner and saw this:
Best Bite was apparently one of the first fast food places to open in Dar and is famous amongst residents. The apartment the dilali wanted to show us was around the corner. It had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a huge balcony. We fell in love with it immediately, and the dilali called the owner so that we could negotiate rent. Sure enough it was significantly out of our budget, but it turned out that that there was a two bedroom available in the same building. The dilali told us that we couldn’t see it right away, but that we could come back later that night to view it.
We had to return three more times before we could finally see the Best Bite apartment. Unfortunately, it turned out to not be as nice as the three bedroom. We kept looking.
Today we finally found an apartment with two bedrooms (and, inexplicably, three bathrooms). It is on the border between Mikocheni A and Mikocheni B and about a five minute walk from the beach. The catch is that the apartment is still under construction, but this also means that we get to help pick out all new furnishings for it. The landlord assures us that the apartment will be ready by Saturday morning, and we drafted and asked her to sign a contract to that effect.
We have resigned ourselves to one more week of Q-Bar, and the corresponding disco beats until 5 am. But then we get to move into our apartment by the beach.
Karibu is the Kiswahili word for ‘welcome’ and it is a word that I have heard frequently over the past week. “Karibu Tanzania” (welcome to Tanzania) is a popular refrain around the hotel and in shops and restaurants.
I started work at the legal aid centre this past Monday and the greeting was used over and over again as I was introduced to the other lawyers and staff to mean, “you are welcome here”.
Each work day also starts with a series of intricate greetings, which are important in Tanzanian culture and which I am just starting to learn. To a colleague who is my age, I say mambo (what’s up?) to which she replies, poa (I’m cool). To the woman across the hall I say habari gani (how are you) to which she replies, nzuri, asante (fine, thank you). To the senior advocate down the hall, I say shikamoo (greetings, to an elder) to which he replies marahaba (greetings). And then we start work.
The centre’s offices are located in a small two-storey house at the end of Ufipa Road, in Kinondoni. I share an office with two other lawyers, L and J. We are a bit crammed at times, as a steady stream of clients pass through our office every day. L and J both see clients in our office, sometimes at the same time and sometimes offering advice to each other’s clients during meetings. Layers upon layers of Kiswahili for me to try to decipher. Sometimes the stories are translated for me after the client leaves, and I am struck, after the fact, by the lines that crease her face and the immediate nature of her problems.
Power failures are frequent. Last week, we did not have power on Wednesday or Friday. I am told that we were lucky that we had power on Monday. On days when there is no power, it is harder to get work done because the computers can’t boot up and the phones can’t ring. There is also no air conditioning on such days, but the boardroom has windows on all side and the surrounding palm trees can stir up a nice breeze. We usually bring our laptops and work until the batteries run out.
And then we say kwaheri (goodbye) and tutoanana (see you).
I start work tomorrow, and ER starts on Thursday, so this morning we set out via bajaj to find our offices. The addresses that we had been given were a bit vague. I was told that WLAC’s offices are next to the Soja pub off Kinondoni Road and ER was simply told that the offices for Lawyers for Human Rights was located behind the Institute for Social Work. Dar is a large city of about 3 million people, and there is a language barrier that prevents us from giving directions to most drivers, so we were mildly concerned that we would not easily be able to find these landmarks.
After only a few wrong turns and several stops to ask for directions, the bajaj driver found WLAC’s office pretty easily. The offices for LHR proved more elusive. It quickly became clear that the bajaj driver had no idea where he was going and he had to stop every few blocks to ask for more directions. This didn’t really help, as nobody else seemed to know where either the Lawyers for Human Rights offices or the Institute for Social Work were located. We turned down dirt road after dirt road, passing homes, office buildings, mosques, and stores. We were enjoying the ride, and it proved to be a good way to tour the city, but the bajaj driver seemed to be growing frustrated. Eventually a group of men having tea on the corner told the bajaj driver they knew where to go, and that the offices were right around the corner.
We turned the corner and arrived at a Baptist Church with English language services. Not exactly what we were looking for, but I can understand the reasoning.
After a few more wrong turns we eventually found the offices for LHR, although the bajaj driver must have thought we were slightly mad for driving around all morning to find an office that was clearly closed.
I’m hoping that the drive to work tomorrow morning takes much less than half a day.
ER and I are staying in a hotel in a neighbourhood that is relatively innocuous during the day but which transforms itself into a dance party zone at night.
Last night the back alley behind our hotel room was lit up in neon pinks, purples, and greens and we could feel the music until past 4 am. A spotlight was installed on the road adjacent to our hotel.
The bar underneath our hotel room also transformed itself into a spectacular pick-up joint. Our first indication of this came when the night guard tried to charge us cover when we returned to our hotel after dinner. The bar was shimmering with sparkles and sequins and crawling with creepy male expats trying to pick up prostitutes. ER said that it was ironic that we had spent the entire day trying to gauge whether it was appropriate to wear knee length skirts only to return to our hotel to be confronted with an array of thigh-high skirts and dresses with strategically placed cutouts.
The set list included Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life, the theme song from Grease, an unknown version of It’s Raining Men, Rednex’s Cotton Eyed Joe, and–because there had to be at least one country song–Shania Twain’s Any Man of Mine. These classics pulsated into the humid east African night until the sun rose and the thwump of the music was slowly drowned out by the chirping of birds.
One of my favourite bloggers about life in Dar es Salaam explains that Q Bar “serves as one of the most wide-ranging and profound introductions to Africa, mainly because it includes all the stuff you would like to repress the existence of. Go sit upstairs on a Friday night and you have an excellent panoramic view of some of the most characteristic personalities acting out under the black sky”.
ER and I are determined to find an apartment by sundown tonight.