Tag Archive | culture

A dafu a day keeps the doctor away

The past few days have been intolerably hot.  One last heat wave before I leave Dar.  Is this the city’s way of saying goodbye?

On Sunday morning I lost myself in the maze of downtown for one last time.  Sweating, dehydrated, and cursing the heat, I stopped to buy a coconut from a vendor on the street corner.  For 500 Tsh, he lopped off the top with a machete, gave me a straw, waited for me to drink the coconut milk, and then scraped out the flesh for me to eat.

Coconuts on the street corner.  One of the many things that I will miss about this sweet, sweaty city.


Words of wisdom

Dar is a dusty city.  I am usually covered with sweat and dirt at the end of each day and the white cardigan I brought with me is now a distant memory.  A few weeks ago, one of my colleagues remarked frankly that it was time for me to get new shoes because the ones I was wearing looked “old and dirty and ugly”.

Given this state of affairs, there are stalls set up all around the city, where shoe shiners are always at work sparkling, shining, and buffing tired leather.  I pass this shoe shine stall on my way to work everyday and wonder whether a poet, social critic, or political scientist works there.

Can you hear it?

I have been looking forward to Sauti za Busara since I found out I was moving to Tanzania, and I have had Nneka’s song ‘Heartbeat’ set to repeat all day.  Next weekend I intend to be in the front row when this amazing woman brings down the Old Fort in Stonetown.

The weight of small things

Today, on my way into work, I was stopped by KK, who is a student intern at the legal aid centre.

KK is about 20 years old and he is both eager and determined.  He wears a heavy black suit to work everyday despite the overwhelming heat and despite the fact that even the most senior advocates dress very casually.  He tells me that he comes from a poor family in a rural village and had to work very hard to pay his school fees and get into law school. He tells me that it was almost impossible.  I am sure he is not exaggerating.

KK tells me that he has set up a school for a group of children just like him.  They live in a rural community just outside of Dar es Salaam and cannot afford their school fees.  KK teaches at the school on the weekends.

KK tells me about the school and then says, can you tell me how I can get funding so that we can hire a teacher to work at the school full-time?  Can you tell me how we can make the school sustainable?  How we can increase enrolment?

KK waits for an answer.  I don’t have one.

Neighbourhood Football Match

They played until the moon rose high into the sky and the sounds of the choir practicing in the nearby church faded to silence.

Kiti Moto

Our landlord recently purchased a bajaj for her nephew, C, so that he could make some extra money.

C is in his early 20’s, walks with a small swagger, and lives in his own one-bedroom house on our landlord’s property.  He had initially offered to drive ER and I to work every morning, but clearly enjoys sleeping in far too much for this to be a realistic option.  The first and last time we attempted this, ER and I hovered by the front gate until our landlord yelled for C to hurry up.  Several long minutes passed until C emerged from his house.  He was still buttoning up his shirt as we pulled out of the driveway.

A few weeks ago, C offered to drive ER and I to the Kariakoo market to pick up some supplies for our new apartment.  We were on our way to the market when C twisted around in the front seat to ask us whether we had ever tried kiti moto.  When we replied that we hadn’t, C announced that we were taking a detour and pointed the bajaj towards the nearest kiti moto restaurant.

We said, what is kiti moto?  C replied, kiti moto, kiti moto, don’t you know kiti moto? You don’t know kiti moto, you don’t know kiti moto, you really don’t know kiti moto? And then he threw back his head and laughed.

The bajaj pulled up to a small wooden and metal stand surrounded by a plastic chairs and tables.  C gleefully asked the chef to show us the kiti moto and the chef grudgingly produced a slab of raw meat for us to inspect.

It turns out that kiti moto is a dish that is made with very fatty chunks of pork that are fried in pork fat.  It is ordered by the kilogram.

Apparently, kiti moto, which literally translates to “hot seat”, is used as a code name for the popular dish because Dar has a significant Muslim population that is prohibited from eating pork.  In 1993, during riots that are attributed to heightened religious tensions, restaurants that served kiti moto were targeted and burned.  Stalls that serve kiti moto are now designed to be inconspicuous and are frequently tucked away behind larger restaurants.

Despite its fascinating history, kiti moto is not very good.  ER surreptitiously fed little bits of the kiti moto to a cat that was curled up under her chair.  I stopped eating when I noticed a thick pig hair growing out of one of the pieces.  C poured himself two large glasses of Konyagi (Tanzanian cognac) to help with “kiti moto digestion”.  Don’t tell my uncle, he said.

We didn’t, but we did find alternate transportation home.

Yes we can

In Dar es Salaam, it is not unusual to turn a corner and find yourself staring at Barack Obama. Obama’s image adorns everything and anything, including kitenge fabric, clothing, backpacks, and lunch kits.

So far, my favourite Obama product is the Magic Obama strawberry flavoured bubblegum that I found at a market near our house.

Apparently, in Ghana there are also Obama cookies.

Lost in Translation

This post is inspired by my friend, MW.

Since arriving in Tanzania, it has become evident that I will somehow have to immediately become fluent in Swahili.  Court documents and legal proceedings are drafted and conducted in English, but all of my co-workers converse in Swahili and bajaj drivers give far better rates if you can haggle with them in their own language.

I have been trying to set up Swahili lessons with J, who is highly recommended.  The following is our recent chain of emails:

From: Megan
Sent: September 30, 2011 at 3:00 pm
To: J
Subject: Swahili Lessons

Hello J,
My friend and I have just moved to Dar for six months and would like to take Swahili lessons.  We are both beginners and are wondering if it would be possible to try an hour long lesson with you this coming Tuesday.  We work during the day so are only available in the evenings after 6 pm.

Please let us know.

From: J
Sent: September 30, 2011 at 3:49 pm
To: Megan
Subject: Swahili Lessons

Hello Megan,
For Thursday next week I will have other students at the same time and beyond.  We can try Wednesday if that will be ok for you.  Thanks for the interest.


From: Megan
Sent: September 30, 2011 at 3:51 pm
To: J
Subject: Swahili Lessons

Hi J,
Does Tuesday work?


From: J
Sent: October 2, 2011 at 2:00 pm
To: Megan
Subject: Swahili Lessons

Fridays and Saturdays will  be fine for me starting this week for the next four weeks, there after we can work out the new time table.
Best regards,


Am I right to assume that Tuesday does not, in fact, work for J?

You guys have all those book clubs…

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”.


A picture of my office

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).

View from my office window