A customs officer, owner of a massive gut with shirt buttons struggling not to rupture stops me and asks. You shua you have nothing to declare, Sah? Yes, I’m shua Mheshimiwa, I respond, mimicking his accent. Poa, he says, sufficiently impressed, waves me through. I walk out to a much pleasant Dar es Sallam than pervious visits, July being ‘winter’ here in the tropics. Jacob, the regular cab driver that my friend Jabir Habib arranges for my to and from the city is there, his toothy, happy smile a startling contrast to his dark handsome face. I say, Kareebu Tanzania he welcomes me, happily; we are off towards Tanzanite Executive Suits, a new comfortable hotel right in the middle of the city, three minutes walk to the (Khoja) Shia mosque; very convenient.
Nothing much has changed in Dar from my last visit here about 3 months ago, except more prolonged power cuts and resulting water crises that has everybody tied in knots and testy moods, including Jacob. The best way to gauge the mood of a city and her people is by talking to a cab driver, I tell ya. Jacob wants to talk; I can sense his intense desire. But he has a routine and a style, cannot be hurried, before he will give you an earful. So I wait patiently while he clears his throat, hawks loudly, healthily, opens his window and spits a heavy dose on the asphalt, expertly missing various vendors of bottled water, cashew nuts… Then, he rants away:
I say, wewe, you are lucky, living abroad. Hea, things are going to the dogs, literally. Hea, there is no umeme, no maji. Hea, we have lots of chai facilitation (bribery), many taxes and a president who spends more time abroad than home, running away from the power cuts, perhaps. Hea, mama ya watoto gets mad at me because there is no umeme, and I cannot afford a genereto. She points an accusing finger at my neighbor’s genereto every day I return home. She does not want to hear that my neighbor is a government clerk whose chai money far exceeds his salary. Then I get mad and run away from her and the watoto for some bea. I say, things are bad hea. Hea, the government officials must have a cut in everything. Well, I can understand these thugs need to eat and have generetos and many girlfriends and that is okay. But they want to drink all of India’s chai production in one gulp, not small sips. If they sipped it, they would enjoy it better and we would have some funds left over for umeme, water and other services and that would be fine. But they want the whole thing, these bastards. You know what happens if you take a big gulp of hot, steamy chai, no?
Jacob does another (angry) hawking, spitting show before continuing.
I say, hea, the government brings Chinese to work on the new (airport) terminal. Well, actually, they bring in the Chinese to work on everything. But them Chinese, they are no fools, they put their women to work as well. They bring in the women who sell their white skins to poor drunk Africans. I say, so now we have a new problem hea – Chinafs. Chinese Africans. You go to the housing settlement near the airport and you will find a dozen of these Chinafs watotos running around half naked. You Waheendees are not like us Africans, we love white skin, so we get drunk and flood to the Chinese in Kariakoo. But you Waheendees, you stick to your own and go to mujraas in Upanga and garland those pretty dancers with wide eyes and nimble fingers with millions of shillings. Then, if there is trouble, the girl is replaced pronto and another pretty one comes along. I say, things are bad hea. Haya Bwana, tumefika hoteli. Poa!
Hmmm…how interesting. No?
I stay in Dar es Sallam for a day, and then fly to Mwanza in the west with my good friend Murtaza Bhimani for a day to finalize a school building project for poor African children. This is my first visit to this lake city, which is a pleasant surprise. Clean and quiet pretty, Mwanza is on the move, economically; there is no shortage of power or water here.
Returning to Dar is depressing, what with crippling power cuts, din of generators spewing noxious diesel fumes – all making it a chore walking, talking or hearing on the streets. I meet Mulla Mchungu at the mosque and he immediately pounces on me. This wealthy Mulla is a long distance relative of mine, a staunch, pious Muslim and an even stauncher Khoja. He claims he has been to hajj 20 times and even more trips to Iraq and Iran for ziyaarah. Masha’Allah, aqeeq rings adorn his fingers and a dark blotch on his forehead gives him an apt pious Khoja Muslim look. Why are you here, Yusufali, he breathes at me, flashing very white false teeth into a sinister grin, looking for donations? Halaat bauwaj kharaab che, Bana! Business saroo nathi, Bana! I assure him it is not his donations I am after; he visibly relaxes.
We talk of this and that, wasting my time until he startles me. We are calling a very popular reciter for the first 15 days of Ramadhan, he whispers, as if in conspiracy. He names a name that I know is pricey. We are paying him US$1,600 a lecture… I am stunned; feel blood drain from my face, but recover quickly, protesting. But I thought you just said things are pretty bad, business is bad and people are suffering! His face registers distaste as he digests this. Bah! This is for Allah, gando, you cannot put a price to that now, can you…? I make a vague excuse and increase the distance between us; for I am terrified I might utter something so rude I will severely later regret. I convince myself to poa.
But most people I know seem to be doing okay, I see. Swanky new buildings, most Asian / Arab built, are coming up fast-fast, cars are new and trendy but the most telling tale of economic condition anywhere is restaurant business. I am of the opinion most Waheendees in Dar do not cook food. From late morning to late night, I notice, restaurants are jam-packed. I am invited to eat out by many families / friends during my brief stay and most eating-places are swarming with familiar faces from the mosque.
On Wednesday, eve of my departure, after magreeb salaat, Jabir treats me to mishkaaki and nundu at Muchachos, a very good barbecue joint in Upanga. It is a delightful treat indeed and we feast hungrily. Then comes a call from Zeenat, my niece. She is at Mambos and the place is packed, no place to park. I advise her to come to Muchachos but the meat and fat are sold out by the time they get there. So they go to Balis, then to Delhi Darbaar, same fate. Finally, at about 9:30, they finally find an empty table at Mambos. I say…
Halaat bauwaj kharaab che Bana!