River Valley Campsite

You have to love a mellifluous way of communicating with “pole pole,” “kukutana,” “mimi pia,” “na wewe,” “Shikamoo!” “piga pasi,” etc. in its repertoire.  And, as my book club mate, Eric, points out, Kiswahili seems to use more vowels than any other Earthly vernacular.  The language is simply terrific, more or less accessible to anyone intent on learning it, although more so for under-30 types.  Sarah and I spent a week at a shule ya lugha outside of Iringa, daily tearing our hair out at our poor memory retention—could ease of acquiring a new language be an undiscovered early marker for Alzheimer’s?—but nightly pumped up by the unconditional joy we provided to restaurant staff when we could use our Kiswahili to order beer (bia) to eat (kula) and rice (wali) to drink (kunywa, not to be confused with kunya or kuma, which I think belong in the Kiswahili Urban Dictionary).

We also benefited from daily rides—from center city Iringa to the rural “River Valley campsite” location of the language school—from an Australian Anglo Anglican, a minister spending several months in the area with his family doing volunteer work and hosting a contingent of Australian teenagers helping in the local schools.  All of the others taking Kiswahili with us at the “campsite” represented missionary organizations primarily engaged in primary-secondary education and public health.  Our life in Dar seems Saks on Fifth Avenue in comparison to theirs, since most would be living and working in underserviced rural areas and taking on work well outside their comfort zone.  For example, one experienced German neurologist and psychotherapist at the language school had just finished a

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As in much of the world, the rate of Caesarian sections (CS) has increased markedly in parts of Tanzania, reaching nearly 50 percent in some hospitals in Dar. One of my fellow Fulbright fellows (David Goodman, second from right and four to the right of me, an OB/GYN Global Health Fellow from Duke) will be working on fetal monitoring and on reducing the high CS rate in the Moshi area.

quick retraining to perform Caesarian sections as part of her medical duties in a remote village in southernmost Tanzania.

Iringa itself is a sparkling little town, comfortable on the skin and lying at the center of the Southern Agriculture Growth Corridor of Tanzania, an effort sponsored by the national government, international donors, NGOs, and the private sector to promote agricultural intensification in an environmentally friendly way.  Among a cast of thousands of stakeholders, World Wildlife Fund has a presence, Sarah’s raison d’être in Tanzania.  The town also hosts the understated Commonwealth Cemetery, a sweet but sad spot with ~150 graves of mostly WW I soldiers from British colonial regiments in the Triple Entente forces.

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The soldiers buried in Iringa’s Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery all met their deaths in Tanzania, but came from regiments based not only in protagonist Great Britain, but also South Africa, Syria, India, Nyasaland (Malawi), and Southern (Zimbabwe) and Northern (Zambia), as well as Germany. War is weird.

With over 150,000 residents, the Iringa municipality represents the primary urban center in a largely rural region, but one that actually has experienced an unusual decrease in rural population since 2000, according to Tanzanian census figures.  The nearly 50 percent increase in the municipality’s population in this new century also reflects national trends, where even as rural areas still house a majority of the country’s overall population, urban centers make up a rapidly increasing share of the rapidly growing overall Tanzania population.  This rapid urbanization of course makes Tanzania (and particularly places such as Dar) a captivating ground central to an urban-enviro guy like me, even as other urbanophiles may shake their heads in dismay at the upshot on the ground.

Much more “trash talking” about this later.

West to Iringa Town

Dar locals complain about their heat and humidity as much as do DC area folks, although in the time I’ve slept in Dar so far—parts of May, June, August, and September—each day has dawned pleasantly temperate.  Mid-day in the sun smacks me about a bit for sure, but all in all, Dar weather has welcomed me well (karibu sana!).  Still, when Sarah and I decided to travel to the southern highlands in Iringa town for her work and a week of Kiswahili classes, the need to wear a light jacket in the evenings sounded great!

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Iringa town lies about 500 kilometers from Dar over a macadam road, realistically a 9-hour trip by “luxury” bus.  “Luxury” in this case means a reasonably comfortable bus only 4 seats across with mostly working AC, and only several stops along the way.  Plus non-stop music videos, interrupted only by 2 episodes of a Tanzanian television series and Colombiana, a forgettable movie set in contemporary Chicago where a little girl all grown up now takes revenge on her parents’ druglord killer from 20 years earlier (this genre is popular here, as everywhere else I’ve traveled).  Long-distance bus travel gets a bad rap in Tanzania—over 100 bus passengers have died in accidents already this year—as drivers compete for faster travel times and road and vehicle conditions get a little shaky.  It can be more risky than flying, for sure, but the “luxury” buses appear a bit safer, and the carbon nasties from air travel will kill more of us in the long run.

Just as pressing, bus travel from Dar entails navigating the Ubungo bus station, a chaotic scene riddled with touts and an environment largely opaque to non-Kiswahili speakers.

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I’ve used the station four times now, on each occasion drawing a mob of helpers trying to pick up commissions.  Arriving at Ubungo by bajaji—a motorcycle-based three wheel transport—twice in the last two weeks, people jumped into and onto the vehicle as it entered the bus area, trying to get my and the driver’s business.  No, no, no (Hapana!) doesn’t deter the attention, it just draws a bigger crowd.  Chalk it up to the entrepreneurial spirit of touts, as well as financial desperation driven by a labor market that can’t come close to keeping up with job demands in a place like Dar.

Once on the road, the trip to Iringa went smoothly.  It took at least an hour to travel the first 20 miles (and even longer to travel the last 20 on the way back) since Dar and the commuting zone sprawls far west (and south and north).  But then the road opened up, particularly past Morogoro, Tanzania’s 2nd city, and into the sisal, tomato, onion, and

other ag producing areas.  The road traversed the Mikumi National Park for 45 minutes—with zebras, antelopes, elephants, giraffes, wildebeests (we saw all), lions, and packs of wild dogs watching the traffic go by—and eventually zig zagged up the Kitonga escarpment, where our bus weaved in and out of the heavily-loaded (and scarcely moving) trucks coming to/from Zambia.  Eventually, we make it to Iringa town, at over 1,500 meter elevation.

Kiswahili lessons torture to follow . . . .

DC 2 Dar

At 35,000 feet and reading Dogs of God, the head-shaking James Reston Jr. book that places Columbus’ New World voyage against the backdrop of brutally violent changes roiling Spain and continental Europe at the end of the 15th century, I couldn’t complain about my hermetically sealed, climate-controlled, scurvy-devoid, and fatality-free megatrip from Washington, DC to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.  Nearly 13,000 kilometers in only 20+ hours, crossing both the Prime Meridian and the Equator.  And to channel Jimmy Buffet, the change in latitude also argued for a change in attitude.

Not surprisingly, transport hiccups began shortly after leaving Julius Nyerere International Airport around 11 PM on a Friday night.  Dar traffic notoriously congests, daily sapping the energy from in- and out-bound commuters during the work week and shifting unpredictably to other parts of the city and clock outside of rush hour.  Our personal bottleneck came near the port, where the breakdown of several transport trucks leaving the docks had created fully gridlocked intersections all along a 5-kilometer stretch.  It was a wild scene, making the worst of Beltway traffic comically juvenile by comparison.

But such craziness makes Dar es Salaam enthralling—a rapidly expanding collection of 5 million that creates a perennially mishmash of urban problems defying easy solutions, but remaining susceptible to game-changing interventions.  Ergo, the planned construction of the first-ever flyover (interchange) in Dar to relieve one headache, and the recent opening of the new Dar Bus Rapid transit line to offer hope to those eschewing cars.

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Dar roads almost NEVER EVER look this empty.  I know it’s because many locals left their cars at home this afternoon and instead took the new Dar es Salaam Rapid Transit (DART) bus system.

Leave it to an urban planner to find inspiration in urban perversities.