It was a gentle sort of love affair. Not the wild, passionate, love-at-first-sight sort of thing. More like that feeling that gently creeps up on you when you discover something underneath a friendship, usually far too late to do anything about it. But I digress. These stories have to start at the point where we are still strangers. Me waking up in the nicest, softest, mosquito net-est bed (nod to the word-maker-upper-in-chief) and deciding to visit some fifteenth century Islamic ruins in Bagamoyo. Not, in fact, Dar es Salaam at all.
To get to this place, an unspecified distance from the nice, soft, netted bed required navigating – for the first time – the Dar es Salaam bus system. Which in turn involved, first off, realising that ‘bus’ is in fact ‘dala dala’ in this city. I have no idea why. They are fiesty, hyperactive ex-Japanese schoolbuses. I managed to deduce this on boarding the first one just up the road and noticing that it was still covered with Japanese writing inside, as it passed another with a yellow picture of schoolkids boarding a bus still stuck to it. The dala dalas weave in and out of an absolute sea of 4x4s, tuk tuks and trucks with an apparent abandon that disguises the drivers’ phenomenal skills at getting what is essentially a small bus in between the traffic flows with the dexterity I would have expected of a vehicle one third the size.
Like a game of dominoes, each dala dala connects two places, with numerous informal stops on the way as the conductor hurls phrases in Swahili at potential passengers and keeps packing them on board. At one point, the man in the front seat was handed a baby so that the mother would be able to fit in the aisle of the main seating area. So the levels of efficiency, you see, are high. Thanks to a carefully composed route I had written beforehand, I was surfing the dala dala stations as the day began to warm. Ubongo to Morocco, Morocco to Mwenge, Mwenge to Bagamoyo.
freed from the speed limitiations it once knew as a Japanese schoolbus, at last allowed to run as fast as its little wheels can spin
Mwenge to Bagamoyo, however, was no simple fifteen minute whirl around the Dar traffic. Bagamoyo lies outside of the city. What felt like very far outside the city. Dodging and weaving gave way to pure speed through the outskirts of Dar es Salaam and less traffic, more delicously cooling wind through the (of course) uncloseable windows. With no other distractions left, the world outside the window started to slowly become the most fascinating collection of tiny stories. Children chasing each other down the road to school. Women in the the most distracting robes flashing by in bright reds, oranges and blues. Carpenters at work in home-shops throwing wood chips out into the street. Two men arguing about something to do with a large blue tractor. A few people doing something involving moving giant yellow jerry cans.
The dala dala hurtles on, freed from the speed limitiations it once knew as a Japanese schoolbus, at last allowed to run as fast as its little wheels can spin on the tarmac. And like that friendship/romance thing, the affection begins to move just underneath the surface.
Then we stop. And its Bagamoyo and the ruins.
I am left wondering about the friendship. Distracted from touring.
A butcher and cellular-phone shop. A goat that refuses to be bundled onto a waiting van
Then back on the dala dala. Hotter than before, I discover as I burn my elbow on the metal of the baked window, and twice as crowded. But i’m smiling like a demon. Given the chance to revisit, gently probe. Tease out what I am feeling through indirect questions. The dala dala answers with more stories. Flooding the soupy interior with houses that double as shops of a thousand strange varieties. The tractor people still arguing. Three brothers working on building a double bed frame together. A cramped sewing shop, creating endless brilliant colours on foot-powered sewing machines. So many stories, slices of life to wonder about. To marvel at the endless variation and occasional unexpected whackiness. A butcher and cellular-phone shop. A goat that refuses to be bundled onto a waiting van (good call on the goat’s part, I think. And laugh)
Then I get lost. End up in a dala dala station called Kuriako, not Morocco. But surf on anyway, lost in the romance, craving more stories, more wonderment at how many different lives fly past in a minute.
As the day begins to burn down in the West, the heat subsides and the smell of a thousand home-spiced dinners, street-restaurant fry ups and things you can do with sugar cane start to push into the dala dala, carried on the vehicle jetstream. I can feel my head slipping away into imagined backgrounds to the evening scenes. My heart slipping away to the insistent grasp of spices, fruit, frying and dust in the air.
From a home where days are spent in invisible jobs in invisible offices, hidden from the world. Where we all commute back home to cook our private dinners in our private spaces. To here.
A city where life and food and the colours of East African Islam pour out of homes, into the streets – whipped up by overloaded bicycles, tuk tuks and the free and rebellious Japanese schoolbuses into an unfathomable storm of dirt, joy, deliciousness, piety. It’s the naked, unashamed beauty of what it is to live. That most intoxicating feeling.
I think, my dear, it’s called love.