Cradled in a natural harbour on the Indian Ocean, tropical Dar es Salaam is now one of the world’s fastest growing cities. This former fishing town is Tanzania’s largest city and is its economic hub; a key trading port, manufacturing centre and the nerve centre of Tanzania’s policy machine.
The former capital has a burgeoning population; its four million residents will likely double in number over the next twenty years. This has prompted local planners to instigate a master plan for the city, and Tanzania’s visionaries have hopes to model the city on Singapore.
Sadly, this edgy city’s high ambitions are hobbled by an over-burdened and out-of-date infrastructure. Electricity blackouts are commonplace, while water and natural resource scarcity tends to leave construction projects in limbo for months, sometimes years.
For now, the UN estimates that 70% of Dar es Salaam’s residents live in shanty settlements. Only a fraction of the population can afford the up-market Northern suburbs and the multi-million dollar mansions fronting onto white sand beaches.
Tanzania is home to more than 120 different tribes and millions of foreigners. An influx of business into Dar coupled with a brisk tourist trade has given rise to a vibrant, multicultural community in which the country’s two main religions, Muslim and Christianity, peacefully coexist.
For newcomers Dar es Salaam may at first seem bewildering, but in this transient city friendships are easily made, particularly within the tightknit expat network.
What is special or unique about your city?
Dar es Salaam is a fusion of African, Arabian, Asian and some European cultures. The town is over five centuries old and has been written about by ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians; later by Persians, Arabs and even the Chinese. The coast's brutal history has been shaped both by its geographic position on the edge of Africa, and by the monsoon system of the western Indian Ocean, which brought it within reach of sailing ships from Arabia, India and the Far East. Tanzanians are extremely friendly and will stop to assist you in any way they can.
What are a newcomer's first impressions of your city?
Arriving by air, one can see that Dar es Salaam is a vast area sprawling with high palm trees and mud dwellings as far as the eye can see. Once on the ground, the trip from the airport is generally very warm and the road into the city centre is probably the best you will see. The buildings are haphazardly constructed and not very clean. By contrast, the international hotels are of good quality and well situated to take advantage of the sea views. The city is divided into four distinct areas: the town centre, which is a mixture of office buildings, hotels, restaurants, bars, night clubs, parks and sports facilities; the peninsular, where most of the diplomatic corps and expatriates live, with good views of the sea and a sprinkling of restaurants, shops, hotels and sailing club; the coastal homes and resorts that reach 20 to 30 kilometres north and south of Dar es Salaam. The remainder of the city, unfortunately, is a mass of low-cost housing with a large population of three to four million people living close to the poverty line.
Are these impressions likely to change?
The change from socialism to a more capitalist-aligned government in the last 15 years, and the influx of diplomats, big business and foreign aid donations, has resulted in a gradual improvement of the local population, with the infrastructure and public facilities also improving by the year. Once-frequent power failures are being replaced by occasional loss of power. Water and sewage remain high on the government's list of priorities.
What is the local language?
Swahili is the official language, but English is the main language of communication in business.
How easily could I live in this city without knowing this language?
A person can function quite easily in the city without knowing the local language, but learning Swahili does make it easier to obtain things more cheaply and more briskly.
What are good things to remember in order to avoid offending the other residents of this city?
Being polite and greeting Tanzanians, preferably in Swahili, is the most important thing you can remember.
Try not to raise your voice, even if patience is tested. Dar es Salaam is a Muslim town and one has to be very understanding of the Muslim customs.
How might the local weather affect my daily life?
Dar es Salaam is extremely hot most of the year and, unless you have an office or house equipped with fans or a good air-conditioning system, you will feel drained by the high temperatures, which are generally 30 C, and closer to 40 C in the summer with humidity very close to 100%. Torrential showers come and go without much notice. One can escape from the heat on weekends by going to one of the many beaches.
Is there anything else I should know about the overall character of your city or its people?
This is a very cosmopolitan city with many cultures, religions, languages, restaurants and shops. The city streets and highways can be very congested, especially between 7 and 9 in the morning, 12 and 2 in the afternoon, and between 4 and 8 in the evening.