Driving in the Dar(k): The Roads More Travelled

This is a guest post by the talented writer Clarisse Baleja. According to herself Clarisse is: “African by birth right… Opinionated by nature… Traveller by luck.” According to me, she is an inspiring African Diva with roots in such diverse countries as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Cote d’Ivoire. I met Clarisse in Tanzania, where I had the pleasure of accompanying her in her first car ride through the city. Clarisse is currently writing her first novel whilst withstanding the leisurely temptations of  Dar es Salaam, a city too hot to work in and too fun to stay at home.  

“I have been to Tanzania before. More than 15 years ago, my family and I took a vacation in Central and East Africa, leaving our home in Ivory Coast for the summer months to visit Kenya, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I couldn’t have been more than 11 or 12 years old, but I could always recall the intense heat and the postcard beaches at the close of my eyes.

A 20-something year old woman, I return to Dar Es Salaam eager to see ‘that beach’ and watch my skin respond to the sun’s glare. What I failed to realize is that there are thousands of beaches in Dar. The whole city seems to rest on pillows of shifting sand, always a footstep away from the ocean’s relief. I also forgot my kidogo Swahili, except, ironically, the words kidogo and, not surprisingly, the word for welcome- karibu– an embodiment of Tanzanian hospitality. Obviously my selective memory didn’t allow me to remember the roads of Dar Es Salaam.

And now, for a quick grace-saving disclaimer: I enjoy TZ and its beautiful people, and I appreciate that most African cities, in fact many cities worldwide I’m afraid, suffer from your typical construction, city-planning and infrastructure shortcomings. I am well acquainted with life in the ‘developing’ world, having had the privilege to visit more than a dozen African countries and live in one most of my life. Exhale. Ok. Sasa. In light of this personal history, I thought my expectations for driving in Dar could only be aligned with these realities. Suffice it to say, I was wrong. Kuna tatizo.

Dar Es Salaam roads are a living nightmare, and Dar es Salaam traffic is hell personified. From the minute I stepped foot outside the questionably small airport, I came to realize this budding city, named one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, has come a long way but hit the brakes in this area of development. The country’s GDP, something to be proud of, is thriving, with some of the major forces driving this growth spurt being the service and tourism industries, construction and, needless to say, exports. People are investing in Tanzania.

I’d love to know what Tanzania is, in turn, investing in road construction. I see no major highways, certainly no freeways or significant bridges. There are not nearly enough roads that are actually paved or made of gravel, as most are uneven and rocky dirt paths that diverge from main arteries. These links, even in combination with larger roads (of 4 to 8 lanes), are simply not enough to accommodate the volume of cars in Dar Es Salaam. As a result, cars do not move with any rhyme or reason, they just move at any given opportunity. In fact, it’s common to find a “middle lane” forming, one that accepts oncoming traffic from both directions, like a vehicular wild wild west face-off, till the two cars meet and instinctively split off into their respective, original lanes. Fun.

In addition to being narrow and overwrought, roads tend to have deep and wide ditches running along their sides, in the stead of pavements, i.e. no sidewalks on some roads! From where I stand, these trenches serve as car hampers, especially on weekends when inebriated drivers fail to reach their destination without a hitch, pun intended. There aren’t many traffic lights as Dar still employs human traffic controllers, often at major intersections. Speaking of lights, many roads are only illuminated by side street businesses and the glaring headlights of other cars. I am still looking for a stop sign, but on the other hand cannot count the number of speed bumps climbed on a given day. As TID (This Is Dar), pedestrians confidently jay-walk and float between vehicles, along with vendors, Dara Daras (medium-sized van/buses that bully for passage and jerk to sudden stops to allow jumping customers), bajajs (three wheel tut-tus or ‘road rats’ that are perfect for beating traffic) and your regular taxis and taxi-ing motorcycles (to boot).

Supposedly there is some method to this madness, and I’ll be the first to admit some of the chaos adds a certain undeniable charm to the city’s facade. But as you can imagine, all these factors and more contribute to my anxiety crisis and the city’s congestion crisis. A typical evening traffic jam from the city centre near Dar’s bustling port to, say, Mikocheni (a popular urban subdivision), will last at least 45 minutes. In a traffic-light hour, the same mileage is covered in 15 minutes. If you live further away, in Bahari or similar outskirted, suburban pockets of the city, and leave the office at the standard 5:00 pm, expect to be en route for 2 hours. N.B. Waiting to leave at 6:00 pm may spare you half an hour of traffic – catching a game or a bite with friends in the work area is even wiser- but there will always be some type of stoppage.

Traffic is a global problem, and definitely common baggage for growing cities, but city-wide, appalling road travel conditions don’t have to be. Rampant corruption is probably at the root of the problem, so residents have gracefully learned to adapt, often holding conference calls and typing away on their computers, as well as eating out of their cars. Hakuna problem? Hapana. These road conditions are actually more than just a nuissance. They derail business endeavours, contribute to accident-related casualties, and give birth to rush hour crime sprees (e.g. purse snatchers who race by unsuspecting pedestrians, or thieves on foot who grab laptops and phones from idling vehicles). Bottom line- An improvement of the inner-city travel environment is a must in order to enable Tanzania to keep travelling in the positive direction it is moving in. Let’s hope this occurs soon, possibly motivated by the very growing economy it threatens to stunt.”

More from Clarisse here.

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Kiswahili to English: kuna tatizo = we have a problem/there’s a problem kidogo= a little/small sasa = now kuna tatizo = There’s a problem hakuna matata = no/none hapana = no

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