30 April 2010

A Storm

There was nothing unusual about how it began. Mid-morning, and the skies were as bright as a flower—sunny and clear. Outside, peacocks fanned their feathers on the grass and a crow glided through the air, settling on the perch outside my window. My gaze returned to my computer screen; I scanned the morning headlines, and when I looked up a few minutes later, it was raining. The shower was cool and pleasant, and in April in Tanzania, fairly typical.

But instead of subsiding after an hour or so, it grew stronger and harder, and the drops became thicker and denser, until there were sheets of rain, and the sky was as white as snow and seemed to hover right on top of us. A colleague and I stared out the window in wonder until it was so blurry with water that we could no longer see through it.

It continued all afternoon and into the night and though the ferocity of the downpour let up, the rain itself carried on for three days. Paved roads became rivers. Dirt roads became thick with mud, impassable, with craters filled with filthy water.

Traffic jams lasted for hours. The day before the storm hit was a national holiday in Tanzania, and since most people took the day off, the roads were empty—it took about 12 minutes to get home. On the first night of the storm, it took nearly three hours to cover the same distance.

The next day at the office, colleagues compared traffic horror stories and tried to outdo each other with who sat in their cars the longest. Some asked: what will happen in the city next week, when Dar es Salaam hosts the World Economic Forum on Africa? How will the city cope with the extra traffic it will bring, plus the rain? Others shook their heads and said: the question is how this city will sustain itself at all, with more traffic, and more cars and more people every year (Dar es Salaam is one of the ten fastest growing cities in the world).

Meanwhile, we were informed that piped water in the city had been cut off because of damage to the pipes. It was not caused by the storm, but fixing the problem was made more difficult because of it. We went without water for two days at the World Bank, with acrid fumes of urine emanating from the bathrooms.

But at least we had satellite internet. While the storm raged and the taps went dry, much of the rest of the city also experienced disruptions of internet service because of a breakdown of the fiber optic cable that brings high speed internet to East Africa. It was like the whole city was on the blink, malfunctioning, haywire.


That was how about 30 percent of Dar es Salaam experienced the storm this week. The other 70 percent also experienced a storm, but differently.

Seventy percent of Dar es Salaam’s four million or so people live in unplanned settlements: no proper roads, no sanitation systems, no link in to water or power systems (less than 15 percent of the country is connected to the grid). This seventy percent didn’t lose power or internet because they didn’t have it to begin with. The roads in front of their homes became mud, and many neighborhoods were flooded. My three-hour commute was bad, but try doing it in a dala dala (i.e., a small Tanzanian bus)—squished, standing between five people, hunched over so your head doesn’t hit the roof, with no AC, just the choice of leaving the window open and letting rain splatter in, or shut, and letting the bus become a humid, foggy mess. For those who walk to work, the walk became harder and dirtier, and for those who sell vegetables, toilet paper and other sundries at little shops on the side of the road, business slowed.

The seventy percent don’t live far away, either—they live right next door. In the canyon between Kimweri road and Wonderwelders (a shop where expats go to buy gifts for friends and family back home) there is such a settlement, a community built along narrow alleyways; a sea of corrugated iron, of kids running barefoot in torn shirts. At night, little flames glow in the dark lit by tiny kerosene lamps.

The settlement is about five minutes down the road from where I and many of my colleagues stay, on Slipway Road, in million-dollar homes with lovely views of the water.


Two sets of people in one city, side by side practically, living different lives. One goes to eat and get her nails done and works out at places with generators, so most of the time, she isn’t even aware of how fragile the power supply is in this town. The other spends her nights in the dark. One treats herself to a 15,000 shilling sandwich and coffee at the sleek, urbane Kempinski hotel, and pays 10,000 shillings for the cab ride home. The other spends 1,500 shillings on a lunch of bananas and rice, and 200 for the dala dala home. One wears pretty scarves that she bought in New York. The other cleans them. One rents an apartment on Dar’s peninsula for $1,500 a month, while the other pays a kind of rent to the guy who “runs” the slum where her and her children live, except she doesn’t think of it as a slum.

The rain began to let up, but it was still sprinkling on the ride home from work yesterday. The director general of the Tanzania Meteorological Agency told The Citizen newspaper that the rains “might start to clear tomorrow” or “the situation might persist.”

Hard to tell.

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