Living and Working in Dar es Salaam: An Unparalleled Experience

6 minute read

A street in Dar es Salaam.
A street in Dar es Salaam.
Image courtesy of David R.

My second time in Tanzania, but still so much to learn!

The six months I spent in Dar es Salaam sponsored by the InterExchange Christianson Fellowship was not the first time that I lived in Tanzania. In fact, the previous year I had been working in rural Tanga, a region on the northern coast of the country. I came into my time in Dar with professional fluency in Swahili, an understanding of rural Tanzanian cultural norms, and a knack for finding shade to avoid the stifling sub-Saharan sun.

Despite my repertoire of experiences in Tanzania, my short time in Dar has been more challenging, and more eye-opening, I would argue, than even my first several months in the country. As a result, I have grown and learned a tremendous amount in ways that I could have never expected.

Helping rural farmers access data - and receive fair prices for their crops

I worked for a small human capital development organization called 2SeedsNetwork whose aim is to partner with local Tanzanians to address challenges in the agricultural value chain in order to improve food and income security. 2Seeds has seven projects in Tanga, and one in the country’s major metropolis, Dar es Salaam.

I co-coordinated the project in Dar es Salaam at the country’s famous Kariakoo Market, which is the national hub of agricultural commerce. We worked with a small group of market employees, as well as several outside companies, to collect crop price information in the market, store it on the cloud, and disseminate it to rural farmers via their cell phones.

Our goal is to fix information imbalances for rural farmers, who generally lack the information regarding the urban markets where they sell their products, making them vulnerable to usurious middlemen, and helping to reinforce a cycle of poverty in which they grow valuable crops, but then sell them in saturated rural markets.

A view of the Kariakoo Market.
A view of the Kariakoo Market.
Photo courtesy of David

Dar es Salaam: Bongo!

Dar es Salaam is a growing metropolis of nearly five million people — most of them migrants from Tanzania’s rural regions with both Arab and Indian influences, along with European and American expatriates, and refugees from neighboring war-torn countries.

While it is certainly no Lagos (Nigeria’s city of over 30 million people), it is still sprawling, exhibiting a type of organized chaos and medley of cultural influences that is truly unique to Dar. The city’s residents rightly refer to it as bongo, meaning “brains” in Swahili, referring to the need for residents to keep their wits about them at all times.

Place and identity in Dar: a personal challenge

Coming from a small rural area in Tanga, where I came to know and love my close neighbors, played with the town children, greeted most everyone I passed, and genuinely began to question whether I felt more Tanzanian or American, the transition to the big city was a challenge.

In Dar, particularly in Kariakoo where I lived and worked, this sentiment of community was very different. The mutual trust that characterized my experience in the small town was not present.

In Dar, I had trouble shaking the stereotypes that came along with being a white expatriate: that I oozed money, didn’t speak Swahili, and didn’t care about the local people. The hustle of our neighborhood was unparalleled by anything I had every experienced — a veritable wall of moving cars, pedestrians, motorcycles, and hand-drawn carts that required the utmost focus to navigate.

Breaking down barriers

This is not to say that close friends and communities did not exist. I became well connected in my immediate neighborhood, greeting the security guards each day as I left my apartment, sitting and drinking small cups of coffee with the taxi drivers around the corner at dusk, and getting to know the vegetable vendors at the Kariakoo Market.

City life helped me appreciate the importance of the communities that I did make. It is these memories and relationships that elicit strong feelings of nostalgia as I sit, reflecting from my home in the United States.

Living in a city full of culture and life!

Dar es Salaam allowed me to engage with an incredible diversity of people, cultures and tastes. Kariakoo, the neighborhood I lived in, is the commercial center of the city and country. Several blocks down from my apartment I could find any color or pattern of fabric my heart desired.

At night, I would stroll down the blocks simply to take in the sounds, smells, and conversation that filled the air. Vendors hawked everything from used shoes to new phones, while men stood around temporary tables and snacked on boiled octopus. In nearby Kisutu, the historical Indian neighborhood, I sometimes visited one of the many famous tearooms, where tea, small pastries and Indian hors d’oeuvres were served individually at 50 cents apiece.

In the evenings when things cooled down, I would climb to the roof of my building and watch the city expand out in front of me, sometimes closing my eyes to hear the half dozen calls to prayer, intermingled with car horns and Afro-pop music.

A photo posted by Branden (@brandenryan) on

Friendships that leave a lasting impression

I would not do justice to the experience in Dar es Salaam if I did not tell the stories of the people I knew, who had such diverse and fascinating backgrounds.

2Seeds’ Dar-based taxi driver, Hussein, is a great example. At 13, following the sudden death of his father, Hussein moved to Dar from rural Lushoto in order to support his family. He sold small goods and slept on the streets for years, all the while sending money back to his family. Today, he has a small house, a taxi, a somewhat reliable income, and a family of his own, including two beautiful children.

Hussein was one of my best friends, always reliable and invested in keeping me safe, welcoming me to his home, and keeping me informed on the people and places that were relevant in Dar. Others include my good friend Omary, an employee at Kariakoo Market; and Muchunguzi, a fringe journalist with whom I would discuss politics over coffee.

Our impact: reliable systems, better data collection, and more products for farmers

At this point, you may be asking, did I do any work? The answer is yes, a lot! The project was profoundly exciting and fun to coordinate and we made tremendous strides in six months.

At the time I entered the project, there was an unreliable system to collect crop-price information and an informal agreement with Vodacom, who had promised to buy the information and disseminate it as part of a new service for farmers. There was also a partnership with a local tech start-up, which provided the software to collect and store information.

Upon leaving, we had successfully implemented changes in price collection, which made drastic improvements in the frequency, timeliness, and accuracy of price collection. Wireless connection was also a challenge, making it hard to upload information on a mobile device.

We proposed budget changes to market administrators to increase the wireless bandwidth and data bundles for the project phone. Additionally, we developed streamlined meeting schedules and agendas, and systems of accountability. We also signed the contract with Vodacom, opening up the possibility for financial return for the market for their crop price collection services.

More work to be done: the ongoing struggle

This is not to say that all was hunky-dory and the project will function seamlessly in the future. Anyone who has done any type of long-term work in Africa knows that just about everything is tenuous.

Nonetheless, the work that I have been a part of has been incredibly exciting, as success will have a profound impact on many people in Tanzania. The impact of the experience on me is immediately measurable. And I am sincerely grateful to the InterExchange Foundation for their generous support of my work.

U.S. Department of State-Designated J-1 Visa Sponsor
Alliance for International Exchange
The International Coalition for Global Education and Exchange
European-American Chamber of Commerce New York
Global Ties U.S.
International Au Pair Association
WYSE Travel Confederation