These days if you choose your vantage point wisely, or better yet if you go for a night drive along the sweet curve of oceanfront that gently cups our tiny little Central Business District, you will see a Dar es Salaam nightline that is only four or five years away from becoming iconic.
There are buildings of all shapes and sizes, twinkling in the dark, some of them even draped with multicoloured spotlights and helipads.
It is actually just a little bit depressing.
Once upon a time, Dar es Salaam used to fit on the Swahili Coast quite snugly.
Every territory produces itself and its culture from the surrounding materials… well, at least they used to until modern times forced us to adopt concrete blocks. Dar — like Quiloa, Tanga, Mombasa etcetera — was made of beachside stones with fossils buried in them, glued together by ghosts and whitewashed with lime and gossip.
The constant action of organic decay and salt air put crow’s feet on the faces of these buildings, and yet new life sprouted rudely wherever it could get a foothold.
Papaya trees that appear suddenly in the backyard, mould spreading through the cracked walls, passion fruit vines stealthily strangling the fence while trying to maintain an innocent demeanour. Something is always trying to burst into fruit in this city!
It was — still is — an artists’ paradise, everything that a romantically inclined modern African historian could ever hope to find.
Unfortunately, we’re running out of time. When it was recently revealed that there is no longer any form of legislation protecting integral physical aspects of Dar’s unique beauty, the sound of thousands of hearts breaking reverberated across the city and the diaspora.
And when Minister of Water and Irrigation Jumanne Maghembe confirmed that nothing would be allowed to stand in the way of progress, especially not charming old buildings with a tendency to list tipsily like a parliamentarian encountered by chance after hours at a local dive, well... The battle lines were absolutely drawn in the beach sand.
The eternal struggle between brutish, mechanical modernity and the organic present and past has become a battle to the death in Dar es Salaam.
Of course, the war is already lost. Several years ago, the iconic Nyumba ya Sanaa was torn down when the plot it resided on was sold to investors. Premium land right at the gateway of the Central Business District, and money talks. It was inevitable.
So the artists and caterers and curio sellers and leather workers and tailors, the shiftless and the talented and the tired, the musicians who still know how to sing about trials of the heart without the aid of electronics… they were shuffled along quietly.
Scattered to the winds. Shuffled off to wherever we stash our mementos.
What’s wrong with that, you ask? We’re literally losing history, and along with it huge chunks of what helps a society have a sense of self.
As if we, as Africans, can afford to lose any history at all to begin with. The irony of this current situation isn’t so much that we aspire to modern conveniences and wealth. It is that we don’t appreciate that the very cultures we are trying so hard to emulate have managed to live long and prosper because they respect, collect, document, interpret and reinterpret their history.
But most of all, they know enough to preserve it.
Nostalgia can be a very pleasant pursuit. But the only constant is change. It’s not like we haven’t noticed the “future” barrelling down towards us like a bullet train, crushing everything delicate and whimsical and particular and heartfelt under its wheels.
Of course it’s not all bad; those of us most vocal about the loss of this heritage or that monument are usually the same people busy tweeting about it while waiting at the doctors’ office for an MRI scan. Which is actually the point. Why can’t we find a way to balance our beautiful and evocative histories with our ambitions towards modernity so that the two can co-exist in a never-ending dialogue?
Memories and anecdotes may be fragile, contestable things but they are the source of any society’s creativity. And we need creativity to survive.
Whoever said the pen is mightier than the sword had a fine sense of humour. There is nothing less effective than brandishing a furious quill in defence of something as ephemeral as the human soul in the face of a determined “modern” bureaucracy.
It is a good battle, worth fighting. But since we’re well on the way to losing, let us historians and artists and curators do what we do best: Document and salvage.
Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report, http://mikochenireport.blogspot.com.
E-mail: [email protected]