The little house that Shabaan Roberts built

Thursday April 25 2019

An aerial view of Tanga, Tanzania. The once

An aerial view of Tanga, Tanzania. The once vibrant city are rundown and forlorn factories, ravaged by the effects of the changing seasons and degraded by human activities over decades. PHOTO | JACK GUEZ | AFP 

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Ah, yes. Culture. East African culture. So very rich...except we could be doing better in the area of tangible objects of culture themselves.

One of the nicer things about living on the Swahili coast is the way time moves a lot slower here. Houses, offices, apartment blocks and religious structures all still carry the flavour of the older times they were built in.

Although the city centre is trying to get rid of all the crumbling beauties from pre-colonial days, there are still a few artefacts left that are worth the admiration.

I am partial to the gorgeous contrast of National Housing Corporation apartments painted in pastels sharing main roads with the glassine monstrosities of modernity we have such a penchant for.

To be fair, Dar city centre is actually quite charming. I am simply not ready to forgive the developers who took down iconic structures like the Salamander and Nyumba ya Sanaa, and especially not anyone who thinks that reflective yellow windows are a good colour on a building. It’s the kind of expensive that looks cheap, a Trumpian aesthetic.

It is timely to bring this up now because the inimitable Notre Dame Cathedral just burned itself a little crispy around the edges.


If I remember correctly, that structure took 200 years or so to build with love and has been posing like the grand dame that she is in Paris since then: Beloved, undisturbed, iconic. And the people of France are coming to her rescue knowing that some monuments must last.

We don’t have quite such ancient delights in my beloved city but what’s here isn’t too bad, especially since we are syncretising the old and the new.

If that stinky old fish market on the right side of Kigamboni continues to be an organic eyesore that sticks out its tongue at the cute little ship-shaped Harbour Control Tower and the twin towers of the Bank of Tanzania, I will be one happy lady.

But let me tell you a story I watched on TV a while back. Shabaan Roberts, only our most revered author of the Kiswahili language, in part because he aided so much in transforming it from Arabic script and introducing modernist literary techniques of clarity, brevity and pace, lived in a little house in Tanga.

Have you ever been to Tanga? You kind of have to go to Tanga. They have one of the oldest cemeteries I have ever seen: Non-denominational, quiet and lovely in the restful way that old graves can be.

So Mr Roberts lived in a small house in Tanga, scribbling away poetically, to the flickering light of a kerosene lamp I am sure, between civil service assignment.

You can imagine that such a sleepy backwater does not enjoy good modern piped water services.

Which is how I found out that having gone to his village and deemed his little house in the way of their programme, the water authorities decided to bring it down.

Happy ending: The community that lives there promptly said no and told these water people to find another way.

After all, engineers find solutions, right? I put this down because how long will we be able to resist development by force, this mechanical way of thinking that does not recognise how our rich cultures and beautiful creations are their own reason for being? I don’t trust my government but I am sure there are some in there quietly working to preserve our dignities.

Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report. E-mail: [email protected]