Cultural dive into Dar es Salaam

As we travelled towards Uganda trough Tanzania we took a trip to Dar es Salaam.  Dar es Salaam (or just Dar to pretty much everyone) was always one of those places I struggled to pinpoint on a map. I may not have even named its country correctly. Fun fact – Dar is not the capital of Tanzania that is Dodoma (come on, who honestly knew that).

Our train arrived in Dar at sun set, and after reading and hearing that Dar could be a rough place with regular bag snatches and robberies, we felt less than comfortable standing outside the train station trying to find a lift. In fact as we were leaving the station, we had an employee say “be careful” to Lily in a very serious and direct manner.  We finally found an official taxi (who would over charge us and then subsequently embarrass himself by begging on his hands and knees for more money at the end of the journey) and got to Leanne and Crystal’s Airbnb.  We can’t recommend staying with them highly enough so if you’re heading that way, or know someone who is, let us know so we can put you in touch.

We were introduced to Leanne by her old work friend Annelies, who we met in Ruarwe and is heavily involved in the music and cultural scene of this part of Africa. We mentioned to Leanne that we would be up for helping out or supporting where we can during our stay in Dar and she put out the feelers. We got an amazing response back from people; it was obvious our short stay in Dar would be a busy one helping out some NGOs in the arts and culture sector of Tanzania.

On arriving at Crystal and Leanne’s we were met with the warmest welcome.  It wasn’t 45mins from stepping through the door before hot pizza was on the table and a cold beer in our hands. The next day, and having been asked to help out by the director of an NGO called Nafasi Art Space, we did some research and headed with Leanne (host and now tour guide) to Nafasi that evening where a photo exhibition was on in the gallery.

Now Nafasi is a wonderful, intriguing and interesting place.  It’s a large space (you could easily fit a good-sized football stadium in its walls) in a light industrial area of Dar.  Artists of all types; dancers, designers, photographers, sculptors, painters, and weavers to name just a few, rent studio space which is theirs to use whenever they want to. Free shows, exchanges, artists in residence, audience interactive workshops, and much more are then put on to showcase the talent and engage the people of Dar in general in the arts.  It’s a wonderful place with people expressing themselves and what they see in the world around them through their art.

We felt humbled to be asked by the director to help, even in a little way, this great organisation.

As the event at Nafasi finished, and the ambassadors, artists, expats, and locals started to leave, we headed for a night cap on the peninsula. We hadn’t been awake past 11pm since we left London so getting home at 2pm the next morning was both liberating and exhausting in equal measure, luckily it was Saturday the next day.

Our cultural tour of Dar, punctuated by trips bouncing around the uneven, potholed mud tracks in a three-wheeled scooters with roofs, did not stop there. We were invited out to a hip-hop/poetry/rap night known as the Lyricists Lounge by Leanne (host, tour guide and now cultural ambassador) and her partner Ambrose. Ambrose is a music producer and is very well known, in fact a few days after leaving Dar we would see a music video in which he also stars and one of his most famous tracks in a pub.  Suffice to say that after a short period next door (nope not next to the lyricists lounge but a club called ‘next door’) it was 3am and time for bed. Two nights in a row saw us hibernating for pretty much the entire next day.

The following week we would spend more time with Leanne and Ambrose, exploring and enjoying what Dar had to offer (which even included a school play) and supporting Nafasi.

What became apparent on our wonderful week in Dar is that there is a powerful and significant, yet under-developed, cultural heartbeat to the city. The (mostly) young are expressing themselves as they do across all cities worldwide through the arts and cultural scene and are desperate to be noticed. It feels, to us the outside observers who only experienced a small microcosm of the city, that the art scene is at a cross roads. At one turn is the opportunity to become a beating hub of talent that could be seen as such regionally and even globally, in the same way some other East African cities are. This will happen with solid nurturing and development of new and fresh talent across all artistic sectors; exactly what Nafasi wants to be for example. On the other hand is the real possibility that the arts suffer from lack of investment, being ignored, or even supressed and the youth express themselves but in other ways and, as is the case in many other places around the world, violence crime and disorder welcomes them with open arms. It’s hard to overstate how difficult it is to express yourself in Tanzania. One person even told us that at a concert they organised, some people started to dance, and were beaten with sticks by the hired security for doing so.

One of the NGOs we talked to had been told from one of their major donors that they must be self-sustainable.  Self-sustainability is the utopia of many community based organisations not just in developing nations, but even in the world’s richest countries. While this might seem reasonable enough, it is ignorant at worst, and wholly over-optimistic at best to suggest to a gallery in a country where the government and society as a whole underestimate the role of art in society to an extraordinary degree, that they should be self-sustaining. Museums, new artistic talent, art galleries, exhibitions and cultural spaces in the donors’ home countries gain grants, donations, run fundraising campaigns, benefit from wealthy philanthropists, and are the recipients of government subsidies.  Developed nations’ governments and institutions are seen by many in other countries as a beacon to aspire to and art, freedom of expression, and creativity are long understood to be indicators of, as well as drivers for, a healthy, open and free society. While the pot is finite and the call on it is large, the potential for missing an opportunity for change is real.

Now onto the shores of Lake Victoria and towards the border of Uganda.  We plan to cross via bus but not before we get on a flight to Mwanza first!

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