The value of bursting development bubbles in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

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Adjacent new and old buildings in downtown Dar es Salaam

Last week, Professor Sullivan and I flew to Dar es Salaam. I expected a city like Kampala, with busy markets, office buildings here and there, small local shops and perhaps a mzungu shopping center. A city with different corners, yes, but one with a specific flavor that was already close to home (due to my previous experiences in Africa.) I was surprised to find very little that was familiar and even less that was homogenous. Venturing from downtown, to the University of Dar es Salaam, to the expatriate community, I wondered if I was in the same country, let alone the same city. From day to day, experiencing the stark differences between neighborhoods honestly made me feel as if I was living different lives. Ultimately, the income disparity I encountered left me questioning the intentions of aid workers and foreign government officials who live such distant and segregated lives from the Tanzanians.

Our first few days in Dar were spent walking through the heavily populated downtown area. We primarily saw buildings from the 50’s and 60’s, which were unsurprisingly warn down and bleak. We also saw a proliferation of brand new buildings that looked awkward and unusual within the landscape. I learned that much of this newer infrastructure was developed in the last ten years by foreign investors.

Close up of barred windows on a hotel

Close up of barred windows on a downtown hotel

Noting the bars on all the windows, and security guards everywhere (for both commercial buildings and residences), I kept a close watch on my purse. I was a disoriented, vulnerable, and a very noticeable tourist; I was perhaps all the more noticeable walking with Professor Sullivan, since throughout our journeys in Dar, each of us was carrying one of her toddler twins on our backs. A Tanzanian woman sadly expressed to me that there simply isn’t enough employment here. With more jobs comes income stability, reducing the desperation that manifests as stealing and violence. Seeing what life might look like for a typical Tanzanian living in the city, I was unsettled by the state of insecurity that the residents have to endure on a daily basis. I pondered if Tanzanians found the city daunting and whether they struggled to cope.

Visiting the University of Dar es Salaam, I felt like a student walking around campus. The run down, colorless buildings were a far cry from Northwestern, even despite landscaping that added a welcome contrast. A bit removed from downtown, the campus had an aura of openness and professionalism despite the formidable concrete. Students, faculty, and staff mingled in an outdoor cafe while putting us to shame in their crisp business casual dress. Knowing what they were missing, but understanding how far this city and campus had come, I knew this place was one of hope and promise. Still, I felt a ping of sadness that the opportunities of these students did not mirror mine.

Professor Sullivan and I thoroughly blending in

Professor Sullivan and I thoroughly blending in

On a few occasions, we also ventured to the expat area of the city. From the looks of it, I was in Miami. Gorgeous beaches, cute shops, and fancy restaurants dotted the coastline. Here, I was able to see what a life in Tanzania could look like for wealthy foreign (and domestic) government officials, as well as (I learned) aid workers. For better or worse, I felt like my at-home self here, totally at ease with my surroundings. At the same time, I couldn’t believe how the ordinary exterior of the expat complex could give way to such a different world. I struggle with that fact that an area of town catering to foreigners—rather than primarily wealthy locals—brought such an unprecedented amount of wealth to light.

The curious thing is that if I lived in Dar, I would be able to choose the life and the role that I wanted, a luxury that few can afford. I am embarrassed to admit that I would likely choose to live in the mzungu gated compound, with as many comforts of home as I could manage. Growing up, I often envisioned myself as an aid worker, compassionately helping others through personal sacrifice, and making a big difference. Not just a difference, a BIG difference. It is the favorite goal of bleeding heart foreigners, after all. But what does such an ambiguous phrase mean in a city like this? Where all problems—public health, government, resources, etc.—are intrinsically intertwined and thoroughly complicated?

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A fancy resort on the coast

For my naïve childhood self, making a difference was a simple equation: personal sacrifice + altruism + funds = the solution to all development problems. My first week in Tanzania, I questioned whether it’s possible to have development interventions impermeable to greed. Unfortunately, seeing Dar es Salaam in all its disparity further exacerbated my distrust. If all of these wealthy aid workers lived like locals and spent their salaries helping the poor, Dar es Salaam would be a different place. Of course, that same logic can be applied anywhere. Imagine the change that would occur in our hometowns if all of us invested in each other without hesitation. The distinction is that first world countries are sending aid workers to third world countries to build healthy, growing, happy lives and communities that work together to create change. Instead, aid often has the negative consequence of creating an “us” versus “them” mentality, further creating divisiveness rather than an equal playing field. Furthermore, as previously discussed, the recent surge in modern infrastructure is due to foreign investment by banks and NGOs. Will these investors generate gainful employment opportunities for Tanzanians, or build more spaces for themselves (which would only increase these isolated bubbles of development?)

Truly, nothing is ever black and white. With good comes bad and vice versa. Striking the right balance in development has been a topic of great debate for decades, and I am unable to offer solutions—only thoughts. At the very least, the more I immerse myself in other cultures, the bigger the picture I am able to see. Bearing witness to not only the poverty but also the extraordinary growth of Dar es Salaam in recent years, I hope that with fair allocation of aid resources, a continued increase in foreign investment (targeted at Tanzanians), and a breakdown of development bubbles, sustainable progress will be achieved.

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