An image is firmly rooted in my mind now, though I hadn’t dared to take my camera on the bajaj (motor-rickshaw) drive through Mikocheni and Mwenge neighbourhoods: there are loads of people on the streets, as always, watching the world go by, or carrying things, or selling something. Among them, one man is sitting, relaxing, feet propped up, and just below his feet passes an open drain, a channel of the city’s plastic and grime and shit and junk.
Maybe it’s because I’d had a break from the city, some clear air and fresh vegetation for a few days – but somehow seeing that today filled me with disgust. Why do I have to see this? Why don’t they do something about it?, I wanted to shout…. Do what with it, would have been the answer. There are women who sweep the debris into the drains, and trucks that supposedly transport the accumulated horrors elsewhere. But in the meantime, the waste stagnates, a permanent feature and the only waterfront view those city-dwellers get. And even in my privileged neighbourhood, what do we do with our bins? Bring them downstairs and throw the plastic bag and all onto a big pile 20 yards from the front door, where it sits for a while to be pecked at by crows, and at some point someone lights a fire to it and the flammable waste burns for some hours, and the rest waits until someone will take it away, maybe.
I had always loved cities; had chosen this job partly because it’s based in a large city. But I didn’t know African cities, and didn’t know that they bring all the problems of a metropolis but not necessarily the opportunities of a Western one. The writer Paul Theroux, in “Dark Star Safari”, puts it well:
“Urban life is nasty all over the world, but it is nastiest in Africa… African cities [become] more awful – more desperate and dangerous – as they grow larger. They do not become denser, they simply sprawl more, become gigantic villages. In such cities, women still lug water from standpipes and cook over wood fires and wash clothes in filthy creeks and people shit in open latrines…. Like the person so poor and downtrodden who loses self-respect and any sense of shame, the African cities do not even pretend to be anything but except large slums.”
I don’t know other African cities, but Dar es Salaam may well be among the worst. Earlier this year a government minister here admitted that it was one of the dirtiest. As the third fastest growing city in Sub-Saharan Africa (the 9th fastest in the world), Dar isn’t likely to get any cleaner any time soon. There is something of an informal recycling market, as the researcher in the video below shows. But there is an incredibly long, uphill struggle before those drains get cleared and before people here can live, well, like people in the 21st century deserve to live.