“I strip Dar es Salaam of the ‘haven of peace’ title!!!”, commented a Dar resident on Facebook. The discussion was about the rise in violent crime here – more on that topic another day – but it could just as easily refer to the current religious tension in the city.
Tanzania is home to 120+ tribes. Mosques and churches and temples sit next to one another without a bother, as do their followers. At a training session for grassroots leaders we organised a few months ago, I was impressed by the mix of faces I saw. At the end of the day, a group of Catholic sisters asked the Muslim participants if they could end by singing a blessing. The latter agreed, and we all listened patiently as the song filled the room.
But it’s not always so civil. The latest story – after the somewhat more predictable reactions following the Innocence of Muslims – sounds almost too ridiculous to be true. A 14-year old boy peed on a Koran, following a dare from his Muslim friend. That was a week ago, and by now things have escalated. At least seven churches were attacked. Over 120 people arrested. Today, the US embassy issued a warning to avoid parts of Dar es Salaam and Stone Town. A colleague of mine had to go to the police station yesterday to bail out his daughter (read: bribe the police) who’d inadvertently been caught up in the mess and wasn’t being let out.
It would be ironic if Dar es Salaam – a city that became what it is today because of that incredible mix of people from afar landing on its shores; the de facto capital of one of the few African countries with an impressive record of post-independence peace; a city whose very name, meaning haven or port of peace, comes from Arabic, and whose language, Swahili, is a proud smattering of African Bantu + Persian, Arabic, English, Portuguese and German – well, it would be ironic if ultimately the tolerance so celebrated here would exist only in name.