Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The House of Peace

As I mentioned, I'm currently in the capitol of Tanzania, Dar-es-Salaam, working with Grounds for Health. The name means "House of Peace", and it indeed seems to be a fairly laid back city, although it's difficult to say how this came about. The population is diverse, with large South Asian and Arabic communities, and the edifices of colonialism dominate the city, but while Tanzania is surrounded by neighbors in which this combination has been a recipe for bloodshed, I understand that this has not been the case here.

I have been spent most of my time here in the expatriate-dominated northern part of the city, which is almost a country unto itself, with wide, well-paved boulevards meandering through luxury hotels, walled private compounds, and dozens of foreign aid agencies. All along these streets (outside the security fences) are local Tanzanians, among them beggars and the homeless, almost none of whom are allowed into the expensive, air-conditioned shopping centers.

Walking past a bridal shop, the poster showing a blonde, white woman and her South Asian groom I can't help but feel indignation for the Tanzanians locked out of the world paid for with money supposedly sent to help them. Inside, many of the shops are run by the Arabic and South Asian minorities, and although I have no right to it after only a few days here, I feel vicariously disenfranchised. On a brief venture into downtown Dar, we caught a brief glimpse of the other world, with broken roads, no high walls, and no pale faces.

Yet despite sharing much of its history and demographics, with its neighbors Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi, Tanzania has seen almost none of the violence that has plagued East Africa in the decades since independence. Guidebooks, fellow travelers, and our hosts here have talked about the kindess of the Tanzanian people, and while I usually dismiss this type of cultural generalization, it does seem to be the case here so far. Courtesy and good manners are a must as people people hold doors, extend thank you's, and use a dozen elaborate greetings to welcome you and ask about your family or work.

Maybe it is this kindness that has maintained peace. Maybe it was the lesser attention paid to by its German and British colonizers than to their more profitable possessions, or simple twists of history. One way or another, it certainly appears to be a "house of peace", but one has to wonder, how a house divided against itself into such distinct worlds, as Dar is, can stand.

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