Kahawa

I love coffee. I’ll allow a moment for that unique personality quirk of mine to cease blowing your mind. But really, I do. I like it hot. I like it cold. I rarely like it with cream or sugar, but I’ll make an exception from time to time. And even more than the taste of it or the effect it brings, I like the social concept of coffee. Let’s get a coffee. Wanna do coffee? I’ll be at the coffeeshop. That kind of thing.

In Tanzania, it’s not so much for the coffeeshops. There’s a handful of bougie expat joints that make a decent cappuccino here in Dar es Salaam, but what do I really want with that? Ok, maybe the AC and the wifi and the unfettered space where people mostly mind their business and do work, but I digress. There are also plenty of mid-tier mgahawas, the brick and mortar shops in cities that’ll happily overcharge you for a cup of hot milk and access to their tin of instant coffee. Occasionally, I’ll bite. But what I’m really talking about is grabbing a seat on a rickety bench, or a step or a rock or a tire, and grabbing a cup of kahawa.

A lot depends on where you are—everyone has their favorite spots—but it ultimately comes down to a very similar setup: a charcoal jiko heating up an aluminum kettle filled with fine-ground cowboy coffee and water, a small bucket of rinsewater filled with ceramic cups, and a tupperware of kashata. And it’s everything.

There’s a wide variety of places to grab a cup, but there’s mainly two methods for distribution. There’s the roaming kijana method, where kids from about 12 to their early 20s walk the streets of cities, carrying a bare-bones birdcage contraption that holds their coffee kettle about a couple of coals on a small plate, no more than some scrap metal and wires. In their off-hand is the bucket of cups and a tupperware of the peanut candy known as kashata. With no hand free to jingle the coins or broken tiles in the ubiquitous shhhkkkkt shhhhkkkkt shhhkkkkt that announces the presence of other street vendors, they seem almost to be at a disadvantage. Then again, unlike the goods offered by the peanut-cigarette-candy-gum slangin’ boys that ply the streets with them, people are really really looking for coffee. Same as it ever was.

It’s easy enough to hit ‘em with the eye contact and eyebrow raise to have ‘em post up and start serving. Often though, you’ll come upon someone already partaking in coffee—gate guards, security guards, bored salesmen, car washers and parking attendants are usually downing coffee and amenable to a coffee-seeking compatriot. Even when there’s no steps to sit on or shade to squat under, most are happy enough to make the sale even roadside and just hang around while you drink standing.

Then of course, there are the semi-permanent setups. These consist of a few basic benches in some corner or spot in town run by a regular proprietor, usually a mid-to-late twenties dude, operating on either an am or pm schedule. Some favorites include: Juma’s spot in the Iringa bus stand, the yoga-practicing bro in the Songea alley, my guy’s spot outside the duka on Kisutu Street in Dar, the table across the road from the football field in Korogwe, and most recently, the corner of Kalenga and Malik in Upanga, just down from Muhimbili Hospital.

Here, it’s more of a social moment. Going for coffee on the corner. Sitting, politicking. Talking a whole lot of trash about football. That’s probably most of it, really. But a decent amount of discussion about local politics and some of the more major international news will come up. A lot of times, it’s the same guys every morning or evening—guys that work in the area, or those on their way to work or home, stopping off like usual for some coffee. That definitely breeds a hierarchy and an ongoing system of trash talking that it’s fun to decipher. Depending on one’s level of Swahili, it’s easy enough to jump in and talk that talk, and sometimes people will quite pointedly turn the conversation to mzungu subjects, directing questions your way. But often enough it’s fine to just sit, listen, and sip, exchanging the bare minimum with the guy manning the kettles—niongeze another one, or basi that’s enough.

There’s regional differences, too. Some places just have coffee, others have a kettle of tangawizi, a strong ginger and sugar concoction that’ll clear your nostrils right out, believe you me. It’s delicious on its own or mixed 50/50 with the coffee. Day to day, you’ll also see little squeeze bottles of powdered ginger with the guys walking the streets, puffing little plumes of ginger into the cups prior to coffee, if you so desire. One of my favorite variations is in the kashata, which is basically peanuts on their way to brittle, but not quite. Often in Dar it’s little bricks of peanuts, held together with some sugary binding, perfect for dipping in your coffee, while up the coast, it’s a softer, crumbly candy that it’s entirely possible to eat about a thousand pieces of.

The coffee itself is usually strong, but served in small enough cups that 3-4 is perfectly acceptable in a sitting. Fans of single origins roasts are out of luck, here, as most of the guys get bulk roasted coffee near the local market and it can be rather mix and match. It’s all Tanzanian, though, and a couple of the guys I’ve talked to have been able to trace the provenance of their batches to Mbeya or Lushoto, two big coffee regions, which is kinda cool if you’re into that kind of thing. Most the time, I’m less focused on conversating and more worried about the gentle three finger grip that’s required to to perch the tiny cups of insanely hot coffee on the edges of your fingers, which are hopefully tough enough to take the heat, while managing not to spill any of the burning hot deliciousness over the edge of the cup, which is usually filled precariously close to the brim. Any spilling hurts like heck, and usually leads to more movement, and more spilling, not to mention it makes you look like the rankest of amateurs, so care must be taken to go full Zen-mode and sublimate any pain into stillness, accepting it as a small price to be paid for such great coffee. And speaking of small price: 100 shillings per cup has been the rate since time immemorial. That’s 5 cents. Take that, Starbucks! My morning ritual of 3 cups and 2 pieces of kashata comes out to a quarter. Rinse repeat in the evening and it’s still an amazing deal. Speaking of which… I’m outta here. Gotta get some coffee.

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