Piga Picha

One of my favorite things in life is shooting pictures on the street. Candid shots of life unfolding. The confluence of people and situations that somehow make more than the sum of their parts. Under the best possible circumstances, with a little luck, these things add up to be art. Mostly they just add up and up and make rolls of film and SD cards full of nearly-there shots, maddeningly close to what could’ve been. They add up to a day spent walking a city, banging away, and never really coming away with what you were after. But what sounds maddening to some: the randomness, the circumstances beyond control, the coming so close and failing time and again—that’s what I love about it. That’s what will keep me coming back day after day, city after city, roll after roll: looking for the shot. I’m so happy chasing it, I would hardly do anything else if given the chance. I love street shooting.

This is also why I find being back in Tanzania so frustrating photographically. In a country so heavily reliant on tourism, the foreigner with a camera is generally reviled. People in the city especially are remarkably camera averse, especially if it’s some mzungu raising up with a DSLR and firing away. They don’t like it, and I don’t like putting people in situations they don’t like. In American cities, it’s easier—there’s an understanding that cities are busy, and people are constantly moving and recording, and so the average citizen generally grasps that by appearing in public, someone could take their picture. Those that don’t are few and far between. But here in Tanzania, street shooting is antithetical to what’s acceptable in public, and I really don’t feel like getting yelled at ten times a day. You can’t really sit down and explain the concepts of art photography, reasonable expectation of privacy and fair use to everyone you meet, especially if you’re out here trying to take candids.

There’s other reasons, too. Bag snatching from the windows of cars is huge in the city. It’s happened to friends of mine in just about every neighborhood in Dar es Salaam. It happened not too long ago just up the street from where I’m staying. It’s real. So I really don’t feel 100% safe walking around with an expensive camera over my shoulder—just about anywhere, anytime in the city. This is also true back home, but in a much smaller way. I feel very safe very much of the time, and when I don’t, it’s because I’m places where I wouldn’t feel safe whether I had a camera or not.

But most of all, I struggle with whether or not pictures in Tanzania are inherently exotifying. Am I representing the people of Tanzania as regular people or am I trading on their otherness to make the pictures more interesting? Does it even matter what I’m doing (as I firmly believe it’s the former) if the negative effect is what’s happening with the viewer? Can they ever just be pictures, or are they, to a Western viewer, inherently tied up in the fact that they are pictures of East Africa, a place that may be a bit more quotidian for me, but is still inherently exotic to some? Is it possible to continue naturally, shooting away, and by treating the people of city center Dar the same as the people of city center Philly make some kind of statement towards their universal equality? Is deciding not to take pictures because of ‘otherness’ actually exacerbating the distance between the two? Does intention matter at all? I don’t have answers for any of these questions—they bug the heck out of me. Which is frustrating, because I love photography. I love it for its purity of expression, for its fidelity to life while still imbuing it with some artistic form of seeing. I just don’t have all the answers yet.

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Game Day

Yesterday, cross-town football rivals Simba and Young Africans—aka Yanga—clashed on the pitch at Tanzania’s National Stadium in a match that whipped not only Dar es Salaam but the entire country into a sporting frenzy.

The game, which ended tied at 1-1, was quite dramatic, with an early goal from a handball by Yanga being counted by the officials. Incensed Simba fans broke chairs, charged onto the pitch, and eventually provoked police into firing tear gas to subdue the crowd. The team itself, not to be outdone, protested so vehemently that red cards came out and players ejected. Once order was restored, Yanga played sluggishly, eventually letting Simba equalize late in the game for a tied score at full time.

I wasn’t at the Dar Derby, however. I got the recap from the paper this morning. I was posted up in my room on the 5th floor of the Econolodge in Kisutu, updating my resume and banging away at a cover letter. While not as exciting as other friends’ Saturdays, it did help to reaffirm how much I love Dar. For a city that’s hot, dusty, crowded and forever frustrating, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Yesterday I sat with my windows open and the door to the balcony wide, listening to the sounds of the city drift up into the room. The honking of horns from drivers negotiating traffic on narrow streets, the yells of day laborers and street vendors, the clickclickclick of coins in the hands of the young boys selling peanuts and cigarettes, and the deafening roar of air defense jets on maneuvers overhead. It’s all so much, but on game day, it’s even better.

It’s hard to describe how intently the denizens of Dar follow this match—football fandom has no cognate in American sports. Every radio at every store or roadside stand was tuned to the game, with every TV in every bar, canteen or lunchroom dialed in and every cell phone in the hands of a teenager tinnily relaying the radio calls. Everywhere was full, and those who couldn’t afford lunch or beer or find a seat stood in doorways and on sidewalks, often 3 or 4 deep, watching through windows and eking out partially obstructed views just to be part of the experience.

It’s all well and good, these throngs and masses watching the games, sitting standing or lounging wherever they can—but then someone scores.

It beggars description. It really does.

Someone, somewhere, starts it. Statistically, someone has to react first. They cheer. They yell. They honk the horn of their taxi. They bang something metal against something else metal. A rock against some corrugated tin. It doesn’t matter, something starts it. And then, it just—goes. Cheering, yelling, horns honking—now the whole city is roaring, some great, full-throated wailing that builds quickly, impossibly, in unison, like everyone on Earth is watching this match, reacting in joy or shock or anguish, celebration and mourning from opposing teams now joined into one great human sound that falls off and dies, first slowly then all at once. And there’s a breath. A brief moment that seems an eternity, as this great body breaks into its constituent parts, each spectator again an individual. In that moment we are profoundly alone, but still watching together. The players reset. Smack is talked in both directions. Play resumes and our attention returns. Again the anticipation builds and so does the sense of community, the sense of narrowing in our focus and swelling out our presence to touch our neighbors in fervent anticipation of the next great moment, the thrill or the anguish, the call to unleash ourselves, the freedom to yell out and cheer or cry or bang something metal against something else metal. It is nothing like I’ve ever experienced. I love game day.

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That’s a Bingo!

Just down Ali Hassan Mwinyi, past Viva Towers and the Greek Embassy, backed up against the crispy dead expanse of the gymkhana golf course, lies an unassuming little place called Upanga Club. Every Friday night, local families, expats and travelers assemble at Upanga Club, order drinks and food, and then wait patiently. They are casual and familiar and happy and waiting patiently because they know that soon the game will start. Because at Upanga Club, every Friday night is Bingo Night. And Bingo Night is freakin’ lit.

A sporting club since way back, Upanga Club’s clientele is mostly Tanzanians of Indian descent. In the courtyard, families with kids sat at outdoor tables, interspersed with older couples and a few large tables of mostly men at the back. Small groups of expats kept mostly to themselves at their tables while ogling the other Westerners, wondering where they were from, what they did, and if they were single. The bar had reasonably priced beer that was plenty cold and a solid kitchen cranking out the Indian and Chinese dishes that have made their way into the culture of the Swahili coast. My buddy and I drank and ate and waited on our friends, making big plans for our future endeavors.

Eventually, everyone made it, and as the dadas passed out clipboards and pens for our bingo cards, we pushed together some tables and made what introductions there were to make. A giant, light-up board with numbers 1-100 on it was set up at the front, with a young Tanzanian manning a giant switchboard that illuminated the numbers. Literally, a board of switches, cobbled together on plywood from 30 some-odd household fixtures bolted down, their corresponding numbers inked in with permanent marker. The caller sat at the front, microphone on, glass of beer close at hand, and a plastic juice pitcher full of tiles at the ready. With very little by way of introduction or ceremony, we were off—the caller shaking the plastic jug vigorously, the loud racket of tiles ringing out in the courtyard, no more knives and forks scraping or conversation bubbling as everyone suddenly became very focused. It was bingo time.

The game moved quickly, numbers ringing out for quick-fire, five in a box, any one line, two lines in a box, first full house, second full house. The heavy accent of the caller often confused some of the group, but we relied on the light board to set us straight as the pace kept pushing. The caller had some favorite phrases: 11 as “two skinny ladies” and 88 as “two fat ladies,” 1 as “Upanga Club, by itself, number one!” and 20 as “a duck with an egg.” The first game passed quickly, with winners whooping out and making their way to the front to have their numbers and cards checked quickly over the speakers. Mistakes were booed. The next game’s boards came around, the buy in moving from 2k to 5k, the prizes getting bigger. We ordered more beer. During the second game, the caller admonished those talking in the crowd to quiet down. This was serious business, of course. He did it again, more insistently, and our group did our part to cut out the conversation and respect the game.

As we moved into the third game, things got more interesting. The caller admonished the crowd again. Seriously. He reminded the noisy people that they weren’t members. That if they kept talking, they’d have to leave. We started to realize it wasn’t us. Then, all hell broke loose—an insult was lobbed from a table in the back, a group of men at a long table who had been drinking and talking too much. Some members took issue, now standing up at their tables, towering above their families, yelling and gesturing at the loud interlopers. Soon, everyone was up from their tables, yelling and arguing, the caller yelling into the mic about the police, two Tanzanian men in staff shirts sidling up to the group, men whose size only meant they could be security. The bar staff stopped serving. The waiters paced. The kitchen staff pressed against the glass. Families shook their heads. All the while, voices rose, tempers flared and the arguing continued. Our table, across the courtyard, turned to our beers, to our conversations, to pretending like we weren’t fascinated by this train wreck. We gave in and watched. The cute couple in their seventies at the table next to us provided hilarious commentary, contributing their light abuse to the chorus of voices.

Then, it was suddenly all good. Apologies were made. A couple guys left. The bottom dropped out of the escalating tension and there was a slight lull. My buddy immediately broke into applause and others joined him. There was a bit of laughter and some relieved murmuring. There were some ruffled feathers, but play resumed. The manager came out to call the game, injecting even more humor into the calls, encouraging people to come turn up and dance on the tables any day of the week, but to respect the bingo, dammit. As rounds got progressively more expensive, we slowly but surely dropped out, focusing on beer and small talk. There were some great folks out that night. The crowd dwindled and we kicked it into the warm, temperate night, now suddenly very late, hours slipping past ten, eleven and into midnight.

We ended up at a couple big tables, the last of us, talking with the manager, shooting darts. He introduced us to his kids. He made the bar keep serving last rounds of beer. He mocked the drunk guys who had started the ruckus—they couldn’t hold their liquor. We were casual and happy and familiar. It was late, and we faded one by one, calling Ubers and taxis and making hazy plans for the rest of the weekend: We’ll do something. I’ll call you. We’re around. Bingo.

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Uber Everywhere

There was a time when getting into an unmarked taxi in Dar es Salaam was unthinkable. That journey could easily lead to an express kidnapping—armed men piling into your car and whisking you off into the city, promising that you could keep your phone and laptop and valuables, provided you coughed up your ATM card and PIN. After many stops at banks around the city, withdrawing the limit of Tsh 400,000 each time, you’d be dropped somewhere on the outskirts of town, warned against talking to the police, then given cab fare home—after all, these men aren’t animals, they’d explain.

Nowadays, such threats still exist, but Tanzanians and expats alike are jumping into unmarked cars with quite a bit more abandon: Uber has arrived in Dar es Salaam. With the proliferation of cheap smartphones, it’s easy for just about anyone to dial up a car, and prices are surprisingly good. The 5,000 shilling trip between Upanga and Kisutu neighborhoods has been reduced to 3,000 shillings, the minimum fare. From City Center out to Oyster Bay, where many NGO offices are located, the price has dropped from a hard-bargained 8,000 shillings to only 3-4k. It’s remarkable. The seemingly universal lowering of prices by almost half is a windfall, but there are untold benefits in taking negotiation out of the process. Fares are calculated by some mystic formula of distance and time, and they are immutable. No more standing outside, politely (or not so politely) arguing with a driver over what it costs to go where. I can’t imagine the amount of shillings I’ve thrown away simply by not having the patience to haggle an insistent driver down a few bucks.

There are, however, issue to be resolved. Many drivers haven’t opted in to Uber, preferring the traditional approach of waiting by their cars at taxi stands, entreating passers-by with calls of “teksi, teksi” in a reversal of the classic movie trope of passengers hailing drivers from the sidewalk. It’s hard to say how much of a day is spent lounging and chatting versus driving in this model, but quite a few drivers seem content to wait as long as it takes, hoping for that one big fare, instead of plying the streets for multiple, smaller fares. Of the Uber drivers I’ve talked to, they seem to be getting more passengers. Like, way more passengers. Prices are allegedly subsidized by Uber at this point, so it remains to be seen if they’ll stay low, but those drivers who have made the switch are generally content doing more business at smaller prices and still coming out ahead.

The improvements of private cars over taxis are present with Uber in Dar es Salaam, just as in America—drivers are rated by customers and held to a strict standard, while taxi drivers have much less oversight and much less personal stake in making your trip and extra pleasant one. There are, naturally, still issues to work out. It’s quite common for taxi drivers to keep as little gas in their car as they can, especially if cash is tight, and hit up their customers mid-trip for their fare as they pull into a filling station. With Uber’s ability to pay by card, a completely foreign concept in Tanzanian taxis, drivers aren’t sure what they’ll be getting from their fare. On the way to a movie earlier this week, the driver and I sweated it out, seeing whether or not we’d make it to the mall through late-night congestion. He asked for cash for gas, but I had opted to pay by card, and he wasn’t thrilled when I rejected his offer of a free ride some other time for cash at the moment. We made it, but he was later unimpressed with the rating I gave him for the sketchy service and called me demanding an explanation.

For the most part, drivers are understanding, appreciating that they can keep the meter running: want to pick up a friend? No problem. Want to go past the destination you input when requesting the ride? Let’s go. Sometimes there are issues: it isn’t necessary to specify a destination when hailing a ride, and last night a driver expressed his disappointment when I told him my address in the car, realizing it was minimum charge ride. I wanted to explain he didn’t have to accept the open-ended call if he wasn’t gonna be happy about it, but thought better of it. I think better of it a lot in situations like that.

Overall, I’m super impressed. It’s easy, it’s fairly quick and reliable, and I’ve had some great rides. My driver the other day was a university student earning extra money on the side—he had lived in Nairobi for his primary education, and we compared linguistic notes on Kenyan and Tanzanian Swahili. It was a blast. I’m excited to see who else is out there driving. I’m not too worried about getting robbed, even though I’m hopping into unmarked cars. I always check to match the license plate, though—just in case.

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As soon as I landed in Tanzania, I wanted to see what people thought of things. I left pretty soon after the elections last year and really want to know what the political climate is like these days. I started with my taxi driver home from the airport, asking what was going on. He was noncommittal, and more interested in asking about the US election cycle. Fair enough. My half-hearted, jet-lagged thoughts on the nuance of the contest were quickly replaced by his full-throated support of Donald Trump. Swell. As I’ve learned in the last week from numerous Tanzanian Trump supporters, what really matters is that he speaks his mind and that he’s strong, bwana. Nevermind the xenophobia, Islamaphobia, sexism, racism and outright dishonesty for a moment. It’s strength! In a part of the world where many nations have languished under strongman politics for decades, I can’t tell if it’s surprising or par for the course.

Often, as well, there’s an unspoken disdain for a woman trying to be President. Other times, it’s quite clearly spoken. I do admit, my sample is made up pretty uniformly of men, but the taxi drivers and merchants and people in bars that I can freely talk to without raising suspicious eyebrows are generally men. Culturally appropriate behavior first, last, and almost always.

I was particularly surprised when a gentleman at a bar the other night managed to hold forth about US politics in quite articulate English for his level of intoxication. Sure, he too supported Trump, but he had seen his opening to approach in my friend’s bittersweet “Bernie 2016” t-shirt, and then proceeded to chide us for supporting Hillary, for being Democrats even, when Debbie Wasserman-Schultz would so blatantly betray the members of her party and help rig the primary. We were, suffice to say, impressed by his insight, if somewhat annoyed by the drunk interruption. A fun and unexpected encounter in retrospect, but less endearing when we were just trying to quietly drink a cold beer and catch up on each others’ lives.

This is all such a stark contrast to the views of almost all the Americans I know abroad. Of course, those people are pretty much either development professionals or volunteers, and it’s rare to find hard-line conservatives in those international communities. The ones there are tend to keep it on the low most the time. The big news lately was the debates, with groups in Dar getting together to stream them with plans ranging from “lets watch this seriously our democracy is at stake people” to “screw it, let’s play a debate drinking game!” My buddy and I opted for something of the former: lounging under fans during the heat of the day, drinking bootleg, instant-coffee cold-brew and playing with his cat while the candidates did their thing. It was underwhelming, I thought: who didn’t know Trump wasn’t as eloquent or as educated as Hillary? That’s not what his supporters are after. As I’m more “resignedly decided” than “undecided,” I don’t know what effect the debates had on swaying the middle, but I certainly hope the left gained some support. It’s good to see everyone out here getting their absentee ballots in order—in a country where elections are fraught with the threat of violence and worries about corruption, I’m glad we aren’t taking our process for granted.

Update: Ran into the guy from the bar at lunch the day after the debate and he hit me up for my thoughts. He agreed Hillary came away the winner, but thought Trump made good points about her stance on the TPP. I was still politely floored about his level of interest and understanding—what does this guy do other than hang around drinking in bars and accurately digesting US politics? I’m so curious.

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Back in Bongo

I’m back in Tanzania. It’s not as hot as I remember. Actually, it is, but we’ve had some really nice days in the past week and I’m super grateful. Good weather never lasts, so I’m enjoying this while it’s here.

I landed early last week and grabbed a taxi from the airport because I didn’t realize that Uber has arrived in Dar es Salaam and didn’t know it’s way, way cheaper than regular taxis. Still, it was nice chatting with the driver as we sat in traffic on Nyerere Road, windows down to catch the little breeze we could, sweating and declining the entreaties from street hawkers walking between cars to sell cashews and sweating bottles of cold water. I swear it smelled like being home.

I spent a few days at the Econolodge, sleeping too much from jet lag and seeing a few friends on their way out of the country. It was surreal to see people who started in Peace Corps way after me now finishing their service. I also caught up with friends from my cohort and before—a good friend who once welcomed me to Tanzania on my first night in Peace Corps is now generously acting as my host out in Upanga.

As I start to plan how I’ll accomplish the things I came here to—besides seeing friends and taking a break from the US—I’m reevaluating what is important and what felt possible from the US that is trickier halfway across the world. In the meantime, I’m taking pictures (slowly, carefully) and getting back into the swing of writing. This blog will be my main outlet for now and I’m excited to get back to regularly posting about Tanzania and my experience: much has changed, much is the same, and I love it like always.

Stay posted, friends—this should be interesting!

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Bloody, Brilliant

Last night’s epic TV battle left me gasping for air, unsure if I was ready for the next season, as if a year was enough time to process the agony of defeat and the stunning cost of victory. But enough about the NBA Finals, let’s talk Game of Thrones!

While there have been a million posts about how violent GoT’s Season 6, Episode 9 “Battle of the Bastards” was, I was mostly geeking out over the cinematography. (Though people were right about the violence, in an episode where “massive corpse wall” was like the 5th most awful thing…).

I was stunned by what Miguel Sapochnik created in that battle. It’s a running joke that Game of Thrones saves its CGI budget for episode 9 each season, giving us dragons galore and Battles on the Blackwater or the Wall, but the Battle of the Bastards was something else. Having seen a great deal of “sword and sandals” types films, ones where giant armies charge at each other and do battle, this was one of the most intense depictions I’ve ever seen. Perhaps it helped that I was listening on a good pair of headphones, but damn—the sheer concussive force of the horses crashing into each other, thudding to the ground or splattering men before them was impressive. The whirling crowd of death that Jon Snow stabs his way through was artfully rendered in such a way that puts big budget movies to shame. I can’t really say more than to watch it if you haven’t yet.

His impressive camerawork crops up many places, though you might recall Episode 6, “House in Ruins,” from the odd Season 2 of True Detective. The hazy whirl of drugs, whores and lecherous old men that makes up the end of that episode, beautifully punctuated by dreamlike acts of violence, is a natural precursor to this tour de force episode that elevates TV to somewhere I don’t think I’ve seen it before.

Later in the battle, as the walls of Bolton soldiers closed in and Jon Snow was trampled underfoot by his men, struggling to breathe, to climb up, to get out from under the weight and crushing and can’t breathe can’t see mud air can’t get air crushing down—yeah, that scene: I nearly had a panic attack. Oddly enough, that’s the truest testimony to his skill I can think of. 

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