Click, click, click. Abdul ambles down the dusty street knocking two coffee cups together. Men peel away from market stalls stacked with bruised fruit, and slink out of breeze-block shacks. Abdul puts down his metal kettle and stokes the glowing embers underneath. It ticks and hisses as dark liquid comes to life inside. This is his corner, opposite the local pharmacy in the Kinondoni area of Dar es Salaam. The pharmacist pulls down heavy metal bars to close his shop for a few minutes, locking in the clingfilm packets of dried herbs and shrivelled roots that help the ailments of the community. Women in dresses the colour of tropical birds usher past children in bright white school shirts and bare feet. People told me there was nothing to see in Dar es Salaam.
Clutching tiny coffee cups, the men from the market stalls recline in the shade of a corrugated roof. Football commentary drifts down the street from a bar that was once a shipping container. Rust streaks the outside and twisted plastic chairs pass for al fresco seating. A satellite dish hooked up to an old car battery blooms like a fungus from the roof.
“Coffee?” Abdul asks me.
“Yes please.” I hand him 50 shillings. The price of a cup of coffee is often used to assess the cost of living in cities. That makes the cost of living in Dar Es Salaam 1/100th of that in London. After the collapse of socialism across Tanzania, informal urban economies popped up across its largest city. That’s coffee vendors, dala-dala drivers and young men sorting through mountains of secondhand clothes that arrive in cargo ships.
Abdul hands me a piece of homemade peanut brittle and I walk over to join the men lounging in the shade. I feel self-conscious. This makeshift caf isn’t on anyone’s bucket list, it’s not in the guidebook and there’s no English audio guide to tell me what’s going on. The men stop talking when I sit down. There’s only the slurp of coffee and crack of peanut brittle. I cup my hands around my coffee as if it’s a baby bird that needs protecting.
“Neymar,” one of the men says to me.
“Neymar,” I reply, thinking it might mean hello. Football commentary drones on in the background. All four men nod in approval.
“Messi?” another one asks me.
“Um, no Swahili, sorry,” I stammer.
“Ronaldo,” someone says and I finally catch on. The men all nod enthusiastically.
“Oh! Luis Suarez!” I say, and everyone laughs.
I inhale the smoky scent of the coffee. As synapses snap and crackle in my brain, I think about what people had told me about this city before I left. There’s nothing to see but lines of traffic. Get out, get to Zanzibar or Kilimanjaro. Don’t bother. The first sip sends the familiar caffeine charge through my limbs. After I’ve swallowed, there’s a little kick of ginger. Another pleasant surprise in Dar es Salaam.
The judges’ verdict
“The sense of place is immediately established and atmosphere palpable. But what’s striking is the engagement with the destination and the interaction; the confusion quickly broken by the common language of football. The short sentences and present tense compel you to read on but the conclusion is a familiar one in travel — expectations confounded, experiences enriched. A worthy winner.”