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Sunday, October 08, 2006

Sometimes “Progress” is Assbackwards

For the past 8 days, people have been walking around Dar es Salaam like the nuclear holocaust just happened.

Locals are standing on the streets staring aimlessly at empty spaces.

Expats are gathering in supermarkets and restaurants – wondering how they will survive.

People are most surely going hungry.

Businesses have stopped working.

Personally, I’ve been very depressed. Life here has changed as I’ve known it.

And boy does it suck!

No… Dar has not exploded (although I can’t imagine why it hasn’t).

But the stupidest “progress” policy ever put into law by man has caused tremendous upheaval.

In a Guiliani-esqe move, the government of Tanzania passed a law 6 months and 8 days ago outlawing the informal shops, kiosks, stands, booths, and lean-to restaurants that – as far as I can see – have formed the backbone of economic society here. The law was designed to take effect 6 months after it was passed.

The government’s goal is to “clean up Tanzania”. They want these small business owners, who are just barely scraping by as it is, to move into formal shops. I suppose the government also wants them to pay taxes. I imagine they think that by cleaning up the vegetable stands on the corner, the newspaper kiosks down the block, and the lean-to restaurants keeping women from having to sell their bodies to make a living is modernization.

But my friends, I can tell you it is not. It is more like a war on the poor.

And the scary part is that it happened so fast and with no resistance from the people at all.

Last week, on my way home from work I asked my driver, Paul, why the vegetable stand at the busy intersection that everyone calls Four Corners, and that represented “town” for my neighborhood, was empty. Paul said they were getting ready to move. All the stores were getting ready to move. I didn’t really understand.

The next day I didn’t recognize Four Corners. All the stores, bars, groceries, and fruit stands were gone. Just gone. Some of these businesses operated out of shipping containers – and many of the containers had been moved (although not all). Other businesses occupied hastily constructed cinder block buildings – the shells of which were still on the corner. People we milling about, looking at the empty buildings and empty plots. But no one looked angry to me. They looked depressed. They seemed resigned to “progress”.

And the next day, even those structures were gone. During the night, bulldozers came through and destroyed the cinder block buildings and cranes removed the containers. All that was on the corner was rubble. And even that got cleaned up the next day.

Now there is no longer a Four Corners. In a few days it got wiped off the map.

And the scary part is – this same scene was repeated all over the entire city. All the informal sector is gone. (At least the part of the informal sector that doesn’t operate out of the few formal market settings in the city.) There is no place to buy a phone card on the corner. Good luck getting a newspaper. The little restaurant across the street from my office, operated by the lady who is blind in one eye, where all my colleagues ate lunch every day, was totally raised. It is no longer there.

I asked my Tanzanian colleagues and friends if they are angry about it and they say “no”. The government decided to do it. There is nothing they can do.

The expats like myself seem to be the only ones who are angry. What about the rights of the people? What about the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? What about the right to make a living? All these are such Western concepts. They don’t really exist here.

We expats are mad and confused. Where will get our vegetables and fruit? Our cheap beer? Our phone cards?

But the truth is we can go to the supermarket and get all these things. Even if we have to pay twice as much, we can afford it.

But most Tanzanians can’t. So how will they get by? Why aren’t they angrier?

I just don’t get it.


Blogger KathyB said...

Wow. I don't understand either. Maybe we're just used to speaking up and fighting for what we believe to be right and they haven't yet figured out how.

4:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Boy, oh boy, this must be what Tom Friedman meant when he enthused that "the world is flat." *Sigh*

2:20 AM  
Anonymous Sarah said...

Wow. Wow. Wow. I was just in Dar last month. I loved it, absolutely loved it. Very different from where I live in Djibouti. I can't imagine what Dar is like now - the businesses you describe were *everywhere.* What about the Woodcarvers' Market - is that gone, too?

8:32 PM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

Oh that's just so sad. It's interesting, it never even crosses my mind that stands like that and roadside vendors in developing countries would be regulated. It just seems so...ingrained in the culture to have impromptu markets spring up with small vendors.

The law seems like a horrible blow to the culture and the people. I hope they come to their senses or at least figure out a compromise. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the vendors start creeping back out in time.

4:08 PM  
Blogger MommyWithAttitude said...


That is is so tragic and unbelievable. That people don't even KNOW that they can do something about it (probably) is just mind blowing to me.

Very interesting post.

8:15 AM  

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