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The New Empire

Postcard from Tanzania

By Travis R. Kavulla

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania —My parents, friends and relatives wondered how I’d ever get by here. I like the amenities of life in the developed world—decent cups of tea served loose leaf with similarly decent china, pan-Asian cuisine, good gin, clean bathrooms with toilets instead of ceramic holes. The Third World, despite my academic interest in its colonization, just didn’t seem to fit with my palate or hygienic pattern.

And sure enough, the food at the University of Dar es Salaam was awful. Mornings are a piece of fried bread (called chapati), a blockish hunk of porridge and a cup of foul tea. The saving grace, of course, is that these unappetizing and meager tidings cost around 400 shillings, the equivalent of 35 cents.

Yet found in the city center is what I had been promised by guidebooks and hinted at in works of fiction—an expatriate revanche: The Brits, Germans and Arabs once chased from Tanzania’s shores returning in force and bringing with them their food, drink and stylings generally. Their presence is everywhere. A visit to the tidy expat watering hole Smokies Tavern is revealing. A full stock of 20 types of whiskey, an outrageously large buffet meal, Cuban cigars and prostitutes (local and imported) are there if the price is right.

Less extravagant social situations reveal, if not an expat presence, then at least a foreign one. At the Adam & Eve Salon—“a unisex beauty parlor”—my hair was cut by a black African. But before she laid hands on me, I was greeted, scheduled and asked in sterling English by an Indian employer what should be the fate of my locks. She didn’t speak to her underling in Swahili, the lingua franca of Africa’s Eastern coast, but rather in Hindi. In this place, two languages separated me from understanding.

This is hardly new. Dar es Salaam, like most East African major cities, has an elite comprised of the country’s black leadership and Indian (and other Asian) merchants. Many novelists enchanted, or horrified, or bemused by the old English and French colonies of Africa have characteristically placed neither Africans nor their colonial masters at the helm of colony or independent state. Graham Greene saw Syrians controlling both the legitimate economy and the black market in his rendering of a British colony in West Africa. For Evelyn Waugh’s archetypical, if imagined, post-independence “Azania,” it was the Armenians. For Flashman, the eponymous troublemaker of George Fraser’s series of adventure novels, non-British collaborators (“colonized” persons themselves) were the fulcrum of imperial administration. Cowardly but lucky, Flashman collects his soldier’s pay, womanizes and drinks while subalterns took care of the Empire’s problems for him.

Those subjects emanated from throughout Britain’s imperial sphere, which (lest anyone forgets) once enveloped one-quarter of the world’s population. And in Dar es Salaam nowadays, the families of those one-time colonial mandarins are still taking care of a number of African states, although no longer affixed with the government’s imprimatur. The Indians brought on railway construction contracts by the Brits are today firmly in control of Tanzania’s economy—those parts, at least, not controlled by middling and bent civil servants. They run the mining industry, hair salons, banking houses and cafeterias.

Uganda’s murderous Idi Amin found the idea of an African economy run by non-blacks so offensive that he simply had everyone of Asian descent deported during his reign in the ’70s—a move that was permissible under the international community’s watch (not that Idi Amin cared) in the still-gleeful days of independence. Tanzania, as a result, got even more Indian emigres, making them seem all the more ubiquitous in a place where homegrown industry is scarce and commerce, through the market or small café, is highly visible. So, to each black Tanzanian I’ve talked to for more than an hour, I ask, “How do you feel about the Indians?”—and for this last part my voice transforms from that a brazen interrogative to an inquistive (and slightly sinister) whisper. They, like the Jews of early modern Europe, are often described as disdainful of the culture that surrounds them, secretive and prideful.

And so have the Indians paved the way for my good times, and for other wazangu—white people, colloquially—as well. With my gin and tonic in hand (the quinine helps to prevent malaria, I’m told), decent tea and coffee at my disposal, even cheeseburgers and kippers, donning khaki and a Panama straw hat, it’s easy to forget myself, history major that I am, and fall into the thinking that it’s 1954, and not decades later. When a visitor in either time caught eye of a black polished sedan surrounded by 20-or-so motorcycles flashing lights, they stood at attention, for it was he!—either Her Majesty’s Governor-General or the Tanzanian President and Commander-in-Chief. Those described in ever so many Rudyard Kipling works—at that time genuflecting and making oblations to Her Majesty’s governor—can still be seen in the streets of Dar paying homage to the ruling party.

Sometimes the more ostentatious symbols have been replaced—in Tanzania, though not in Kenya, the white wigs worn by jurists of the Common Law have gone. But for every picture of Queen Elizabeth II that decorated the walls of Tanganyika five decades ago, there is at least one picture of Tanzania’s current leader, the less graceful Benjamin Mkapa, today.

The motifs of the independent Tanzania are less regal than the symbols of British empire. No epaulets, no governor-general. Just ugly uniforms and imitative ceremonial. But at least the right price still buys all the amenities of the West.

Travis R. Kavulla ’06, a history concentrator in Mather House, is an associate editorial chair of The Crimson. He is spending the fall semester further acquainting himself with the African continent.

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