The Spirit of Dar

As an undergraduate 20 years ago, I was fortunate to spend a year at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. 

I traveled the region, visiting Lamu, Kenya at a time when U.S. troops were across the border in Somalia; departing Rwanda a few weeks before the genocide; hitchhiking across the Caprivi Strip in Namibia; visiting South Africa in the weeks leading to the historic election of Nelson Mandela; and being escorted by an armed U.N. convoy to cross the Tete Corridor in Mozambique.

Over that time I’ve been curious about how things changed in Dar, the place I called home for a year.  If you’ve read former Peace Corps volunteer Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, you know that in some places in Africa, precious little actually changes, and sometimes the changes that do happen aren’t for the better.

I was able to return to Dar last December, though, to take a look for myself.  What I found amazed me.

Twenty years ago, there were perhaps 10 buildings above 10 stories in Dar, and the land between the airport and city center looked like a war zone.  I braced myself for the same when I arrived.

Instead, I found a modern, secure airport.  There were shiny new buildings all the way between the airport and Dar, including shipping companies, real estate businesses, and auto, farm implement and construction equipment dealers, among others.

The roads had solid curbs -- unheard of 20 year ago -- ensuring cars and dhala-dhalas alike would stay on the road and not pass dangerously near pedestrians on the median or shoulder.  There were more high-rise buildings in downtown Dar than I could count.  Interestingly, about half were clearly residential apartment buildings.

The formerly trash-strewn city beaches were cleaned up.  There are now more cars than people in Dar -- with corresponding traffic trouble.  Vendors who formerly carried mangoes and bananas in baskets on their heads now carry shrink-wrapped, pre-cut fruit variety packs on styrofoam trays, just like one finds in the grocery store.

The College of Surgeons of East, Central and Southern Africa (COSECSA) conference I attended took place at a conference center / retail development (a mall) that 20 years ago was a slum.  How do I know?  It was adjacent to the University of Dar, the same University I attended, and that owns and developed the land.

While poverty remains, there is a new middle class in Dar that can and will pay for all sorts of goods and services, including surgery.  This is open and obvious to any visitor.

In short, I was amazed at the change that took place over time, but certainly not amazed by the spirit of the city and its people.  They are bootstrapping it, improving and moving forward every day in very difficult conditions.  It is a city that, to paraphrase a former U.S. president, "doesn't need a handout, it needs a hand up."

It needs a friend who takes the approach of a servant-leader, not a paternalist.  Dar is finding its way on its own, and only Dar and its residents know where that will lead and how high they can go.

The surgeons I met at the COSECSA conference from all over Africa had the same can-do, entrepreneurial, upbeat attitude about the future, and Solventas intends to work with them -- in the spirit of Dar.