Wednesday, October 1, 2008

On Chaos and Order

It is only after returning to Dar es Salaam after a few weeks home that some of the truly distinct differences of life in Tanzania vs. in the U.S. become readily apparent.

Yes, there are the obvious things that as I write about them I start to tear up. The immaculate inviting aisles at Whole Foods – all the earth-friendly, organic, fair-trade, goodforyou products perfectly lined up at the front edge of their shelves eager to jump into your cart and fill your body with antioxidants, the coffee shops playing cool jazz with comfy couches that don’t harbor insects; bagels, sensuous chewy everything bagels that delicately tickle every taste bud on the tongue. Throw a schmear on there and what used to be a daily breakfast at my desk has become pure food porn for me now.

But aside from “things”, there is pervasive difference in a notion of order and how individuals connect into society. I was at the bank the other day and the teller had enough American inflections that I asked him where he had been in the U.S. He had lived in Dallas for a few years, but came back, he said,” because there are too many rules there. You have to do things every day, every month. Here there are no rules.”

In the U.S., we all tacitly agree to a certain linear order and progression of things. Streets are edged with curbs, and there are distinct lines where streets begin and end, and they have names as demarcations., Buildings and houses have straight horizontal and vertical containing lines. And we behave with an acceptance of linearity: cars ahead of you get to turn the corner before you. We all agree to pay credit cards or rent or utilities once per month. These are all unsaid agreements that are understood to create a certain level of daily order.

There is no such unsaid agreement in Tanzania. Roads, if they are distinguishable as roads at all, don’t have edges. Just because there may be a car, or several, in front of you, that is no reason that you shouldn’t pass them and try to get around the corner first. And you pay for everything with cash up front as the idea of credit would impose a rule.

Entering Dar’s airport after the plane ride from Amsterdam, late at night after 27 hours of travel, Bodie a zombie-eyed limp rag from nonstop airplane seatback videos, the lack of order is palpable. This isn’t the overwhelming chaos of a war-torn country. Rather an implicit shared understanding exists that permeates every part of living here. One is charged with getting by. And the boundaries of how one does that are much looser and less proscribed than the storylines once can follow in the U.S.

Hillary picked us up at the airport. On the road leading from the airport to the city, traffic slowed at an intersection, two people ran up to the car, and, before we knew what was happening, stole the driver’s side mirror, and ran off.

Welcome home.

It turns out, that there is a significant, theft-driven, market in side mirrors. I went to the Nissan dealer and they could order the mirror from Japan for $165. A friend told me that you could go to Kariakoo, a part of town that is the biggest market in the country, but also has a brisk trade in stolen things, and try to get a mirror there.

One of Hillary’s colleagues, Michael, took me to Kariakoo. It is chaos manifest – small streets, crowds of people on foot swarming around cars and motorcycles, stalls teaming with all manner of auto parts, vegetables, and electronics.

In the midst of this teeming disorder, I discovered the one area in Tanzania in which there might be a comprehensive, real time tracking system. You can provide your make of car, the approximate date and location of the theft, and within a few minutes, someone will come out and fit a mirror back onto the car. It will fit exactly because, for $70, you just bought your own mirror back. It is like they have some massive database tracking system under one of the tin-roofed sheds.

While there, Michael insisted that we have the mirrors etched with the license plate number. This might not dissuade thieves, but it does make it easier to get the right mirror back. So our car is now tricked out and Africa-ready. Not in the way I’d once imagined -- big safari lamps, roof racks and bull bars -- but with mirrors etched, the rubber side bumper guards and rain guards newly riveted to the doors, to prevent theft (they’d break during removal so have no market value.)

As I was fuming on the car ride home about having to buy back my own stuff, Michael, wise beyond his twenty-some years, explained that Tanzanians are good people. “The problem is hunger. With few jobs, people do what they have to do to survive.”

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