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Bar-girls and beer in coastal Tanzania


Dar es Salaam, The Haven of Peace. The sea faring Arabs, who sought the shelter of the bay, gouged from the eastern seaboard of Africa, as protection from the uncertainties of the Zanzibar Channel seemed to like it.  So did the solid German colonists, waxed of moustache and starched of shirt, who, with only the merest acknowledgement of Arabian heritage, constructed pleasant buildings with distinctive roofs of red tile; determined broad, tree lined, avenues and laid down Botanical Gardens – the literal seed bed of Teutonic Empire.  Since the inception of the city, its growth has been constant. If growth were to be the sole determinant of popularity then Dar es Salaam – its peace but a memory – must be one of the most popular metropolises on earth.

The time of Germanic organisation passed just as surely as that of Arabic exploration. Now, in the early 21st century, expediency rules. The Indian Quarter once marked the limits of the city; the solidity of stacked market produce, temporarily obscured by the swirls of saris and disturbed dust, indicated the end of the imposed urban. Now the Quarter’s limitations are just an historical reminder for the aware. Peeling pastel painted stories of mercantile habitation now face the tarmac ribbon of the airport road and the burgeoning city beyond. The city seeps inland like ejected foam from the shaken bottle of urbanised humanity. In the markets of Kariako, streets prove impassable as customers, traders and piled stock all jostle for position.  In the wealthier suburbs, large houses rise from the scrub, ambitious capitalistic carbuncles.  Luxury off-road vehicles confirm relative wealth, but the sewage still fills open sewers.

The few tracks of tarmac that converge on the city from all four compass points of the country are the arteries of this metropolitan Goliath.  Yet like a man who has gorged too much on his chosen sustenance, the arteries are congested and life falters. Vehicles of all description clog these arteries. Trucks with screeching air brakes; coaches overloaded with long suffering travellers, piled high with luggage; off road vehicles with blackened windows and the white stain of the ever present taxi cabs, driven by men whose general inability has made them the hand maidens of the Reaper. To this list must be added memories of bicycles tottering under their various loads and hand carts pushed by sweating athletes destined for penury when their strength fails.

Around these slowly moving – or stalled – vehicles flow pedestrians and roadside hawkers who optimistically offer for sale any item as long as it is useless: tasteless chewing gum, pink imitation mobile phones, furry steering wheel covers and insecure padlocks designed by thieves.  These people emerge from clouds of exhaust fumes and roadside dust, a dust that rises steadily into the sky to smudge any clarity of perception – a city hiding its shame from a sun glorious in its sapphire sky. The people negotiate the treacherous fissures of the road’s surface and mechanical hazards, seemingly impervious to the constant threat of death, the paradoxical stalker of the metropolitan arteries.

In Tanzania death comes frequently to both those who drive the roads and walk them. Fatal road accidents are the predominant cause of death for expatriates doomed to make their final trip home with no need of the in-flight movie or the indistinct victuals. One morning, driving into the city, I was aware of the traffic slowing ahead of me and of its complete halt on the other side of the road. A crowd had gathered and a minibus blocked the road.  Looking to my left, as I passed the point at a crawl, I saw the body of a girl. Her arms were outstretched as if in supplication, her body was twisted in denial and her tightly braided head lay face down on the tarmac, seemingly trying to avoid the gaze of the crowd. I dragged my eyes away and back to the road in front. Only then did I see the second corpse on the verge immediately next to me. Another girl, a sister or maybe a friend, lay in imitation of the first, the two united in misjudgement. 

When I returned later that day the bodies had been removed; the traffic roared on.

The majority of the houses in the city are small, ramshackle and often improvised constructions made from sun baked bricks of sand or mud and with roofs of corrugated iron or reclaimed plastic.  The bricks are often made on site.  An area will first be cleared, then the topsoil excavated, the bricks formed and dried.  Only then can construction begin and another parameter of life rise to join the rest.  From the air, as distance defies definition, it is difficult to see clearly details of the poor residential areas.  However the fact of the clearance is stark: a vast swathe of beige, punctuated by squares of grey brick that seem to hold back the green of the ever-encroaching scrub.  It is a city built on sand.

The houses are small, often with only two or three rooms and with few windows.  Space is at a premium as extended families utilise the hospitality of the more prosperous and challenge the few possessions for house room. A great many households have no access to electricity.  Guttering candles or the burning of pungent kerosene alleviates the limitations of darkness.  Yet such fuel is increasingly expensive and so many lives remain wholly governed by the gently varying equatorial cycle of night and day. For those who seek light in the darkness, the only option is to make for the excess illumination that spills from business premises or cluster around coveted television sets; communal use for those who can pay a small charge.

Enterprise thrives in this city; everything is for sale. A few extra shillings are always sought to soften the harsh edge of life; even though such shillings can carry a cost far greater than their face value. Women sell their bodies for a diseased fumble. In the slums the going rate is reportedly the equivalent of 20 pence; double if the client does not wish to wear a condom.  Men attempt to access the electricity flowing through the low slung cables swinging tantalising above their heads. Eager for light, refrigeration or that night’s Big Game, they splice cables to the main temptation. A life ends in a shower of sparks and an unwanted dent in a neighbour’s tin roof.

People flock to the city for the same reasons that drive urban migration across the world.  They are driven by dreams of prosperity and sophistication unattainable in the village; or they are taking the last remaining option. Every year more people arrive as succour to this Sodom.  Many leave, many die, but the city continues to thrive.  I do not know if this is true in the purely economic sense but I never saw the city in such dry terms. Dar to me was always a consuming beast cursed with an inexhaustible appetite and that beast continues to be fed.

My office was situated in the suburbs of the city, safely distant from its overwhelming heart, in an area that had once been an ocean side plantation. My duties took me across all areas of the city and so have enabled this superficial description of its varying aspects. However, I cannot write of life in these quarters with any authority because I have not lived in them; I did not share the interminable squalor, but merely passed through it. However, what I can do is tell a little more of the life of this city through description of a place I knew well.

The Q Bar was my first experience of an ex-patriot focused, third world, drinking establishment; encountered on my first visit to Africa, aged eighteen and with eyes so wide I was surprised to get through the door. Eight years on and in testament to the profitable qualities of thirst, hunger, lust and sport the Q Bar continued to thrive. The place always enthralled me and goaded me to attempt its description. This remains a daunting commission as behind its gates strolled ambiguity, contradiction, temptation and confusion. These ever-present sirens delighted in baiting my ambition, gaining force with the downing of each cold beer. Of those beers, one would always be the Beer of Understanding. The point of the evening where I was washed in clarity and could grasp a fleeting understanding of the disparate, the dreaming, the drinking or the just passing clientele of the bar. The point where – if only I could go home – I believed it would be easy to tenderly unravel the spaghetti like lives of those around me. I never could.

The very approach to the Q Bar is a metaphor for the place itself.  There are two approaches.  The first approach is via the Haile Salasee Road: a sleek, surfaced stretch of tarmac that winds through the exclusive suburb of Oyster Bay to the sea.  The Q Bar, indicated by a sign advertising popular soft drinks and mounted by the white expanse of its accommodation, is located just off it.  The second approach is along an unmaintained dirt track; a mutable relief where ruts fall into hillsides and it is smoother to drive where the pedestrians walked.

Congestion marked the entrance from either approach. Entrusted to the care of torch wielding car guards, off road vehicles in varying conditions were directed to parking spaces of close confinement. The vehicles’ presence constituted a testament to the effort of the motor industry to traverse the untamed or merely overcome the abandoned. Taxis prowled, nose to nose, chassis slung low, the continued scraping of undersides slowly levelling the beaten track.  Dripping sump oil left like so many signatures on a graffiti stained wall.

Unoccupied drivers, taking a rest from a long shift, clustered with their fellows, occupying plastic chairs and conversed in soft tones.  The murmur of conversation broken occasionally by the shout of disagreement or tout for trade.

Then there were the girls, always the girls. Those too ugly, poor or diseased to be allowed entrance into the bar sought attention from the junction with the main road; its good condition itself indication of the tantalising proximity of wealth. Clad in the prostitute’s uniform of anything as long as it was short and tight, these sad creatures struck poses more arthritic than erotic and crooned exotic promise to anything passing, whether the gaze was averted or the window closed. These girls were impenetrable bubbles of despair in a flood of prosperity.  Before you can dream of happiness you must first have known a little of it; I am not sure that was an option for most of those girls.

The condition of the girls improved the closer one got to the gates of the bar. Sleek, sharp and revealing outfits complimented more confident poses and a natural beauty that could snare a prosperous future or maybe just a profitable evening. If they gained the approval of the hulk of the former Tanzanian wrestling champion who guarded the bar’s gates and reputation then business could begin. My friends and I would just stroll in and lurch out.

We went for the food, for the beer, for the music and for the familiarity. My friends and I spent so much time in strange towns or in remote countryside, where it was not possible to completely relax and forget responsibility, that carefree indulgence was all we sought. The band played and the barmen served; the hours skipped across the clock and it was possible to forget the daily frustrations. In the other expatriates we hoped for fleeting liaison. The local beauty could not be safely explored, though some did with a relish that signalled a rejection of risk or of life itself.

A clientele drawn from across the expatriate community shared the hospitality of the bar.  Businessmen, farmers, aid workers, conservationists, international bureaucrats and tourists all parked up and followed the shifting torch beams to the gates of the Q Bar. To many, passing through those gates had the effect of loosening the social constraints that had over the years wound round the individual like so many learned snares. Once inside, men, who when with family and friends could wear comfortably the mantle of ‘respectable’, became happy lechers.  Revelling in the freedom of a country where ‘look, but don’t touch’ is unheard off, eager arms pulled black bodies closer and exploring hands imitated lusty ferrets. All the while the man would often pretend that nothing was happening, continuing his conversation with the unlucky girl, or stare, apparently enraptured at the clustered band.

The girls encouraged the man’s fantasies. In the dim light he became a hero, a risk taker, an explorer, a lover. Though these fantasies often only rose from an inauspicious body sporting a receding hairline and boasting achievements of sad limitation, they could draw strength from the attentive gaze of this beauty by the man’s side; the hand resting on his thigh and the dark allure of an enhanced cleavage. Their initial charge for this mental emancipation would be just food and drink for the evening.

The company of these girls could always be bought, but I grew to understand that many were not prostitutes in what I assumed to be the traditional sense. There were no pimps, nor a menacing shadow of organised crime. Many girls came to the Q Bar with the intention of attracting just one man. He may become a husband, or she, his mistress; she may just provide company for the length of a business trip. She would provide sex and company, he would provide her with food, clothing, accommodation and probably support any children already sharing their mother’s uncertain existence. There were of course girls who regarded their nightly presence at the bar as regular employment, but over the twelve months I found myself at the Q Bar, very few girls who welcomed my new face back in March were still to be found stalking the tiles at the end.

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