Dar Es Salaam remains mercifully untouched by the foreigners who flood its airport during tourist season. They flock north and south of the city to white sand beaches and swim up bars. Without them, the city is clean, orderly and largely sober, owing to a significant Muslim population. Municipal workers in orange vests and bare feet sweep the streets and cluster in small groups at roundabouts, picking up trash and maintaining the immaculate state of the streets. The roads are full of personal vehicles and motorcycles. There is little need for the endless streams of matatus that Nairobi’s vast spread demands; the city is comfortably walkable. We got lost repeatedly, only to find ourselves once again back at the intersection from which we started. The city has a geography comfortably grasped in a two hour walk, as opposed to Nairobi which I barely understand after a dozen trips over an eight month period.
When we were sequestered north of the city at the Jangwani Beach Hotel we were told that Dar was dangerous and that we were restricted from going for our own safety. We chaffed at this restriction on our freedom and sarcastically noted the absurdity of suggesting that Dar was too dangerous - the Kenyan office is located in a city nicknamed ‘Nairobbery.’ The reality is that Dar has a whole lot of nothing in a surprisingly small amount of space. It would have been better – and more accurate – to say: “Don’t go to Dar. You will just be bored. Not to mention two hours from your free meals and a 24 hour bar.”
However, the over eager diagnosis of peril was not merely a company line from the PC Tanzania office. Tanzanian volunteers we met decried ‘The Q Bar’ near the Peace Corps office in Dar as an out of control prostitute free-for-all. “Don’t bring too much cash,” they said, “And make sure you keep an eye on your drink.” This sounded great. James and Marcus and I were eagerly awaiting our chance to descend into the depravity of the Q Bar. Where we expected to be aswim in prostitutes and creepy old ex-pats we found instead a pleasant well lit courtyard bar that I would be happy taking my family to. This in contrast to ‘Casablanca’ in Mombasa, where a Tuesday night walk to use the restroom gets you three package pats. I imagine Tanzanian volunteers evacuated to Nairobi undergoing nervous breakdowns like the cousin from the sticks who warns you about Des Moines after 8p on a Friday and ends up at the Robert Taylor Homes at 2:30a after a Bull’s Championship. The end of their first day finding them mugged, hopelessly lost and emotionally destabilized.
The long and short of it is that Dar is boring. And slow. And hopelessly unsophisticated when compared to Nairobi. It is for those qualities that I find myself jealous of volunteers here. I have often wondered about my Peace Corps experience and the other ways it could have occurred. If I had chosen Agriculture – a Peace Corps work sector endlessly more structured and concrete than Public Health – and if I had been assigned to a country where I actually had to learn a language, would my feelings about being away from home be different?
Dar feels appropriate to the work of a Peace Corps Volunteer. Nairobi is hard edged and overgrown. It’s layers of grime and desperation and the shallow luster of new wealth built next to – on top of – dire poverty all constantly surround and assault you. Any public exposure is continually invasive: you are cajoled and needled in rude, heavily accented english. It is exhausting compared to the quiet peace of Dar.
A family friend high up in USAID told me that Peace Corps Kenya is Africa’s best Peace Corps Program. USAID probably thinks that because of the budget, the infrastructure, the endless chain of International Aid organizations and NGOs all comfortably nestled into Nairobi’s top-quality hospitality sector. There are good hospitals and reliable utilities and a high degree of political stability (at least until recently). But the same things that encourage the permanent installation of so much foreign money – as well as the money itself - is exactly what makes Kenya such a difficult and frustrating place in which to serve.
Too many of us found our service to be more about money – how much we could bring and how it looked on grant applications to possess a Peace Corps Volunteer – than about learning to live in another country. Kenyan’s I met without water or electricity knew to ask me for sponsorship for their children, a donation to this project or that foundation. Too often, before being a person, Peace Corps volunteers were dollar signs. Kenya which has (had) the most stable government and highest level of Western aid in East Africa, has the worst roads of all the countries I have visited. Its cities are dirtier, dingier and more broken down than any others. The money, it seems, is eating the country from the inside out. And its evident in the experience of the volunteers who serve there.
Visiting the Peace Corps office in Dar I spoke with a Tanzanian volunteer who felt a similar process was beginning to occur here as a result of the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDs Relief (PEPFAR). Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into Tanzania to be spent on AIDs projects. Emily said that their Mid-Service training seemed to forget ideas of community integrations for a focus on grant writing, budgeting and accounting. Money as the center of Peace Corps Service just as it is the center of the America’s foreign policy in the third world. The fear it raises is that the Peace Corps too is becoming an organization more focused on throwing money and recording statistics than on person-to-person change; for host country nationals and for Peace Corps Volunteers.
The decision’s I’ve made - distinctions I have reached – here are life changing shifts of intention and perspective. The evacuation came at a good time for me and I am thankful for the manner in which it is making moving to the next part of my life easier. However, had I to do it over again, I would ask not to be in Kenya. I would wish for someplace like this. For the quiet and regional flavor of Dar Es Salaam or any other place not yet swallowed by the endless money blindly sent to change it.