Saturday Nights in Sinza
By Richard Prins
The Mwenge Bus Stand: April, 2010
It’s Saturday night, and like the rest of Dar es Salaam, I’m in pursuit of starehe. Good times. Cold lager. Loud laughter. Callipygian women. And the most delicious music I can find. Nine o’clock is approaching and I’m still alone in the room I rent from my friend’s mother, sipping brandy and listening to “The Heart of Saturday Night” to remind myself what melancholy tastes like. I’m sending text messages, receiving urgent beeps. Every time I come here to my second favorite city the Saturday night circuit has changed. Last year’s top club got arrogant and started charging entrance fees, so all the penny pinching thrill-seekers fled to freer pastures. This year Milton Nyerere, grandson of Tanzania’s first president and patron socialist saint, has remodeled the dying Paris Club and christened it The Calabash. With its own house band that covers soukous, Bongo Flava, taarab, Afro and Euro and American pop, it’s the place to sell your face in 2010. People come all the way from Msasani, where the ministers and diplomats live, to dance and drink here in Mlalakua, the slummiest neighborhood in Sinza.
When I get home to New York and resume my studies, there are many things I’ll miss. Swahili and its fluid angularity; my friends’ antic-some sagas and grandiose hustles; all the strangers (there is no Swahili word for stranger), our spontaneous conversations, and being called Jesus for my hirsute benevolence in the bars, in the streets, in my home, even in bed. But I won’t pine for anything more than the starehe of Sinza, where joy is never more than 1,500 shillings away (500 ml beers generally run you slightly more than a dollar). I’ll even be plagued by dreams where I hop a Thursday night plane to Dar, only to realize I have to cut my Saturday night short to make it to Monday class on time. Most visitors to Tanzania find Dar es Salaam, the third-fastest-growing city in the world, ugly, unplanned, dirty, nothing more than a place to sleep and board a plane, just a stop on their way to animal-voyeuring or rural do-gooding. But if you find yourself in Tanzania, I highly recommend you ride a daladala to the Mwenge bus stand; all of the locales I profile here are within walking distance.The Mwenge bus stand, Dar es Salaam
AMBIANCE: July, 2007
My first night out in Dar es Salaam. With my new mzungu friend, whom I hated for speaking better Swahili than me, and his mshikaji Ambrose. I also hated that when they first greeted each other as “mshikaji,” I thought they were calling each other “mshikaki,” which means “shish kebab” instead of “homeboy.” And they laughed at my expense, which is all part of being a mzungu. A neon turquoise sign glittered, AMBIANCE. Ambrose spoke to a thick brick of a man and handed him a 5,000 shilling note. We breezed past with halted glances as the bouncer pocketed our discounted entry fee. A deep, buoyant bass line rumbled in my ears and under my feet, lights strobed past the surprisingly sparse dance floor, illuminating the bar’s swarm of scanty-dressers. Through a barred window, Ambrose got all of us Safaris. Mike and Ambrose bounced into the limelight, which had more mirrors on its walls than people on its floor, and scores of drink-nurses on its outskirts. Mike threw up his hands like a frat boy and revolved a few times stiffly.
My beer twirled my hips into motion; I hadn’t felt so visible since I was the only person not dancing at the bar mitzvahs of seventh grade. I caught an eye that had set upon me, sparkling like her can of hard cider, which clinked a man’s Tusker. She wore a button-laden shirt with a price tag, in dollars, still dangling from the sleeve. She laughed at a joke that couldn’t possibly be audible over the pidgin grunts of “Banjuka Tu” (the latest track out of Kenya), let alone funny. Mike and Ambrose still had their hands up like frat boys. A splash of beer sloshed out of the bottle in Mike’s hand as he executed a few more flat footed semi-turns.
There was a howl in my ear; the sparkly-eyed lady nearly tripped over her heels (two sizes too big) to seize my shoulders and sway her hips in a smoother replication of my own. Bejeweled pink tendrils emanated from her thighs. She clapped with all her wingspan and whooped like a Maenad at the disco ball suspended from the ceiling. Again she gave my shoulders a whack. “Enjoy!” she ordered me, and spun around to rollick her buttocks. So I palmed the small of her back and traced her undulations, as she performed acrobatic squat-thrusts before me, her eyes transfixed by the narrow mirror, lapping up the sight of us amidst the coruscating postures. Dozens flocked to the dance floor. Young men banded together to hail each other’s moves. Mike had picked up a girl of his own, though she was already swinging her head to the disinterested left and right on every beat. I cupped my hands to my partner’s ear, so she might know I spoke Swahili.
“I’m the only one who doesn’t know the words!”
She cackled, “You will know!” She flattened herself against the mirror, one leg off the ground like a micturating dog, her hips vibrating hummingbirds flailing against the glass. Ambrose’s hand landed heavily on my shoulder, “Remember Jesus, if you fuck a prostitute, just use a condom.”
And the world made a numbing sort of sense again. The song ended, and something American began to play, presumably to appease us wazungu who had lured everybody to the dance floor. She scampered towards the bar in a manner that assumed I would follow. But I only broke away from the dance floor to lose myself in a crowd of hungry eyes, their word-breathing lips like mosquitoes scanning for veins on each other’s faces.
And I recognized the English song:
Now that it’s raining more than ever
Know that we’ll still have each other
You can stand under my umbrella
Ella, ella, eh eh eh
Under my umbrella
Ella, ella, eh eh eh
The dancers tossed up their arms with added vigor on the chorus of “Ella!” Hela. Swahili for cash. The entire room supplicant at the very mention of it.
Ambrose bellowed an earthquake into my ear, “Jesus! Let me take you a beer! Look at all the vicheche!” He’d already taught me the slang word for loose women; Vicheche refers to a type of savannah weasel that emits foul fumes from its anal glands.Me with friends at local liquor bar, Dar es Salaam
I sought an empty bar stool among the diamond of miniature counters hung from the ceiling by strip-club-style poles. And there were thick arms around my waist. Grappled from behind, as if the barstool had been resurrected as an anthropomorphic tree. “I laaav you!” wailed my assailant, a chunky woman with glittery makeup and braids like chutes, eyes shuttered in blind drunk bliss. “Take me home!”
“Home? Where’s home?”
“Where you come from!”
“But you’re too drunk to walk!”
“No! I laaav you your body!!”
The middle-aged man she was sitting with frowned resentfully, cursing himself for buying her a last drink before getting down to business. Mike and Ambrose came pursuing new beers, Mike’s brow slick with sweat, cheekbones languid with intoxication. They saw the gridlock I walked into, and laughed to my rescue.
“She wants Jesus to save her,” Ambrose snorted.
“Save me! Take me!”
“I bless you!” I repeated for the dozenth time that day. Then the motion of dramatically, Jesusly placing my hands on somebody’s head. “Now go in peace!”
“No!” she stumbled to her feet, taller than me, huger than me, still gripping me.
Ambrose jabbered angrily. She screamed something back, crudely caressing my Jesus tangles. Ambrose stuck two fingers in his mouth for a shrill whistle, “Bouncer!” He gave a strong yank on one of her arms but she didn’t come loose. He tore at the other arm and my scalp burned at the pull of hair. He cocked his arm to strike; she cleared the counter of empty beers, flung one bar stool at Ambrose, the other at me. The hulk bouncer then dragged her away with much shrieking and little effort.
“Crazy bitch, huh!” Mike was impressed by how the night had developed. “Too bad she wasn’t good looking.”
“I hate that shit!” Ambrose fumed, finally releasing his pent-up punch in a thwarted fist pump.
“Man, I could tell you just wanted to fucking smack her,” Mike commiserated.
“We fuck her!” Ambrose Englished back. “Three dicks, one pussy!”
And not even misogyny could dispel a sumptuous alliteration assembling in my brain. “Kicheche kichaa!”
“Jesus! I take you another beer! She broke yours!”
“She must have been a Pentecostal!”
“Hope she’s not too hungover for church tomorrow.”
We colonized a countertop and sipped our last drinks. The blue label on the Safari Lager read:
As the red sun sets, like a growing tribute to our work, our pride, our tomorrows, one reward is in order. Full bodied, full flavoured, a beer for a people of purpose. Safari Lager, more than just a beer.
Meeda Club: October, 2007
She was rotund, bouncy and loud. Chilu liked that; on Meeda’s dance floor, he dove to her and hung from her thick neckline. She whooped and held up his puny frame for a few gyrations.
After stumbling off his feet one too many times, he pushed me into her and growled like a chainsaw, “Try it, Jesus!”
I traced her enormous butt’s rapid pumping with his hips. That’s right, my mind echoed with boozy laughter, I’m that white boy who knows how to shake his ass.
A dreadlocked someone slapped at my pocket and skittered away. I thumped my wallet into my thigh – still there, the fool didn’t know what to do with the baggy African pants I wore, their pockets six inches deep.
“That one tried to rob me!” I pointed, marveling to my partner.
She tossed her loose braids and a glance across her shoulder, then backed up into me like a pickup truck with hydraulics. “Don’t worry! Don’t worry! We have fun!”
Chilu returned to drag us out past the club’s patio; he led the way, but we balanced his dipsomaniacal gait. As they bargained, a familiar voice spoke to me from the darkness.
“How have you been, Jesus?”
“Cool, cool,” I bobbed my head, not recognizing the speaker. (I swear, I can usually tell one black person from another, but without streetlights, I can’t tell a black face from black night.)
“You didn’t get my email?”
Now I saw the corvine visage was Teacher’s. “Email? What email?” Last week he pawned his phone to the bartender for beer money; he promised he’d be sending me an email.
“About the school for street kids I’m starting?”
“Ah, didn’t see it. You know how the internet is mad slow around here,” I dropped my voice as though we shared some cosmopolitan understanding.
“My birthday is next Tuesday, you know?”
“Cool, cool, we’ll have to get some beers.”
Now I heard Chilu snap, “No, my dorm! Me and Jesus, we fuck you, 25,000 shillings.”
“Hell no!” she stomped a conniption in the road. “Rent a guest house. Then we all tombatomba!”
A lesson in Swahili grammar: Tomba means to fuck. Tombatomba means to fuck a lot.
“Bwaga!” I tried coaxing Chilu out of his fixation. Drop it.
“Jesus, you have money for a taxi?”
“Your dorm’s a block away!” Half a block; we were already walking. “You’re drunk, let’s sleep!”
“No! Guest house!” she hollered, still adamant.
“Chilu, I don’t want it, you know I have a girlfriend.”
“You have two girlfriends!” Chilu snickered, flashing a pronged peace sign. “What’s a third!”
Hard to argue with that logic. But I already knew that Chilu would shortly throw a fit. Either right now. Or at the gate in front of dozing guards. Or in Chilu’s room and wake up our friends.
And then a firm, muscular wrist seized me by the Adam’s apple and whisked me off my feet. I hung from the arm like pants from a clothesline; another shadow barked in my ear, “White phone! White phone!”
The prostitute scattered as a fist exploded in Chilu’s face.
“If you’re gonna mug me, mug me in Swahili,” I gurgled my lifeline, and was placed back on my feet.
“Simu iko wapi?” he demanded, less gruffly.
“In my pocket. The other pocket.”
He tore at the pants, and out popped a phone. He picked it off the ground, and unsnapped Tevas from my feet as expertly as one might a brassiere.
“Kuma mamao!” I roared to the sky and Chilu, who was shirtless with a mustache of blood. Their mothers’ pussies.
“The bastards take my phone! My Professor Jay shirt!”
In the morning, I am that whiteboy walking barefoot to the daladala stand, preparing to beg for a free ride back to the university.
Did I pass her on the road? It was so dark last night – but what other heavyset, curly-braided woman would be slapping cahoots with a thick-wristed thug, his tall dreadlocks still glowering?Maasai locals at local liquor bar, Dar es Salaam
Gaspar’s Place & Pluto: December, 2007
Teacher was surprised next Tuesday when I showed up at the squathouse he hoped to convert into a makeshift English school. The structure resembled Stonehenge, but instead of tourists, the neighborhood riff raff sat on cinder blocks, dragging on a joint and freestyling in Swahili. I didn’t partake in the joint, as I had reason to believe Teacher’s drinking was interfering with the efficacy of his TB medication. I was, however, pressured into reciting the one Swahili poem I’d written, which propagates an afrocentric theory of Jesus’s ethnicity. I had brought ten thousand shillings; Teacher ditched his customers and students so we could enjoy four rounds on two stools at a short wooden table. Gaspar’s Place was the name of the kiosk that had a large cooler, and an excellent collection of old-school hip-hop records donated by the regulars.
“Jesus, this means a lot to me, man,” Teacher’s baritone began to wobble on his fourth Safari. “Those years in the Lower East Side, I froze my ass every birthday! Nobody ever did this for me!”
“You ain’t freezing now,” I clapped his knobby shoulder, referring less to my beneficence than to the blanket of sweat that had followed me around the past five months.
“Who has paper!” Teacher shouted. “What’s your birthday, Jesus? Everybody here, tell me your birthday so I can write it down!”
I ripped a page out of my palm-sized notebook so Teacher wouldn’t see what I had already written about him. “February 6. But I’ll be back home by Christmas.”
“Then we’ll have a going away party instead! Pablo Escobar, what’s yours?”
The characters of Gaspar’s Place stopped reiterating their stances on the latest beef between Kanye and 50-Cent, and began shouting out their birthdays. Most of them are former members of the faux-gang Sewaside, some of them having made cameos in Swahili hip-hop music videos, others having made late-night promises to me that we’d record a single together at Bongo Records, any day now. “I never knew,” Scarface, the elder statesman of the local drunks and veteran bar-brawler, shrugged. “But I think I’m almost sixty.” I couldn’t stop staring at his face; he had a new gash in his left cheek, an inch long and almost as deep, his skin cratered with infected, desiccated pus the color of strawberry shortcake. I couldn’t imagine how much that hurt.
“Another round, Jesus?”
“Niko mbovu,” I unidiomatically stated that I was “broke,” unwittingly using a phrase that essentially referred to myself as a “broken person,” i.e. a prostitute. It’s quite fortunate that East Africans have an uncanny ability to understand any and all manglings of their language.
“A moneyless mzungu!” Scarface snapped his fingers, his craggy face suddenly pneumatic with awe. “But a sociable one! Teacher, compare Jesus to the others. There is a reason the Tanzanians go around with him – he mixes himself! None of the others will sleep in Kijitonyama Hostel! Or come drink with us at Gaspar’s Place! But when you see Jesus, you see he is a man of the people!”
Buying people beers always pays off in excessive praise. “That’s right!” Teacher pounded the table. “It’s because he knows the Lower East Side! When I was a squatter there, we drank Midnight Dragon every night, and smashed the bottles when they were empty! Jesus, I’ll show you how the other half lives! We drank Safari tonight, but most of my people can’t afford Safari. They drink gongo, you know what that is?”
“I know it ain’t legal!” I arched an eyebrow, and followed him across the highway to the paths, where I couldn’t see the mud puddles and continually step in them.
“Everybody welcome Jesus to Pluto!” Teacher debuted me to a room with mudded floors, dim kerosene lamps and dimmer eyelids. “They call it Pluto because when you come here, you’ll never get back! Tell me, sister, have you ever seen a white man here before?”
The waitress nodded, unimpressed, “One time.”
“Damn,” Teacher pumped his fist in dismay. I too was dismayed that I could not claim, like Columbus, to have discovered this foreign land. “But I bet he wasn’t drinking no gongo!”
“He came from World Bank.”
“The bastards! I translated for them once and took them to Meeda. As soon as they saw how much beer we drink, I saw their eyes clicking, calculating how much money they could make if they just got us drinking Heinekens! Kuma mamao, bring us some gongo!”
For two coins, she brought us a jam jar filled with foggy liquid. Teacher had a deep sip and passed it along with an involuntary grimace. I lifted it to my lips and saw suspended debris, smelled corn husk, crucifixion and rubber cement.
“You quoted Jacob Riis earlier!” I realized. “You do know the Lower East Side!”
Every swig gagged me, hammered my head bluntly. I got so drunk on poverty that I fell in mud on my way back to the hostel and ruined my favorite dashiki.
Locations in Dar es Salaam
Mwenge Bus Stand
Sam Nujoma Road between Mlimani City and the Mwenge bus stand
(The intersection of Sam Nujoma Road and Bagamoyo Road)
Mlalakua (If it’s street is on the map it’s one of those forking out
behind the Calabash on the Mlimani City side of Sam Nujoma Road)
NOTE: People in Dar es Salaan don’t usually use street names, due to the fact that they don’t have signs. All of the listings above are educated guesses. The best way for anybody to get to get to these locations is to go to the Mwenge bus stand and just ask an autoriksha driver.