Thursday, August 4, 2022

"City of the Smiling People"- Ongala Festival 2022

"I am sitting at a table during the height of the lunch rush, waiting for someone. A couple approaches the 4-top and asks if they can sit there with me? Against my nature I tell them “I am waiting for someone” because I don’t know if that someone will be okay with company. This does not go down well. They remark to me, surprised, that surely they may sit since I am only waiting for one person? I do not respond, only apologizing for their inconvenience. The woman moves on, already looking at friendlier tables. The man lingers to glare before turning away and grumbling. The entire encounter takes a few seconds and nary a voice is raised.

I smile down at my phone to avert my gaze, aware that I have just violated social rule of generosity, graciousness and conviviality. Not my fault he came at me with just a touch more aggression in his request than was warranted. In the end, a peaceful silence reigns and nobody’s feelings or pride are hurt.

This is Bongo. Dar es Salaam. We are slated to hit a cool 7 million this year which the upcoming Census might verify for us. Fastest growing city on the continent, one of the fastest growing in the world. And we are holding on to our smiles and our particular brand of Utu with both hands.

Many mistake Tanzanians easy-going and low key approach for something else. Shyness or low confidence, lack of language skills, other- whatever they feel they need to project upon us. While any of these might be in play, much of the time Tanzanians and especially those of us who live in the City know that non-confrontation is a choice as well as an art. Dar is a pleasant city to live in because we wish it so: amidst the trials and tribulations of modern life and the grimness of the human experience we not only choose life, we choose to smile. Why fight, when we can love instead? It takes courage, and effort, and commitment to love. Anger is easy, peace is not.

A much older man approaches the table, eyes me and demands: “what are you doing here alone, young lady?” I protest weakly that I am waiting for someone, knowing that I have lost the fight to protect our table. He uses the privilege of age and customership to let me know I am sitting at his table, in fact. He proceeds to sit down and order his meal while I receive a call from my friend and direct him to our shared table.

The two old men know each other, as it turns out. Veterans of the public service system and nearly of an age, they have much in common including people. They exchange pleasantries and proceed to catch up on news of careers, current affairs, thoughts on the President. I eat quietly, piping up with the occasional question, knowing that I am being indulged by my elders in this glimpse behind the curtain of how political sausage is made.

I look around. The only sign that in this bustling, hustling popular eatery that my two old men are of any importance at all is the way the waiters will respond to their calls with a touch more alacrity. This might also simply be because of age: old folks are cranky, trust me, they are really much more manageable if you respond to them quickly. And smile while you are doing so.

The couple found a table in the end, shared. They ate and ended up alone there, talking for a while before they got up and went on with their day. As they glanced over at our table they smiled and she smiled back while his eyes simply widened and he nodded slightly. All is well.

The older man at whose table I sat is finished before us. He pays our bill as well as his and graciously accepts our relaxed thanks before he leaves us to our business. He is smiling as he goes, no longer the stern elder who commandeered a seat, now just another friendly face.

This is Bongo, Dar es Salaam. The City of the Smiling people. Anywhere I go, I know a little ease, a little charm, a little conviviality will make things well. Home."


Wrote this piece fresh for the Ongala Music Festival that begins tomorrow 5th of August and will be running until Sunday 7th of August at the Silver Sands Hotel in Kunduchi, Dar es Salaam. The request was for words about the 'Tanzanian spirit', thought I would share a vignette of what happened yesterday at lunch. 

There will be a wee bit more of my work and that of other writers and poets at the Poetry and Prose Corner of the Festival. Karibuni sana. 

Enjoy. Let's celebrate Remy and the Arts together. 

1 comment:

  1. mkscott562018@gmail.comAugust 7, 2022 at 12:25 AM

    Speaking as an elder myself, i can vouch for your wisdom in the way you handled my fellow wazee. You also won over at least the better half of the temporarily disgruntled couple, as well. Hongera sana. Though I know that Bongo is the fastest growing city on the continent, love Remy Ongala's world view and music, and recognize the Tanzanian spirit anywhere stumble upon it (and believe me it does exist elsewhere, if not everywhere due to Utu..) it now figures as my number one destination on the bucket list. Thanks for helping to keep it there! A delightful read, as always :)

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