Embracing ‘The Hustle’ – Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

The streets of Dar never sleep. In fact, it is as if the hordes mythically materialize once the sun sets in some of the outer city suburbs, thronging into the twilight in a haphazard flux of tuk-tuks, boda-boda motorcycles, rust-bucket RAVs, and a motley range of push bikes. These iron steeds vary from cumbersome ice cream carts, ancient Raleighs festooned with fruit or laden with coconuts and wooden wardrobe-like contraptions with barely visible wheels, to the archetypal, clapped-out steel-frame dikwiel groaning under a 200kg load.

In between the blaring car horns (there’s a code here spanning everything from Thank You to Fuck You) an endless flow of bartering, cajoling, haggling, selling and deal-making hums below the surface. This informal economy is what keeps the 5 million-odd souls inhabiting the sprawling Afropolis of Dar es Salaam alive, and at the heart of the pitch, you will discover ‘The Hustle’.

I found Mister Mfaune because he is a master of the art (but the truth is that he actually found me). Sunset shoots and first-light surf missions, often with heavy camera bags in tow, occasionally require a mode of transport a step beyond the boda-boda, and he spotted me as I lugged my bags at speed, slightly lost, a tad late and verging on grumpiness.

“Where are you going, my friend – do you need a car”? I waved him away, all while Google-mapping my way along Haile Selassie Ave, pretending to know where I was going. His tiny, dented taxi trailed me like a vulture, knowing it was merely a matter time before I succumbed. His hustle was to bustle ahead a 100m or so, then wait patiently, with sloping shoulders and wire-rimmed glasses perched on a beaky nose. He reminded me of an Arabic Ghandi. Or a myopic vulture, maybe.

I slowly warmed to his game, though, and at our next face-off, blocked him with the ‘Sorry, no local money’ gambit. He deftly countered with a ‘Karibu, you come, I take money changer’. I needed some Tanzanian shillings and stopped for a moment. That’s when he set the hook by offering me a shiny tangerine, deftly reeling me into the vehicle without any overt sign of struggle.

On the spur of the moment, I decided to trust Mister Mfaune. I mean, who wouldn’t? He was peering intently over the dashboard, arguably the only Tanzanian in a ten-mile radius adhering to traffic regulations. “Will you change money for me while I am doing my shoot”, I asked? He bobbed his bald head delightedly, then beamed a beatific smile at the world in general, and happily professed, ‘Kula Bata’!

My Swahili flounders once I venture beyond the Lion King’s ‘Jambo’ or ‘Hakuna Matata’, but he patiently explained that this means ‘Good Life’. Or maybe ‘Life is Good’, but I forget, because he lost his train of thought when SA kwaito-crossover sensation, Amapiano, beamed in across the airwaves. Mister Mfaune gave a wiggle of delight, volumed up the radio, and bust a few micro-moves while jiggling his bony elbows and ducking his shoulders to the beat. For a moment, I thought he might actually beat-box, but all he could muster was a wheezy, happy hum.

We reached Mtwara Street without incident and I had a moment of self-doubt as I handed him a R1000, but decided to go with my gut instinct. “If nothing else, this will be an interesting social experiment”, I thought, and arranged to meet my new-found ‘Man in Dar’ at this exact same spot in a few hours. Long story short: he was there, waiting patiently while watching a Nigerian comedy on his old phone with an utterly shattered screen, chortling away.

Mister Mfaune handed me a wad of notes plus a receipt, and I noticed his exchange rate was on par with the bank, less their exorbitant fees. “Where you go now, Mister Jackass”, he smiled, stroking his wobbly little vehicle into gear, all while rattling off an instructional lesson in how to speak Swahili. I soon learned it is closely linked to Arabic (blame it on the slave trade), and concluded that you could tentatively fake it by adding random ‘i’s to the end of words. Book-i, airport-i, ticket-i … you’re welcome!

I mentally calculated the cost of using my self-appointed Dar Guide on a more regular basis, and realised that the time I’d be saving – plus the peace of mind that comes with having a trusted source and translator – far outweighed the matter of mere money. And here’s the rub: once you’ve justified the hustle, it is game over, so well played, Mister Mfaune, well played.

Not all the smooth operators in Dar are this laid-back or likeable, but the aggression level in Tanzania is low in comparison to SA and many other African countries I’ve travelled in. Very few beggars hit me up on the trip – except for a drooling loon in Princess Bar (which is dodge AF, anyway) – and those who did, were easily sidestepped. Even curio market touts – notoriously rabid in their pursuit of the sale – would give a friendly Jambo! and shower you with attentiveness, but stand back once you’ve decided to move on.

The #TingaTinga Arts Cooperative – based around the naive painting style popularised by the eponymous Edward Tingatinga – is a case in point. This jumble of kiosks and open-air art spaces envelops you in a warm-hearted and vibrant kanga of good vibes, and is too good not to visit.

The hustle here is based on the long game, possibly bolstered by the knowledge that nearly every tourist visiting East Africa will eventually buy a bold and bright painting of a giraffe or zebra, or one of those striking geometric elephants. I did, after the requisite head-shake and walk- away that is always part and parcel of local bargaining culture. The wisdom of Mister Mfaune has it “that what is the man expecting you”.

In the end, I suppose my heart was hustled by the Tanzanian way. There’s a gentleness and honesty (for the most part, anyway) to how humans here deal with each other. That said, they always keep their hustle hot and happening, no matter how small the extent may be. Us Saffers, on the other hand, often confuse the hustle with ‘The Con’, and want to stick that one move to irrevocably change their lives, no matter the cost to our victims or society in general. Frankly, that sucks, and I wish there was an easy way to smooth over that hard-edged reality back home.

Mister Mfaune phoned me after midnight while I was waiting to board my gruelling 12-hours/four airports return flight. “Mister Jackass, I wish you careful flying. You have my number, so next time, you just phone from airport-i, okay”? I said I would, and I will, because the hustle had by now become a friendship, and who could say no to that?

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