If you have been to University of Dar es Salaam for a period exceeding a week, then you have eaten at Hill Park restaurant.
It is not your swanky high-end restaurant for a stylish foodist: the cuisine is local and the service likeable, just like the price list. Hill Park is mostly renowned for its tasty deep-fried chicken and fish, which are served either with rice or ugali.
The Mchemsho breakfast, which is boiled chicken or fish with northern Tanzania banana—Ugandan matoke, if you may—is a favourite dish for early-risers. The accompanying side-plate of steamy soup is good for the bowels on a tight morning hustle.
The restaurant has both covered and open-roof seating. In the gardens, however, one has to be extra alert as the ever-watchful crows lurking in the trees need a few seconds of absentmindedness to help themselves on that shiny piece of chicken on your plate.
The big shots of the university love this place – especially for its nearness to Utawala, the administration block. But be not deceived about this being a restaurant of the powerful; many university students lunch here and mingle freely with their teachers and seniors.
As a fellow-in-residence at University of Dar es Salaam early this year, I was here for late lunch when a lady with whom I shared a table guided me into some of the intricacies of life in urban Tanzania.
As I started dismantling the contents on my plate, my neighbour who had visibly finished her meal, offered to say hello, attracting my attention. I am urbanized; we do not wantonly dish out hellos to strangers irrespective. But the country lad in me was awakened by this gracefulness.
“Where are you from?” she asked after the greetings. That she had asked in English was surprising. East Africans physically look the same, and for the past six weeks I had been in Dar, no one had addressed me in English on the first go. Conversations only switched to English after my Kiswahili disappeared or had been exhausted.
“How did you know I was not from here?” I pleasantly challenged her. “It is easy to tell,” she said. “Your way of eating; knives and forks. We do not eat like that here!” she said. I laughed with my heart, and soon our conversation matured into territories unimagined. But the bits about my “non-Tanzanian” eating gymnastics stood out.
There is a resilient pattern of authenticity that Tanzanians exude in their mannerisms. They seem to have managed to modernize but remain traditional at the same time. Take for example, the most urbanized working-class woman (a gender most expected to cherish the vanities of Western modernity) still washes and eats with her bare hands.
It is not simply eating with the hands that is bamboozling, but the traditional artfulness with which it is executed: rolling a mound of rice or ugali in the palm into a spherical ball, in which a miniature basin is drilled with the thumb to properly scoop the soup.
For a country lad busy cosmopolitanizing and globalizing, living in Dar was sweet nostalgia. Like many of Kampala’s “women of class,” who patronize posh hangouts, I expected their counterparts in Dar to eat with knives and forks, not hands and spoons like little children or country folks.
But the fact that they did so was not simply enchanting, but illuminating as it pointed to the degree of resistance to cultural corruption. If I may generalize, this romantic-authentic personhood springs from and explains Tanzanian honesty, generosity and friendliness.
Indeed, it is this authenticity that one finds lacking in Kampala and Nairobi in the East African region. It should be recalled that one of the major challenges the anti-colonial intelligentsia faced at the end of colonialism was the dilemma of having to modernize but also remain traditional.
This often ended in an embrace of both modernities. However, with Structural Adjustment Programmes and the collapse of communism, which came at the same time, the pseudo-intelligentsia dispensed with all claims of tradition (except for politics) and wholeheartedly embraced colonial/Western capitalist modernity.
The danger in this modernity is a vulgarized version bereft of history and context. Thus, leaders in Kampala and Nairobi, like their “urbanized-modernized” masses, are vain and selfish rustics – living caricatured lives of Europeans and North Americans.
The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.