A Study in Contrasts

Dar es Salaam. The city is an assault on the senses. Flying into Nyerere International airport, my first glimpse of Tanzania, and indeed of Africa, is incredibly beautiful – mile upon mile of azure ocean clings alluringly to a sandy coastline, clusters of coconut trees spring up from between houses with maroon and blue roofs, and an incredible profusion of blood red hibiscus infuse the entire landscape with color and vibrancy. Quite simply, it is breathtaking. Little wonder then that the city’s name translates into ‘abode of peace’ in Arabic, named so by Arab sailors who arrived here after months on the Indian Ocean to be greeted by pleasant weather (for most of the year!), fertile land, and incredibly hospitable locals.

Mambo from Dar es Salaam! My name is Nabomita and I am fortunate enough to be spending the next few months working at SELFINA (Sero Lease and Finance Ltd.) here in Dar. Dr. Victoria Kisyombe founded SELFINA in 2002 with the goal of providing Tanzanian women, many of whom are excluded from land and asset ownership due to local customs and traditions, with access to micro-credit. Most of SELFINA’s customers use their loans to start or infuse fresh capital into small businesses. In an economy where unfortunately even college graduates find it an uphill task to find gainful employment, these loans provide women with the opportunity for self-employment and the ability to support their families.

SELFINA’s office is located just off of Old Bagomoyo road, in the Mikocheni B area of the city. The impression that one is left with driving down Old Bagomoyo road, besides the vista of the ocean within walking distance, is of imposing ten feet tall padlocked gates and hired security shielding stately mansions and the people who live in them from the hoi polloi on the street. One could be forgiven for thinking that much of the city’s population lives sequestered behind barricades in absolute luxury.

This could not be further from reality. My visit to a client this week took me into the heart of the Vingunguti Miembeni settlement and showed me just how humbly many Tanzanians live. To get to Vinunguti, one must take a dala-dala or local bus down Uhuru road and then walk about a mile to the entrance of the settlement. Our client, Neema Damasi, met us at the entrance and led us through the confusing maze of winding streets that led to her general store. To call these dirt paths ‘streets’ is misleading. With no concession to modern city planning, the paths slope up and down, and around at random. No more than a foot wide at any point, people walk through them in single file. During the rainy season, the lack of drainage means that the dirt road is flooded with not just mud but also with overflowing sewage and excreta from outdoor latrines. Not surprisingly, the settlement recorded 130 cases of cholera outbreak in 2003 (the last year for which I was able to find credible data). All along the paths and in sudden clearings that one stumbles across, people have built their homes. A vast majority of these are made of wood and have tin roofs, but a few people are fortunate enough to be able to afford concrete. Despite having 14 deep wells dug by the government and other private companies, most of the water is saline and unfit for consumption. Drinking water is supplied by the Water and Sanitation Authority twice a week at midnight. Residents with taps at home are able to store the water in buckets for later consumption, while others must purchase drinking water from vendors. 77% of the population of the settlement earns less than 60,000 Tanzanian Shilling or $52 per month. With almost 69,000 people (2002 census) crammed into an area of 32 hectares (less than 1/10th of a square mile), Vingunguti is one of Africa’s urban ghettos. Despite being only fifteen miles inland from Old Bagomoyo road, it is a completely different world in here. Walking into this was an overwhelming and humbling experience, as I’m sure you can imagine. I had seen poverty before but not on this scale, and definitely not this up close and personal.

Our client Neema Damasi rents a small store deep in the heart of Vingunguti from which she runs a grocery business. Earlier this year, she was selling traditional African cloth on the streets for extra income. Prior to that, she ran a tailoring business in 2006. Because up to 53% of Vingunguti’s population is informally employed in small businesses and petty trading, it is not uncommon to switch your trade fairly often. If landlords can find someone to pay more rent on your store than you currently do, you can be evicted – contract or not. Neema is actually doing very well when compared to the average resident of her neighborhood. She requested a loan of 300,000 Tanzanian Shilling from SELFINA in January of this year in order to purchase more fabric in wholsesale for her cloth business. When business did not pick up after a couple of months and a store became available inside Vingungiti, Neema sold off her fabric inventory and used this money to pay rent for and stock her grocery store. Her store sells everything from rice and beans to toothpaste and batteries – given the unusually high population density of Vingunguti and the universal applicability of her wares, business is doing well. During the thirty minutes we spent at her store, she made three sales. True, one of them was selling about a big ladle-full of cooking oil to a customer for 10 cents (probably just sufficient to cook that evening’s meal and all that the woman could afford), but small sales add up. Neema is now earning about 200,000 Shilling ($172) a month from her business, almost four times what 80% of her neighbors make. Only 7% of Vingunguti’s population earns over 100,000 Shilling a month, so she is one of the wealthiest in her area.

Neema’s husband runs another grocery store inside Vingunguti and I am hopeful that between them, they earn enough to provide for their three children and the fourth on its way.  

I must admit that one of my concerns prior to coming into the field was that I would find that microfinance was not really helping the poorest of the poor, that it was not effectively reaching those who most needed access to credit. Sitting in the comfortable SELFINA office during my first week and observing clients coming in to make monthly payments did not exactly allay my fears – these women did not look desperately poor to me. After visiting Neema and noticing the marked difference between her and her neighbors, I have become much more convinced of the power of small amounts of capital to make a huge difference. I have also had the opportunity to visit other clients and seen how they live – often as many as six people to a single bare room with no electricity and running water. Conversing with them has revealed that most of them wear their best clothes, take two or more dala-dalas, and spend upto three hours commuting to the SELFINA office every month to make their loan repayments. THIS is how desperate they are for credit. In a society where there are not very many opportunities for formal employment, these women must carve out their own paths to a livelihood. For many, Dar es Salaam does not quite live up to the meaning behind its name, but organizations like SELFINA are doing a fantastic job to try and change that.

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P.S. – I have attached a picture of Neema Damasi and her grocery store, as well as a picture of an adorable and precocious young Vinunguti resident who posed and pranced like a model, as she demanded that I photograph her. :)

Little girl in Vingunguti Neema Damasi and her grocery store


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