CNN was part of my old travelling life. I have watched its broadcasts in everything from five-star hotels to Uzbek tea-houses; even in Bedouin tents on a television plugged into a generator.
CNN provided entertainment when it was unsafe to go out in cities such as Beirut or Karachi and its coverage of the Gulf War made dramatic viewing in Bombay, but for novelty value nothing matched the circumstances of its transmission of the Clinton tapes in Dar-es-Salaam, the former capital of German East Africa.
Unable to find a reasonably priced western-style hotel, I was staying at the YMCA. It was central and cheap—only $7 single or $12 double —and it was scrubbed from top to bottom by a team of women on their knees.
And they accepted women guests!
Good, I said. At that price, I’ll take a double room, but please bring me a towel, a glass and a mosquito net with a few less holes.
The recent bombing of the US embassy has seen a big drop in backpackers said the boy who brought my suitcase upstairs on his head. I had the bathroom to myself and unpacking after the eleven hour flight from London, I went down to watch the news.
It was the night in 1998 that CNN broadcast President Clinton’s testimony in the Monica Lewinsky saga and while I may have been the only guest at the YMCA, half of Dar-es-Salaam was crammed into the TV room.
Office workers, curio-sellers, street sweepers and taxi-drivers, even a policeman had popped in for the occasion. In the front row of chairs sat the YMCA manager, the accountant and the night watchman heads craned to get a better view of a television screwed some ten feet up on the wall.
As Mr. Clinton recounted his version of the story, some of the audience had made comments in English and since Swahili is the lingua franca on the coast of East Africa, I assumed they were for my benefit.
What is all the fuss? asked the YMCA receptionist who looked all of twelve. Men will be men chuckled someone else and turning, I asked of no one in particular, would he do that in his office? That is the point I repeated for emphasis. It was in the Oval Office.
To Africans forced to conduct their business on the sidewalk an office is almost sacrosanct and whispered around the room, the word left a palpable shock which saw us watch the final hour in silence.
‘Why is your TV so high up?’ I asked the manager on my way to bed.
‘It will disappear otherwise. Good night Mama,’ he replied.
In transit to Ngorongoro or Mount Kilimanjaro, most travellers skip Dar es-Salaam but I found ‘Dar’ as it was affectionately known, a colorful, laidback old port.
With a population at that time of some 2 million, it clustered around three central districts: Kivukoni its old colonial heart, Mchafukoge the business hub and Kariakoo, a miscellany of markets and slums.
It was especially notable for a number of German colonial buildings of which the Ocean Road Hospital built in 1897 was the grossartige alte Dame of Dar-es-Salaam and I learned to have been born there carried considerable kudos.
Ocean Road, a long avenue lined with coconut palms, passed the hospital and the Moorish-style State House ending at the Fish Market where I soon discovered people hated having their photograph taken.
Boys wandered about carrying trays of octopus tentacles, women fried cassava chips on charcoal stoves under the Indian Almond trees. Others roasted cashew nuts and corn cobs and while Jambo! – the Swahili greeting – was on everyone’s lips, definitely no pichuz!
Appalled by the cooking in the YMCA, I used to walk down Azikiwe Street to the New Africa Hotel for breakfast which cost the same price as my room. I also liked the Gamblers High Tea —tea, cup cakes and jam roly-poly served in its casino between 4-6pm.
Now, more than two decades on, unsurprisingly everything has changed. Gleaming glass skyscrapers have risen above Mchafukoge, a little park has been created around the Askari monument and hydrofoils whisk tourists across to Zanzibar in the blink of an eye.
In catching up to the modern world Dar es-Salaam has lost some of its charm and having decided long ago not to return to places I liked, it joins a long list of others visited, some of which are unrecognizable.