Sunday, May 4, 2008

Cultural Progress???

Yesterday (Saturday) I needed to go grocery shopping. Gil said he would watch Grace, so I took off on my own.

There is one two-lane road that leads into town (we are sort of in the suburbs). One two-lane road for a city of 4 million people. As you can imagine, there are times when it gets quite congested. Well, yesterday morning, “congested” was an understatement. After 45 minutes, I had only gotten a mile from home. Now, that kind of traffic is bad enough, but you know when you are stuck in traffic on the freeway in California, and there’s always some renegade who drives on the shoulder? You mutter curses under your breath and pray that an officer catches him. Well, imagine you are stuck in traffic, but dozens and dozens of people are driving on the shoulder. Not only that, but as soon as there’s a break in on-coming traffic, they drive straight down that lane as well. Sometimes they even drive on the shoulder on the other side of the road. (See post below). For those of us who continue to wait patiently in our own lane, you can imagine that this is quite frustrating.

So, frustrated, irritated, and still very determined to get to the store, I turned around, drove back past our house and took off down what is affectionately called “The Back Way.” The Back Way is an all-dirt, very bumpy road. But given that this is rainy season, it’s actually a mud road. And the bumps turn into enormous lakes. And given the fact that we do not have a 4-wheel-drive car, going down this road was not the smartest thing I have ever done.

All I can say is that I am very, very thankful that our car did not stall in the middle of one these lakes of mud. Some of them were 3 or 4 feet deep. The worst point came when I was driving through one of these “puddles” and the mud came up over the hood of the car and onto my windshield. You could say that got my adrenalin going.

Like I said, not the smartest thing I have ever done. But I was determined. And indeed, there was much less traffic on The Back Way.

An hour and a half after I left home, I finally did make the 10 miles to my destination. The grocery store I was headed towards is at Dar es Salaam’s very own mall. Yep, we finally have a mall. And it does indeed look like a mall (albeit a very small one) by American standards. It has about 30 stores and is fully enclosed and air-conditioned. But the stores are not quite what you would expect at a mall: a grocery store, a pharmacy, a dry cleaners, 5 banks, and a photocopy store are some of the more unusual merchants. Much to our delight, there is also a movie theater with three screens. (It’s getting “Juno” this week—sounds like a date night!).

Yesterday, however, before I went grocery shopping, I headed to the newest store, the one all our students were talking about last week, called “Mr. Price.” Upon entering, though, I went through somewhat of a culture shock.

Half of the store looks exactly a smaller version of Bed, Bath, and Beyond. The other half looks like the clothes section of Target. It is a beautiful store. I was in shock. After driving through the mud lake and fighting the mayhem outside, to suddenly be transported back to America sent my senses into overload. I walked around in much of a daze—kind of like how I felt a year ago when the mall first opened.

But perhaps what was most disturbing to me about Mr. Price was the prices. They were actually quite reasonable. Why would I be disturbed about that? Well, because there are a few other stores in the mall which sell imported clothes and housewares, but they are so absurdly priced that I don’t even give them the time of day. But the prices in this store were affordable—kind of like Target prices.

And at least half of the customers were Tanzanian. That’s what disturbed me. There is a growing middle class in Tanzania—which is a good thing! But just because there are people in Tanzania who are moving out of poverty, does that mean their houses have to look American? Does that mean their clothes have to look American? The decorating styles in Mr. Price were most definitely western (it’s a South African chain). The majority of the clothes do not meet African modesty standards (which considers the legs as the most important part to cover up). Yet this Tanzanian middle class can now afford these things.

And that makes me sad. Even for myself—yes, I was attracted to the things in that store. But I don’t want my house to look American. No, it doesn’t look totally Tanzanian either. But my goal isn’t to re-create the kind of life I would have had in the States. Part of the reason I love living in Africa is because I get to escape the materialism of the west. I have always liked finding local products to substitute for things I need.

But the west is coming to Africa. And with each store, a little bit of the African culture dies. I do most earnestly hope and pray that the roads will improve! But I wish there was a way to allow progress to happen to Africa while still remaining distinctly African.
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