CITY OF LIGHT
Mustafa Mwenyemambomengi was a self-made man, right down to the surname he had adopted for business. It translated to “the man having many matters.” He had stakes in everything from flour mills to discos and was said to have gotten his start in Dar es Salaam by selling chunks of peppered octopus from a hubcap he carried on top of his head as an adolescent. Wilson had insisted that I look him up as soon as I arrived, despite my objections that the last thing I wanted to do while in Tanzania for three months was draft proposals and assemble a team of American backers. “You think he wants money?” Wilson had laughed. “The man’s a mogul!”
My trial encounter with the Man Having Many Matters had been at the Holiday Inn. It consisted first of pleasantries, then of me repeating my well-rehearsed biography and my stance on using Swahili as the language of instruction in government schools. He listened with care while he chewed his way through a mountain of breakfast sausages. Every few minutes I had to pause. A steady flow of portly men came over to shake Mr. Mwenyemambomengi’s hand and to inquire as to the well-being of his wife and children. The Man Having Many Matters stayed silent until the end of my monologue. Then he said, “There is more room for Swahili in government education, just as there is more room for Swahili in digital marketing and entertainment. The question is how to bring stakeholders together in a way that is non-confrontational and beneficial to all parties.” His statement was vague, but at least it was something other than my ideological stance that all people had an inherent right to learn in their first language. It was also something other than the counterargument, that Tanzania would forever be lagging behind if education was not conducted in English, the international language of business.
“Did you ever study?” I asked him at the end of our meeting.
“Nilijisoma.” he said. I studied myself.
Shopper’s Plaza was a six-story complex of retail stores, restaurants and a nightclub that catered to expats and wealthy Tanzanians. On the ground floor was a supermarket, a book store called A Novel Idea and yet another Subway sandwich shop. They seemed to be springing up everywhere. I texted The Man Having Many Matters and told him I had arrived. “Take the elevator to the penthouse,” he texted back. A slim woman with rich dark skin and straight hair, wearing a white blouse and a knee-length navy skirt stood before me when the elevator opened on the top floor.
“Upepo mzuri.” Nice wind, I said, stepping out of the box and onto the open walkway. Palm and banana leaves swayed down below.
“Yes. Breezy,” she responded in English. “Right this way, please.”
The receptionist led me through a glass doorway and showed me to a cushioned bench. I waited, hands folded, for a perfunctory minute. Then she informed me, “Mr. Mwenyemambomengi is ready to see you now.” I followed her down a corridor and slowed to take in the pictures on the wall: Mr. Mwenyemambomengi with Jakaya Kikwete, the current Tanzanian president; Mr. Mwenyemambomengi with his first wife, three of his children and Benjamin Mkapa, the previous president; at the end of the hallway was one of Mr. Mwenyemambomengi, his second wife, two other children and George W. and Laura Bush. Suddenly I wished I had dressed in something other than a T-shirt and cargo shorts.
“Welcome!” boomed the Man Having Many Matters. He wore a crisp white shirt with the top two buttons open and a heavy silver chain.”Welcome to my executive chambers.” Seated in his leather chair behind his polished mahogany desk he appeared enormous, twice the size he had been when we met at the Holiday Inn. The room felt twice as big as Zuhura and I’s apartment. His office was decorated with gleaming cabinets and credenzas, Tinga-tinga paintings, ebony sculptures of Masai warriors and more photographs of Mr. Mwenyemambomengi with important-looking men.
“Have a seat,” he said. The couch, black and leather, was as long as a city bus. I sat at the end of it nearest to his desk. There was no computer on his desk, just three cell phones, a pad of paper and a pen.
“Water? Coffee? Tea?” the receptionist asked. I asked for water. She returned with a small bottle and a rocks glass on a wooden tray. She set the tray on the coffee table in front of the couch, poured the water from the bottle into the glass, set the glass down on a coaster then left with the tray and the empty bottle.
“You have given me a lot to think about since our last meeting,” Mr. Mwenyemambomengi began. “Specifically, the role of my country’s language in my country’s business.” I wondered why, then, he had chosen to speak to me in English. “Take telecommunications. We are so in love with our phones.” He motioned to the collection of them on his desk. “And we are so in love with each other! Already we are sending money, paying our utility bills, starting to pay at certain restaurants with phone apps. But there is no business yet where the cell phone is used to improve our romantic lives. Later this year, I plan to introduce a hotline where young people such as yourself can call or text in questions about relationships. We’ll have a call center, staffed with men and women experienced in the arts of love, who can help guide the callers through the confusion of dating in this duplicitous city.” I had to smile. “You know what young people are saying on the streets these days?”
“That everyone is fasta-fasta. That there is no such thing as true love anymore in Dar es Salaam.”
I imagined a typical Tanzanian male who sometimes went hungry, slept in a musty room with three or four others but still managed to dress smart and keep enough prepaid credits on his phone to chat with several lovers. “What will you call your call-in service?” I asked.
“Doctor Love,” Mr. Mwenyemambomengi confided.
“How much will you charge for the service?” I asked. “I’m assuming this will be a collaboration with the cell phone providers? Aren’t young people spending too much of their budgets on phone services already?”
“Indeed,” he answered. “Young people are choosing between buying flour to cook their evening ugali and buying prepaid vouchers. That’s why Dr. Love, the basic service, will be offered free of charge. While callers wait to receive complimentary advice from a romance expert, they’ll be treated to a soundtrack of announcements.”
“Announcements or advertisements?” They were the same word in Swahili.
“I see you are less than impressed. Romantic advice lines are nothing new in America, but never before has such a service existed entirely in Swahili.”
I saw my opportunity to steer the conversation toward a worthier subject. “So you are proud of the fact that the service will be offered in Swahili?”
“It makes sense that people would use their first language to talk to a counselor about the intricacies of their private lives. Their desires, their fantasies, their jealousies, their sexual proclivities. Why, then, use English to discuss economic theories, world history or physics?”
“Aha! Everything goes back to the language of instruction question, doesn’t it? You will be pleased to hear that the sponsorship fees from Doctor Love will help fund another endeavor, one that touches directly on education.” The Man Having Many Matters tapped a button on the underside of his desk and the receptionist entered carrying a large flat package sealed in bubble wrap. “Njoo uangalie.” Come have a look, he said.
He sliced the bubble wrap with the elongated nail of his pinky and withdrew a stiff piece of multicolored plastic shaped like an amoeba. On it was a picture of two schoolchildren: a boy and a girl, smiling at each other and gripping pencils. The text above the picture read: Tigo. Tujifunze pamoja!
Tigo was one of the nation’s fastest-growing cellular providers. The words after Tigo meant “let’s learn together.”
“What is it?”
“You can’t tell? Chukua.” Take it, he instructed. “Take it over to the couch and set it on your lap. Have you ever visited a government school in a rural area?”
I had, in fact. During my second, third and fourth trips to Tanzania I had embodied what documentarian Alloys Godfrey called the “do-gooder” archetype and attempted, via funds raised in the United States, to improve conditions at an overcrowded primary school an hour outside of Dar es Salaam.
“What were the greatest challenges the students faced?” Mr. Mwenyemambomengi asked.
“Coming to school hungry, not enough teachers, not enough textbooks, not enough pencils, not enough desks.”
“Exactly!” he said. “Not enough desks.”
I looked down at the piece of plastic again. “This is a desk?”
“It’s a portable writing surface. Underwritten by Tigo. To be made available later this year, pending government approval, to every pupil without a proper desk in Tanzania.”
“It’s an advertisement,” I protested.
“It’s a desk,” he corrected me. “Durable, lightweight and made from recycled water bottles.”
The thrust behind Mr. Mwenyemambomengi’s projects seemed to be collaborations. He probably owned the recycling plant where collected bottles would be turned into colorful slabs, and he probably had some stake in Tigo, the cellular provider, too. A new government position would likely be needed to oversee the distribution of desks to schools, and no doubt a tax incentive would be offered to Tigo for covering the cost of the “education” program. The wheel of favors spun round and round, benefiting those who had the fortune to place their hands on the playing board.
“Tigo” was also street slang for anal sex.
“Of course, the project may appear a controversial,” he said. “I was hoping, as an advocate for Swahili-language education, you might be able to shed some light on its most positive aspects.”
A year earlier, I would have stormed out of the room. Mr. Mwenyemambomengi’s proposal would have struck me as repugnant. But I couldn’t keep saying no to opportunities. I needed something to do in Dar es Salaam while I waited for my fiance’s visa to get processed, and I needed to earn some money, too. A public relations project that mixed commerce and education wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
“Perhaps I can take a sample so as to more closely examine the product,” I said. Until I could get a proper desk built by our neighborhood carpenter, I could use the blob-shaped slab of synthetic material to write on. I could eat off it, too. Zuhura and I didn’t own a dining table.
“Surely,” Mr. Mwenyemambomengi said. He pressed his bell again and the receptionist entered with more water and two small bowls of roasted cashew nuts. “From my farm, in Kigamboni,” he said. “I nibble on high-protein snacks in the afternoon instead of going out for a greasy elaborate lunch.” I chewed on a cashew nut–it was delicious–while I searched for a way to phrase my next question. “I am also a great eater of chocolate,” the Man Having Many Matters said.
“Do you have any other business ventures in Kigamboni?” I asked.
He smiled a lascivious smile and placed his large palms flat on his desk. “If you’re asking if I’m involved in the initiative known as the ‘City of Light,’ they don’t call me Mustafa Mwenyemambomengi for nothing!”
Jay Boss Rubin, a native of Portland, Oregon, works as a freelance Swahili interpreter and as the head of A&R for Voodoo Doughnut Recordings. His writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Kwani? Journal (Kenya) and in 12th Street, a publication of the undergraduate writing program at the New School. He lives in New York State.