Why you should never wear an African dress instead of a ball gown (and other adventures of a broke intern in expat city)

Before I start this blog post, lets get one thing straight – in no way do I think that Africa is a broken continent filled with poor people and mud huts.

Ya ya, you’re saying, obviously that’s not true (and if you’re not saying that, just lie to me and tell me you know more than the regular stereotypes – and maybe start reading some better news sources). Every time I’ve been to Tanzania, it has been extremely interesting to see the wide range of technology and social innovations available, from an increase in mobile phones, to solar lighting projects, to incredibly fashionable youth. Any time that I’ve visited, there’s always been a level of sophistication that puts my grungy backpacker lifestyle a little bit to shame. A five dollar Nokia phone really doesn’t do any sort of justice when the rest of the locals you’re surrounded by have brand new iPhones or Blackberries.

That being said, as much as I’ve always recognized that this changing landscape is an important part of progress and growth (apologies for those horrible development words), each time I’ve been here my experience has had certain similar characteristics. Chaotic traffic, chickens being pulled out from under your legs on the bus system, busy marketplaces with people trying to both befriend and scam you all at once. Most importantly, I’m used to living in a community. With a family, or friends, and people that become close to your heart. I’d know the girl who runs the corner store, the neighborhood children’s route to school, the name of the boda driver who stood on the corner. Yes, East Africa had its fancy moments, but it also didn’t take much to find certain characteristics and experiences that felt similar no matter where you were.

Which leads me to the main point of this blog post – I now live in the most expensive, filthy rich area of Tanzania that I possibly could have picked. Gone are the days of chaotic and crazy. Instead, here come the adventures of a broke intern in expat central.

At first, I thought I was just seeing Dar on an off day. Okay yes, the streets weren’t crowded, but maybe people were at work. Okay yes everything in my apartment worked perfectly, but things were bound to break eventually. Okay, yes all of the restaurants around here were ridiculously expensive, but I probably just wasn’t looking in the right places. And yes the only people around were white parents and their perfect blonde daughters, but that must just be a fluke…right?

This line of reasoning has been slowly broken down over the last two weeks. My first days here, I was HORRIFIED to see people walking around in mini-skirts and short shorts. But my surprised looks at women walking around in skirts and heels were reciprocated by even more surprised looks from their side – who was this girl wearing a long, kind of beaten up skirt, and why was she wearing Walmart flip flops?! Instead of the everyday morning bustle I’m used to, as people open up their shops and get ready for work, the peninsula is almost a transplanted suburb – with moms in minivans driving their children off to the international school. And don’t even get me started on the office – who knew that “just make sure to cover your shoulders” really meant that you should bring heels, accessories, and nice suit jackets?

The icing on the cake was when I got invited to my neighbors wedding. SWEET, I thought, I’ve always wanted to go to a local wedding, I’ve heard that they’re fantastic. I’ve had friends who have gone to Tanzanian weddings and absolutely raved about them, so I was beyond excited to get out of my way-too-big apartment, and actually see another side of Tanzania. One that hopefully included a little more culture than I had been exposed to thus far. Not really having packed any North American wedding attire, I threw on an African patterned dress, some tights to cover up my bed-bug bitten legs, and was ready to go.

O how my horribly stereotypical line of reasoning backfired. Picture the fanciest wedding you’ve been to in North America, and then triple the extravagance. I’m talking diamonds dripping off of the brides dress, big screen TVs set up to capture the festivities, and beautiful reception tables placed right along the water. Every woman in there had a gorgeous evening dress, usually adorned with expensive jewelry and sparkling stilettos. Here I was, surrounded by tiaras, diamonds, and ball-gowns – and all I had on was a measly little African patterned dress and bangle earrings. To say that I hid against the wall, desperately trying to cover up my outfit with a shawl, would be more or less on point with how the rest of the evening went.

I may have to face it eventually, but travel Kailee was not prepared for gorgeous, fancy Dar es Salaam.

I know there’s about a billion and fifty issues you could critique me on for this way of thinking. Obviously Dar es Salaam, crazy expensiveness and all, is part of Tanzania, and therefore represents an authentic experience. And what even is authentic anyway? I should be happy with my nice hot shower, my working refrigerator, and water pressure that has been nothing but amazing. To a certain extent, I get that, I really do. But its hard to justify living in a gated house, in the middle of a peninsula that’s isolated from the rest of the population, when half of the country is living in extreme poverty. How do you justify going to work every day to try and contribute to development solutions and poverty alleviation, but then ride around town in a massive vehicle and go to lunch in expensive restaurants? I’m not trying to be too critical – international organizations and their expat staff obviously need to support themselves, and their presence does make a big contribution to the surrounding communities. But the juxtaposition of rich white people running in short shorts, next to the side of the road where a sixteen year old mother and child break rocks into tiny pieces for a 1$ a day construction job, is just something that really doesn’t seem to make much sense. It’s extremely unnerving, and almost a bit surreal. Even more surreal to realize that my brief stint as an expat in Dar, broke intern or not, makes me a part of that juxtaposition as well.

All that being said, Dar is a beautiful city, and I’m lucky to be able to have even one brief summer in such a gorgeous place (even if it will break my wallet). Plus, on the upside, my roommate has finally arrived, which means I now have a partner in crime to go explore other areas of the city. And if we get a bit exhausted with chaotic traffic and too many people – at least we know we have a massive air condition apartment to come home too.

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