Lollipops, dancing, camaraderie … in a Tanzanian slum

Not to hopelessly romanticize life in Tanzania's urban slums - for sure, Neema's Dar es Salaam neighborhood is

home to all the same problems that plague people living in poverty everywhere - but at times, life there has real appeal.

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    A spontaneous dance party breaks out in the square near Neema’s house, to celebrate a neighbor’s wedding.
    Mary Wiltenburg
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    The fun of a wedding party spread as kids clumped around, gawking at the band. Toddlers took turns thumping the drum. People chanted, waved, and shook whatever they had to shake.
    Mary Wiltenburg
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    Hearing a brass band in a small square, residents of Neema's Dar es Salaam slum couldn't resist congregating around the sound of the rhythm.
    Mary Wiltenburg
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Not to hopelessly romanticize life in Tanzania's urban slums - for sure, Neema's Dar es Salaam neighborhood is

home to all the same problems that plague people living in poverty everywhere - but at times, life there has real appeal.

Though "resource-poor" - a term often applied to ICS, the scrappy charter school her brothers attend in Atlanta - vastly understates its situation, the school her son attends is full of curious, disciplined, apparently happy kids. The settlement of houses in which Neema rents a room is ranged chock-a-block up a hillside, its maze of passages impenetrable by cars, so 4-year-old Briton and his friends can roam their small world with relative independence. Someone's always playing a radio; someone's always cooking; and in the intervals between work, people spend hours stoop-sitting and chatting.

This afternoon (April 12), Neema and Briton's across-the-hall neighbor, a cornrowed little girl about his age named Suzie (pronounced SHOO -zhee), sat on the stoop opposite their shared house. As her mother played cards with a neighbor, Suzie policed the perimeter.

"Get away from our house, chicken!" she admonished a cheeky fowl, "Don't go in!"

Neema and I watched her from the hallway, where she was cooking a pot of ugali, a spongy mass of cassava powder rolled into balls and dipped into stews. Suddenly, a drumbeat began outside. Suzie, her mom, and the rest of the stoop crew leapt up and dashed toward the nearby square. Neema, Briton, and I followed - along with the rest of the neighborhood.

As we rounded the corner, a small brass band came into view. It was soon engulfed by gyrating women and twirling kids: a wedding party, which became a street party, everyone urging each other on. People chanted, waved, and shook whatever they had to shake. Afterward, reluctant to head home, many lingered on neighbors' stoops, sharing water and lollipops (omnipresent here, for some reason). The kids clumped around, gawking at the band members. Toddlers took turns thumping the drum.

Neema says there's such a celebration nearly every weekend, because "people in Kigogo love music." Coming from a chilly urban condo building where neighbors don't do much more than nod in passing, this was all looking good to me.

Then it got dark. And there was no electricity, a shortage of candles, and dubious men on the way to our waiting taxi.

"I think Neema's not safe here," said Aloisia, our interpreter, as we drove away.

Travel in Tanzania for this project is supported by The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, in Washington DC.

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