According to projections, by 2035, Dar es Salaam will have more than 13 million people living and working in the city, making Tanzania‘s most commercially vibrant metropolis a “megacity”.
This expectation falls in line with current trends within the global scheme of things. The UN says 10 of the world’s fastest-growing cities are in Africa and one of them is the city nicknamed Dar.
But a century-and-a-half ago, if you had told the founders of Dar that what they were building was the beginning of a complex and domineering city, there would be more than a few questioning looks. This is in spite of the big dreams Sultan Majid bin Said had for his project.
Dar’s story actually begins in Zanzibar, Tanzania’s semi-autonomous archipelago in the Indian Ocean founded as a dignified 15th-century state by Yemeni Arab traders. They chanced upon the islands sometime before through international trade with natives on the African coast..
These Arab traders called the islands by an amalgamation of two Arabic references, namely Zanj ( or zenji) and barr (coast). While Zanj, which roughly translates as “black”, was a medieval Arabic term for the peoples and lands of southeast Africa, barr is Arabic for shore or coast. Zanzibar is thus, “coast of the black (people)”.
Zanzibar was an important trading post that connected East Africa and the Gulf states. The ownership of Zanzibar juggled from one power to another, eventually falling into the hands of the rulers of Oman at the beginning of the 17th century.
The Omani overlords of Zanzibar established a sultanate in their overseas territory in the 19th century. It was the first sultan of Zanzibar, Majid bin Said, who built Dar in the 1860s very close to the fishing village of Mzizima, Swahili for “healthy town”.
Perhaps, calling the new settlement Dar es Salaam was deliberately made in tune with what Mzizima means in Swahili, for Dar es Salaam in Arabic stands for “abode/home/haven of peace”. Dar had a modest beginning but Sultan Said’s ambition was clear – the new settlement had to grow to be a symbolic representation of the Sultanate.
During the first sultan’s lifetime, Dar showed promise but took a nosedive when its founder died in 1870. It was not until 1887 when the German East Africa Company, with colonial and commercial interests in Central and East Africa, established a station in Dar that the town resumed on the path that its founder had set it.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Dar was the administrative and commercial district of German East Africa. This meant that amenities were built to facilitate mass transportation of goods and people, an investment that gave birth to a delightful service sector.
By the early 1900s, Dar had a port and also boasted a major railway network. What was a small town just 50 or so years before had become a city with even a cosmopolitan populace.
The Germans had been forced to relinquish to the British their hold over the territory at the end of World War I. When the second world war ended, Dar’s population began to boom exponentially.
According to a 2013 research by Manja Hoppe Andreasen at the University of Copenhagen, Dar es Salaam’s population growth has “historically… translated into spatial expansion and residential sprawl”. This means that over time, the area that was originally known as Dar has expanded in magnitudinous proportion to the population boom.
The sultan’s little town is now home to over 4.3 million people and it is more than 20 times bigger than what it was in 1826. Dar is now a modern city, in the strictest global sense of the term, by the look of its culture, architecture, technology, and economy.
What is the future for Dar? In a way, Dar’s future prospects and problems would not be any different than any other growing African city. Tanzanians already know this and it should be exciting to see how they continue to reinvent the Abode of Peace.