Danger and Despair in Dar es Salaam

Dar Es Salaam City Scape

Before I begin this story, I would like to tell my mother that we are safe and nothing remotely dangerous occurred to us while we were in Dar es Salaam. Please don’t worry.

And we continue – before we arrived in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I read a post on a Lonely Planet forum where someone described her experience of getting kidnapped and robbed while in Dar es Salaam. I of course assumed that she was not taking the proper precautions – be aware of your surroundings, don’t walk alone at night, don’t obviously flaunt money or valuables, use common sense. All the types of things that living in a city like Chicago we’ve learned to do without thinking.

But then we showed up in Zanzibar. A young couple showed up a day or two after us and shared their experience of getting kidnapped and robbed as well. The story sounded all too familiar. Exactly as the Lonely Planet post described:

You get into a taxi and someone jumps into the passenger seat immediately or a few minutes down the road. The doors have childproof locks so you cannot get out and the driver doesn’t let you when you tell him you want to leave. It’s dark and you start going down quiet, unfamiliar streets. A van pulls in front of you and a few more guys get out. They threaten you and tell you exactly what is going to happen next. They are going to drive you around to a few ATMs. You’re going to take out the maximum amount from the ATM – 400,000 Tanzanian Schillings (~$240) at most. They’ll continue to take you around until your account is dry or they’ve felt they’ve gotten enough out of you. If you cooperate, you’ll go home safely. Don’t ask what happens if you decide not to.

A few different guys will take turns driving you around to each ATM. Some will be nice and friendly and try to talk to you. Others will be completely quiet. Once they’ve drained your account, you might get lucky and they’ll give you a few bucks of your own cash to catch another taxi home. You won’t get robbed in that other taxi, because they all work together. You’ll keep all of your valuables in your bag, because cold hard cash is much more valuable.

When you file a police report, if you show no scuffs or scrapes from a beating, the police won’t help. All they got was money and your dignity, but you walked away unharmed.

These taxi drivers call themselves the “Little Mafia” and they operate all around Dar es Salaam.

At our hostel over the next five days we heard more stories of what happened to people in Dar. One guy showed up with two black eyes after taking a beating. I didn’t hear the details of this, but I had to assume the mugging went wrong when he put up a fight. Another couple showed up trying to find a computer to check their email as they had lost their computer, phones, and camera after being robbed in Dar.

Three different stories of being kidnapped or robbed or beaten or all of the above in just a matter of days. So I dug a little deeper and found more stories of recent events on the US Embassy website:

Monday, September 16, 1930 hours: A white Toyota with tinted windows, driving on the wrong side of the road, conducted a vehicular bag snatch on a U.S. citizen in front of the Colosseum Hotel on Haile Selassie. Fortunately, she wasn’t injured.

Monday, September 2, 1930 hours: Several U.S. citizens went to dinner at Osaka restaurant. They walked down Chaza Lane towards Touré Drive, looking for a bajaji taxi to take them home. As they neared Touré, they were surrounded by four men who hit one victim over the head with a bottle and the assailants stole an iPhone, BlackBerry, and a few thousand Tanzanian Shillings. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt.

Wednesday, August 14, morning: A young man apparently under the influence of drugs smashed the side view mirror of a U.S. citizen’s vehicle when she was stuck in downtown traffic. A nearby police officer refused to pursue the man.

Saturday, July 12, 2330 hours: An expat woman left a Msasani bar and took a bajaji taxi home alone. The driver stopped on a dirt road and pushed her out. A van immediately pulled up and several assailants raped and robbed her.

There are several more stories like the above of incidents that occurred to US citizens. But while at our hostel we were the only Americans there. It’s impossible to know how many tourists leave Dar es Salaam with empty pockets and a wounded ego.

This is how we made it out of Dar es Salaam unscathed:

  • We paid some extra cash to stay at a reputable business class hotel.
  • This hotel came with the perk of a free shuttle to pick us up from the ferry from Zanzibar. A well dressed man had a sign waiting for us when we arrived at the terminal. If you do not have someone waiting for you it’s a madhouse of taxi drivers trying to get you into their cab. This is what a real cab should look like and it’s worth it to do a proper inspection:
    • a white car with a white (never yellow) license plate
    • a colored stripe running laterally on the side panels of the vehicle
    • a number inside a circle on both passenger doors.
    • specific windshield stickers, namely: a valid insurance certificate, TRA sticker indicating maximum number of passengers, a motor vehicle license certificate, a municipal council parking stand sticker
    • make sure the driver’s I.D. matches the name of the car registration and taxi licenses.
  • We hired a porter from the hotel to walk with us to the grocery store for our first walk about town so we could get our bearings and gauge the situation.
  • When we walked alone, I walked without my daypack, Kristin without her purse, no ATM card, little cash, and we walked deliberately- to our destination and back and that was it.
  • We ordered dinner in and went nowhere at night.
  • We had the hotel choose a taxi for us for our trip to the train station.

Overly cautious? Maybe. But we made it through Dar es Salaam safely. I say, it’s worth the extra few bucks.

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