Luxury cars everywhere but not enough cash for hospitals, schools

Probably, the first thing most newcomers notice about Dar es Salaam are the luxury cars, not to mention the proliferation of car lots. We’re conspicuous consumers. Given time, I suspect that we might start to take on our Nigerian counterparts in terms of ostentation.

To be honest, if the furniture shops are shifting even half of the shinier merchandise that they stock, we might already be far into the land of questionable, if expensive, tastes.

And while we still have an impressive collection of mansions dotting the landscape, with real estate inflation to match, we like to display our wealth in our cars — the larger, the better. The four-wheel drive industry has been benefitting from us for a long time.

I suspect that they’re even designing cars for this market, you know, the ones with headlights that look like a handful of crystals got thrown into the mix.

It is a little disorienting just how fast we’ve come in such a short time. The refrain for the longest time used to be that Tanzania is a poor country, one of the poorest in the world judging by the Gross Domestic Product per capita.

This must have been true for a long time, but somewhere along the past few years things changed. The Internet provides several “expert” lists of the Top 10 or 20 Poorest Countries in the world based on various measures, and Tanzania was notably absent from the most current versions.

That is the good news — for Tanzania at least. The bad news is that all of the lists are populated almost entirely by African countries, and Haiti.

Now that we’re off the lists you’d think that the refrain would have changed, and that we would confidently assert that Tanzania is not a poor country. Especially given the concentration of luxury cars that we enjoy.

This hasn’t happened. Rather than adopting a new outlook we have become indefinite; on any given day we might say that Tanzania is a poor country if there is a chance that a donor is within hearing distance.

At investment forums you might hear that Tanzania is a country of infinite potential — a wonderfully ambiguous word that encourages speculation while admitting risk.

At political rallies — especially those targeting the hard-working masses who still can’t quite make their shillings stretch past the inflation rate — Tanzania is said to be a rich country.

Natural Resources 

Which it is, undeniably. If it’s a precious metal or almost any mineral of use to human industry, we probably have it in our soils. The sheer weight of natural resources we happen to enjoy is staggering. However, that’s never been a guarantee of anything good.

The list of the poorest countries in the world is littered with places that have staggering potential, and beauty.

One of the more interesting aspects of the “Africa is emerging” dialogue that’s taking place is how central natural resources are.

It seems that much of the growth that’s been projected isn’t going to be driven, necessarily, by intellectual productivity or manufacturing, but by natural resources. It makes me wonder, about the people end of things.

I like to make the case for Tanzanian exceptionalism, arguing that the sacrifices that the Independence and post-Independence generations made in the name of nation-building gave us an edge.

So our form of socialism was absolutely hopeless at putting sugar in the stores and shoes on people’s feet, but it did knit together a relatively coherent society from a collection of disparate peoples spread across a vast land.

Maybe a large part of that was the discipline imposed by an austere government, populated by people for whom public service meant more than beautiful cars and trips abroad designed to consume half of their ministry’s budget on allowances.

Ironically, it is our current wealth that is making me question this idea that Tanzania is exceptional. Prosperity is meant to be a mark of favour, divine or otherwise, a marker of achievement.

And yet I find myself wondering if what’s really happening is that we’re finally coming out of the bubble that we occupied so comfortably for so many years.

Without the great equaliser of communal poverty, we’re buying beautiful cars and building great houses. But our notion of prosperity is undermined by one little detail: We don’t seem to be investing in the areas that will guarantee our survival.

Mobutu Seseseko might have built a palace in the jungle — he didn’t do things by half. But we’re driving our luxury cars past schools that have no teachers or textbooks, hospitals with virtually no birthing kits. What makes us different from him, in the end?

Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report, E-mail:

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