Architecture!

by zunguzungu

As I’ve said, Stonetown is quite a place; from the English administrative building, to the slave castle, to the fort that the sultanate of Oman surrendered after the shortest war in history (reportedly, forty minutes of shelling did the trick), to the maze of streets too small for cars that make up the center of live, here more than anywhere else I’ve been, you’re aware that a lot is going on and here’s a lot of history that you don’t understand at all. Start with those streets: what’s so fun about walking around in stonetown is that its not really clear if you’re inside or outside. While they are the main pedestrian thoroughfares that go all around the city (and people ride little mini-scooters and bicycles through them), they are too narrow for cars, they sometimes expand and contract, you’re always walking tightly in the shadow of three and four stories of old buildings that blend into each other and you always have the feeling that at any moment you might accidentally walk into someone’s living room. It can be disorienting. Remember our friends from the IMF and World Bank, who needed only a moments gaze to see to the heart of the society? I doubt they would make that claim in stonetown, or at least not so easily.

Part of this is simply that Stonetown is not “African” in the sense that the term is usually understood (which is to say, reductively). It is, for example, not too hard to sustain the delusion that “Africa” is a place of wild primeval nature onto which human settlement is only making the barest and most transient of impressions (and this delusion has been sustained for a long time), because life on the bara is so “open-air”; you’re more likely to see into someone’s house than be able to exclude your private affairs from their view. Children walk into your bedroom and people stare at you without a trace of self-consciousness. The lack of personal space, as Rae put it, is everywhere apparent, from the daladala’s to the ease with which people ask strangers they’ve just met what tribe they are, what your religion is, where you’re going, and so forth. It can be pleasant, it can be annoying, but the point is that you don’t feel like “Society” has built very permeable walls and barriers around which you negotiate. You can feel like everything is very jumbled together and everyone is all up in each other’s business. I say you can because I suspect this is much more a product of my own (our own) ignorance of the social landscape that people actually are negotiating through.

Whatever; on the other hand, Stonetown is a place that is systematically enclosed in ways that aren’t even immediately apparent from the street, which is to say that you are only aware of enclosures because you’re closed off from them. What you see from the street is simply rows and rows of doors and shop openings, but what you only glimpse, occasionally, is that these are the entrances into further divisions and subdivisions of living spaces, smaller streets that turn into smaller alleys that turn into smaller domestic spaces, and finally into single rooms.

Actually, let me grab onto that word to illustrate the difference I’m straining after. “Domestic,” if I may make a broad sweeping generalization, is the difference between the inside and the outside of the house in a specifically Western sense, and an often very gendered one: the domestic sphere is the place where women, children, and family life goes on, whereas the “outside” (or maybe the “public”?) is the place where men and business happen. But it doesn’t really work like that here, and this is part of why I think “personal space” issues are so fascinating to the Wazungu mind. While we might carry a sphere of personal space around with us everywhere we go (and get annoyed when people interrupt it), Tanzanians often walk wherever they’re going hand in hand (men and women) simply as a gesture of conversation; I’ve had entire conversations where the initial handshake turned into a 20 minute handclasp. People’s businesses are in their houses, and so forth.

Now while I would make some tentative claims about the differences between the way Wazungu’s organize space and the way that doesn’t happen here, I’m not going to try to claim that I understand the differences between the way the bara Tanzanian’s and the Stonetown Tanzanians live, though I’d be fascinated to know. But you can get a glimpse of the difference here, the way that the openness and jumbled-together-ness of the bara is replaced by graduated levels of exclusivity. Timothy Mitchell has written about Algeria and Egypt (or, rather, Algiers and Cairo) that while Western space is organized around the point where public turns into private, space in the cities he’s looking at have, instead of two, multiple levels of organization. The public street which everyone walks through has a turn off into a street that is a sort of neighborhood, a little more enclosed, which opens into a variety of household spaces (large households), which are further subdivided into smaller family units, which are further subdivided within the family, and then into indicvidual rooms. My guess is that its a little like that here: whereas the bara TZ people tend not to have the built infrastructure around which their social life is organized (there just aren’t so many houses, so they organize it around less tangible social conventions), Stonetown has a much older kind of architecture, in common with places like Algiers and Cairo, where the distinction between different levels of exclusivity in living spaces is built into the city, but which strikes the Westerner as totally strange and disorienting. And fascinating, too.

Hmm… I meant to write about watching a bollywood movie in Liz’s friend Dula’s house, eating seafood on the beach with Dula, his family, and Haj (and noting the way that Dula’s quite young kid was playing in barbed wire, running off into crowds of strangers to buy things, and generally seemed both expected and fully able to take care of herself), being taken shopping by our friends as Wazungu (because that’s what wazungu’s do), and having coffee with a maasai guy who tried to get Liz into an argument about male-female relationships. All good stuff, but all neglected because I wanted to talk about architecture. (Tadd, I hope you’re happy!).