Cars speed up as business slows down in Dar

Sep 102009

It is the holy month of Ramadan during which Muslims all over the world fast and abstain from all forms of entertainment. Here in the coastal city of Dar es Salaam, life has taken a slow pace that can be felt almost everywhere and all the time.

From the lighter traffic on the usually congested roads, to the quiet night spots which during other times of the year are literally vibrating with life, you can almost feel this city of five million souls meditating. Tanzania is a multi denominational but its Indian Ocean coast and Zanzibar, which experienced early Arab influence, have got a high proportion of Muslims.

Business is slow and Mama Soumi, who sells fresh fruits and second-hand clothes a short distance from the large bus terminal of Ubungo, has been hard hit. She is a single mother of three in her mid thirties and seems to be expecting again. She tells me since Ramadan started at the beginning of the month, she sells far less fruit to travelers and casual workers. She is lucky to gross five thousand shillings – about four dollars - in a day, from which she has to meet all her bills. As a result, she has drastically reduced on her stock of fruit which is highly perishable. The second-hand apparels are not moving either, as ‘new’ clothes are not a priority during this season.

She carries herself with calm dignity, though things are pretty hard. Maybe she would have coped more easily were it not been for the loan she took from her Savings and Credit society, ne of the over 500 new microfinance operating in the country. Every week, she has to pay Shs 17,000 to offset the Shs 400,000 she took at the beginning of the year. At the end of the week, she has hardly put aside Shs10,000 and she has to fall back on her savings, or her capital to top up. She however maintains her cheer as she talks to ‘customers’ who check out the clothes but do not buy. She is determined to keep paying because she does not want her property to be seized as has happened to several women who failed to keep up with the periodic repayments.

When Ramadan ends at the end of the months, she contends, things will be much better and she will recover. She believes she will keep up the payments till then.  Shs400,000 is a large sum of money and it apparently went into making the frame structures that constitute her ‘premises’ and stocking the clothes. Whoever manages her microfinance institution apparently did not factor in the Ramadan while drawing up her loan amortization schedule.

After chatting up the market vendor, I tell my cab driver, an energetic youth called Zam, to take me back to the hotel. Today he does mention “waiting charges” because he does not expect to be missing any customers as he waits for me. As he drives through the relatively clear streets save for some pileups at the junctions, he complains about lack of money since Ramadan started. “You are my first customer today,” he says. “Even last night I had no customers and I went to bed before midnight.” He points out some deserted pubs and says even at night they are not much different these days. “It is the Muslims who have the money and when they stop spending, we all starve,” he sighs.

At the taxi stand, Zam takes it out on Ali, the elderly colleague whose cab I have used several times. “Mzee,” he calls out to Ali using the respectful title for elder. “Today you must go home and early don’t return after breaking your fast. You should leave us young men to struggle with the night business.”

But Mzee Ali is not about to miss out on the few customers the night might bring and quips back. “Its young fellows who should go home and try to get some children. Mine are already grown and I have no business going home early.”

But if there are less cars on the roads, the few that are moving tend to drive so fast as the hour for evening prayers and breaking the fast nears. Apparently six o’clock must find you settled where you are going to break the fast. So if you are driving in Tanzania from around five thirty in the evening, you need to be extra careful. Many private motorists tend to drive extra fast during this time as they want to beat the prayer deadline. When you see a person disregarding the rules and overtaking in a bend, his mind is most likely on the destination and it is better for all of you that you give way.

Lately there have been reports of nasty accidents in the press. In one accident last week that really signifies the hard times, dozens of people were badly burnt when they tried to collect fuel that was spilling from a speeding tanker that had crashed outside Dar es Salaam. They had hoped to sell the fuel to motorists at less than the market price and have a few days of happiness. Now they are nursing serious burns in hospital, and three have already died.

But not everyone is complaining of the slow business. This time is used by many business owners to do repairs and refurbish their premises. So those in the construction business are quite busy repairing, painting and upgrading buildings. And at the end of the month, it will be back to business, brisk business.

Editors Note: Ramadan effects businesses in Tanzania. The fasting month of Ramadan brings all activities to a slow down, except the cars which have more space on the road and the drivers become more reckless.