Once isolated and overlooked, Dar es Salaam is on track to become Africa's fastest-growing urban center.
In 1957, in the waning years of British colonial rule, the then-unremarkable port city of Dar es Salaam sat on the coast of present-day Tanzania. It boasted a meager population of 128,000. Its humidity was relentless. Africa's independence era was getting underway, and many of Dar's neighboring cities had far glitzier exteriors with more modern infrastructure. Maputo, the capital of Mozambique to the south, would become known as "The Pearl of the Indian Ocean." Nairobi, 560 miles north in Kenya, would be referred to as "The London of Africa." Dar es Salaam, meanwhile, struggled to shake the English translation of its name—"the residence of peace." Tranquil, yet stagnant.
But recent years have brought unimaginable growth and change to Dar es Salaam. In terms of annual population growth, it's on pace to be Africa's fastest growing urban center. Its total population—currently about 4.1 million people—is expected to expand by more than 85 percent through 2025, according to the African Development Bank, and could reach 21.4 million people by 2052. It's likely to achieve 'megacity' status—10 million residents or more—by the early 2030s.
To put that expansion in context: New York City added roughly 4 million residents over the past 100 years. Dar es Salaam will add 21 million over a similar span.
Although huge, this staggering growth is not a complete surprise. CityLab has written about sub-Saharan Africa's other mushrooming cities. Tanzania is already one of Africa's most populated nations. By 2020, according to the U.N., Africa will become the most rapidly urbanizing region of the world. Dar es Salaam is at the epicenter of a perfect storm of demographic change: A cosmopolitan city in a population-rich country amid unprecedented regional urbanization.
In other ways, the rise of Dar es Salaam is remarkable. For decades, urban development was actively discouraged by the state. City life, and its perceived individualism, was viewed with contempt by many of the country's socialist ideologues.
During the two-decade rule of Tanzania's first president, Julius Nyerere, Tanzanians were encouraged—or forcibly sent, in extreme cases—to live and work in rural villages. Under the title ujamaa, meaning "socialism" in Swahili, the nationwide farming program became Nyerere's most ambitious social program (it was structured partially after policies in Maoist China). Still, Tanzanians continued to arrive in Dar es Salaam seeking a more prosperous future. This prompted the government to go even further to quash rural-to-urban migration. In 1974, Dar es Salaam was stripped of its title as the nation's capital, and the parliament was moved to Dodoma, a small city in the hinterlands. This was partly to encourage economic activity outside the coastal region, according to a 2011 thesis presented to the Holland-based University of Twente, but also, "to deviate the relentless population growth in Dar es Salaam."
This anti-urban national rhetoric tapered off in 1985 when Nyerere resigned as president. Autarkic isolation subsequently gave way to liberalization. Dar es Salaam opened up for global trade and Tanzanians eking out a life on unproductive farms could largely move to the city without fear of reproach. But the city's reputation had been severely damaged, says James R. Brennan, associate professor of history at the University of Illinois.
"It's a fact that [Dar es Salaam] artificially pulled itself out of the running of major cities for a good couple of decades," Brennan, who was recently in Dar es Salaam doing research, says. "That kind of helped the Addis Ababas and Nairobis of the world get so far ahead in terms of international reputations."
Nationally encouraged antagonism toward city life also led to more local consequences: There was little precedent for urban planning, Brennan says. As the deluge of people heading for Dar es Salaam picked up in the 1980s, the city found itself woefully unprepared to accommodate them.
Dar es Salaam sprawled dramatically. Much of this was due to the expansion of informal housing. According to the U.N., 70 percent of city residents today live in informal communities. And with the population projected to grow by tens of millions of people in coming decades, some anticipate far more informal housing.
Yet, it's unfair—and inaccurate— to predict disaster for the city's future. Jonathan Kalan, writing in Foreign Policy in 2014, reminds us that large-scale informal growth in the developing world doesn't always translate to hardship.
Existing and emerging megacities are big, of course, and growing fast, which can make them seem chaotic and crushing to the Western eye. But big is not always bad.
According to Jacque Morisset, the World Bank's lead economist for Tanzania, residents of Dar es Salaam are generally more well-off than rural residents. Dar es Salaam has a poverty rate of only 4.1 percent, compared to 33.3 percent in rural Tanzania. According to a 2013 report by Oxford Economics, no African city will lift more residents into the middle class by 2030 (earning $5,000 to $20,000 per year) than Dar es Salaam. Even in terms of urban planning, the future megacity seems to be getting its act together.
More than 16 miles of commuter train lines running in and out of downtown opened in 2012, according to the BBC. By the end of this year, a $150 million Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) network is expected to be up and running. Both projects have the potential to rapidly reduce traffic congestion. But, most importantly, they show a city that realizes it's finally coming to the fore. And Dar es Salaam seems poised to make the most of it.