For a newcomer to Tanzania, the first surprise offered by Dar es Salaam, the country's seaport capital, is its sleek, modern airport. At first glance, reports of Tanzania's increasing economic decrepitude appear contradicted by the sweeping, state-of-the-art building, which includes air conditioning and enclosed corridors to protect passengers from the elements and a dozen video screens displaying arrival and departure times for flights.
But like so much modern technology in Tanzania, the aiport is something of a facade. The French-built $40 million structure, officially opened only two months ago, is already beginning to deteriorate. Vandals have stolen many of the flight-announcement loudspeakers. When the diplay screens begin to break down, Tanzania will have to spend scarce foreign exchange for imported parts to fix them.
An Asian businessman here says, "I give it a year. Then it will be like everything else here -- out of order."
Worse still is the fact that the national airline serving the airport is in a state of advanced decline. In a recent week, half its domestic flights either were canceled or delayed for several hours due to Tanzania's chronic shortage of fuel, spare parts and mechanical expertise.
A few weeks in Tanzania make clear that the airport is but one metaphor for this country's slow but steady economic collapse and for its complicated and unsuccessful relationship with the West. Like an ice cube in the African sun, western ideas of development and western technology seem to melt away here.
One famous ice cube is the Kilimanjaro Hotel, once briefly one of Africa's finest. Built by Israelis in the 1950s at a time when optimism about Africa's future was at its highest, it, too, is in a state of decline. The air conditioning system is defunct, hot water simply a memory. Sodden carpets and mosquitoes and other unfriendly crawlers share the rooms with registered guests.
For a country in which skills and hard currency seem as rare as diamonds, there are no easy choices. Restoring the Kilimanjaro to its former glory might help earn needed foreign exchange, but it would require several million dollars to renovate the broken-down systems and highly trained engineers to maintain them. Should Tanzania's scarce resources go there, or should they go instead for spare parts desperately needed to get the country's immobilized truck fleet back on the roads or to repair the roads themselves?
Should money be spent for imported fertilizers and farm tools so that farmers can plant and harvest their crops or should it go for consumer products so that farmers have something to buy with their earnings and thus an incentive to produce more than for subsistence?
A newcomer also finds out that the economic puzzle one sees in Dar es Salaam is not as simple as it first appears. The bread lines at local bakeries at first glance speak of this society's failure to provide staples. But as Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere likes to point out, 10 years ago many of those in line could not afford a loaf of bread. Now so many can that the demand has outstripped the supply.
Similarly, the spectacular rise of the black market here is both a measure of government failure and a sign of creeping economic health. Last year the government sought to crack down on illegal trading, arresting at least 2,000 people for alleged "economic sabotage." But by this year most have been released, and the government has loosened import restrictions so that anyone with access to foreign exchange can get the necessary import license.
The result is not only the return of foreign goods to some of Dar's shops but, as the businessman put it, "you can now buy anything you want here, provided you have the money."
One of the items that has begun to appear in wealthier Dar homes is the video recorder, which until a year ago was banned. The unconfirmed story that goes around town is that so many of the illegal recorders that were seized during last year's campaign wound up in the houses of government officials that wiser heads decided it was time to lift the ban.
While most of the Kilimanjaro Hotel seems permanently out of order, one little office on the ground floor emits a steady hum of air conditioning, electric typewriters and photocopying machines. This is the home of Management and Secretarial Services Ltd., and from its imported busines machines each day come hundreds of pages of reports, consultants' studies and foreign aid proposals.
The hum is the sound of money, for in a country where everything seems to be grinding slowly to a halt, foreign aid has long been the only growth industry. Even now, while many aid agencies say they are cutting back, there is a steady flow through this office of proposals to rehabilitate roads or water systems built under previous aid projects only a decade ago, or to initiate new projects that may also wind up on the permanently disabled list.
No one can say how long it will take the airport to join this list, but few are optimistic. Meanwhile, it offers employment to a small army of cleaning women who spend their days shuffling through the terminal running a rag along plate glass windows and video screens. In this fashion, every square inch of glass seems to be wiped several times each day.
The women, who wear French-made plastic name tags pinned to their traditional outfits and some of whom are barefoot, are part of a vast force of unskilled, underpaid labor for whom Tanzania must find a way to provide. They are an incongruous sight in this high-tech shrine -- the 19th century rubbing against the plate glass window of the 21st.
Their presence is a commentary on the gifts that the West has brought to Tanzania. For it has put harvesters and tractors in a country more in need of hand hoes and ox-drawn plows, brought Plexiglass and air conditioners to a people more suited to thatched roofs and ceiling fans. Ultimately, one might conclude the West is not to blame for Tanzania's dilemmas, but it has accomplished little in the way of helping to solve them.