Mister So Much Better

            Kariakoo is a bustling chaos-fest of a market, sprawling many blocks in every direction. When I stand still, it all seems orchestrated, humming like a machine with a million parts. Diving into the fray, I am whisked through rooms and shouts and colors and piles of tomatoes and tiny fishes and sacks of mystery pods and powders and people shelling peas in baskets and towers of buckets and strange tools and giant umbrellas and fabrics and clinking coins.

      “Mister So Much Better!”

      For reasons unbeknownst to me, this is the call sign for me here. I was given this name by Athmani, the fruit vendor I frequent. His friends caught on, and is now hollered all over the market as a sign of greeting me. My mother becomes Mama So Much Better, my son, Mtoto So Much Better. It is this name, and the familiarity and kindness with it, that I am perhaps most proud of in my Dar experience.

            When people talk to us, a common question is, unatoka wapi? You come from where? It’s a reasonable question. We sometimes hesitate, wanting people to know that we actually live here now, that we choose to call this place home. It is part wanting to affirm that we admire and desire to live here, and part wanting to be treated like a regular person instead of a tourist. We often answer with, Tunakaa Dar es Salaam. Changing the verb, not claiming we are from here, but that we stay here. Sometimes this satisfies people, sometimes it does not.

            The cries of, “Mister So Much Better,” continue to widen when I go to Kariakoo. People I don’t even recognize will say it to me, happily seeming to join some sort of inner circle I didn’t know I was creating.

            Today someone I don’t think I’ve met before greeted me familiarly and started talking to me as I passed. He asked that question, Unatoka wapi? I come from where? Today I answer straight: Marikani. America.

            Marikani? He seems surprised. He gives me examples of what he means. Ilala, Msasani… He names the districts around Dar. Somehow in my weekly visits to the market, this man I have never met has grown to consider me “from” here.

         Mikocheni, I say. He shakes my hand.

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