Tanzanian Muslims and Urban Informality

This is a photo of a street in the central market district of Dar es Salaam (in Tanzania). It was taken by George, a friend and research collaborator, and captures several pedestrians engaged in everyday activities opposite a large mosque complex (out of shot).

Dar es Salaam is by some estimates the fastest-growing city in the world, and by 2100 is predicted to be the third most populous (after Lagos and Kinshasa). African cities such as these can be considered frontiers for urbanising trends: they are not “catching up” with the metropolises of North America and Europe so much as carving out new trajectories of development and urban modernity. African cities are therefore vital sites for critical reflection on emerging configurations of religion and urbanity, generating insights that speak back in important ways to other cities that we inhabit and research.

In what follows, I use this photo to explore two key ways that Muslim social practices assist people in navigating everyday life in Dar es Salaam.

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The urban landscape of this market district is characterised by a proliferating imaginary of competition that decorates all kinds of surfaces. People use colourful garments, images, and objects to invoke affiliations to rival sports teams, rival brands, rival music artists, rival political parties, rival nationalities, and so on. It is as though the entire neighbourhood is constantly steering people into a web of exclusive belongings. Residents of the city are highly sophisticated at introducing and withdrawing moments of solidarity with people on the basis of their multiple “flags” (bendera). In an urban environment characterised by economic informality and financial uncertainty, these modes of sociality enable strangers to be immediately “recognisable” to one another, opening up new avenues of economic collaboration and material support, as well as ways to keep people at arm’s length.

Consider the man in the middle of the photo who is wearing a Manchester United shirt. He may be a total stranger, but the colour of the football shirt that he is wearing allows him to be “recognised” without any extended interaction whatsoever: in the words of my friends, his flag is Manchester United. By observing my friends, I learned that this minimal set of social co-ordinates generates a very clear platform for social interaction. For example, it would be possible to stage a form of solidarity with the manon the basis of his affiliation(e.g. by expressing an admiration for Manchester United in some manner), or to invoke a playful antagonism towards him (e.g. by expressing support of a rival team to Manchester United). In both cases, through the act of becoming a flag, the man in the Manchester United shirt provides those he comes into contact with a “script” for interaction. Once again, this capacity is highly advantageous for informal business operators whose livelihoods depend on forming ad hoc collaborations in a materially and sensually congested urban environment.

Now consider the man at the centre of the photo: he is not wearing anything that would affiliate him with a football team, but rather a traditional kufiacap and kanzugown; garments which are typically associated with Muslim cultures in East Africa. It became clear through my fieldwork that in precisely the same wayas a football shirt, these garments afford people another means of becoming a flag. For example, one friend described how “the kanzuattracts greetings [salamu] from others.” Through this specific act of “being Muslim”, people acquire a particular legibility in the urban environment: they are recognisably Muslim, and therefore have access to a “grammar” of social interaction that they and others can key into in order to tactically align themselves with or distance themselves from diverse people and objects.

Now consider the telegraph pole at the left of the picture where there is a blue poster, and below it a green poster. At the time of the most recent general election in Tanzania, people pinned colourful posters and flags like these to buildings and objects to display their support of a political party, even when (as was often the case) they did not in fact support the party in question. Just as the parasol in the bottom right corner of the photo generates the impression that the trader beneath has Manchester United as his flag, the traders sat below the telegraph pole would become flags of the political party that appears on the poster. My friends describe these flags and posters as operating like “shields” (ngao). This is because they are capable of diverting the attention of law enforcement agents who may target their home, shop, or stall, the logic being that they would be less likely to harass supporters of the ruling party. To give an example from the photo, the informal traders sat below the telegraph pole would be shielded in this way by the poster.

Again, in precisely the same manner, my friends spoke of a “shield-like” quality to Muslim dress practices in that they are capable of deflecting (both morally and strategically) unwanted interactions. To provide some context, since the era of British colonial rule, informal traders have been routinely forced by local authorities to account for their presence in the city centre or face being forcibly removed. Police are thought to be less likely to openly target people garbed in “Muslim costume” since they are engaged in a certain performance of moral piety, and such an interaction could be construed as manifestly unwarranted or even discriminatory. My friends also alluded to the “shield-like” operations of mosques. Capitalising on the political sensitivity that mosques have acquired in recent decades, informal business operators can use obligatory prayer as an alibi to legitimise their presence in the market district. This is one reason why many mosques in Dar es Salaam are, as illustrated by the photo, vibrant commercial hubs, becoming surrounded by small businesses and sites where people seek opportunities for work.

In Dar es Salaam, Muslim practices of devotion and affiliation are, along with other urban practices and modes of sociality, transforming in response to dynamics of informalisation. While these developments are often contested (with some of my friends bemoaning the spiritual and political disengagement of “flag Muslims”), it remains the case that the enduring plausibility of Muslim affiliation is in no small part attributable to its remarkable dynamism within the urban milieu. Given that the cities we inhabit and research are increasingly characterised by conditions of precarity (deriving from parallel processes of informalisation), we may find that these are themselves sites where comparable configurations of religion and urbanity are emerging.

Written by: Dr Benjamin Kirby

Image Credit: George Gasto