A traffic jam in Zanzibar usually comes with a dash of poetry in the form of msemo (said) written on the back of a truck, dala-dala (public bus or van). These sayings not only keep passengers distracted and entertained – they also educate. Each has a literal meaning followed by innumerable interpretations.
Sometimes those sayings “bless the path” and “protect the path”, while others repeat layers of feeling in Swahili society, from street speech to song lyrics philosophy baraza (street bank) for old school wisdom about love, luck and wealth. They usually start conversations or provoke great laughter. But it is an art form that dies, while more vehicle owners opt for ready-made posters or prefer a “clean look.”
Zanzibar, located in the Indian Ocean east of mainland Tanzania, boasts a long history of trade and exchange. Swahili emerged from centuries of communication between Arab and Bantu merchants and is full of metaphors, riddles and rhymes. Swahili speakers love to slip bits of wisdom into everyday conversation – and popular proverbs are everywhere, not only in Zanzibar, also in mainland Tanzania and the region.
“We saw these posters everywhere. Behind bicycles, dala-dala, everywhere, now not so much, but you can still see them, ”said Masoud Salim, a businessman from Stone Town, the capital. The messages are usually hand painted by artists who specialize in signage. Then the drivers began ordering custom stickers at a local printer. Now, it is common to see hand-painted and printed stickers, but not as often.
He says that these slogans usually appear on the back of the dala-dala because this form of transport – which must be the cheapest – usually carries the worst part. Drivers fill their vehicles with exhausted passengers and urge users with harsh words, while drivers accelerate at dizzying speeds and outperform smaller cars on unstable bumpy tracks.
Dala-dala owners stick these sayings on the back of their vehicles as a way to “respond” to other drivers before they can blow their horns or shout their complaints.
People here know that people will talk about you. Dala-dala drivers put those names on the backs of their vehicles because they know that people will comment on the condition of their vehicle, or the way they drive, or how they handle conflict, and they want to block you – they want you to laugh instead.
People know that people will talk about you. Dala drivers put those names on the back of their vehicles because they know that people will comment on the condition of their vehicle, or how they drive or how they handle the conflict and want to block you – rather, they want you to laugh
Hannah Gibson, Professor of Linguistics specializing in Bantu languages and studies in Swahili at the University of Essex, he points out that people all over the world like to play with the language and East Africa is no different:
The dala-dalas and bajajs become like moving canvases. In a world where people may struggle to be heard or seen, this is like having an audience of thousands as vehicles whizz around the city (and throughout the islands).
The dala-dalas and bajajs become mobile canvases. In a world where people can strive to be heard or seen, this is like having an audience of vehicles while vehicles buzz throughout the city (and the islands).
These posters are a form of collective and social poetry such as kanga, a colorful textile that is sold in pairs and that comes with a proverb written along the edge. The message of the kanga or “name” usually has double meaning and plays with the words that baffle and delight. In the same way, these messages in cars, trucks and bajaj are ways of transmitting a set of values, attitudes and desires that reflect the lives of Swahili men – those that largely “traffic” in this signaling.
Let's take a look at the most attractive messages seen in Zanzibar in October 2019.
‘Don't make me play’
Zanzibar highways are tough and drivers can get defensive. This is an offensive approach:
‘Yes, that's the novelty, winning is essential’
A daily message to make this combative spirit take you wherever you go:
Traveling to the shortest distances requires some self-awareness:
'Fight for your life'
Entering and leaving is a daily routine. This message reminds us why we are fighting in life when we fight for a seat in the dala-dala:
'Do not think about that)'
There are many things to worry about when we go on the roads, drivers and passengers alike. Perhaps it is better not to deal with what is wrong and follow what is right:
‘Time is a problem’
No matter how much we try to beat him on time, we often feel that it is not enough. A message that points out, perhaps, a reason to take something from the rhythm:
‘Lovers if we return’
Going on the road requires immense attention and risk. There is the promise of love — only when the work is done: