In mid September 2010, I began looking for lodging here in Mwanza. At the end of December of the same year, I finally signed a rental agreement. This is how it went:
When I moved to Mwanza in September of 2010, I began looking for a place to live the same way I would have done in the States. I went to the part of town I wanted to live in and started walking around, chatting with people, looking at houses. In urban Tanzania you don’t see “For Rent” signs the way you do in North America. But there are “agents” who know the local situation, and who will help connect you with a landlord… for a cut. Unfortunately, in this part of the world white skin is seen as a sign of wealth, and so can attract possibly unscrupulous people. I would find that, by the time I actually looked at a house, there might be as many as five “agents” in on the deal, each expecting a cut. This means that I was being offered rather inflated housing prices.
And so it became necessary for me to conduct my housing search by proxy, with local leadership at the Archdiocese doing the initial work. It was a tough learning experience for me– as a North American, I want very much to be self-reliant and not to have to depend on others. Learning to depend on local leadership is of course a very good thing, and local leadership is very dependable. But even they did not find the task easy.
Mwanza has a population of two million and rising, as it is one of the most rapidly growing cities in Africa. Although Tanzania is still about 85% rural, our country is undergoing intense urbanization, and cities are overflowing their resources with great speed. So there’s a severe housing shortage. To find secure and adequate lodging near the Archdiocese office, with a trustworthy landlord, proved to be a time-consuming and difficult endeavor.
After many false starts and more than a few dashed hopes, in early December of 2010 my priest Father Paul was introduced to a local property owner. Mama Flora lives on the hill just above our Archdiocese office, and below Father Paul’s house. She and her husband were expanding their compound to include two small apartments within its walls. She had heard that Father Paul had an associate looking for a place to live. So my priest and I climbed the hill to investigate the new apartment and to meet Mama Flora. It was still under construction, but I was assured it would be finished by Christmas. The initial rent offered was reasonable, and so we started negotiations.
Mama Flora and her husband proved to be trustworthy and kind, and construction proceeded apace. Every time I visited the site, I saw progress, and Mama Flora seemed eager for me to get to know her family. And so by mid Christmas, just before the New Year, Father Paul and I sat down with Mama Flora and her husband Bwana Sylvester to finalize negotiations and sign the rental agreement.
In North America, my experience with rental agreements is quite businesslike and efficient. I look at the place, meet the landlord, fill out the application. The landlord does a background check, and then might invite me to sign the rental agreement and pay the first month’s rent. I sign, write out a check, and get the keys promptly. While we might exchange short pleasantries, signing a rental agreement does not really involve a relationship. In fact, I might even be doing business with a “property manager” who works on the landlord’s behalf.
Not so here on the hill in Mwanza. By the time we sat down to go over the rental agreement, I already had a relationship of several weeks with Mama Flora and her family. When Fr Paul arrived, we were invited to sit in the courtyard with Mama Flora and Bwana Sylvester. Their teenaged daughter brought us sodas, and as the four of us sipped we talked about the weather, about sports, about the economy, about the recent electricity problems, and about many other things. Eventually, Bwana Sylvester asked a two-year-old daughter to bring out the rental agreement. She handed a copy to each one of us (written in Kiswahili of course), and together the four of us went over each point, with much tangential conversation around every piece of the rental agreement.
The young daughter then carried one copy of the rental agreement, with a pen, to each of us. I signed as the tenant, Mama Flora signed as the property owner, and Father Paul and Bwana Sylvester signed as witnesses. Bwana Sylvester then returned the signed rental agreement to an envelope, and proposed that we go look at the apartment.
So we did, and there was much conversation about the window screens, and the paint on the walls, and the neighborhood in general. We then went back to our seats in the courtyard and conversation began afresh– about social problems, employment, water, the weather, the economy…
After another hour or so of visiting together, the three Tanzanians all– seemingly at the same moment– looked at one another and said, “Haya.” (“Alrighty then.”) This was the signal for me to pull out my money pouch and hand over rent for the entire year.
The largest denomination of Tanzanian currency is worth about $7.00 in US money. Most transactions are done using cash. Housing prices in Mwanza are much lower than in an equivalent North American city– Atlanta, for example– but still. Can you imagine paying an entire year’s rent in five-dollar bills?
First I counted out the money in stacks of ten, and handed each stack to Bwana Sylvester. He counted, and handed the bills on to Father Paul. And Father Paul counted, then passed the money to Mama Flora who placed it all in an envelope after counting it herself. This took maybe twenty minutes, and then our negotiation was concluded. Now I have a real relationship with my landlady and her family, and know that here in my apartment I will be part of a small community in this neighborhood.