Sunday, August 23, 2015

The White Elephants on Top of Red Dirt

Being the nation's young capital city, Dodoma is becoming a small city with a big political heart.  Extending beyond the obvious presence of political buildings such as grand headquarters of the national parliament and its ruling party, the power of "political money" is starting to permeate every aspect of an otherwise plain and dusty population center of 150,000 people.  Just by looking at its surprisingly orderly cityscape, travelers can comprehend the enormous efforts politicians place in sprucing up the capital so that it is fitting for what they consider East Africa's most potential-filled nation.

Nowhere is this deliberate political effort more obvious than in the outskirts of the town, where the massive campus of the University of Dodoma (UDOM) sprawls over several barren hills covered with no more than red dirt, dying shrubs, and a couple of villages.  Heading over to the campus from the town in a dalla-dalla (local version of minibuses), the author observed with some understanding the sense of desensitized dismay his fellow passengers (i.e. residents of those "couple of villages") displayed as they watched the monumental buildings of UDOM.

This is because the word "monumental" is certainly not an overstatement for these buildings.  In a country where two-to-three-story high concrete buildings are the norm even in modern townships, this university amassed more than two dozen buildings of ten-story brick buildings painted so white that they shine brightly under the afternoon sun against the red dirt on which they stand.  The contrast of these new buildings and the thatched huts of the villages is just too painfully obvious.  And while new paved roads lead to the university buildings, the villages are still only served by dirt paths.

Again, it needs no elaboration the amount of investment the government poured into this state-owned school.  It is likely they see the massive, modern university as a quick way for the new capital to catch up with the old one at Dar es Salaam, which remains the country's undisputed cultural and economic center.  But to see the politicians' grand aspiration backed with such rash way of tossing around taxpayer money raises more than an eyebrow.  And the school's modern infrastructure and complete lack of it just around the corner is but one, very visible, downside.

Worse seem to be the ones not seen by the eyes.  The author's friend-cum-tour-guide for the day describes how more money spent on buildings meant less loans and scholarships for students.  And rash planning and unrealistic ambitions meant that the number of dorm rooms in these new buildings grossly exceeds the number of students willing to enroll in a school so remote that the nearest clothes shop is a half-hour dalla-dalla ride away.  Yet no one locally seems to be consulted in the process or dares to openly question the government's wisdom in constructing UDOM in this way.

Such is perhaps the misfortune of becoming the capital city by the stroke of a pen (as was the case for Dodoma back in 1973).  Sure, more money will flow in, but the municipal government and the local people no longer has control over how the money is to be spent.  This is by the virtue of the city becoming a representation of the whole nation and the government skills of ruling politicians, rather than just another place largely neglected by national leaders.  Politicians like visual symbolism of progress and development, so the capital will be the place for those symbolism.

However, in a poor country where capital is limited, a few white elephants like UDOM's empty dorm buildings can mean life and death for some of those neglected remote villages whose resources were reduced and diverted to build those white elephants.  Yet, it is precisely the government's negligence toward real issues of developments in the remote corners of the country that cause those matters of life and death to remain blissfully absent from the decision-making process.  This is too well-illustrated by Dodoma, where modernity courtesy of the government only incompletely mask the real obstacles of everyday life.

In this city, there is still an underdeveloped public transport system that cause a nearby suburb to be one-hour away.  Lack of safe public housing means theft is both commonplace and not properly dealt with by the police.  And urban-rural economic divide means villages just outside the showcase capital town to live in a completely different world.  Perhaps the residents of Dodoma can call themselves lucky because at least they do not face urban problems that other provincial towns of this country normally face, but it also means they would be more cynical, having seen how taxpayer money of the whole nation only benefit a selected few.

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