DARCH vs. Goliath: Saving historical architecture in one of the world's fastest growing cities
When I walk towards the headquarters of DARCH ( The Dar es Salaam Centre for Architectural Heritage) it actually looks like David and Goliath. Located in the beautiful and restored Old Boma – (probably) the oldest building in Dar es Salaam – DARCH is completely surrounded by the massive new city skyline. Literally in their backyard a new uncountable stories high, 5-star hotel is being put up at a rapid pace. Saving and promoting historical architecture in one of the fastest growing cities in the world, where old buildings can disappear overnight, must feel like swimming against the stream.
Although challenging, this organisation fulfils an extremely important role in Dar es Salaam’s changing urban landscape. They are actually Dar’s first and pioneering institution concerned with ‘heritage preservation’. On the 30th of June 2017, the Old Boma - their headquarters - opened its doors for visitors.
Reinventing the Old Boma
As I enter the building I spot the typical Zanzibari-style coral stone walls and carved wooden doors. This place was built in 1866 by Majid bin Said, the sultan of Zanzibar, and served as guest mansion for visitors as it was near to his palace. Today, the Old Boma is not only the headquarters of DARCH, it serves as the prime example of what they stand for.
They transformed this deteriorated piece of heritage into a beautiful monument that actually serves the community. Instead of ‘heritage preservation’, the focus of DARCH is on ‘heritage development. "Understanding heritage as a living and constantly transforming asset – a key driver and catalyst for economic, social, cultural and political innovation and reinvention.”
Having survived many demolition attempts, the old Boma also warns of the treat to the city’s rapidly disappearing historical buildings. Only two buildings built by Sultan Majid in the 1860’s have survived to the present day.
Next to holding public forums, like the Dar Heritage Days, the Old Boma will host a permanent exhibition on the city’s architecture and history, rotating temporary exhibitions, an archive and documentation centre, small curio shop, public garden and a rooftop restaurant. For my appointment I have to go down to the former ‘slave chambers’; ironically now the place where the DARCH Team and their partners from the Architects Association of Tanzania are working.
Preaching long term investments in a fast growing city
Here I meet Aida Mulokozi, the passionate CEO of DARCH. She explains that the main goal and biggest focus is to raise awareness with all the means they have at their disposal. A long, difficult but very necessary process in one of the worlds fastest developing cities.
“We are resilient, but you have to have thick skin”
Explaining the importance of preserving architectural heritage is a tough job; it’s a long term investment. The returns are not immediate, while most government institutions are asking themselves the question: “How do I increase our revenue immediately.” They have to show the people the returns. Something which has trickled down on the people, Aida further explains.“If you speak to your average person, they think a shiny shimmery skyscraper somehow will help them to get their bread and butter.”
But the general public’s lack of knowledge about Dar’s history makes it even more complex.
Aida tells me a striking example. She recently went to her bank which is located 200 meters from the DARCH headquarters. She recognized the bank manager and told her that she was now working in the Old Boma. The bank manager, a born and bread Tanzanian with a treasury education, had no idea what the Old Boma was. “That tells me there is a lot of work to do!”
Awareness through education
Dar’s architectural history is not in the books. That is why DARCH wants to tackle the problem at the level of education; making sure the history of these monuments is taught from primary school upwards. They are planning to go to schools and aim to make Dar’s architecture a part of the curriculum.
“When someone wants to improve or modernize the city, the aspect of conservation and preservation has to be in the back of their minds. Something which is not very prevalent in their minds right now.”
As a way of immediate schooling and awareness, DARCH wants to put up signage for as many monuments in the city as possible. They will have a concept of the actual monument together with historical background information.
Awareness through community involvement
DARCH also organizes different walking tours which will create awareness in two ways. First of all, the tours will provide a nice experience of the ‘architectural heritage’ for a broad range of clientele. The architectural connoisseur will be taught the different styles and technical details of old buildings, the nostalgic wanderer will learn where the Sultan slept and what he had for breakfast, while the ladies find out how fashion evolved throughout the history.
But Aida knows very well this will not interest the common man. His first thought will be: “What am I getting out of it?”
“And I understand. He is already struggling to to put three meals on the table for his family.”
Also a lot of people probably won’t understand why you would want to preserve colonial leftovers. Why would they want to be reminded of what the colonialists did to them? Aida again passionately speaks up and explains DARCH has to break those barriers. She has to make them understand that it’s still part of their history. “We cannot erase it, so we have to embrace it.”
That is why the tours will have local snack stops. On the fish market, at the coconut water vender; strategically located within the tours. To involve the immediate community as much as possible and make them benefit economically. To turn this thing around: make it a cash cow.
Changing the stream
Heritage preservation doesn’t stand in contradiction to economic and societal development. "DARCH seeks to demonstrate strategies and approaches towards built heritage that are innovative, integrated, sensitive and developmental at the same time,” says Mulokozi.
“We want to be that pressure-group that is right behind the shoulder of the government. So they will be looking back and say, is DARCH nearby, can we really get away with this?”
While I would advise its members to take swimming-lessons, DARCH might very well be the one changing the stream. Good luck and keep up the good work!
DARCH! Is a joint initiative by the Architects Association of Tanzania, Goethe Institut, Ardhi University and the Technical University of Berlin. The project is contracted by the Tanzanian Ministry of Finance and since its inception in 2014 to June 2017 it has been funded by the European Union.