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The Old Boma in the Vanguard

The Dar Centre for Architectural Heritage, or DARCH, was formed in 2013 as a community group focused on preserving the built heritage of Dar es Salaam, a coastal city in Tanzania. In 2014, the group successfully nominated the city to the World Monuments Watch, helping to bring more attention to their cause. WMF’s Stephen Battle considers the state of preservation in Dar es Salaam since the 2014 Watch.

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It once commanded the harbourfront of Dar es Salaam, but today the Old Boma building is dwarfed by a phalanx of modern skyscrapers. Built in 1866, the Old Boma is one of the city’s oldest structures. A former sultan of Zanzibar—who had fled across the narrow straight of sea that separates Dar es Salaam from the island of Zanzibar after a palace coup—built the Old Boma for use as a palace and royal guest house. It served as administrative offices during German and British colonial rule, and then as government offices following the nation’s independence in the 1960s.

Now, the historic building stands in the vanguard of attempts to protect Dar es Salaam’s embattled heritage. The skyscrapers that tower over the Old Boma are the result of a booming real estate market in the city. Throughout the last decade especially, strong economic growth has driven land prices ever upward in Tanzania’s economic capital. But as developers compete to build high and maximize profits, Dar es Salaam’s heritage is being trampled underfoot.

Characterized by a thriving street life, with open shopfronts and street-traders, the old city center reflects an important part of the country’s recent cultural heritage. Various ethnic and religious communities built a close-knit assembly of vernacular Asian-influenced and, later, Art Deco commercial and residential structures, complemented by a few fine early modernist buildings by local architects. Until recently, these structures formed an unspoiled historic neighbourhood. In stark contrast, the contemporary skyscrapers that are sprouting up across the city rob the streets of their vitality, creating sterile thoroughfares that are empty at night, devoid of character, and lack human scale.

The Dar Centre for Architectural Heritage, or DARCH, was formed three years ago by a group of concerned citizens with the aim of preserving the city’s disappearing heritage. In 2014, the group nominated the city center to the World Monuments Watch. During the few years that DARCH has been active, the group has managed to shine light on the rapid and reckless destruction of Dar’s heritage. It is no longer possible for a building to be removed from the heritage list and demolished overnight; the public is watching. The government is more responsive to the value and potential of heritage, and is making the right noises about extending protection in the new urban master plan, which is due in 2017.

The Old Boma, which was restored with a grant from the European Union, is at the forefront of raising awareness. The site holds an exhibition, library, and archives, organizes walking and bicycle tours of the city, and arranges educational and advocacy events. For now, the widespread demolition in Dar es Salaam seems to have abated, but vigilance is the only safeguard against destruction of this historic place.

 

Also by this author: Celebrating Preservation at Beta Gabriel Rafael; Lalibela Field School: Creating Opportunities for Learning.