Tanzania is remarkable in many ways. It is said to be the birthplace of the human race, it is home to the largest lake and highest mountain in Africa, and is a country of over a hundred tribes with over 126 languages spoken by its 60 million inhabitants. In its largest city, Dar es Salaam, the country’s first dance school was opened in 2013. Alawi Saidi, better known as Tadhi Alawi, was among the first graduates, and now is a nationally-known choreographer, dancer and director. He participated in Oulu Dance Hack 2023 via the Connected Studio System.
Should we start with the dance scene in Tanzania? What’s it like having a dance studio and being a dance director in Dar es Salaam, compared to what you know about the European dance scene?
Tadhi Alawi: First of all, I want to give you a view of how Tanzania is. We started way back, we have 120-plus tribes in Tanzania and each tribe has a minimum of five dance traditions, so you can imagine how many dances we have, we are very rich in that. We kind of transformed ourselves into urban dance. I was born and grew up in Dar es Salaam, where I witnessed a lot of dances even before becoming a dancer. There are a lot of groups of dances for young men and women who try to express themselves in these styles of pop and urban dancing, we call them commercial dances. It’s just a lot of styles collected and to play with. It’s more about intertwining from this kind of contemporary dance. It takes from afro and traditional styles and transforms it, the kind of trending styles people are willing to see. So dancers collect those styles and put on a show.
In 2014 for the first time in Tanzania we got a dance school based in Dar es Salaam. I studied in Muda Africa for three years, learning about professionalism – how to get good and become a professional dancer, learning about all those different contemporary styles, to use our own traditional dances and different methods. The audition for enrolment was in 2013, and the school started next year. I graduated in 2016. I can tell you right now that dance is growing from being indeterminate to becoming a professional art in Tanzania, because people are getting knowledge, we have companies and groups, and we are engaged and focusing on creating new artwork. But we have only a few platforms. There are just two festivals that happen every year, Jukwaa Huru Special (previously Time 2 Dance) and Haba na Haba, and those two festivals have to select both Tanzanian and international artists. So you can imagine we have a lot of dancers who don’t get many opportunities, it makes dance become difficult.
I have my company, Nantea Dance Company, which was founded in 2015 and started working properly in 2017. From 2017 until now we have tried our best to produce quality performances that would attract festivals outside the country to get us invited. We try to reach the platforms outside of Tanzania, but that takes funding for travels. And sometimes when you get the money, you have visa problems. So we are struggling in many things, not only in dance but in infrastructure. That’s why in many countries in Europe, I say, “guys, I know you have your difficulties but it’s nothing like the way I and my community experiences”. But we don’t give up.
When you choreograph a piece, do you think of a certain kind of place, or whether the piece can travel?
My thinking is always on the space. But I don’t have anything else. In Tanzania, we’re lacking infrastructure – like lighting in the theatres. So, sometimes, it’s more feasible to use the props we find in particular places than certain infrastructure.
We also have our dance program called NjeNdani, meaning “In and Out”. I was thinking with my partner that in Tanzania we have dance, but it’s only happening in Dar es Salaam because the school is there. So we were thinking how we can go outside as dancers with experience, knowledge and exposure to encourage other dancers not to give up doing what they love and giving them what we know. So, we have done this three times, but it’s time consuming and takes money. So mostly, we do it when we get money from performances and can sponsor ourselves. So, this project is necessary and important to exist in Tanzania, but happens only when we have the money. So we are trying our best to make sure we can go further outside Tanzania showing people our art, to create a community and understanding, to explain to people about what contemporary dance in Tanzania means. So whenever there’s a new projection, we have to bring in Tanzania. We continue to battle with the impossible, because some artists see art in Tanzania as impossible to live on, but I always get this inspiration from outside our country, that these people manage to live on their art. Of course, as part of their system, their government can help at least some. But I use my position and experience to show that artists can live on their art.
Do you have any government grants or any funding tools?
It is very tricky. Tricky to say not and…The government has funds, if you go to them, they will say yes we have it. But we don’t have any funding. Last year the president and the cabinet decided to have funds to support artists. But that was not money you get for developing, you have to bring it back to the government. It’s a loan. You get the money, develop something and pay the government back. Also, that kind of money is not enriching new artists. It’s for artists who are established and famous. They can take the money, publish their music and then pay back the government, because they are sure. Last year there wasn’t much regard for how you can bring the money back, you just mentioned your name and the government, knowing you’re a big artist, gave you the money and you should bring money back. But most of the big artists didn’t pay the government back, so the government decided to give the money and let it go. Now, the government demands something to get if you don’t pay back – your house, anything you own on behalf of the money. That’s not really a grant. It’s like loaning money from a bank. For those big artists, maybe [it works], but for me, it doesn’t make sense – I don’t have a house to lose.
And art is usually a huge risk, when you try something risky and new, it’s probable that some people won’t like it – it shouldn’t be for everyone, what if people don’t come to see you do?
Absolutely, we just don’t have enough fans. But what is happening in Dar es Salaam is that we have these institutes from Europe, like Goethe Institute and Alliance Francais, which have these grants and sometimes sponsor artists, give platforms to artists to use their space. There’s occasional interaction with those two institutes. Another organisation is Nafasi Artist Space, a huge place for arts, which is where I create my art and have my office. It’s for exchanging knowledge, a very nice place in Dar es Salaam.
It is very hard to get funding in Dar es Salaam. That’s why we are trying our best to gain trust to continue our work. Now we are focusing on doing more action in Tanzania, to show people that we are serious with this. But sometimes when we try to write our proposal down, the people who decide and are selecting, they listen more to the paper than what the artist really needs. Sometimes the artist doesn’t know how to express themselves on paper, to state clearly what they want to do. If you are a very good writer, you might get your sponsorship, but sometimes the actions don’t match the application – I may not know how to write my thoughts properly, but I have this vision and mission of doing this thing. I think this battle can be related to Europe as well, but I think we have more challenges in Tanzania.
It is the same here in Finland. The bigger the funding organisation is, the more difficult it becomes to write the application. It’s a different skill altogether: there may be a person who designs the art, a person who produces the art and then a person who knows how to write the application for funding.
I sometimes wonder, are those people who work for the artist, making the applications, are they artists as well?
Sometimes the artists have been in the business for so long they know how to write the applications, but sometimes there’s regional art centres or other instances who can help, read it through and give pointers. It depends.
That’s what triggered me to think that dance is not only creative. I used to think that it’s just in terms of expression, choreography, platforms and such, but it’s more than I thought. I think that is the reason people are giving up at home. For instance, my language is Swahili, which I use to express how I feel and what I think. But the language of applications is English, and in Tanzania, we don’t speak English often. We speak Swahili.
But I think these challenges in art make you strong. People say to me, “Tadhi Alawi, you are so successful. You’re probably travelling all over the world with your company.” People see me travel and think that’s success. But I say to them, “I haven’t done anything yet. There is so much to learn and so much to prove that it’s possible for me to achieve something.” That’s one reason I liked [Oulu Dance Hack] so much. It was really nice to understand how, as artists, we can apply technology to our lives, to see what you can do outside the box. There’s so much to learn, not just being an artist with a concept to express but how to apply technology. It was a really nice project and I’m glad I was a part of it.
How did you feel about dancing through a laptop screen?
Yeah, actually at the beginning it was strange. It wasn’t new to me because of the corona crisis. I used to teach through Zoom, and we had a Screen Film Festival that was popular at the time. So, it wasn’t anything particularly new, but it was interesting to see how the feeling of artists in the same space was created. I had to think about space and timing differently, not being connected to your partner physically beside you. There were moments I thought I was shit, and moments when I was really connected. At the same time I had to remember I am not [dancing] alone, I am with people from Finland. It was a lot of complex things put in the moment and short practice time, but it was a really good experience. Some of it was interesting and confusing at the same time, with all the different levels of interaction – dancing alone but still with others. I’ve seen some videos and it looks really good. I enjoyed working on the project. And I got to know you people! Me, Amit and Laura, we continue having conversations. It’s lovely, I enjoyed it a lot.
Let’s talk about you and your art. When you create a performance, do you have something that always comes with you, like a base emotion or a theme, or do you always go different ways?
Back in the day, I used to try that when I go to the stage I express my feelings, do research, and sometimes it took too long to grasp the concept. But in Tanzania, there are so many events happening in daily life, so many things… Sometimes you find it normal to happen. But to be honest, it is not normal. The complexity of what is happening in Dar es Salaam, what Dar es Salaam is right now… Recently I had my solo happening, (A House of Peace), which is about what it used to be. Now, people have to live individually, with an individual lifestyle. We see this in social media, in globalisation. But back in the day, around four, five o’clock, my mom would go to the terrace and meet with other moms, they used to sit together and communicate, talk about their life. Now you don’t see mommas sitting together anymore, everyone is having their house and their friends. But having your friends and having a good life should not change our identities as Tanzanians. So now, it’s normal to live your life without any connection with other people. And people think it should be like this.. In Europe, people have cars they get in and out of, and I have seen people in different countries. I know how stressed people get. In Tanzania, our lifestyle is being together, united, being umoja. If we just try to adopt to everything we see in social media, it will kill us. Those people have infrastructure and so many things, but they get depressed for not having people to communicate with. For me it’s not normal, so I took it as an expression for my solo performance.
Most of my performances are about what happened to me, or what is happening to my community. That’s why I did this performance, to remind the people, “hey guys, we are going in the wrong direction”. We got this country in 1961 and we had nothing. The first president tried to unite us together. We have 120 plus tribes, and we are forgetting about tribes, we are thinking about Tanzania, about us. It’s about understanding where we are going, where we are heading. But performing outside the country, it’s more about showing who we are, “hey guys, this is what Tanzania is like”. Next year in February, we are going to Ulm for a residency, and we are going to make a performance called Yin/Yang about what has happened to me many times in Zanzibar. And I love Zanzibar, I met my wife there. But…
Back in the days, I was expecting racism when I first came to Europe, I was ready to experience that and express that. But in the years I’ve been there, I haven’t experienced racism personally. And I’m not saying it’s not there – I know it exists, but it hasn’t happened to me – it could be that I don’t speak the language, and they express their racism without my knowledge. But in Tanzania, in my country, in Zanzibar, it happens to me all the time, by the police – my fellow Tanzanian is doing it to me. Every year in Zanzibar there is a big festival, Sauti za Busara. It’s too expensive actually, you can’t go alone as an artist, because the travel costs too much, so you have to go with friends. It’s a very beautiful island. But my friends who come with me are white, because my black friends can’t necessarily afford it. But when I’m walking outside with my white friends, the police stops me to ask why I’m walking with white people. I say they are my friends, and the police asks for my I.D. And they say “oh, you can’t work with white people, you don’t have a permit”.
Last March, when I was there with my wife, the police stopped me. They asked for my I.D. and I gave them my Tanganyika I.D. – Tanzania was unified in 1961 from Tanganyika and Zanzibar – and they say “Oh, we don’t need your national I.D., we need your tour guide I.D.” And I say to them, “I’m not a tour guide, she’s my wife.” So they ask for evidence that she really is my wife. It’s really strange, and it has happened more than five times just to me.
It’s always the police? The authorities?
There are several levels of authorities, but the last two times, different police came to me and gave me the same answer when I asked them why they were doing this: they were helping the white people. Because back in the day, a lot of white people got robbed and complained to the government, who then established a neighbourhood watch system – Polisi Jamii – to prevent people pretending to be tour guides and robbing white people. So I say, that’s fair, sorry for white people being robbed, but the method is wrong. If they informed the white tourists about the situation, both myself and the white tourists would be safe, because the government is watching for both of us. But they come to me, give me stress and not ask the white people any questions, that’s making me feel like I’m out of my place, I should not be here. I feel like the suspect. So, I did some research, and I hear it’s happening more often than just my five times, but they don’t have a way to complain about the situation. So I want to use my platform to approach this. I call it the Yin/Yang, because in everything there is bad and good. People are afraid to complain because they think it would make Zanzibar or Tanzania look bad, but I can speak through my art.
It took me a year after the first time to return to Zanzibar. I was really scared, I thought I was done. But it also gives me a platform, and I love to go there also because of that. But with that happening, I’m rather alone – if I’m walking around by myself, no problem. It only happens if I’m with white people. They may take you to the police station and accuse you of being a thief. It’s abuse of police power.
If a white person lied about me, the police wouldn’t even check the facts. They would just take me away because the white person said something, accused or lied about. I think the government isn’t focusing on the situation – maybe they don’t know, maybe people are afraid to say something, but I think it’s the right time to talk about this, to share the stories.
It’s strange and sad that a few hundred years of colonialism wipes out the thousands of years of history and mindset of whole nations.
Zanzibar was a market for slavery. From there, they shipped slaves from the mainland to Arabic countries. I can still feel the energy and the vibes of people working there, thinking whites are superior and that everyone else has to be really careful. Not all people think like that, but it’s very sad to see anything like that. One day I was there with a friend from Germany, and I said that in Swahili, the word for [soldier] is askari, but that word comes from the colonial times. It used to mean a person that would subjugate their own people.
Alawi Saidi (Tadhi Alawi) started traditional and contemporary dance training in 2010. He has participated in workshops and training facilitated by different renowned international directors and choreographers from Africa, US, Europe and Asia in various disciplines including dance and yoga. He founded Nantea Dance Company in 2015, which has enabled him to tour with productions like UTU, Thamani ya maisha (Value of Life), Dar es Salaam – A house of peace, A moment – Wakati, and Human – Life in a rapidly changing world.
Tadhi Alawi’s vision is to portray different forms of beauty through arts as a means of creating a positive impact and contributing to the development of Tanzanian Arts Scene.
Tadhi Alawi was speaking online with Pasi Pirttiaho