DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — Vendors carrying trinkets and snacks usually weave in and out of the dense traffic of this bustling East African capital, their hawking adding to the cacophony of horns and chatter that are the soundtrack to everyday life here.
But not Monday.
An eerie silence and empty streets cleared for security reasons herald the arrival of President Obama on his first visit to this usually overlooked country Monday, a visit that overjoyed locals hope results in change and progress.
"My country is crazy at the moment about Obama's visit and I am, too," said Asteria Benedicto, 32, a student at the Institute of Social Work. "If I get a chance, I will ask him to see to it that there's an equal distribution of resources, fair elections and trustworthy security force in my country."
Tanzania is Obama's last stop on a week-long trip to Africa — a continent some Africans accuse Obama of neglecting during his presidency. His visit to the East African nation was a surprise choice but one the White House said was made because of its strong and vibrant democracy as well as its importance as a partner on a range of security issues.
Former President George W. Bush is alos in Tanzania, and will join Obama on Tuesday in Dar es Salaam for a wreath-laying ceremony at the site of the 1998 bombing at the U.S. Embassy that killed 11 people. The embassy has since been relocated.
While Obama is being feted on this visit — one main artery of the capital, Ocean Road is being renamed Obama Avenue during his visit — some Tanzanians want to use this opportunity to speak out about problems such as poverty and corruption they say plague the country.
"I have been struggling to make a living and facing a lot of challenges," said Sylvester Pius, 34, a farmer who lives in Iringa, a small town 400 miles south of Dar es Salaam.
He says one of the biggest problems is corruption. He recalls how this problem caused tragedy for his family when his wife gave birth to their fourth child in 2011.
"The nurse who was attending her wanted a bribe to help her deliver on time but I didn't have any money," he said. "Several days after delivery, my wife died because she didn't receive this help and bled out. The child survived but the challenge was now how could I manage to raise him?"
But Pius' story is common in a country where the average monthly income is less than $50 and corruption is out of control, according to locals. They say the situation is not inevitable.
"Considering the peace and potential prosperity of Tanzania, there should be a way," said Alfred Kinge, 54, an entrepreneur in Dar es Salaam. "But of course there are the chronic poor in every country. Still, can't something be done?"
Tanzania has undertaken economic reforms in a bid to lift the country out of such stark poverty, and it has made efforts to improve its infrastructure and also develop its tourism sector but analysts say there is still a long way to go.
"Serious problems remain in mining, education and agriculture — all are key to national progress," said Emanuel Sulle, a Tanzanian researcher at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa.
"The failures in most of these sectors are the result of poor reforms in education, constitution and, of course, lack of good governance."
Tanzania has also experienced recent terrorist attacks: On June 15, a bomb that went off at a political rally in Arusha, 500 miles north of Dar es Salaam, organized by the opposition Democracy and Development Party, left three people dead and 60 injured.
The attack followed another bomb a month earlier that killed another three during a Catholic church service in Arusha as Archbishop Francisco Montecillo Padilla inaugurated the local parish.
It is the first time since Tanzania became independent in 1961 that it has witnessed such attacks and many point fingers at the government and its ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (Party of the Revolution or CCM) party, an allegation both the government and the party deny.
Regardless, no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
However, Tanzanian Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda has been accused of endorsing the use of violence by police against dissidents and the opposition, and has been criticized by human rights groups such as the country's Legal and Human Rights Center, who say some recent statements by Pinda violate the country's constitutional protections.
"Once you reject obeying (the law) and cause trouble, or fail to respect the laws of the country, you will be beaten, and I say such people should be beaten. … We (the government) are tired," said Pinda following the blasts on June 21, in one such statement.
As a result, some Tanzanians are losing hope and trust in the government as it fails to properly investigate and address intimidation and violence.
"Lack of good governance and weak leadership both contribute to poverty we face today even as we (Tanzanians) should be a champion economically in the region," said Deodatus Kazinja, who works in the penal system in Dar es Salaam, adding that Obama should not ignore the human rights abuses being carried out in the country.
Many are hoping that Obama will share his experiences with leaders in the East African country and build even stronger relations with Tanzania to help them tackle their ongoing problems.
"Our relationship with America is a continuation and cementation of our friendship since President Kennedy's period when the father of our nation Julius Nyerere paid a visit to the U.S.," said Salaam Mecky Sadick, governor of Dar es Salaam. "Since then the U.S. has supported us in many areas like education, agriculture and health."
But others say they know Obama is coming for "American interests."
"One thing I would like to note is that there has been a scramble for Tanzania's resources, like gas and gold, and there's an obvious competition between the U.S. and China," said retired teacher Jesca Mbelwa, 65.
"But I want to see Africans benefit from their resources first and second the Americans or the Chinese."
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