What images come to mind when you think of “Africa”? This is the opening question of the 360 mixed live-action and animation documentary, KARIAKOO, named after the historic and bustling market district in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Though the image of the African continent may be breaking out of its western-stereotype shell of Lion King, corruption and poverty at last, there is still so much to be explored and appreciated about the continent’s booming cities, young population and dynamic communities beyond the mobile innovation which is already a source of inspiration for European and American industries.

Kariakoo is an immersive experience that takes participants to the heart of Dar es Salaam, one of the fastest growing cities in the world.  We talked with Ola Mirzoeva, who produced the experience, with an international team between Dar es Salaam, Toronto, and London.

A glimpse of Dar-el-Saalam

Hi Ola, can you present KARIAKOO ?

Kariakoo is the name of one of the most dynamic districts of Dar-el-Salaam, a city of more than 4 million inhabitants on the Tanzanian coast. Dar es Salaam is one of the largest cities in Africa and the 2nd fastest growing city in the world, and is project by some sources to reach 70 million inhabitants by the end of the century!

It is a very dynamic city, where modernity and creativity is expressed everywhere, especially in this district!

Very often, however, African cities are still imagined as very poor, dangerous, underdeveloped, or worse – not considered at all.

When I was living in Tanzania working for the High Commission of Canada, the contrast between the images that western media represents and the realities are so different. My friends and family in Canada would often ask me ‘How is your trip? Are you on Safari? Is it safe? It must be so beautiful..” Tanzania is safe and certainly beautiful but it also boasts dynamic urban metroplises which operate in sophisticated ways beyond westen ideas of ‘order’ and ‘development’.

Working with local area residents  and a Dar es Salaam based production company Rehobooth Studios, our team created an experience that immerses participants.

Those participants live thousands of miles away, in the heart of the city and get a different idea (or perhaps familiar) idea of what a city in Tanzania is like.

Kariakoo is both a virtual reality documentary about the neighbourhood of the same name, but also a physical installation comprised of everyday objects, carpets, decorations, or works of art donated by members of the Tanzanian diaspora in Toronto, mostly through our community partner Zacadia. 

Why virtual reality? And why integrate a physical installation around it?

Virtual reality is to date the best medium to be able to immerse people in a place that is far away. We experimented with combining it with a physical experience – authentic objects from Kariakoo market as well as aromas of milky tea, simple wooden benches to sit on, and a canopy tent made from traditional colourful prints. VR is also a medium that is not so common which can add to the transformative effect we are after: for many people who take part in our experience, it is the first time they are testing it. There is a “wow factor” to it!

The physical part really allows you to create an experience, a specific moment. It frames the documentary and gives more material to the atmosphere of the city we want to pay homage to.

A participant experiencing Kariakoo

What is the user experience of Kariakoo?

Honestly, at the beginning we didn’t really design a user journey. It was created over the course of the experiences, through feedback and iteration, including trying the experience with new team members joining, including our project manager, Toronto-based Kariakoo native, Haruna Mwapinga and his mom, a well known business woman from the area.

The participants come in groups of four

And we start the experience by showing some more stereotypical images of the continent, taken by our partner Mtaani Maskani, Andrew Mahiga and treated by our Creative Director Ruhina Bharmal. Sometimes we go directly into conversation or ask people to write down what images come to mind when thinking about Tanzania or Africa. Usually these are either images of nature – savannah, safaris, wild animals – or images of poverty and rurality.

Then we invite them into the installation which seeks to recreate the atmosphere of the Maskani.

Maskani is a typical daily afternoon street-side café on the Tanzanian coast, chit-chatting, and which is represented in the documentary. They can then put on a virtual reality helmet and discover the 11-minute film.

After the film, they meet again in this atmosphere of maskani.

And spontaneously discuss their experiences and feelings, just as one might do in an actual maskani in Tanzania. They also often ask a lot of questions. The physical installation clearly plays a role!

A typical maskani

Who is KARIAKOO’s target?

The target for this experience is very specific: it is individuals, organisations or actors who want to know more about Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania or even African cities in general.

For example, we are targeting investors who are interested in emerging markets. Last year we partnered with Social Venture Exchange to screen the film and build a ‘Maskani’ environment for their panel discussion. Impact investors who promoted their funds in Africa and other emerging economies now had more understanding and empathy for these environments, and could feel the pace of life and business there.

Our team has been amazing. The foundation of the experience is the PhD thesis of Dr. Benjamin Kirby, who was working in the field to understand the religious, economic and daily dynamics of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood. Ben continues to drive the conversation forward about African cities as a British Academy fellow – we are very proud to partner with him to bring this progressive research to life through immersive media.

What is the impact of Kariakoo ?

As I said, our target is very specific: our impact is not (yet) on a large scale! On the other hand, the participants themselves tell us that they have a much clearer picture of the dynamics of the neighbourhood and the city or that they see things differently. Participants also tell us sometimes that Kariakoo reminds them of a neighbourhood in India or Jamaica – this is a really exciting way to tie together the diverse cultures in Toronto, where most of our screenings have been to date. Something unexpected from the project!

Our objective is really to change the imagination around Dar es Salaam and Tanzania and contributed to the growing body of works by African creatives in cities across the continent. We are still early on the journey, but have no shortage of inspiration.

It took us a year and a half to produce the experience, and we plan to scale it up to reach museums and other public spaces, starting with the National Museum of Tanzania who endorsed the project at its conception.

Thanks to Ola for her time, and we hope to be able to live the experience one day!

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