One of the nice things about being in Dar es Salaam is living by the ocean. Growing up land-locked, I never even set foot in the sea until I was a teenager. It wasn't until about two decades later that I would actually live by the ocean in Monterey, California. It was a wonderful thing, I have to say. Even though I still generally prefer rugged mountains, the ocean is quite a magical place – the physical beauty that always seems to be changing, the ocean air, hanging out at the beach, swimming, snorkeling, diving, etc.
And then there's the food. Life in Monterey gave me an appreciation for seafood that I have maintained ever since. Over the past five years of living in Tanzania, most of which has been spent living next to the Indian Ocean, I have continued to take advantage of what the sea has to offer. Off the coast of Dar es Salaam there are well over 400 species of fish, many of which are edible.
lunch on Bongoyo Island
Recently, however, I found out something disturbing about this wonderful fish that I've been eating. One of the challenges in selling fish in the tropics is that the heat makes the fish go bad quickly. Also, due to the challenges and cost in accessing ice and refrigeration, other means are being sought to keep from tossing the rotting catch of the day if it's not sold within a short time. In the newspaper a few weeks ago there was a story about fisherman in Dar es Salaam and the Coast Region using formalin to preserve fish. When I read this, it didn't sound good though I wasn't sure exactly what formalin was. Enter Google. Formalin is the aqueous solution of formaldehyde, a highly toxic chemical compound famous for embalming dead human beings. Yes, you heard it right folks; we're eating the stuff they put in corpses to keep them fresh enough for us to say good-bye to them.
the Dar es Salaam fish market
Allegedly users are directed to use one cupful of the chemical diluted in a ten-liter bucket of water used to store about three hundred kilos of fish. In doing so, the fish can stay for at least three to four days without decomposing. Then, when the fish is sent to the market, it has to be washed and soaked in water for at least one or two hours before being displayed to buyers.
Though this is new to me, this is not new. Other countries are apparently aware of this practice including a similar scandal in Vietnam in 2007. Here in Tanzania this could be all conspiracy theory but based upon what I know about some other business practices, it does seem to make sense.
At first glance you might be saying, how bad can it be? I mean maybe this is a good thing. Maybe this is like "botox for the rest of me." Maybe a regular dose of formalin will keep you feeling young for centuries.
Alas no. Medical experts say formalin causes disorders in the oral cavity, the gastrointestinal tract, liver, kidney, lung, heart, and the central nervous system in the early phase of reaction. The scary part is that with light dosages, you don't get sick right away. It can apparently accumulate in the system over time unbeknownst to you, the effects of which can cause health problems years later.
Great. So now I'm off fish. I'm sure there are all kinds of toxins coursing through my veins already but this one doesn't sound like much fun. Pass the mutton.