Zanzibar: Island Life

THE STREETS of Zanzibar’s Stone Town are a maze of meandering alleys that lead you in circles. The best you can hope for is to emerge from their dark shadow, squinting against the bright sun, at an unexpected corner of the shore. Around the central tourist area, they are lined with shops whose shaded interiors hide mostly crafts – beads, paintings, fabrics and souvenir T-shirts. Further back, they start to supply more local needs: charcoal, soap powder, shoes and bread.

The crafts are repetitive and heavily influenced by the African mainland. There are spindly sculptures of giraffes and Masai, paintings of giraffes and Masai in the sunset, and T-shirts with images of giraffes and Masai. Variety comes from Congo-style wooden masks and Kenyan kikoi cloth. A big seller is a “Hakuna Matata” music CD. “They are the only words of Swahili most tourists know,” says one shopkeeper, who says he sells a dozen CDs a day.

The streets are swept clean every morning but littered by lunchtime, an untidiness added to by the spider’s web of power and phone wiring hanging high above. Running through the wires are water pipes. “It is a disaster waiting to happen,” says my friend Farid Himid, who set up a grassroots organization, FAZACH, to tackle Zanzibar’s waste problem. “It is mix of public and private, water and electricity, with no overall control.”

Many buildings are fronted by the Indian-style barazas, where men can sit outside and chat to escape the oppressive heat indoors. “The best thing about Zanzibar is the welcoming attitude of the people,” says Dutch-born hotel manager Lisenka Beetstra. “They are very, very friendly and open. Neighbors greet each other and look after each other. It is a outside lifestyle, people are always outside. If you want to know what is going on, you pass by and ask on the barazas and someone you know will know the story. The worst thing is the other side of this, that people always know what is going on in your life.”

Lisenka manages Emerson on Hurumzi, one of two stylish hotels in Stone Town founded by Emerson Skeens, a New York-born entrepreneur. He died in 2013 after living in Zanzibar for almost 20 years, but his memory lives on in the exotic decor of the rooms and relaxing roof terrace with its panoramic view of Stone Town. The tower of a Buddhist temple, the minaret of a mosque and the spire of the Anglican cathedral rise above the rusty tin roofs as symbols of Zanzibar’s tolerance. Like any port city, though, doing business is the real religion.

“We have always been middlemen – between the land and the sea, the producers and the buyers, the African and the Arabian,” says historian Professor Abdul Sheriff. “That is not a concern; it is our strength.”

“The hotel, like Zanzibar itself, is a place with a mix of Indian, Arab and local culture,” says Lisenka. “The strongest influence has been the period of the sultans, a time when there was a lot of trade with the Arab countries and India. That was when people really tried to show off their wealth, which you can see in the decorated woodwork and brass detailing everywhere. Emerson was passionate about preserving the Zanzibar lifestyle, and working with local craftspeople to maintain it. A lot of people notice the woodwork first. The Zanzibar doors and the carving stand out.”

The doors of Zanzibar draw the eyes – and cameras – of many visitors with their intricate carving and heavy brass spikes, designed to repel war elephants in their original Indian home. They still seem to repel the stranger, hiding who knows what exotic secrets behind their dark wood panels, just as the veils of passing women might hide great beauty. In reality, they are often the grandest thing about houses that are crumbling from neglect. Built of coral stone, and often badly repaired with harsh concrete, Stone Town’s buildings need more work than their present inhabitants can usually afford. Vacant plots littered with rubbish mark sites where the battle to survive has been lost.

THE RAIN comes suddenly, after a day so hot it is an effort to breathe. My nostrils fill with the smell of African dust, beaten up by the downpour, while the potholed road turns immediately into a muddy river. I hop through it to a taxi rank and head for the outskirts of Zanzibar’s old Stone Town.

Out here, in the poverty-ridden slums of Mtendeni, the rain has even more effect. The water on the road is ankle deep and the uneven paths through the small shacks are fast-flowing muddy streams. I am thankful for my torch – there are no streetlights – as I pick my way to a tiny madrasah, little bigger than the two-room homes around it. I stayed here briefly many years ago, but the route is hard to recall. New buildings have sprung up, old landmarks are swept away.

I have come to see a performance of Maulid, a form of dancing peculiar to the East African coast that bears a philosophical resemblance to the better-known Sufi dance of Turkey. Instead of twirling, however, these dancers chant in unison, swaying together in a hypnotic wave as they kneel on the threadbare carpet covering the concrete floor. Aged from 11 to their 30s, they are dressed in uniform white robes and embroidered white cotton skull caps. Gleaming with sweat in the tiny room, they are led by one man beating a stick on a well-battered tin lid, while several others add the sound of hand drums.

The next day, I return to Mtendeni in late afternoon, when the sun has dried the paths back into hard mud, still littered with the rubbish swept through it the night before. Inspired by Farid Himid’s anti-trash campaign, one man has found a way to make a living from the rubbish. Khamis Hamad collects waste from hundreds of local households and small businesses, charging each a small fee, before separating out everything that can be recycled.

I follow him through the paths to a small compound, where he carefully unlocks a large padlock securing the gate. Wine and beer bottles and broken glassware, plastic water and oil bottles, cardboard and paper are each piled separately around the uneven patch of mud, shaded by an ageing palm tree. He looks out proudly over his domain and tells me his dream. “I need a machine to cut the glass, so I can make things from it,” he says. “And a machine to shred the plastic.”

From Mtendeni, I walk to Michenzani – which is dominated by the kilometer-long concrete “Plattenbauten” apartment blocks built by East Germany in the 1970s during Tanzania’s socialist heyday. They look as if they have not been painted or maintained since they were built. Most are seven stories high but none have elevators, so it is a long, hot climb to the roof, even in the cool of dusk. The view encompasses most of the city and the vast, interconnected expanse is also a hangout for local youth. The roof attracts an evening breeze and is a welcome escape from the stuffy apartments, which heat up like saunas during the day.

“Politicians make us promises but they are empty promises,” says a young man I meet up here, Hanni Mohammed. “They only remember us at election time. We are a small island, rich in resources, but our politicians are letting us down. But too many people are looking to the government for employment. We have to learn to employ ourselves but our environment and culture limits us. Our culture makes us depend on each other and not on ourselves. It is hard to think outside the box. The world outside is changing fast but we are not changing fast enough.”

The alternative for many other young people in this area is to escape into drugs. Mani “Jailbird” Abdullah is a former drug addict whose nickname tells where his habit led him. He now runs an outreach program for addicts. “I estimate there are 9,000 drug abusers in Zanzibar – almost one percent of the population – of which 900 are female,” he says. “There may be more women, but they are hard to reach because of the cultural and religious values.

“People use heroin mostly. It comes from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The quality is not that good but it is easy to get – less than a dollar for a hit. There are so many reasons why people take it, from domestic violence and sexual abuse to poverty and divorce. A common link is a father who is dead, divorced or just doesn’t bother. I started at 16 but this generation start even earlier. They begin with nicotine, cannabis, then alcohol and finally heroin.”

THE FOUR Masai spot their prey and smoothly split apart into pairs, careful not to spook the approaching females. Two circle away while two walk towards the target, looking as if they mean to pass by. At the last minute, they veer towards it, raising an arm ready for action.

The two European blondes have no chance. Brought to a stop by a cheerful “Jambo!”, the women are soon in conversation with the pair of Masai who have claimed them. They reach out a hand to shake, and it is held tightly while sincere words are spoken and gazes held. Whether it is a small souvenir, or a longer-term arrangement, they are now at the mercy of the hunters. The rest of the beach carries on with its business. They have seen this circle of life too many times before.

Here, at Paje on Zanzibar’s east coast, the bright white sun burns the eyes as it reflects off the white sand and penetrates the clear waters of the sea. A few ramshackle wooden fishing boats lie stranded by the tide, while others bob at anchor – moored by a line stretching ashore and another out to sea. The fragile link suggests storms are not common. The sky is bright blue, decorated by a dancing assortment of different coloured kites, connected invisibly to the tiny figures on surfboards below. The skilled ones soar through the waves, tumbling gracefully as they catch the wind, while others splash into the water before picking themselves up and trying again.

As the tide goes out, brightly-garbed women dig holes in the sand to collect crabs. A group of fishermen try to move a boat stranded in deeper sand high above the water. Whether they are trying to get it further out, or drag it in is unclear as competing voices shout directions and the brightly-painted boat moves around in a circle, digging its heavy stern in even deeper. Local life and tourism co-exist, each no doubt thinking the other’s activities are pointless.

Fisherman Sebastián Kukuli tells me they go out late in the evening and fish by the light of the moon, or a lamp, throwing nets until the early morning. During the day they repair nets which are so fine that it seems no fish could escape them. “Our fish is very famous on the mainland,” he says. “Buyers come from Congo. They come by ferry to Stone Town, then take a car here. We employ women to boil the fish in salt water, with some extra salt. Then it is dried.”

The whitebait is spread out on the beach beside us as we talk, thousands of tiny silver bodies glistening in the sun. Nearby, some tourists baste themselves with oil before turning over to tan the other side. The fishermen lounge in the shade of a tree, saving their energy for another long night at sea.

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