There is something disconcerting about watching a group of well-fed Italian ladies trundle down a white-sand beach in string bikinis while, in the same viewfinder, conservatively dressed Muslim women wade in the sea harvesting clams at low tide. But incongruity is the heart of life in this archipelago off Tanzania’s east coast.
Zanzibar. The name evokes the exotic: melding fragrances of flower petals and tropical spice. East meets West; a confluence of Arabic, Indian and African influences.
Where else might one see a camel resting on the beach, framed by coconut palms swaying softly in an ocean breeze? Or be accosted by pesky papasi (street touts) at Freddie Mercury’s birthplace. (The late great Queen lead singer was born here. To pacify the papasi, I eventually bought a souvenir — a skinny moustachioed doll in tiny skin-tight pants — at a very reasonable price).
Zanzibar, island of contrast, where Nordic tourists sunburn their pale skin by day then bump and grind the night away with brightly clad Masai warriors.
Our hotel was Kendwa Rocks. Boy does it rock. Young adults from around the globe dance through the sweaty tropical evening at full-moon parties. Or at least I’m told they do. We had trouble staying up past 11. But when I awoke at 3 a.m., the steady bass boom assured me the party was still going strong.
A small fishing port a century ago, Zanzibar Town is now home to two-thirds of the island’s one million inhabitants. And the city is not without modern amenities. It boasts the island’s only two traffic lights . . . although only one actually works.
But one cannot introduce technology too rapidly. The power grid might overload. As it did each evening at our hotel. At 8:15 p.m., punctually as a British colonialist, Kendwa rocked into 15 minutes of tropical darkness.
I began to holster a flashlight for fear of stepping on a Buick-sized cockroach in the blackened bathroom.
It’s hot here. And humid. We’ve been around. Zanzibar in December is hot. All day and all night.
Air conditioning is not a luxury but a necessity; when the power failed, we suffered in dark, sweaty misery.
It was refreshing to splash in the bathwater-warm sea. Although we were near the equator, I hadn’t swum for weeks. In Kenya and Rwanda, lakes are abundant but our guide book warned against swimming in fresh water anywhere in East Africa. There are a multitude of pests awaiting the unwary — like the cute little fluke whose job it is to travel up a flow of urine, taking up permanent residence in one’s urethra. Just what I need.
The coast of East Africa from northern Somalia south to Mozambique retains its Islamic culture and Arabic architecture imported 900 years ago. Predominantly Muslim, the people speak Swahili, whose Arabic origin, sahil, means “of the coast.”
For two centuries, Zanzibar was the African seat of the Omani Sultanate. Today, in the impassably narrow streets of old Stone Town, fishmongers noisily haggle with women costumed head to toe in black abaya, a small slit in their niqab veil revealing only eyes. It’s a wonder these ladies don’t pass out from the stifling heat — or the smell of unrefrigerated fish wafting through the cramped marketplace.
Dhows have plied the waters of the Indian Ocean for centuries. The billowing single-sail design of these ancient craft enabled sailors to follow the seasonal trade winds, carrying spices (and Islam) from the east. When the winds shifted, live cargo flowed out: African slaves captured from the jungle interior and shipped into Arabian indenture.
The last slave market closed its barbaric doors a century and a half ago but dhows are still plentiful. While still widely used by villagers to fish the shallow sea, today’s dhows are as likely to be seen transporting Europeans on a sunset cruise.
I’m not bad at picking up languages (if I do say so) . . . three weeks earlier I was comfortably tossing out a little Swahili in Kenya. Then we flew to Rwanda where the lingua franca is Kinyarwandan, a totally different lingo. So I was excited to be on the island of Zanzibar, again trying my hand at Swahili — blissfully unaware that the island dialect differs greatly from that spoken on the mainland. This was brought to my embarrassing attention when our driver started telling us about Zanzibar’s world-renowned spices.
“Nime elewa,” I said, cleverly indicating, “I understand.”
He burst out laughing. I first thought he was simply tickled by my mastery of Swahili … Not! In Zanzibar, nime elewa translates as, “I am completely drunk.” To a tea-totalling Muslim, this is irresistibly funny. For the rest of the trip, I refrained from impressing the locals with my command of their language.
If you believe the Chinese economic threat is limited to America, you have another think coming. China is stamping its economic footprint all over Africa. In Kenya and Rwanda, Chinese firms have taken the lead in major infrastructure upgrades like road and bridge construction. In Zanzibar, the Chinese are “volunteering” to oversee installation of miles of underground cable so that remote communities, currently without even basic services like fresh water and sewer will have cable television, Internet and cellphone coverage. I asked our driver about the intentions of the Chinese.
“I don’t think they do for us. Maybe themselves. Sell many Chinese television sets,” he answered in Sawhili-infused English.
Even the humblest of men know that there is no free ride in life.
In the West African nation of Gabon, co-host of next year’s Africa Cup of Nations, the Chinese have gifted a 40,000-seat football stadium to the people. In nearby Guinea, the largesse is even grander: a stadium seating 50,000. You don’t suppose they’ll want some free scoreboard advertising for their trouble?
Horror stories about African air travel abound. Our experience with Kenya Airlines was worry-free. The fleet was modern, the cabin crew professional, the meals and (free) beverages the envy of any Canadian airline. We were even gifted a bottle of champagne when the loo (that’s British-Kenyan for toilet) was temporarily unavailable during descent into Zanzibar. That evening we popped the bubbly under the watchful smiling face of a Masai (beach) warrior as the sun set over the Indian Ocean.
Our stay in Zanzibar was short, only four days. Walking the endless beaches, past fishermen mending nets and counting their meagre catch, was a restful way to end our month in Africa. Luckily our departure was uneventful; until Florence risked arrest at the airport for public indecency. In a last-minute effort to pack away unneeded clothing for the frozen homeward trip, she started to pull on a pair of slacks — intending to discard her island skirt once the trousers were pulled up. Our Muslim female tour guide, who had waited patiently with us during the check-in process, was mortified. She stopped my wife mid-act and hustled her off to the ladies’ room were this most un-Islamic public display could be carried out in the sanctity of a filthy African bathroom.
Discretion being the better part of valour, I quietly handed off my skimpy swim suit to an incoming Italian tourist.
Gerry Feehan is a retired lawyer, avid traveller and photographer. He lives in Red Deer. For more of Gerry’s travel adventures, please visit www.gnfeehan.blogspot.com.