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Little bits and bobs of my life, my thoughts and my experiences in the place that has - I guess - become my home

From Pen

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Island Days - 8 February 2009

It is unforgivable, the length of time that has drifted since I last wrote. The reasons are manifold: I had a mixed break over Christmas, which had me falling in love (with a place, alas) but also falling so sick that I saw in New Year in attached to a drip in Aga Khan Hospital, Dar es Salaam, wondering whether rusty drips present any kind of health risk. The staff were, I have to tell you, fantastic and I had no idea that a simple mixture of sugar, salt and water sent directly to the veins is transformative. I felt high as a kite. Following a brief recovery, I developed such chronic wisdom tooth ache that my greatest nightmare became a reality: the removal of a tooth in Africa…..horror of horrors! Reader, I allowed it to happen through self-pitying, pathetic tears. I am hoping that is all for medical insurance claims for a while!

Rather than settle back into a gentle rhythm of life in Uchira, where I suppose life is fairly low octane and without too much daily grind, I decided over the Christmas break to quit my job for reasons I will not commit to paper right now. Suffice to say there was not a lot happening and I did not come out here to chew cud. So, I write to you from a traditional Swahili home in Stone Town, sipping local coffee and full of locally baked bread (a speciality here). I am here (again) to try to make a decision about which job I take next as I have a few offers and my head is exploding with possibilities. I realise how fortunate I am to be in this position but, really, I am struggling to choose.

Enough of that: I must not share my stress. Instead, I would love to share with you my new love, my great passion, my greatest discovery: Unguja. You probably know this island, this wonderful, crazy, stunning, hotch potch Spice Island as Zanzibar but this name actually refers to both Unguja and Pemba, the archipelago which lies north east of Dar in the Indian Ocean. Unguja is the big brother, the most visited, the most famous and is commonly called Zanzibar, whilst its African-Arabic-Indian, winding alleyed, infectively curious capital 'Stone Town' is also known as 'Zanzibar Town'.

This is not Tanzania. On arriving in Stone Town after a two hour boat journey, one is immediately reminded of the island's past as an influential city state, the centre of trade links with the east and a supplier of gold, ivory, wood and slaves to Asia. Long ruled by the Omani Sultanate, Islamic and Arabic flavours are abundant: this is a Muslim society, conservative in many ways, with the call to mosque a constant, lulling refrain. Architectural clues are also strong: Arabic style houses with secret internal courtyard nestle alongside Indian-style homes with elaborate balconies and, of course, the town is famous for its extraordinary doors: ornately decorated, solid wooden structures of either Indian or Arabic origin, intricately carved and usually in finer form than the buildings they inhabit.

There is disrepair everywhere: wonderful buildings ransacked, ruined, left to waste: a legacy of the bloody end of Zanzibar's independence in January 1964, when the United Republic of Tanzania was created (a classic example of the artificial creation of states in Africa at the convenience of colonial powers). Thousands were massacred at this time, thousands more fled to Europe, America, anywhere, and the island lost political independence. Even today, most Zanzibarians display a deep desire to be recognised distinctly, and visiting the place leaves no doubt as to the uniqueness of the place. This is not Africa, this is not the Middle East, this is not India. It is an intriguing melange of the three, which manifests as simply this: Zanzibar. Come and immerse yourself to understand.
I found a spiritual home in Stone Town, though I cannot fully grasp how or why. It is a world beyond the one from which I have sprung: Muslim, tropical, intense, maddening. The market draws me each time I am lucky enough to be staying in the town, which happens to be rather often these days as I have been remarkably fortunate to have a series of wonderful encounters with locals, or the friends of locals, who offer to host this crazy single English woman. I have a guardian watching over me, of this I am certain.

This time I have been particularly blessed as I am residing in a staggeringly beautiful three floor building which looks nothing from the street but behind whose bronze-studded door lies a magnificently preserved, high ceiling-ed, tiled home with an open air inner recess up into which I am now staring. The family is of Indian origin, and the mother is a fantastic cook. Yesterday, she produced two light, soft sponges the like of which I have not seen since I arrived in Africa and which were irresistible when accompanied by the strongly spiced tea so evocative of Swahili cuisine.

Which leads me on. The food of the Spice Islands. Swahili (this word refers to the coastal peoples of east Africa) cooking is so far removed from inland Tanzania's offering that I am barely able to return to the mainland after visits here. I am forever lured to the market, where fruit abounds and ten or fifteen varieties of mangoes vie for space with bananas the like of which I have never seen. Red, giant, finger sized. A jackfruit appears: someone is cutting it into manageable portions, for no on can eat a twenty kilo fruit alone(!), rubbing oil into its flesh to prevent its superglue sap from finding a victim. A cart wheels past: rambutans, unseen since Cambodian adventures, but this time not only red but also yellow prickly fruits. What is this? Oh, a Zanzibarian grape: round, dark and with crunchy seeds but rather mouth drying. A fuu? What on earth is a fuu? It looks like an olive but is date like, slightly too sweet, with a penchant for sticking to ones teeth. Custard apples, pink fleshed pomelos, something else I have never seen before which is tart and orange inside. Coconuts: young (for the water) or older (for the milk). Watermelon: ah, familiarity! Yes please.

The meat section is to be avoided, great bloody hunks attracting ravenous flies. The fish is little better but an alluring array of creatures that would befit a tropical aquarium. Aqua marine, red, rainbow coloured. Octopus stretches out lazily, little knowing that its fate is to hit the grill later that day, to be chopped into bite size pieces and sold for 5 pence on the end of a prodding cocktail stick (10pence for a piece of superior squid).

The market shifts during the day, different vendors coming and going. Now, the men have finished prayer and the coffee vendor with his metal kettle is handing out tiny porcelain cups of strong brew with a square of cashew nut sweetmeat for TS100 shillings (5 pence). In the evening, out come the carts baring slices of watermelon, under-ripe mangoes and peeled cucumber halves to be dipped in chilli salt (these are addictive, I swear). Pweza (octopus) stands crowd the streets, tiny skewers of grilled meat and banana appear and, down by the waterfront, a host of food stalls are erected at dusk offering kebabs of fish and meat; crab claws; Zanzibarian pancakes stuffed with bananas and chocolate!

The sweet scent of spices is often in the air and the market vendors are keen to sell their wares to tourists. This is an obstacle to be overcome by any visitor to this island: the pushiness of vendors can become frustrating but my slowly evolving attitude to this is that, of course, they are trying to make a living. Anyway, these spices are well worth trying and underpin a great deal of cooking here. Saffron, turmeric, nutmeg (you should see it in its original form!), coriander, cardamom, ginger, vanilla. The list streams on. Melded with coconut milk, in knowing hands, these flavours bring seafood, pilau, tea and coffee to life. There is FLAVOUR to this food!!

It has been a while since I last broke out into natural, unrestrained smiles, so it was with real delight that I noticed myself grinning broadly, uncontrollably, freely. I was completely without human contact and yet there I was, a smile so strong my cheeks ached. What inspired this? An hour-long walk through urchin infested, rocky, slippery pools; the always tricky process of stumbling about trying to squeeze my feet into my flippers; the ritual of snorkel and mask application (thanks, Dad!); the final crashing into the water amongst coral and – oh my life – fish. I wish I had the words to describe the colours and shapes and movement I witness when I find a great snorkelling spot around Zanzibar but, truthfully, I do not. Instead, I invite you all to come and experience it for yourselves, to find yourself in the same childlike amazement that makes me so deeply, honestly contented. Even after the bashing and bruising my legs suffered on the coral, I struggled to imagine a happier pursuit than observing the submarine gardens and their wildlife.

The beaches of Zanzibar are equally impossible to adequately describe. Let me ask you, instead, to pick up a travel brochure for a tropical island destination – the kind that makes you think “These photos have been enhanced” – and imagine that a place of white icing sugar sand, backed by swaying palms and coconut trees and caressed by turquoise sea really exists. Because it does. Now take traditional Zanzibarian life – women and children collecting seaweed; dhow building; fishing – and watch it continue on these unimaginably beautiful beaches. Here you have Zanzibar. Local children in clothes of vibrant pink, green, yellow, blue, pull homemade plastic-bottle cars along the sand, trailing plastic bags behind to catch the wind and generate speed. Families play simple games on the sand while tourists kite surf at great expense. Village women sit amongst the seaweed sticks at low tide, gathering their harvest to make natural marine products. Fishermen stride out from the sea bearing sticks laden with their rainbow coloured catch.

Magical places do exist and, for me, Zanzibar is one of them.

Yet it is a place that grieves me. The beach resorts – many European owned – attract a well heeled crowd who typically fly onto the island, are taxied to a hotel and stay there in luxury thinking what a paradise they have found. Alas, the reality of Zanzibar is much more gritty. Yes, it is a stunning, exotic, fascinating place but let us remember that it is Africa. Behind the hotels, in the villages, local people live on a pittance, remain poorly educated and exist in a way which contrasts massively with visitor comforts. I drank spiced tea with a local man for 5p, instead of the pound charged by my fairly basic Banda-style hostel. I wandered through the dilapidated village behind the beach (some beach resorts are actually walled to avoid ‘locals’ coming through!) and found a family selling jackfruit for 10p. We ate it together, their eyes wide open, their laughter hysterical, at this Muzungu entering their home.

I am also privileged to have met some incredible locals who have invited me to stay in their homes, thus enabling me to live simply, to experience real life on this island, and to understand the impact of tourism here: always, in a developing country, a complex and mixed issue.

My abiding belief? Zanzibar, visited sensitively and wisely, is one of the most intriguing, alluring, fascinating places you could ever hope to visit. It is blessed by a shoreline which language alone simply cannot do justice to. Its fruits, spices, fish, bread – everything – deserve the attention of food lovers. Its people are unique.

Please, please see it. Preferably with me. That way I have an excuse to go many times (!) but I can also ensure that you see the place for all that it is.

I have been deeply, horrendously homesick recently. It has been many years since I experienced that pit-of-the-stomach nausea which causes a sudden panic to arise: an urgent need to escape. My Grandfather died, aged 97: a mighty man the like of whom I am not convinced the modern world will produce. Being away from my Mum, my Sister, everyone else, at this time has been truly horrific. Being uncertain of the future has added to this feeling of insecurity and alienation. I have actually realised to acutely here what matters to me, and it is not a glittering international career at all. What is the point of that if you are miles away from those you love, and who love you? Where is the joy in not being able to see you nephew, your niece, your friends? I receive amazing emails and gifts from my Leeds students and I miss like crazy the surroundings that know who I am, and which I know. I no longer feel boring or unambitious to say that.

Last week, I was offered a job with an NGO in Dar. It threw me, if I am honest. They are doing great things here and it is an exciting opportunity. The organisation is working to mainstream disabled and vulnerable people within society and I will be running HIVAIDS training as well as developing the advocacy and lobbying side. The offer is good in terms of how I am rewarded. There are nice, interesting, passionate people to work with. But I am afraid. I am afraid to throw myself into this newness far from my loved ones. Afraid that maybe I will LOVE IT and then miss out on two or three years of my family and friends. Afraid that maybe this is not what I am at all and that really I should just be in the Dales with two cats, red wine, fireside chats and chocolate brownies. I have started to get lonely and muddled.

Decision? To accept the job, knowing that I still have the return part of my air ticket and that I am coming back in August anyway. By that time, I think I will know what really feels good and right for me.

Until then, I will hang on through the hard times and relish the new and the good. I am going to find a yoga class, somewhere to swim, somewhere to sing. I am going to try to be kind to myself in this challenging place. I am going to try, try, try.

So, wish me luck with my new venture. Hearing from you really helps so please do write. Emails can make a world of difference.

I am just off to find passion fruit. Here, they are larger, firmer and YELLOW! Tamu (sweet), they are a firm favourite. I wonder what you are doing?

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