May 2, 2012

Zanzibar airport

Waiting for a plane that is way too late.

Dear Friends,

Four thirty in the morning and my mobile phone is ringing.  I am tangled up in the mosquito net protecting me from malaria.  Worse yet, not only the phone, but my glasses and the light switch are on the other side of the net.  The phone stops ringing just as I get to it. The display shows a Stillwater, Minnesota number.  When we finally connect it is an old lady trying to call her brother in California.  She forgot California was in a different area code

Mosquito nets are different from one another.  The ones I can deal with best are attached to the ceiling and open on the side of the bed like a curtain that overlaps.  The one for this bed is attached to the ceiling above the head of the bed. The net on my side travels around the bedpost at the foot of my side of the bed and hooks on the bed post at the foot of Suzi’s side.  Hers goes the other way.  To get out you have to lift the net and crawl under, but on my side it is stretched too tightly around the bedpost and I can’t get under it.  I don’t remember how I got into bed.

It’s the rainy season and we’re staying in a hotel we couldn’t possibly afford “in season.”  It’s situated on a point of land at the head of Stonetown, the old city of Zanzibar.  It’s in two restored buildings, the old telephone and telegraph exchange and a Chinese doctor’s dispensary.  Both were restored on the outside as historic buildings by the Aga Kahn Foundation.  Because of the rain we’re using the hotel’s facilities more than usual.  We watch boats coming from the more sheltered harbor round the point.  When they make the point, they encounter seas driven by stiff southwesterly winds.  Water taxi passengers help with the bailing.  One boat looks overloaded and passengers jump into the sea and wade to shore in front of the hotel, coming out of the water still wearing baseball caps.  I thought this is a boat in trouble but one of the hotel staff tells me that it’s just some fishermen (divers actually) jumping off the water taxi closer to their markets.  They carry buckets filed with whatever they we diving for.  We watch dhows set sail from the harbor headed for Dar es Salaam. It’s between 30 and 40 miles to the mainland.  The ferry boat “Happy” is a landing craft that hits the beach, lowers its doors and cars and trucks drive onto the sand.  Some don’t handle it so well.

When the rain slacks we walk into the old town, a maze of streets and shop houses.  Stonetown buildings are in various states of decay, decrepitude and restoration.  Some walls are crumbling, or stained with mold.  Others are newly whitewashed and some have scaffolding indicating restoration work.  The restored buildings really stand out from the rest.  This is a living town, an old Arab town peopled with Africans.  The hotel provides us with green umbrellas which brand us.   “Mister (bwana actually) how about a nice shirt for $25?”

“The hotel sells it for $17.  You can’t be more expensive than the Serena.”  I get it for $10. The touts along the waterfront are aggressive.  They want to give me tours, sell me shirts, scarves and CDs of them singing “Jambo Bwana,” which is THE tourist song.  It means “Hello Boss.”  The dictionary of urban slang says “Bwana is not always meant as a compliment.”

But once in the maze of Stonetown itself, while the calls of “Jambo” continue the cries of “karibu” (pronounced like the Alaska animal and meaning “welcome”) are more dominant.  These folks are plain friendly, not looking for a commission or a sale.  One old man sitting on a wall tells me I look confused.  I have been trying to find Christ Cathedral for a while.  We keep circling it but can never get to it.  He smiles and says, “see the big tree, turn left.”

We find it right next to the intriguingly named “St. Monica’s Hostel and Slave Chambers.” It is on the grounds of the cathedral.  We pay our admission to the cathedral and a young man wants to give us a tour explaining the history of slavery in Zanzibar.  His spiel is running in machine gun fashion and I have to tell him to stop.  I have read the history and while I appreciate his rendition I would like wander the grounds in silence and thought.  “But the tour is part of your admission fee, you don’t have to pay any more for it.”

“I know and thank you, but I would just like to wander myself.”

I have known the history since I was a kid.  Zanzibar is one of those places that has always called me.   Zanzibar was founded by Persian traders and was the site of a Zoroastrian fire temple.  The Portuguese built their forts here during their period of exploration.   Zanzibar became a way station on the way to India, Timor and Macau.  The Portuguese also imported spice seeds from Indonesia to develop a spice industry closer to home.  Then in 1698 the Sultan of Oman (on the Arabian Peninsula) took over the island and Zanzibar became the port for the flow of spices, ivory and slaves to Arabia.

The Swahili culture evolved, with slaves from all over East Africa mixing in Zanzibar and speaking a language, based on Arabic mixed with local dialects.  Swahili became the trade language for all of East Africa. It its height the Omanis from Zanzibar controlled the coast from Kenya to Mozambique and ran trade routes deep into Africa. The slaves they captured in the interior had to carry ivory to the coast and then were sold, either for transportation to Arabia or for work on Zanzibar’s plantations.  At one point the entire Omani Royal house moved its capital from Muscat on the Arabian Peninsula to Zanzibar.

The British entered the scene in the 1800s to try to stop the slave trade.  They first signed treaties with the Sultan. The Omani Royal House split with one branch ruling Oman and the other ruling Zanzibar.  The Brits destroyed the slave market and built Christ Cathedral on the site of the market, with the altar being at the point where the whipping post stood.  So while Zanzibar is 95 % Moselm the most prominent religious site is this cathedral.  In 1890 Britain established a “protectorate” over Zanzibar.

In 1963 Zanzibar became independent with a constitutional monarchy under the sultan, who was overthrown in a bloody Revolution a month later in which most of the Arabs and many Indians brought by the British were massacred or expelled.  Zanzibar was united with Tanganyika on the mainland and became Tanzania.  The Omani branch of the family was also put under British” protection” but has fared better.  Oman became independent and is now swimming in oil and money.

This history makes Zanzibar a mix of several African Cultures spiced with influences of Persia, Portugal, Arabia, and Britain.  It is a swirl of exotic colors, smells and tastes.  Women wear headscarves and abayas but sometimes dress is more an image than reality.  We saw a woman in a hajib with a sleeveless blouse another in an abaya that came only to the knees showing considerable leg.

When Suzi and I travel we have good timing.  This trip was no exception.  Monday it rained most of the day.  When the rain broke we jumped into a cab and headed for a spice plantation tour and got to see ginger, cinnamon, clove, peppercorn, and other spices in the raw.  As soon as the tour ended and we got into the cab the skies opened up again and it started pouring.  The taxi driver said “you should be on TV.”  I said I was a radio man and he said “you are better at weather prediction than anyone on our TV.

The hotel is on the Stonetown beach, but also has a “private” beach further up the island.  There’s a daily shuttle to that beach and on Tuesday we were the only ones who showed up.  It had been raining but there was no lighting so we figured that if we were going to get wet anyway we may as well see more of the island.  The shuttle took us to the beach and while we were the only hotel residents, the beach was not empty. We watched fisherman in outriggers and small vessels working their lines and nets.  I mentioned the Sea Arabs of Oman and Qatar in past letters.  This was one of their destinations. They left their skills with the African population and those skills remain years after the Arabs were thrown out.

It was a great day, warm sea, warm air and no sunburn. Just as we got into the shuttle van to go back to the hotel the rain started again.  It ended just before sunset and we managed to hire one of the water taxies to take us for a view of Stonetown from the sea.  During the brief spell of no rain the beach in front of the town filled up.  There was a pickup soccer game on the packed sand, families went swimming and one group of students preformed pushups, in unison, before running into the sea.

Take Care,

Rich McClear


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