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Friday, March 24, 2017
Letter from Zanzibar: Dave Stewart SJ
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¬†Part 1: It's a busy dockside you step onto at Zanzibar Town, and it feels threatening, as all ports do. Then the traveller must endure a gauntlet of hawkers and touts, whom kiSwahili knows as papasi (ticks, annoying insects). It's good to have been forewarned about these guys. Some will try to convince you that you have to stamp your return boat ticket at once or risk not getting on and being stranded. This would, of course, cost you ten dollars. Some have excellent hotels to recommend and taxis in which to get to them, and business cards are thrust into your hand. One such hotel I noticed only 400 metres away as the guy was trying to sell it to me; how much would the recommended taxi have charged? Then there is another surprise. Even though Zanzibar is part of the Union of Tanzania, there is still Immigration to clear, yet another form to fill in and another passport stamp. Once again the traveller's tip of memorising one's passport number & expiry date comes in handy. Perhaps now, though the biggest shock of all ≠ there was no charge, either in dollars or Tanzanian Shillings. I was so surprised not to be fleeced of my one remaining $50 bill that I asked the bemused official if this could be right. It is often said that the search for the genuinely exotic, new and different is getting ever more difficult in a globalised, webbed world. Our jaded senses recognise, with resigned familiarity, the Coca-Cola, Barclays, the Nivea trademarks on every corner. But at least there is not yet a McDonalds. This island's Islamic majority and tradition would probably never allow that. There are a few signs of South African investment here too and you do hear of the increasing economic influence of Pretoria in the region. Yet there is a homogeneity in the indigenous street-stalls that are dominated by similar Masai paintings and their imitations, which are, of course, not indigenous to these islands and therefore must be tourist-bait. They're all attractive, often evocative, but basically all much the same. Part 2: Masai men have come here to Zanzibar in numbers and full tribal garb to sell their paintings and trinkets. Not all of these fellows are genuine. Some local hawkers put on Masai gear to boost their sales. Some have suspiciously good spoken English. Those more likely to be genuine have heavy traditional charms attached to their ear-lobes so that the outer rim of the lobe comes adrift, without tearing, from the ear leaving a open gap like a keyhole. I got chatting to one guy who seemed genuinely interested in this foreigner. He was from Arusha in the north and had come, with his brothers and cousins, because constant drought meant that they could no longer survive by keeping cattle. Then, politely, he excused himself to fetch from beneath his draped garments, his ringing mobile, which I recognised as a top-range Nokia. Sunday Mass at St Joseph's Cathedral was another surprise. I did not know that there were Catholics on this very Islamic island, still less a cathedral. At am, already hot and sticky, a congregation of about 100 gathered, of whom about 70 were women, mainly South Asians. There was only one other European; from the sore red forearms and neck, another tourist, not an expat, I guessed. The muezzin called to prayer from his minaret about an hour before the bells rang in the neo-Gothic, stained and peeling RC cathedral. As Mass ended, the bells of the Anglican cathedral down the road began to ring in turn. The hawkers headed towards their pitches and the temperature rose steadily into the high 30s. There is a certain order about the place, much more evident than back in Dar. You see no beggars and no evidence of street-kids. Large groups of boys and young men on the shore do not intimidate as they might in Dar and Nairobi (there are, though, warnings of night-time muggings). They shriek as they dive off the wharves into the impossibly azure ocean and then will suddenly drop to their knees to face Mecca at the appointed time. After dark the waterfront Forodhani Gardens, dingy and litter-blown by day, transforms itself into a vast fast-food operation. Great preparations are made and huge amounts of kebabs on skewers are piled high beside crabs, enormous prawns and kingfish, straight from the ocean. Clearly, the vendors expect good business. The scene is lit mostly by the cooking fires of smoky charcoal; your senses savour the scene as vendors noisily commend their fare and as the charcoal smoke mingles with the garlic, cardamom and caraway of this, the Spice Island.
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