Monthly Archives: August 2012

Three Conversations in Tanzania

Port of Stone Town

#1 –  There must be guys like Jimbab on every beach in the world. But here, miles away from anything, Jimbab was the best, the king, the cream of the crop, the salt of the sea. Jimbab was a fetcher, the kind of guy that could get you absolutely anything you needed, all you had to do was ask.

And if he didn’t have it? He knew a guy who did. There was always a guy.

I remember seeing him on the sand, a few hours after we’d arrived at the beachside hostel on the island of Zanzibar. The Baby Bush Lodge was bare bones: a beach, a bed for your head and a bar for your belly – all for less than the price of a movie and popcorn in Canada.

“Hello my friend! Jambo Rafiki,” he said, strutting across the sand dunes the low tide had left. “What do you need my friend? Anything you need. You want to go sailing? We can go sailing. I have a sailboat. Good price my friend.”

Everyone was always your friend in Tanzania.

“How about fishing?” I asked, throwing my hands back and forth behind a shoulder in what I thought looked like a fishing motion.

“Oh yes my friend, we go fishing. I have a fishing boat, for deep sea fishing.”

So not only did this young guy wearing an old Heineken t-shirt and worn-out flip-flops own two boats, but he also served as the beach’s unofficial concierge in everything from entertainment to more personal kinds of recreation, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous island state just off the coast of Tanzania, a little slice of paradise that makes Havana look like Detroit. The place boasts epic fresh seafood grills, the UNESCO World Heritage city of Stone Town and holds the record for the shortest war in history, fought against the British in 1896, which lasted a whopping 38 minutes. You get one guess as to who won.

Jimbab was your classic Zanzibarian everyman who could do anything from wood carvings to commercial sailing.  But at the same time, I started to wonder whether Jimbab’s jack-of-all-trades lifestyle was his own doing or proof of something else crawling beneath the white beach’s soft underbelly.

I remembered walking the streets of Stone Town and the place seemed deserted. We chalked it up to Ramadan, but kept seeing large groups of men just sitting by the side of the road, groups who would immediately come and offer to take us on a private tour if we lingered too long in one spot or looked lost.

The island used to be one of the greatest slave ports in the world; essentially, if you had human booty to sell on Indian Ocean, Zanzi was your Vegas. Back in the day, this place was the shit; a beautiful, multicultural stone city built on the riches of free labour.

But today the place looks different.

When I first saw those groups of idle men, I thought to myself that this must be what glorious beach living is like, hanging out every day by the water and just watching the waves, not a care in the world. Then I was struck by the realities of an economy based entirely on tourism, in a place whose original purpose was all but swept away by the modern age. These men weren’t leisured, they were unemployed, scrounging on the scraps left behind by throngs of obnoxious tourists who use their home as a getaway from the trudges of their own monotony.

“Wow, I could totally move here,” I heard one bleach blonde American exclaim as she passed absent mindedly by a group of beggars.

Jimbab was an everyman because he had to be, out of necessity rather than genuine desire. This was the reality of living in a place the world had all but forgotten; this beautiful paradise jetting out of the ocean.

Take a deep breath

#2 – We were walking along the water in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city and former capital, when we stopped to watch a group of street performers. They were taking turns riving in what looked like a strange dance, moving almost instinctively to an unfamiliar beat echoing from a nearby boom box that all occasionally shot protective glances at. A a woman in colourful clothing was semi-raping over the music and reading aloud from a book into a crackling microphone.

I’m pretty sure I discerned the word “Jesus” or some Swahili equivalent and gathered that this was supposed to be preaching. I’d never seen anything like it before and I’m not sure if the locals had either, because a small crowd had formed around them. They’d go back and forth, dancing then preaching and over again. The woman was tall, fit and flashed a huge smile as she animatedly regurgitated whatever it was she was reciting.

Just then, a man next to me wearing a wool tuque in 30 degree weather smiled then turned to me and asked:

“What religion are you?”

This struck me as a weird question to ask someone on a first date, let alone as an intro line to a street conversation. Come on man, at least buy me a drink first. I decided to play along.

“Christian, I think. You?”

“Me, Muslim,” he smiled again, he was missing a few teeth but otherwise wasn’t a bad looking guy. “I am Mohammad, you my friend?”

“David,” I said. I guess I figured out why he hadn’t bought me a drink first, but the order of the questions still seemed a little rushed. I guess that’s how it works sometimes in Tanzania: religion first, then name.

We sat in semi-awkward silence for a few moments when he smiled broadly again.

“That woman, she’s very beautiful. Ha ha. Oh yes, I like her very much,” he said as he mimed the shape of an elongated hourglass with his hands, clapped me on the shoulder and walked away.

Religion first, then name… but it’s nice to see that some other things are universal conversation pieces.

Seaside fish market in Dar es Salaam

#3 – Late one night back on the island of Zanzibar, I remember sitting on the beach drinking a beer with my roommate Evan. Because of where we were, the sky was glowed and made the coastline glow a sparkling white hue. It was as if someone had knocked a salt shaker across a massive black tablecloth and instead of cleaning it up, had decided to instead pour wisps of cream across it for fun.

Just then, a shadowy figure popped out of the foliage and Jimbab came and sat down with us. We talked about family, life, the universe and everything to the dizzying soundtrack of rhythmic waves.

Jimbab was twenty-one, he was married and had a three year-old child.

Ha, idiot, I quietly thought.

“And you?” he asked.

“No, no wife, no kids,” I laughed.

Ha, idiot, he must have thought right back at me.

Life moved at a different pace here, but I was starting to realize that the same fact applied to just about everywhere else I’d visited. Someone told me once that cultural relativism was a bullshit lie, that despite all the differences we have, some human principles were universal thus crushing the theory that we must learn to accept and understand differences in attire or religion without prejudice.

“In some places, they throw acid on women’s faces if they commit adultery Meffe, how can you say that’s culturally relative?”

He argued that no culture held stealing or killing as a virtue, which is true. This friend told me that because of this innate social code alive in all humans, the West was therefore morally superior  and our lifestyle and freedoms would ultimately prevail over the forces of foreign barbarity.

Okay, I’m exaggerating but you see what he was getting at.

But here was Jimbab, married and tied down but really no different than me. We lived independent of each other, separated by hundreds of kilometers and vastly different cultures, but I realized that our lives weren’t perpendicular, they were parallel. Every morning Jimbab woke up, hustled to make a living, ate, shat, slept and did it all over again. Just like me. Just like Evan. Just like all of us.

I looked up, the sky was brighter than I’d ever seen, the kind of crystal-clear HD view you only get in a place that’s miles from anything. We saw a shooting star streak across the sky and I cried out, explaining to Jimab that I’d only ever seen a handful in my life.

“Hey man, every night in Zanzibar,” he said, not bothering to take his eyes off the sky. “This is the island of shooting stars.”

I smiled, took a sip of my beer and fell backwards laughing into the sand.