Two days at sea
A few days later, thanks to the generosity of the Tanzanians, I was a supernumerary passenger on MV Ndovu, the Elephant. Square and lumpish she lay, awash in the glitter of the morning, alongside a dock piled high with hawsers and containers, an oblong platform with a gantry-rigged crane arching over her deck. The living quarters were deep below decks, like a submarine, but the accommodation there was generous. She had a crew of eight.
After some delay we set out under tow from Ndovu’s tug, Mamba, the crocodile, a smart vessel festooned with tyres and rope rosettes, bumping and grinding against the mother ship as she hooted and cut her way through oil slicks on the still water of the harbour. We passed through a gap in the reef, where the Mombasa pilot boat kissed the tug goodbye, then altered course to the south. Stately as a quinquereme, the floating crane nosed into the ocean swell, pitching and slewing in slow motion. Fort Jesus slipped out of sight, then the cement works and the Likoni ferry, and the wrecked Russian freighter stranded on the north reef. There were a few fishermen drifting by in outrigger canoes, a light breeze and a burning sun. And the prospect of two days and a hundred and fifty nautical miles at sea, in the shadow of the floating crane.
Six knots is slow for a regular vessel but fast for a sea-borne crane, which is designed mainly to move from one side of a port to another. The days passed smoothly; there was almost nothing to do on Ndovu, neither for me nor for the crew—the men on Mamba did all the work. There wasn’t much to eat either; and I found myself yearning for a Turkish pizza, cheese or no cheese, with or without universal love. We played cards all day on deck, cradled in coils of rope, and I chatted with the sailors in an unholy mixture of English and broken Swahili. Then on the second morning we came in view of Zanzibar town, a line of grand houses on a promontory in the cobalt-blue sea. The engineer came up from the engine room to look, shedding his dungarees like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis.
I’d have liked to jump ship right there, but Ndovu wasn’t stopping. Before I got to Zanzibar I had to go to Dar-es-Salaam, half a day away on the mainland. And before we got to Dar there was a little business with a speed boat that came towards us from the mainland at dusk in a plume of spray, tied up briefly alongside a nearby cargo boat, and returned to shore laden to the gunwales with Kenyan goods. There was whisky, wine, cigarettes, electrical goods, flour, lavatory paper and beer. They were destined, so my shipmates said, for the Belgian Embassy.
“Is that a Customs vessel?” I inquired with an innocent air.
“No,” said the captain, smiling slightly. “But it is one of the customs of the country.”
People have to live. It was clear we were not the only ship in these waters carrying contraband. A columnist in the Tanzanian Sunday News had recently suggested that it would be easier to have your teeth extracted than find a tube of toothpaste in Tanzania.
In the end, to get to Zanzibar, I took a plane from Dar. It is a forty-minute hop across the channel, but planes that flew were a scarce resource, and getting a seat involved patient attendance at the Air Tanzania office downtown several days running, then a long, long wait at the airport and a number of arguments along the way. I sweet-talked, I cajoled. Others were offering airline staff backhanders, a few hundred shillings—two or three dollars at the black market rate, but on this occasion my pride drew the line at bribery.
So it was with a certain sense of achievement that I finally arrived on the island three or four days later. There were further delays: although Zanzibar is part of Tanzania, there is political tension between the island and the mainland that is reflected in long drawn-out airport immigration procedures and currency controls. It was late afternoon when I finally reached the stone town, the heart of Zanzibar.
Mr Mitu and Mr Wong
The old town of Zanzibar, known as the Stone Town, is the kind of place that makes urban planners purr. “Vernacular architecture,” they murmur, pointing to the maze of narrow streets, “spatial richness”, “articulation of social space.” The town houses with their courtyards must indeed have been pleasant, the clean-swept alleys fragrant with cloves and ylang-ylang, the Arabs in their silks, with silver-handled swords and daggers in their sashes, dawdling over coffee while their slaves worked the clove plantations in the interior. But these scions of Arabia have been gone for twenty years, back to Oman, or, in the case of the Sultan, to a decorous exile in England, in Southsea. And their houses, well, they are falling down.
The worst-hit parts of the stone town looked like a bomb site. Houses lay destroyed and overgrown, sodden heaps of rotting coral stone, the lair of rodents and giant spiders. Some collapsed houses blocked the alleyways round them. Elsewhere you could creep under mangrove poles where rafters had fallen into the street. The city seemed to have imploded. Most houses were still upright, corrugated iron roofs—now delicately rusted—having saved them from destruction, but they were often cracked and black with fungus, or verdant with moss and clinging vegetation. Sometimes only the carved wooden doors remained standing, where the houses they once guarded had dissolved. Old burial grounds were rubbish dumps; here the dying city interred itself.
For twenty years the houses in Zanzibar have been unmaintained. Who is to blame for this? The government, undoubtedly, which nationalised the property of the fleeing Arab elites in 1964, and converted the stone town into a reservoir of subsidised housing. The houses, designed as family units, were broken up into apartments and let to favoured individuals. The new occupants have done their best, but they can hardly be expected to maintain the fabric of the buildings without resources. As I walked the narrow lanes, sweet dance music floated from the ruined tenements; the new rulers of the city were doing the helot jive.
In the day Zanzibar looked like a city of children: along the water-front hundreds of boys played football, drank sugarcane juice, or danced and dived into the warm sea, carving brilliant bows in the glowing air. Behind them stood one of the few well-preserved old buildings in Zanzibar, the House of Wonders, now an ideological college for the CCM, Chama Cha Mapinduzi, the Revolution Party, Tanzania’s only political party. Further out the sheltering reefs rose invisibly from the deep like dreams. In the evening the lanterns of the night fishermen twinkled there; while other denizens of the stone town assembled in Creek Road for their evening ritual. Prayers? Political indoctrination? A public execution? No. They stood rapt outside the Office of Broadcasting, headquarters of Zanzibar’s television station, watching the FA Cup Final.
The decay of the stone town is not the limit of government vandalism. Public works since the revolution are few and far between, but they include enormous blocks of high-rise flats built with aid from the German Democratic Republic, drab ill-fashioned lumps of concrete rearing over what had been the African quarter, when Arabs were in charge. The East German architecture brings a touch of the chill north to the lush tropical landscape. The same construction team was responsible for Zanzibar’s single so-called luxury hotel, the Bwawani, which seemed to have been built, inexplicably, between a swamp and a mudflat. I discovered later that the swamp had originally been the hotel’s swimming-pool.
There was a more benign influence from the communist world. Early in the morning the Chinese consul and his compatriot, a doctor from the V.I. Lenin hospital, could be seen shadow-boxing on the beach by the hotel. And at the other end of town Mr Wong, last of Zanzibar’s Chinese merchants, supervised the harvest of sea-slugs, bêches de mer, black banana-like creatures, twice boiled and laid in rows to dry, then powdered for use in the glutinous soups that the Chinese favour. Mr Wong told me he had been waiting six months for a China-bound freighter to take his latest shipment back home. He had a lot of sea-slugs on his hands. Now that China was taking the capitalist road, he said, he was thinking of returning to Shanghai with his cargo and not coming back.
But from what I heard Mr Wong was choosing the wrong moment. Wasn’t it said that Tanzania would soon be following China’s lead? There was talk of a retreat from socialism, a rapprochement with capitalism, a new style of leadership. In Zanzibar, particularly, import restrictions had been lifted and goods of Western manufacture were beginning to be seen on sale again. They were discussing how to encourage tourism.
“Ah,” said Mr Wong, when I raised this with him, “maybe so, but here in Zanzibar they have forgotten how to sell.”
“They cannot even sell themselves,” he added.
It was part of the charm. As a visitor, you are not hustled in Zanzibar. In contrast to Kenya, no one tries to sell you anything: there is hardly anything to buy. To a visitor the citizens of the town seem civil, friendly, incurious, happy. Expatriates I met at the Bwawani bar had absorbed this slow joie de vivre tropicale into their own way of life. A World Bank-funded specialist in the clove disease known as Sudden Death, which has been decimating the plantations in Zanzibar and Pemba for years, explained that they were making very little progress in controlling outbreaks. Some thought Sudden Death in clove trees was not a disease at all; it was just old age.
In any case, he said, the clove industry here was doomed because the main market was in Indonesia, where cloves are used in cigarettes, and the Indonesians now grow them cheaper themselves. He had been in Zanzibar for some time and didn’t seem unduly worried; he was looking forward to a long sojourn. He had, in the words of another expatriate—using the language of the colonial era—“gone troppo”.
So tropical decay was destroying the moral fibre of the expatriates, as well as gnawing at the fabric of the stone town and killing off the cloves. But it was all happening very slowly. In the meantime, the coral-pink clove buds still lay in vast carpets drying on the quay, turning russet-coloured in the sun and filling the air with their pomander smell. Nothing was sudden in Zanzibar, even Sudden Death.
It took me most of a day to find a bush-taxi to take me to see the plantations where the cloves are grown. When we got there the clove gatherers were hidden high in the trees, invisible, singing. I found this mysterious and delightful. Mr Mitu, the owner and driver, seeing this, decided that I had a keen interest in botany, which was true enough. The next day he drove me along decaying roads past coconut plantations and banana groves to a dense area of bush in the centre of the island in order that I might see its full range of food plants and useful vegetation.
‘This,” he announced as he hacked at the undergrowth with his panga, “is my garden.”
There was a clearing in the forest. The early morning sun filtered through fruit-laden branches, wild flowers bloomed with dew. It looked like Eden before the Fall.
“Now I will show you why we are called a spice island,” said Mr Mitu.
“Here,” he said, “is a pepper vine. Here is a cinnamon tree. Here is chili.”
“And what is this one?” he turned and asked with a pedagogical air. “It is nutmeg. And this one is betel nut.’”
He plucked a purple seed pod seemingly out of the air.
“Now this one,” he said, “is cacao. Like this it is too bitter. But, you see, if we had a factory we could make chocolate with it.”
“And for sweetness,” said Mr Mitu, “there is jackfruit.”
He pointed at an enormous spiky green fruit, oval like a rugby ball, hanging from a branch above our heads, its bright green integument as forbidding as rhinoceros hide. Using my penknife tied to a bamboo stave we severed the fruit from the branch. It fell heavily, splitting open on the ground, the flesh firm and yellow, sticky and sweet.
Before I had finished a mouthful Mr Mitu was pressing another still more curious fruit into my hand. “You must try this. We call it embe ya kizungu, the English mango.”
I peeled it and offered him some.
“No,” said Mr Mitu, “you eat. I can always eat. You can only eat today.”
He pangaed another mango and threw it down to me. From somewhere else he conjured green oranges, sweet knobbly lemons, dill-shaped star-fruit, custard apples. The fruit overflowed from my lap on to the ground, unfamiliar, irresistible. Mr Mitu had transformed himself from a taxi-driver into a figure of mythology, a centaur, a god of harvests, his hands and pockets a cornucopia of wild fruit.
It seemed that the whole forest was edible. Ants overran discarded seeds and skin, emerging from their tunnels on the trees to follow the sweetness down to the ground. I lay down in the green shade, belly aswill with fructose, limbs sticky with juice, gum, sweat, the extrusions of trees, lips burning with chili, then assuaged with honey.
Mr Mitu spoke. “We live in Paradise,” he said. “We never go hungry. There is no drought here. Our water is good….”
“But—“ He paused, then added: “Tell me one thing. Why is it so difficult for me to get fuel for my taxi?”
Suddenly Mr Mitu was no longer a centaur, but once again a tour guide and driver. The spell was broken, the mythological moment passed. The world economy had broken into our reverie.
“Now,” he said, “it is time for me to say my prayers. Please let us drive to the mosque.”
Too nice to be safe
Later Mr Mitu took me to see the slave caves north of the town and the deserted beaches on the east coast. We walked round the sultan’s palaces, which have mostly been converted to army barracks. We saw David Livingstone’s house, the Persian baths and the giant turtles on Prison Island. Once he had divined my purpose—a writer who might spread the word about the pleasures of the island—Mr Mitu was determined to show me everything. He hoped, he explained, that a tourist industry would soon develop in Zanzibar. After all, what did the Seychelles have that Zanzibar did not?
And Mr Mitu is right: the tourist potential of Zanzibar is alarming. From the point of view of tourism, only the revolution, and Tanzania’s ostensibly socialist politics, saved the island from turning into an extension of the Kenya coast in the 1960s and 1970s. The moderation of government policy in Tanzania in the 1980s—and the country’s continuing political stability—are opening Zanzibar up to this new, profitable traffic in people.
As I was preparing to leave the island I called on Mr Wong again. He was still waiting for his boat to China. In the meantime the first direct flight from Europe via Mombasa was scheduled to arrive in Zanzibar in the next few days.
The vicissitudes of the national airline may delay or divert it. But not forever. Sooner or later Mr Mitu will get his fuel. And the tourists will come. And hotels will be built. And the Stone Town will teem with souvenir stores. For Zanzibaris things will get better in some ways and worse in others. Good luck to Mr Mitu and his fellow-islanders. As its history of conquest and colonialism has shown, Zanzibar is too nice to be safe. ★