Monday, 9 November 2009

Andrew from Zimbabwe

We were back at Macardi camp for two days when I got chatting to Andrew – a driver with one of the other overland companies. Andrew is from Zimbabwe. I asked what the situation was like in Zimbabwe and he started to tell me about Zimbabwean politics and what happened during the elections last year.

He explained that at election time, most of Mugabe’s supporters could be found in the countryside whilst supporters of the opposition were mostly urbanites. In order to try and rig the elections, Mugabe’s lot had some rather underhand tactics.

First, he plied those living in the countryside with food and supplies to ensure that they would vote for him. Those who were suspected of supporting the opposition were either deprived of food or worse, had their houses burnt to the ground (if they were lucky they weren’t inside at the time). Those living in the cities who supported their families in the countryside were banned from heading home. Instead, they would have to let a Mugabe officer know they wanted to see their family and the officer would arrange for the family to meet in a public space such as a supermarket car park where their entire conversation was monitored.

During the elections, people disappeared. A favourite trick was for someone to strike up conversation with you in a bar and casually bring the topic of discussion round to politics. If there was even a hint that you supported the opposition, the Mugabe spy posing as your friend would arrange drinks with you the following day whereby you would be picked up and taken away, never to be seen again.

Finally, Mugabe officers would also confiscate ID off those supporting the opposition to prevent them from voting at all.

After the elections, Mugabe’s officers and spies were disbanded as he was unable to pay them. Unfortunately, they weren’t welcome back to their local communities because people knew they’d worked for Mugabe and committed atrocities. When everything subsided, most of them fled the country in favour of South Africa leaving behind a legacy of people suffering various mental ailments after witnessing horrific scenes of violence towards family members and friends.

Andrew explained that since the election everything has settled down in Zimbabwe. He knows that the election was rigged and that Mugabe should not be in power after losing the election but seems resigned to the fact that it would be better for him to be in power than for the destabilization that occurred in the country last year.

Out in the countryside, the opposition members are now rebuilding those homes that were burnt down and are replacing traditional mud huts with palm leaf roofs with homes built out of asbestos sheeting that are less flammable. My question to Andrew was: ‘In the next election won’t this prove dangerous as the Mugabe lot will merely target those homes built by the opposition?’. Andrew looked solemn and didn’t answer.

White Sands

White Sands is on Kendwa beach on the very north of the island. After our spice tour we headed up there and managed to find enough accommodation for us all. The resort was made up of cabins that led down to a stunning silky, white sand beach and turquoise sea. It was quite quiet as the full moon/Hallowe’en party on the beach had been and gone the previous weekend so we set about spending three days sunning ourselves, swimming in the sea and bartering with owners of the small art huts that lined the beach.

After dinner at the hotel restaurant the first night 4 people fell ill with diarrhea so the big nights out we’d planned bar crawling from one resort to the next never really materialized. Nevertheless, lying by the beach with nothing much to do other than sunbathe, read and swim made a welcome break from putting up and taking down our tents.

On the last day, we arranged for a dala dala to take us back to Stone Town. 14 of us were crammed into the back of a truck and jolted around at break neck speed towards Stone Town. That is, until we were stopped by the traffic police. One was dressed in typical white police garb whilst the other was dressed in army gear. One of them had a look in the truck and to his delight saw it packed with mzungos. As we were paying over the odds (£2 instead of £1 for the 97km trip) for our transport he knew there would be money to be had. An argument kicked off between the driver and the traffic police to the extent he got out of the truck and was yelling at them in their faces in very angry sounding Swahilli.

We asked one of the guys who was sat in the back with us what was going on and he explained that it was to do with bribes. Our driver was being bribed in order to have permission to drive down that specific road and was refusing to pay up. In the end our driver got back in, swung the truck round and took his anger out on the accelerator.

The previous break neck speed had increased to ‘certain death’ speed. It got so hair raising that I ended up hammering on the window that separated us from the driver and yelling ‘polle, polle’(slowly, slowly in Swahili) and we finally slowed down to a more reasonable and less suicidal pace!

Spice tour

Zanzibar is also known as the spice island and for very good reason: its main cash crop for export is cloves.

We were picked up early in the morning to have a tour of some of the spice farms on the island. It was an interesting tour where we got to try many of the fruits and spices we came across.

Did you know that:

- The jack fruit (a large, knobbly appendage of a fruit that hangs down from trees) is the largest fruit about?
- Papaya (the fruit) can help to relieve constipation while the leaves on the papaya tree can help to block you up if you have diarrhoea?
- If you grow lemongrass close to your house it makes a fantastic mosquito repellent?
- Black pepper, white pepper and red pepper are just different stages of the seeds of the same plant and that the plant is actually a vine which is grown on acacia trees
- A single pineapple plant will only grow one pineapple each year
- Cardamom seeds taste foul if you chew them without realizing what they are
- Cinnamon sticks are actually pieces of bark off a tree


The following morning, just after breakfast, we came face to face with slavery. Next to the hostel, the holding cells for the slaves that were brought to the slave market are still in existence. Walk down a few stairs and you can enter the two small, dank stone rooms that have a single slit of light for a window. Around the edge of the room is a ledge where up to 70 slaves shackled together would sit or lie. In the centre was a trench where they would urinate and defecate and hope that the tide would be high enough that day to wash it away (at the time of the slave trade the building we were in would have been close to the shore). It was hot and stale down there when we visited the holding cells with a guide; add to that the body heat of up to 70 slaves, (some undoubtedly suffering with fever) and the stench of shit and it doesn’t make for particularly pleasant atmosphere. Only one in five of the slaves housed in the holding cells where we stood survived; they were sold at a premium as they were deemed strong for having survived.

The slave trade in Zanzibar was run by Arabs and the Portuguese who’d ship slaves to the Middle East or India. They were clever in their dealings with slaves, understanding that by splitting slaves from their tribes and shackling members of different tribes together they would be less likely to be able to communicate with one another, reducing the chance of them being able to create an uprising against them. Slaves were dragged from their villages and made to walk ridiculous distances without food or water to the coast where they would be picked up by boat and brought to Zanzibar. Those that were weak were left to die (weak slaves wouldn’t make much money at the market anyway); those that tried to rebel were whipped and beaten. At the market, buyers would choose their slaves and they would again be shipped to the buyer’s homeland.

An English bishop came to Zanzibar at the time of the slave trade and would buy slaves with his own money to set them free. When the slave trade was abolished, he arranged for a cathedral to be built on the site of the slave market: an alter now stands where the whipping post for slaves once stood.

It was a short but moving tour around the old slave market. Our guide on a number of occasions said how glad he was not to have been born in the era of the slave trade. I found it deeply uncomfortable sitting there in my white skin in front of a black man as he discussed the terrible treatment of his ancestors at the hands of the whites and the Arabs. Slavery may have been abolished two hundred years ago but even so, when you come face to face with it, it’s very hard not to feel an underlying sense of guilt.

Exploring Stone Town

We arrived at Zanzibar loaded down with our rucksacks and with our passports to hand. Since the coup in the 1970s (I need to double check this date!), Zanzibar has been held under the jurisdiction of Tanzania and ever since then Zanzibar has been striving for its independence. To prove a point, your passport must be duly stamped both when you arrive and leave the island.

It was seriously humid. Our shirts were wet through and we had a bit of a walk ahead of us. Ravi led us into Stone Town, a map in hand, his American tour leader impression kicking in. We had a 10-15 minute walk to get to a hostel which had been recommended to us. The walk was an obstacle course of tout dodging. Touts here (like in India) will follow you to your destination and then either ask you for money for being a ‘guide’ or will ask the hotel for commission for bringing you there. At one point we had about six touts tailing us – some pretending to walk casually on the other side of the road so as suggest that they weren’t really touting

We announced very loudly that we wouldn’t be paying for guides and as soon as we arrived at the hostel we told the guy at reception not to give commission (that’s because it inevitably comes out of your pocket because they raise the cost of the room to compensate for the commission paid out).

St Monica’s was a hostel that was built by the church. It was located in the centre of Stone Town where the second largest slave market in Zanzibar used to stand. 14 of us arrived and the man at the reception managed to find us rooms at pretty decent rates. I shared a triple room that boasted three double beds, mosquito nets and a fan – utter luxury after living in a tent for nearly four weeks.

That afternoon we headed out to find food and ate local at a restaurant recommended by Nat’s friend Nick who’d met up with us. The restaurant had six or seven large tables which we shared with locals. The food was excellent and very cheap: Nat and I had the best octopus we’d ever tasted here.

We shared our table with a local couple and the woman wore a burka. It was fascinating as it had never occurred to me that a woman wearing a burka would have to show her face when eating. It would seem obvious that she had to lift the veil that covered her face in order to eat but it was not something I’d ever really thought about. She was a very pretty woman but she didn’t smile and she avoided eye contact with the rest of us.

Stone Town is captivating. The myriad of narrow streets transforms the town into a veritable rabbit warren that you can wander about in just getting totally lost and soaking up the stunning surroundings: beautifully carved doorways, the elegant white wash of classic Arabic architecture, the golden domes of mosques. Every now and then, you stand aside as a bicycle, squeaking its brakes to denote its presence, brushes by you with one or more people on it. Reach the sea and you can watch traditional Arab dhows sail by and local fishermen land their catches whilst young boys in the sea use sticks to hit crabs that have drifted ashore following a change in the trade winds.

That evening we watched the sun set from a typically mzungo bar called Livingstones which was located on the beach. As the sun began its descent, transforming the sky into blazing red and orange, a young lad silhouetted against the sky energetically back flipped as his friends cheered him on. Along the beach cashew nut sellers were out in force, local couples sat on the sands or on the sea wall absorbed by the sun’s final moments, the fishermen continued their work.

Behind the sea wall the stall holders of the night market were busy enticing customers to take a look at their wares. We finished our drinks and made our way there to take a look. Seafood filled the stalls: lobster, crab, kebab sticks of barracuda, octopus, scallops and oysters could be cooked up on one of the many oil drum bbqs and served with chapatti or naan bread. Sugar cane juice sellers crushed sugar cane with lime and ginger to create a refreshing drink and at the pizza stalls you could opt for little parcels of dough fried up with a filling of tomato, meat and cheese and which didn’t really resemble pizza at all. We all got stuck into food and all kept our fingers crossed that we didn’t get ill as a result.

After a fill at the market, Nick, Nat, Jon, a couple of American girls Nick and Nat had met and I went to a local bar called the Prince’s Garden for a beer. It took us an age to find as we tried to navigate through the streets of Stone Town but we got there in the end. It was a sedate affair (it was a Sunday night I guess) so a beer later and we were back at St Monica’s. It wasn’t late but bed was on the cards as we knew we’d have an early 5am wake-up call with the muslim call to prayer emanating from the many mosques that surrounded our hostel.

Mikadi beach camp

At the entrance of the camp are Masai guards ­– employed to protect guests because the locals don’t mess with them. Inside, there are warning signs: ‘inside camp = safe; outside camp = not safe’.

The camp itself is located on the sea edge with white sands and warm sea but we are restricted to the camp beach; step beyond the masai guards at either end of the beach and there’s a high chance that you will be mugged. ‘Beach boys’ as they are known are basically thugs that prowl beaches looking for vulnerable tourists to mug. The result is a weird kind of apartheid with whites segregated to one section of the beach and locals to another section.

Next to Mikadi a massive party was underway (it was a Saturday, it was Hallowe’en and it was almost a full moon) with a local DJ banging out some tunes and trying his hand (nearly always unsuccessfully) at mixing. The beach was flooded with locals and it looked like they were having an amazing time. It would have been great to have joined them but we were told we weren’t to leave camp unless we were escorted by a masai.

On the beach a few kids were allowed into the area in front of camp and the boys started throwing a small rugby ball around with them and we got chatting to a couple of little girls who were swimming but unfortunately this was the sum total of the contact we had with people outside of camp. It was a very strange and very sad situation brought about by a few unsavoury thugs trying to make a quick buck.

Driving to Dar

We had a two day drive to get to Dar Es Salem – the capital city of Tanzania. The drive itself took us through the bustling town of Arusha, by the cloud covered peak of Kilimanjaro and the small town of Moshi, and onwards through the foothills of the Usambara Mountain range. Behind us were the wide dry plains of Northern Tanzania that had yet to receive rains, but as we travelled south the countryside became greener and the atmosphere more humid. Whilst the rains had been late, at least they had arrived here. The ground was redder, thin shoots of green had begun to sprout and dark clouds brewed with the promise of more rain.

On the outskirts of Dar, the countryside changed again. In amongst the banana plantations, fields and gardens, a peppering of gaudy mansions and large estates – the evidence of those who’d been successful in life. The road continued into town and the mansions were abruptly replaced by the typical corrugated roofs and condensed housing of the shanty towns that lie on the outskirts of the city. A small stream filled with rubbish, debris and sewage ran by the small ramshackle huts where children played and out of work adults sat.

The Dala Dalas (small minibuses crammed with people) are king here. Like ants, they’re everywhere, their horns blaring, people yelling, men clinging on from any available hand hold. The roads are at a standstill, it’s sweltering hot, there’s dust everywhere. It can take anything from an hour to eight hours to get through the clogged arteries of the city to the harbor area. Here, mingled with the smell of sweat and fumes, is the powerful scent of fish…and 2pm fish at that! After the heat of the morning, the fish market can knock you for six as you drive past.

We drive onto a large ferry that crosses to the small stretch of sea to the top of the Kigamboni peninsula, we arrive at the Markadi beach camp and here we are imprisoned.

The Kituo Chaelimu education centre

Behind the health clinic is the Kituo Chaelimu education centre. Built out of circular, red concrete huts that mimic a masai village, the education consists of various classrooms, a large computer room and a library. We were shown around by the nursery teacher and the children treated us to a rendition of Lion King’s A Kuna Matata.

I found out that the centre was built by Nottingham University – my undergrad uni – so it was of special interest to me. The children arrive from miles around to learn and are give porridge for breakfast as many of them don’t get breakfast at home. The classroom we saw was well kitted out with the children’s work displayed across the walls.

The library has an extensive array of books that have been donated from around the world. Among them were copies of the Avantage series of French text books, encyclopaedias, GCSE text books and a host of donated fiction books.

In the computer room a class was in full swing. Again, all the computers had been donated. The classroom had around 30 computers all set up in rows behind which students were busy typing away.

It was touching to see such a fantastic set up and when I asked the nursery teacher whether they needed or wanted people who could teach English she nodded enthusiastically and said they always need people who can teach English.

The centre really touched my heart and got me thinking that I might come back next year for a few weeks to teach, bringing with me some supplies for both the medical and educational centre…but I guess I’ll just have to see where the world takes me between now and then!

If you’re interested in finding out more about the centre the contact details are as follows:

Kituo Chaelimu, Meserani, P.O. Box 15707, Arusha, Tanzania