At Home in . . . Zanzibar
Was there a place for a road-weary white Westerner on this bewildering melting pot of an island?

By Christopher Vourlias
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 11, 2009

Ndiyefi narrowed his eyes and gave the man a dangerous look. The silence was thick enough to rest your chin on. Curious locals looked up from their piles of mangoes and cassava and bananas, wondering how things would play out. Here was Ndiyefi, an earnest, square-jawed boy of 17, a hang-about no doubt familiar to many in Zanzibar's Darajani market. Here was the vegetable seller, tall and baffled and nervously grinning, his produce spread at his feet like offerings to some pagan god.

And here was I: the white guy in the middle.

Ndiyefi had walked me through the narrow alleys of Stone Town, moving swiftly through the midday crowds. Around us the market stalls were teeming, a collage of fruits and spices and vegetables arranged in artful pyramids. Already my small market bag was overflowing with the day's haul: rice and sugar and loaves of still-warm bread; onions and eggplants and tomatoes the color of gemstones; spices whose names and uses were as alien to me as the powders and potions of a medicine man. Now we were haggling over the price of chili peppers, and the tension was high. Ndiyefi was slit-eyed, muscling close to me like a guard dog. He would not let me get ripped off.

"You not mzungu," he said, using the Swahili word for "white man." "You African."

I made a little strangled noise in the bottom of my throat and said the first thing that came to mind: "Um."

During a year's travels in Africa, I'd been reminded often that I was, indeed, a mzungu -- a complicated species that came to this corner of the globe with its hand sanitizers and malaria pills and good intentions. But this was different. I wasn't just some tourist snapping pictures of the locals being locals. I'd rented an apartment in Stone Town, the historic heart of the sprawling capital, Zanzibar city. And for the next two months, I was planning to call Zanzibar home. All morning I'd been on a mission with Ndiyefi to stock my quarters with food and cooking utensils and the household goods -- sponges! dishrags! -- that seemed as exotic to a road-weary traveler as leopards and lions might seem to the casual tourist.

I wasn't an African, despite Ndiyefi's protests. But I didn't want to think of myself as just another mzungu, either. I could be something in the middle, couldn't I?

Couldn't I?

* * *

I'm not the first to have come to Zanzibar with an identity crisis. For hundreds of years the East African archipelago, sitting in sun-blessed solitude off the coast of Tanzania, has thrived as a melting pot -- a place that, grudgingly or otherwise, welcomes foreigners to its languid, palm-fringed shores. A traveler arriving in Zanzibar in the 19th century could expect to find merchants from Bombay, sailors from Muscat, laborers from Madagascar, traders from Shiraz. Along the waterfront were ships flying the flags of Salem, Liverpool, Lisbon, Genoa and New Orleans, eager to exchange their New World wares for the island's precious spices and ivory. There were dhows bound for Arabia, their cargo holds full of the slaves that brought Zanzibar so much of its wealth and infamy.

Among all that human flotsam, something approaching a shared identity was forged. Consuls and cutthroats, duplicitous diplomats and mischievous merchants all found a common purpose as they chased their fortunes through the crowded streets of Stone Town. It might seem exotic -- the very name conjures images of Oriental mysteries and sultans' intrigues -- but Zanzibar's promise has always been one of fitting in.

I arrived last fall hoping to do just that. After months of exploring the East African bush, both as a travel writer and a wide-eyed tourist, I was ready for a bit of downtime. Zanzibar seemed like the perfect cure for the travel-weariness that ailed me. The island's history of seduction was the stuff of travel lore; David Livingstone, the great missionary-explorer, proclaimed it "the finest place . . . in all of Africa to rest before starting my last journey." I had visions of pearl-white beaches, coconuts and hammocks, dark-eyed beauties gliding from the waves like sea nymphs. Who knew what romance might lie ahead?

From the deck of the Sea Star ferry from Dar es Salaam, with the tropical greenery scrolling by, it was easy to get swept away by such indulgences. The vision wouldn't last. On shore I was bumped and jostled and accosted by porters on all sides. In Stone Town's winding alleys -- "charming" and "evocative" in the parlance of writers like me -- I found myself hopelessly lost, struggling to find a hotel that claimed to be just minutes from the waterfront. The day was steamy, a blanket of wet tropical heat; the nymphs were nowhere to be found. My island fantasy, I quickly discovered, was going to need a bit of tinkering.

For travelers, Zanzibar has two very different faces. Along the island's northern and eastern shores, where miles of scalloped white sand front the Indian Ocean's bracing waters, it is the stuff of tropical fantasy, a sun-drenched playground of beach-side bungalows, barefoot-luxe resorts, spectacular diving and an easy island vibe best summed up by the Swahili phrase "pole pole," or "slowly, slowly." But in Stone Town, life moved at a frenetic urban pace. The narrow, souklike streets were crammed with coconut-laden donkey carts and bicycles and mopeds and Swahili women in swishing bui bui robes. Old men stooped over their bao board games, chattering in Swahili and Arabic and Hindi. Traditional taarab music lilted from open windows; Tanzanian hip-hop thumped from seaside bars. The call to prayer soared from dozens of minarets. It was Africa by way of India and the Middle East, with traces of Europe thrown in for good measure. I had never heard such a wondrous soundtrack.

My first days on the island were magical, bewildering. Leaving my Stone Town apartment, I would set myself a simple task -- to buy prawns from a fisherman, to visit the former slave market -- only to watch that plan unravel from the start. A few wrong turns and I was on the steps of a magnificent French Catholic cathedral buried deep in the city's labyrinth, or at a mosque with Koranic verses scrawled across its whitewashed walls. I found Persian baths and Hindu temples and Anglican churches, though never quite where I'd expected to. Even after a week of tracing my footsteps with care, I'd be surprised to find that a certain cafe wasn't exactly where I'd left it.

At the market I met a fabric seller named Suleiman, a gregarious 40-something who chatted with me as he propped bolts of colorful cloth up against his stall. He had moved his family from the neighboring island of Pemba in the hope that his wares might find more willing buyers in the bustling marketplace of Zanzibar city. It was a step up from the sluggish backwater he had once called home, but he conceded with a sigh that city life was a strain.

"The people who come here and see I am so charming, they must think I am a very rich man," he said. Sadly, it was not so. Even on this mild afternoon, with business brisk, Suleiman was troubled. Each week the police swept through the market, he explained, confiscating goods that the traders would then have to reclaim at the municipal council office by paying a small fine. It was a somber cycle -- just a day before, Suleiman had spent the equivalent of $80 for the fabrics he was spreading at our feet -- but the migrant traders had learned to take things in stride.

"It is not the first time to have this crisis," Suleiman said with a sigh. He unwound the measuring tape coiled around his neck, took up his scissors, and began to cut lengths of cloth with careful snips. I wasn't the only one struggling to find my way in a foreign land.

* * *

"Ukiona vyaelea vimeundwa," goes an old Swahili saying. "If you see vessels afloat, remember they have been built." I had come across this proverb on one of Suleiman's kangas, the colorful, all-purpose cotton wraps worn by women throughout East Africa. Each kanga has a saying printed along its hem -- many salacious quips on love and marriage, others gentle rebukes like this one, suggesting that nothing is accomplished in life without work. Wise words, I thought, as I stumbled over my Swahili and fumbled down Stone Town's twisting corridors. Zanzibar might come to accept me as one of its own, but no one said it would be easy.

It was in the kitchen that I came closest to achieving my goal. With the markets full of fresh produce and seafood, and with the tempting aromas of an archipelago that's also known as the Spice Islands beckoning from my cupboard, I armed myself with a trusted cookbook, "A Taste of Zanzibar," and tackled the island on my own terms. Each night I labored, stir-fried, strived. Prawns massala and fish curry and octopus stew accented with coconut and cardamom and cumin. There was something inspired in the air when I began to slice and dice and spice away all the cares of my homeless heart. Let the touts harass me with their cheap batiks and bangles, let the fishermen quote me tourist prices as I ogled their oversize crustaceans. I would cook a feast fit for a sultan! I would show them all!

Disappointment, when it came, was quite literally hard to swallow. When I overcooked the vegetable curry, I was crushed. When my coconut rice came out in a thick, flavorless paste, I was distraught beyond words. I felt as if I had let the island down.

Luckily, the island was forgiving. One afternoon I came across a crowd gathered on the waterfront, where a massive dhow lay on the beach with its prow proudly pointed out to sea. The boat had been built for a wealthy local merchant, and now, as tradition dictated, there would be a small ceremony launching it into the ocean. I circled the hull and saw the owner basking in the sunlight: an old Arab, prune-faced and grinning, receiving the congratulations of neighbors and friends. It had taken two months and many thousands of Tanzanian shillings for the boat to be built. Now, on the cusp of its maiden voyage, pride and joy lit the owner's features. Spirits were high as the crowd muscled up to the hull. The men lowered their shoulders and planted their feet; laughter rang out; tourists circled the boat, cameras at the ready.

Suddenly a space cleared, and a man gestured for me to join them. I balked and apologized, afraid I might make a fool of myself. He grabbed me by the hand. Wedged between two young boys in swimming trunks, I began to push and strain with the others. There were grunts and curses and good-hearted cheers as the boat slowly slid along a track of mangrove poles and launched effortlessly into the water. Applause went up on all sides; joyful exultations were sung toward the sea. We stood there in the dazzling sunlight, clasping one another's hands in appreciation of what we had done together.

* * *

Life in Zanzibar has a charmed sort of magic for a traveler; spend enough time here and you'll be invited into some artisan's shop for a cup of sweet Swahili coffee, or onto a fisherman's rickety dhow to spend the night at sea. Or you'll find yourself -- as per every great island-travel narrative -- dancing on the beach by moonlight to the strains of "One Love."

Yet many of modern Africa's ills afflict Stone Town: high rates of HIV, soaring unemployment, overcrowding and a not insignificant heroin problem among some of the city's disillusioned and disaffected youths. During my stay, many complained about the harried pace of island life and the rising cost of living. "People used to cook big pots of food, and anyone would come inside to sit and eat," said my neighbor, Zainab, as she corralled one of her youngest children by the collar. "Now you just make a small pot. You think of yourself and your family, and you just make something for them."

I had been adopted as a surrogate member of Zainab's extended clan, and in the days before I left, she would welcome me into her home to eat with her clamorous brood. Zainab presided over the scene with skill and deftness, shepherding the kids around the living room and answering my questions about life in Zanzibar while keeping a wary eye on the oven. When she prepared food in the kitchen, her fingers danced over the meats and spices like a concert pianist's. I could imagine that house literally being built around her, the walls and mangrove poles laid across her broad shoulders while she performed the rites of the hearth with all the uncomplaining resilience of African motherhood.

If only I could claim the same mastery for myself. After two months, despite Ndiyefi's insistence, I didn't feel any more African than when I'd arrived. But in some small ways, I thought I'd come closer to making a home of my adopted home. I'd finally mastered the baroque twists and turns that brought me from my doorstep to that favorite cafe. And I'd picked up a bit of Swahili, too -- just enough to exchange pleasantries with the neighbors and to negotiate prices at the market that seemed slightly less mzungu. With time, I thought, I'd be dispensing directions to map-toting tourists and sharing colorful anecdotes of sultans past.

Bargaining with Ndiyefi on those first days in Darajani, I'd met a young produce seller named Kombo, a cheerful, smiling, pathologically friendly kid who, I'd quickly decided, would be my vegetable guy in the weeks ahead. Every few days, market bag in hand, I would pay Kombo a visit, and he would fill my bag with withered onions and bruised, off-color tomatoes. For two months he sold me, without question, some of the ugliest produce on the planet, but I enjoyed his company too much to even consider shopping somewhere else. What difference, after all, would a bunch of plump, ruby-red tomatoes make on my pedestrian massalas and stir-fries?

On my last visit he tossed a few extra tomatoes into my bag, offering one final impromptu Swahili lesson as I eyed the eggplants and potatoes. "Kitunguu saumu," he said, sounding out the name of the garlic bulbs I held in my hand.

"Kitunguu, uh, smamamu," I mumbled.

"Kitunguu," he said slowly, sounding out each syllable, "saumu."

"Kitunguu, um, kitunguu . . . "

He shook his head wearily and went looking for a pen. Grabbing me by the wrist, he wrote across my palm in careful, bold print: KITUNGUU SAUMU. I nodded agreeably. "I get it, I get it."

Finally, I was starting to.

Christopher Vourlias is living out of a suitcase in Africa and working on his first book.

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