You out there – Somewhere in the world. Planning to visit this chunk of paradise, here is a little taste of the mile high city. Down below, recreational marijuana dispensaries are stacked next to Artisanal Farm to Fork restaurants and Craft Micro Breweries.
You down there, if you’ve been here a little while, here is a fresh look. Stay positive, the rent won’t go up exponentially.
I didn’t know what to expect when I hopped on the chicken bus and headed towards Omdurman.
To be completely honest, I don’t know that I remember the extent of my expectations. At the time, I was somewhere caught between a rock and a hard place. I had spent the better part of 4 days queuing outside the Egyptian Embassy in Khartoum ‘begging’ for a Visa. I even employed my Arabic in negotiating with the guards, and ‘brokers’ that guaranteed a successful visa application. Unfortunately for me and them, my dollars were limited. Every mile I had imagined on my year long journey had a budget attached to it, I absolutely could not afford to flex my pockets any further. You should’ve have seen what my sleeping arrangements were.
I persisted day in and out. Taking breaks by drinking Chai and fried dough on the side of the street.
The lines at the embassy were exclusively Sudanese citizens seeking work and education opportunities in Egypt. And then there was me and a couple of international students from Sierra Leone. My presence, my hair, everything about me ignited curiosity. Many of the locals assumed I was either a professional soccer player for Al-Khartoum or bound for illegal immigration to Europe in search of good fortune through the Libyan Mediterranean coast.
The former assumption was flattering. I had grown up in admiration of the style of football Al-Khartoum brought to the regional cup. Direct and speedy! It was a welcome strong commentary on my physique, I guess I looked direct and speedy. Even Jaffar, the inn-keeper at the the pension where I wrestled myself into sleep, wired on bottomless cups of sugar-tea –chai, had pre-occupied himself with arranging a tryout with the team. He swore that he was connected.
The latter assumption reopened my ears to the conversation about the African refugee and immigration crisis. First as an indication of the humanitarian deficiencies and economic hardships that continue to be obstacles to the development and of well being communities across the continent. Then to the plight of those that flee and the inevitable challenges they face that are not limited to racism, xenophobia and the ominous threat of death and enslavement. The plight of those who are caught between a rock and hard place.
I hopped off the chicken bus, and weaved my consciousness through the masses of people in Suq-ul-Jullut towards the arena. I have never felt quite at home and wrestling has never felt so real. Even the crowd was fully absorbed into the event that was about to unfold. They sat, they sang, they stood and the children play wrestled in the middle of the sandy arena.
Then the whistle went off! And the crowds roared! BATISTA! BATISTA!! The embodiment of masculine strength and physique. BATISTA! BATISTA!
He emerged from a circle of his peers and grabbed two fistfuls of dirt in his palms. He then raised his arms straight in front of his chest and let the earth fall from between his fingers. CLAP! CLAP!
The dust almost absorbed him. It was glorious
That image has stuck with me.
I think about the symbolism embodied in dirt. Whose origin is undoubtedly between a rock and a hard place.
I arrived in Zanzibar aboard the flying horse. A budget ferry that cost half as much as its competitor ‘Kilimanjaro’. That meant that I did not expect anything grand lux when I boarded the purported two hour trip that turned into three. It also meant that the bodies sprawled on the top deck had minimal shock value. Some had crawled under their seats where they sought the sweet relief in an afternoon’s sleep, while others desperately supplemented the insufficient sea breeze with folded newspaper fans. The heat must have been turned all the way up. Despite her shortcomings in speed and air conditioning, there was a kind of bravado with which the flying horse battered the waves bearing northeast towards Zanzibar. It was flattery at its best. I leaned against a rail the whole way fending off wind-dancing rastas from my face; my mouth blissfully frozen agape. My romantic recount of that voyage is testament to my enthusiastic excitement for finally arriving in Zanzibar. I was super stoked.
Immigration officers at the port were convinced that I was a musician coming to perform at the Sauti Za Busara festival that was set to commence the following day. My hair is dead giveaway. If someone doesn’t mistake me for a footballer (soccer) then the next best thing is that I am most certainly a musician. In the name of good humor, I played along in an attempt to get a taste of the perks. Only until I was led to separate room, where I was presented with a hefty government of Zanzibar tax fee that all performing festival artists had to pay. Imagine how awkward that was.
After checking into my off the beaten path cheaper hotel, I took it upon myself to conduct a self guided walking tour. A decision I questioned five minutes later as I stared down at my t-shirt that clung to my body curving out the contours of my lethargic shoulders, arms and entire torso. I was drenched! Completely drenched. Sweat lushed down my forehead and cascaded over my eyebrows. The entire island was cocooned in a blanket of sweltering heat. But not enough to stop me.
I kid you not, I didn’t return to my room that day. When I finally returned it was five in the morning and the sky was dimly lit by the promise of a sunrise. In the course of my promenade, I encountered a young Masai man in ‘civilian’ (as opposed to traditional Masai dressing ). Circular scars from childhood heat branding on each of his cheekbones and an unmissable gap between his teeth informed me of his heritage. He was a long way from home. But he wasn’t the only one. There are Masai men, (No women) all over stone town Zanzibar. And most are adorned in full Masai regalia. Out of curiosity, I approached him to ask why he had come to Zanzibar and how long he had stayed. He candidly responded that he came to Zanzibar from Arusha with his then Norwegian girlfriend, now mother of his daughter, eight years before. Since, their relationship soured and she left him with nothing. He decided to stay in Zanzibar to work in the tourism industry selling wares out of a curio shop.
Robert took it upon himself to deliver me to a variety of nightly entertainment venues around the city of Zanzibar. From Taarab to Bongo flava to Lingalala to American hip hop, there was hardly a genre of music that we didn’t cover. It was also during these escapades that the ineffable aphrodisiac quality of Supu wa Pweza ( octopus soup ) was emphasized to me. Outside a night club adjacent to the Zanzibar prison, Robert pulled me towards a man where he requested five hundred shillings worth of soup. He then told me that the soup would award me with sexual virility, stamina and an insatiable libido. A few other believers chimed in to profess this claim as truth, never raising their heads, deeply buried in their bowls of soup. I didn’t believe them and I had no reason to. “Agata, why do you think all these white women come to Zanzibar and never leave?” Robert asked. “And if they leave, they always come back!” Heckled another man. Later that night, Robert would bitterly reveal to me that his baby mama had left him for a local man; a mzenji. “Just drink it then, its delicious! Since you are not drinking alcohol, why not?”
When Robert had offered me a drink earlier on in the night, I respectfully refused boasting the three months since November 13th of 2014 that I had managed to stay completely dry. (That alcohol free run is now 113 days and counting ) I reluctantly gave in to his request and drank the octopus soup. What a delicacy! I savored every mouthful. It then came to my realization that the octopus was my first meal in Zanzibar, just like in Lamu a week prior. I oliver-twisted my way into three more bowls of soup. I was famished.
The walk back home was strange. Strange in the senses it evoked. Those of mystery, those of wonder and often those of a delightful loneliness. There was utter stillness; with nothing but the puttering of my footsteps. But every so often, I would get startled by a shuffling followed by the blank stare of the sleepy eyes of a man sheltered under cardboard boxes. He would look up but only for a moment before continuing with his posture adjustment. When I got to my hotel room, I lay sleepless in my bed gazing at the ceiling where a wobbling fan labored to whip up a breeze. How could I not think of the four bowls of octopus soup possibly conspiring an appetite within me? How could I not think of Robert and the misfortune of his love? How could I not think of his reverence of Zanzibar and his determination to persist in its habitation? How could I not think about me and Zanzibar? I laughed off the first thought and soon after I was fast asleep.
I didn’t sleep alone. Do I have your attention?
The morning was shorter than the night had promised having woken up a with trail of bug bites running down my shins. Bug bites paired with an unpleasant itching that pestered me in the course of my search for alternative accommodation. My price-distance compromise had not paid off. After a long search that initially seemed impossible, I landed new accommodation closer to the music festival in stone-town at Shylock prices.
Later that night, as Ali Kiba sang, Mapenzi ya run dunia (love runs the world) I reveled in the muddled symphony of love as the masses sang along. It was beautiful. Zanzibar is love. It is mystic. It is a serendipitous place that rocked my world many times. Once on a sandy island that was reborn every morning as when the ocean’s low tide bowed to the sun.
Whats the difference between people and places? Aren’t places personified in the experiences the afford us. Especially those of kindness, patience and love.
Along the Swahili coast, it is not entirely strange to encounter a man bent over, repeatedly waging war with the white and gold sands against a back drop of a crystal blue-black evening ocean. Whip! Whack! Whip! Whack! His weapon; a three foot, eight tentacled octopus recently drawn from the ocean and soon to be dinner.
I had never been to Lamu before. In fact, up until then the town only existed in a vivid imagination drawn up from descriptions that dated an excess of eight years prior. I had also never cooked octopus, let alone eat a full one all by myself. But never say never.
I arrived in Mokowe in a convoy of buses and police escorts at five o’clock in the evening. Nowadays, getting to Lamu is no walk in the park. I am told that it once was. Before al-Shabaab, you could leave Mombasa or Malindi on a bus headed to Lamu at any time of the day. Now, all the buses are required to depart these towns at the same time every day and are escorted by administration police a few miles before Mpeketoni all the way to mainland Mokowe, a couple hundred kilometers from the Somali-Kenya border. The risk of al-Shabaab is omnipresent but life goes on. For the coastal people that ply these route, the extra security is appreciated but deemed unnecessary. I ignored numerous adverse counsel to refrain from visiting Lamu for security reasons. Counsel formulated solely on opinions gaining prevalence with regards to travel along the Kenyan coastline: Opinions driven by travel advisories.
As I stepped off the bus, my face was bent in a grimace inspired by a persistent stomach ache and the discomforts of a journey that lasted the better part of 8 hours hours. A journey punctuated with police road blocks, ID checks and a dirt road that squabbled with the bus. The whole trip, my body was rammed by the bus’s seat as I played nanny to a six month old child that belonged to a set of two.
He had been handed to me when his twin brother needed a diaper change. An affair that concluded in a soiled diaper being skillfully hurled outside the window right across my face leaving behind an eternal whiff of baby poop. My heart sunk to unimaginable depths at this heinous act of littering. Still, the responsibility of holding young Awadh was bestowed upon be me for the duration of the rest of the journey.
A welcoming brigade of starved tourist handlers and porters swarmed in to lay their claim at the jetty in Lamu town. In the midst of the shoving and jostling, in the midst of the frenzy, a hand penetrated the eager crowd vying for attention. A three foot octopus lazily dangled from the blacked hand.
“One hundred and fifty shillings!” Cried the hand. As I fingered the octopus, inspecting her slimy tentacles and body, I cried out. “One hundred! One hundred only!” The hand ushered me to the side where money changed hands. Shortly after, with a few onlookers, I was bent over a golden white sandy beach that bordered a blue-black ocean, vigorously whipping and whacking an octopus to a desired tenderness.
How hard could it be to cook octopus? The answer is that it is not hard at all. Getting the slimy thing clean is the hardest part. The rest is patience, a good boil and a sufficient amount of salt, spices and herbs to taste. A few hours after the darkness of the night had settled in, I sat atop sunshine hotel enjoying the sweet serenade of a muezzin, the glare of the full moon and an octopus dinner. I stared down at the narrow paved streets full of awe of the town’s history. I thought of the indefinable impressions of Swahili culture embedded in the people and their intercourse as they went about their ways below me. I reflected on the slice of heaven that is Lamu ; frozen in time but thawing ever so gently.
In the few days that I spent in Lamu, I rediscovered myself as an ass guy. I herded donkeys, enjoyed the unexpected glam of riding down the narrow corridors on their backs and hopscotched through the passageways scattered with dung.
A week later I was in Zanzibar where my affair with the octopus resumed.
Tough! The essence of the word is illustrated in the bent backs of porters that look to the slopes of Kilimanjaro as a means to an end. In the mercy of the sun, their eyes bloody and their temples throb. Still they march up the steep sometimes treacherous martian-like inclines of Africa’s big mountain with resolve. Their fuel is largely their camaraderie irregardless of the numerous tour companies they are contracted too. Often they thrive ( survive ) on one meal a day that comprises of Sukuma Wiki and Ugali ( collard greens and maize polenta ).
In kiswahili, the porters are referred to as Wagumu (Hard Men/Women).
The town the most hail from is Moshi, Tanzania. Adequately dubbed ‘Mji wa wagumu’: The town of hard people.
Yahya spoke with authority when he ordered his crew to draw in the boat in preparation for departure. “leta boti twende tuwatege dagaa!!” (Bring the boat, lets go trap the Sardines) His sentences were delivered succinctly with a cadence much like the natives of the northern town of Tanga. Every so often, he rubbed his droopy, bloodshot eyes: Wrought with exhaustion. He staggered barefooted in the ankle high waters of the receding shoreline, wavering in obedience. There was a certain permanence to the grin on his face. And it exuded a blended air of optimism and worry when I asked him what he thought the odds were of bringing in a big catch the next morning. With his gaze still fixated on the dead fish market on the opposite side of the channel, he simply said, ” Twende tuwatege Dagaa” -Let us go catch some sardines.
The open Indian ocean welcomed the dusk in a heightened dance of waves as the sun sunk behind a pair of towering silhouetted Dar es Salaam skyscrapers. Yahya’s crew of six fisherman strolled in. They saluted each and rolled up their pants to avoid getting wet as they climbed into the boat. For them, it was business as usual. Every day, right before dusk, they gather by the boat before heading out to fish from whence they return at sunrise to sell their luck at the fish market that comes alive bustling with schools of fishermen, swarms of fishmongers and fleets of fishing boats that crush into each other in a rush hour’s frenzy. That morning, I visited Mzizima fish market and shores at Kigamboni all the while reminiscing on a time that has long gone when I gifted a friend the dread of rocking small boat and the smell of a thousand sardines for her birthday. As I skipped along the shores dodging dead fish and ducking anchor lines I felt a mystic exhortation to check into one of these boats for the night.
A couple of handshakes later I had reserved my spot as an extra free hand and guest on Yahya’s boat without having personally met the man. No currency changed hands, but I gave my assurance that my strength can prevail the night. I rushed across town to my hotel room in Manzese on Shekilango Rd to check out. Rona the caretaker was kind enough to safeguard my belongings on the guarantee that I would check in for one more night once I returned.
The boat rammed the waves as it cut through the water heading for deeper waters. On deck, eight men (including myself) swayed as violently as the boat did. Yahya sat at the back of the boat steering with right hand and tapping a rhythm on the transom with his left hand. His eyes were glued into the disappearing horizon as darkness crept in.
I thoroughly enjoyed the rocking of the boat albeit it being hair raising. I saw it as a welcomed difference from the bouncing on the back seats of worn down buses with aging shock absorbers on bumpy roads. The boat rocked violently but smoothly. It was the kind of rocking that was however, not for the wish-washy kind of person. Ali, one of the crew members had crawled to an empty spot in front of me holding a black plastic bag. He proceeded to warn me that at any moment, a big wave could clean out the insides of the boat. Smiling, he bent his torso over the side of the boat, reached out his right hand into the ocean and emerged a moment later gesturing that he had clean hands. ” Do you want some ukoko? ” ” Do you want some dagaa?” I reached over the boat to wash my hands in the salty water. It was pitch black. The night had fallen.
Sardine fishing is apparently not rocket science. As Yahya explained, all the fishermen come out to sea armed with floodlights and generators. Once they find a suitable and favorable spot, they drop their anchors and turn on the floodlights directing their beams downwards into the water. From our boat, one could count tens and tens of these floodlights scattered like low lying stars on the water. They, the fishermen, then wait until around two in the morning to cast their nets. A couple of hours later they repeat the same process again.
It was about eight o’clock when we dropped our anchor and turned on the generator to power the floodlights. Conversations marred by raucous blaring of the generator ensued. We talked about everything under the stars. From politics, to the state of the rivalry of Tanzania’s premier league teams. Most notably the rivalry between Simba FC and Yanga FC. When the chattering drowned to the lulling of the wavy sea, we took turns sleeping on the gigantic net that was piled up. I have never known a sleep so deep.
At two o’clock, it was time to cast the net. Like clockwork, the fishermen went to work and I availed myself. When nets needed hauling, I was there. When a rope needed tagging, I was surely there as well. The fishermen worked with uninhibited grace.
Arguably the most recognizable African ethnic community, the Masai of East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania) have for ages plied the plains of the savanna in search of pasture and water for their livestock. Today, the urban landscape continues to encroach on historical grazing grounds for such communities as population pressure rises. Many have ceded their nomadic inclinations as the dependence on livestock seizes to be a sustainable source of livelihood.
Their ‘culture’, highly admired and aggressively marketed for tourism incensitivizes many members of the Masai community to trade their acacia herding rods for Velcro billfolds. In nomadic fashion, they seek greener pastures in destinations similar to the white sandy beaches of Diani Beach in Mombasa where tourism flourishes. And for a meager sum of shillings, a willing tourist ( and there are many, local and foreign) needs not travel many kilometers into the lands they call home for a sample of Masai customs and traditional systems.
What is wrong with this picture? Is something out of place?
“…For starters, a culture and people that value relationships and the preservation thereof…”
Back in the day one whispered ‘ Mganga ‘ ( witch-doctor ) with a fearful and superstitious reverence. Their work, their sorcery was discussed in secrecy and brevity: Sealed behind closed doors. It seems like the times have tremendously changed.
The sticks: Electricity and telephone poles are still advertising prime real estate. The same goes for walls and alleys: The Stones. Now the occult have claimed their share of these spaces.
Simple Economics would lead one to a conclusion similar to my conjecture that there exists a handsome demand for the forces from the shadows to tinker with the seemingly impossible everyday life hurdles.
When diligence and religious consultations fall short of deliverance from said hurdles, where else should you look?
Problems this particular Mganga can remedy.
NGUVU ZA KIUME- Male Strength / Virility ….. More specifically, Sterility
KURUDISHA MPENZI- Bringing back love
KINGA YA BOMA, MWILI AU SHAMBA-Home, farm and body protection
KUPATA KAZI, CHEO AU NDOA NA MAPENZI- Securing employment, a work promotion or love and marriage
TASA, ZEENA (correctly spelled zina) NA KUSHIKA WEZI- Infertility, infidelity and apprehending thieves
You are probably reading this and finding it laughable; even pitiful. You are probably thinking that this further advances yet another African stereotype. That of juju, voodoo and other things cuckoo.
Upon your readership, I implore you to look at this with an open mind and empathy.
See it as I do.
For starters, a culture and people that value relationships and the preservation thereof. (that’s a great place to start, what do you think?)
It would have been nice to experience the festivities of ushering in the new year, complete with a midnight countdown, in Cairo. If traveling that far north was not a possibility, I would have been content with spending this day (31st of December) and the wake of 2015 gazing upon the silvery waters of the Aswan lake and the Nile. Sipping on hibiscus tea and… Better yet in the glare of Hurgada’s living moon, I would go swimming in the Red Sea on both sides of the year and … I can only imagine.
I spent the 31st of December of 2013 eating mounds of crispy bacon, drinking whiskey and watching fireworks on Denver’s 16th street mall. It seems like the forces that be have willed that I meet this new year here. How can anybody forge an existence here. In stern dissobedience of the abundance sand, sun and nothingness. Where bacon is unavailable and whiskey costs 40 lashes.
There is not much in this town. Besides the handful of buildings that are a couple of storeys high, the rest of the town is on a level plane, one floor high. A full appreciation of Wadi Halfa must warrant an intimate relationship with one’s own imagination.
I am fully engaged. As the the calls for the last prayer of the day compete for air space. My eyes will dart from one tiny minaret to another. I will sip on my hibiscus tea that I will have ordered minus the sugar. I will gladly inhale the second hand smoke from apple flavored Shishas. And I will tap my fingers to the rhythm of music from my chai vendor’s transistor radio and count the stars in the sky. Who needs fireworks when the sky as bright?
Tomorrow morning, I am guaranteed entry to Egypt. (visa issued today at 1100 hrs)
Until then, I have surrendered to Wadi Halfa’s mystic allure.
It is a ‘highway’ in northern Ethiopia between the historic city Gondar and Shire. It is famous worldwide for its treachery: With barely enough room for two small size vehicles to move in opposite directions without careful hesitation, it is convoluted around the Limalimo mountain with huge portions that are either in grave condition or under construction.
Nothing went according to plan that Thursday ( Nov 27th). My day started routinely at 4:00 am with a languid descent of three flights of stairs from my room at a decently priced pension conveniently located next to the bus terminus in Gondar. I had booked my bus ticket the previous day after back tracking from Debark where my efforts to secure a seat on a bus to Aksum via Shire were fruitless due to an overwhelming amount of pilgrims making their way to Aksum for the st. Mary’s day celebration.
I stepped out in to the murky street where a huge crowd was huddled around the station’s gate. At the stroke of five o’clock, the gates went ajar. Men, women and children flooded the bus station scurrying in obedience to the exuberant calls of bus touts or their forceful yanking.
After the dust had settled, the bus pulled out of the station.
I will spare you the excruciating details of the that journey that was halted hundred meters later when the engine of the bus imploded. The details that would further describe the pains of waiting a couple of hours for a replacement bus that feigned death after half an hour of driving before finally throwing in the towel 100 km from Shire at dusk: Brake failure.
After being left in the darkness, and after chasing down a pickup truck that was supposedly two kilometers away, I made it to the next town accompanied by Dirk (German/Turk traveler). The next morning we got up early, boarded a bus to Shire before proceeding to Aksum where pilgrims were arriving in numbers.
The Face of Faith.
They were there in numbers. They meditated and prayed. They slept under the blanket of the night’s sky or kept vigil chanting mantras and praying under candlelight. If patience is not the chief of all human virtues, then faith is: Decidedly.
St. Mary’s Day celebrations at the Church of our Lady Mary of Zion in Aksum, Ethiopia. November 30th, 2014