Portrait of a writer’s block

Writers’s block has its truths. But most of the time its stems the frustration that perhaps the intention of the words may never be received as intended. Even worse, never fall on those very ears.

Writer’s block is the scapegoat for the blank that has colonized my blog since that last post from Kigali. Many breathes have been taken since: The incense of defeat. Many miles have been dotted.  Many faces are jumbled up with names and places in the vaults of my memory.

Often nostalgia cripples my attempts to relieve that journey.

Then…A day like today confronts me. And I realize that I have been unkind to the process. Unkind to the purpose of those 11.75 months.

And perhaps instead of funneling all my writing into complicating otherwise simple emails, I will venture to animate with prose, ever so beautifully as I once did, the portrait of those 11.75 months.

 

 

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La Liberté

…meanwhile, in Gisenyi, Rwanda La Liberte

oh feuille d’air
vous qui porte mes semelles .
Luttez avec la gravité,
tourner dans le vent.
Me récompense avec la liberté,
sur la terre et sous l’eau.
Garder mon souffle vrai,
et ne jamais éteindre le feu
qui porte mon âme .

La Liberté

oh sheet of air,
you who bears my soles.
Wrestle with gravity,
turn into wind.

Award me with freedom,
over land and under water.
Keep my breath true,
and never extinguish the fire
that bears my soul.

freedom

Zanzibar

And then there was Zanzibar…

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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.

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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.

Sauti Za Busara

Sauti Za Busara

 

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.

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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.

Octopus soup

Octopus soup

DSC_0721The 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.

Ali Kiba performing at Sauti Za Busara in Zanzibar

Ali Kiba performing at Sauti Za Busara in Zanzibar

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.

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Lamu, Octopus and Ass

A man ties down the mast of his mangrove hewn Mozambique dhow.

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. 

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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.

Crescent moon and star. The symbols of Lamu town.

Crescent moon and star. The symbols of Lamu town.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Young boys kick playing football in Lamu town

 

the Dollar Menu

…and a couple of cents give or take.

It’s not just wishful thinking. Someday, I’ll giving Anthony Bourdain and his Parts Unknown a run for their money. Credit to that is the fact that, akin to Mr. Bourdain’s travel exploits, I too have become a self proclaimed connoisseur (of sorts) of great but cheap eats in the course of my comings and goings.

Eating is the easy part. Try grabbing a hearty meal for under One US dollar. The dollar meal in Africa today is becoming increasingly elusive as food prices continue to soar. By my own admittance, the endeavor of finding this meal requires no mastery. Such meals are simply a function of the compositions of the meal itself and the location. Therefore, if you don’t mind sometimes sharing dining space with things that crawl or if you can look past the luxury of eating while sitting down (for example), you could turn an empty stomach into an nourished one a dollar later.

Dollar meals shouldn’t always constitute an evocation of the ‘big M’ and its mc nuggets, mc doubles etc.

Here is an example of my culinary adventures with sub-dollar meals.

Chapati-Matumbo na Mchicha

Chapati-Cow Intestines with Spinach

Dollar Menu: Chapati, Mchicha na Matumbo

Chapati, Mchicha na Matumbo

Price: 90.00 Kshs   0.98 Dollars

Location: Likoni-Mombasa, Kenya

In a little wooden shack in Likoni, right after you get off the ferry, a man endlessly rolls fist size balls of dough into flat disks; mechanically. There is half a meter stack of cooked chapatis on his right and a charcoal stove glowing in the dimly lit cooking area right in front of him.

Samaki Mkavu, Chapati na Maji ya Maembe

Fried fish, Chapati with Mango Juice

Dollar Menu: Samaki Mkavu, Chapati na Maji ya Maemba

Samaki Mkavu, Chapati na Maji ya Maemba (Fried Fish, Chapati and Mango Juice)

Price: 100 Kshs   1.09 Dollars

Location: Lamu, Kenya

If Kiswahili words meant nothing, one would still find endless strings of poetry in the effortlessly melodious accents of the patrons of Hamza’s little restaurant tucked away in the paved shoulder to shoulder streets in the maze that is Lamu town.

Ugali, Nyama

Maize Polenta with Beef

Dollar Menu : Ugali Nyama (  Maize Polenta  with Beef )

Ugali, Nyama ( Maize Polenta with Beef )

Price: 1500 Tshs   0.83 Dollars

Location: Kigamboni-Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

I was half kidding when I requested, even demanded, that I get an extra piece of meat. My excuse was that great things come in threes. And how was it that I had ordered Ugali with beef, yet my plate had more beans than meat. She pointed out the extra sardines and vegetables that come with the meal but my smile brightened when a third piece of meat dropped into my plate splashing delicious beef stew onto the sides of the partitioned silver plate.

Urojo na Chapati

Urojo (mixed vegetable, meat and egg soup) with Chapati

 

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Price: 1800 Tshs   1.00 Dollars

Location: Zanzibar, Tanzania

I haven’t the slightest clue as to what my meal constituted in its entirety. On one hand, I had a chapati rolled like a scroll. On the other, my spoon was pointed downwards into a concoction of a potato, a hard boiled egg…etc.

 

I stand accused of eating, praying and loving. Perhaps you yourself have thought of my travels and likened them to that very tale of a lonesome Elizabeth Gilbert.  I claim neither innocence nor guilt as I am still faced with six more months of deliberations with roads, time, people and places unbeknownst to me.

Hotel Sardine

DSC_0066Yahya 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. DSC_0093

DSC_0088The 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.DSC_0083 DSC_0058

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.DSC_0243 DSC_0105DSC_0146DSC_0118

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.DSC_0053 DSC_0049 DSC_0009

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.DSC_0144 DSC_0170 DSC_0184

DSC_0199 DSC_0250 DSC_0264At 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.

 

 

 

 

The Vehicle’s Art

As I pushed my way towards the front of the daladala (public bus), I pointed my camera at the object of my interest. There, against the backdrop of a cloudy blue sky, the images of the slain Osama bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi were plastered on the back window of another daladala; side by side.

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Placed side by side as if to suggest that they were messengers of the same word.

I felt a deep sense of betrayal as people piled into the bus one after the other with no regard to the ‘Vehicle’s Art’. 

What place do these two individuals have in everyday Dar es Salaam?
How is it that these slain individuals continue to live in broad daylight?

The clicking of the shutters of my camera further perpetuated my angst urging me to hop out of the daladala in an effort to apprehend Osama and Gaddafi, only to watch them speed off when the light turned green. I look forward to the next time I will spot the same Ubungo bound daladala on Shekilango Rd in Dar es Salaam.

What would you say to the driver and passengers of this dala dala?