Okay, if you have been following my blog from the beginning, the promise of a 4 part blog series in a few weeks and then my substantial failure to deliver that promise should not be a surprise to you… apologies for the lateness of this next post. All will come, eventually. Also, sorry for the mix of present/past tense writing – I wrote half of this post while still in Zanzibar and the other half in Japan!
One of the best parts about the Watson is that things are not locked-in. That is, they expect and almost encourage us to change our routes and plans from the ones set in our original proposals. Things come up, disasters happen, ideas shift, you arrive in places and they are not what they seemed, etc. When things like that happen, you need to adjust and either find a way to make it work, or leave that place for something new. Like I mentioned in my last post, that is what happened for me in Tanzania. Dar es Salaam and Madale did not turn out to be places that seemed “right” for my project, so I turned to Zanzibar. It was the best decision I could have made. This part of the series will just be on Zanzibar, the culture and my life here in general, with more details about the work I have been doing to come later!
Part 2: Zanzibar
Technically, I have been living on the island of Unguja, which along with Pemba Island and many other small islands, make up the archipelago of Zanzibar. And (technically) the area of land on continental Africa that most people know as Tanzania, is Tanganyika. Together, the grouping of islands that make up Zanzibar and the continental land area of Tanganyika form to be The United Republic of Tanzania (Check out Wikipedia if you’re interested in more). Most people aren’t so technical though and call the mainland, Tanzania, and Unguja, Zanzibar… Since its revolution in 1964, Zanzibar has been apart of the Republic of Tanzania. Before that, it had been a state of Oman, and a British protectorate at the end of the 19th century.
Zanzibar, and specifically Stone Town, has been an important port for centuries. Initially (and still stoday) for the many spices taht are grown on the island, most notably cloves and cinnimon. Later, the island was a major port in the slave trade with Europe and America. Now, it’s a significant pull for tourists in East Africa. Old buidlings on the island have been repurposed into galleries, homes, hotels, cultural centers, museums, simeltaneously preserving and breathing new life into the island’s identity – the island seems to renew itself. Finally, Zanzibar is also known for it’s beutiful wood-carved doors, with both indian and arabic influences. Walking around each and every day was inspiring, there was always someting new to see and fall in love with. Because of its rich history, the culture on Zanzibar is unique to that of mainland Tanzania, and sometimes feels like it is a completely different country (or could be). There are English, German, Arabic, and East African influences, all swirling together to create something completely unique and unlike anywhere else in the world. It’s truly an amazing place.
If I am being honest, this place is like a seesaw for me; I hate it and love it. Some days it’s absolute paradise, but other days I want to leave as soon as I can. I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is about this place that gives me the seesaw feeling… I think it is a combination of the vast cultural and lifestyle differences that both fascinate and excite me, but frustrate me unlike anywhere else I have ever lived before (I think I am going to say “interesting” and “fascinating” a lot in this post… forgive me). Living in Zanzibar is unlike anything I have done before or expected to do this year. It’s hard for me to explain Zanzibar… There are kind of two sides to my time here; two distinct kinds of experiences. For a lack of better terms, there are more “local” and more “western” . While the traditional culture of the island is pervasive, there is often a clear western influence that in certain place creates this hybrid of a culture where sometimes I forget I am on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean and not back in the US.
This hybrid culture mostly exists in Stone Town, which is like a different world from the rest of the island – and there are different worlds within Stone Town itself. Stone Town is the most touristy part of the island, with many visitors and a number of ex-pats living in the center along with local people. The center of town is full of hotels and more western restaurants, bars and shops. The small alleyway like streets close to the center are crammed with tiny shops, whose owners stand outside, calling to you as you pass by to have a look inside because, like they say, “looking is free!”. Following the cultural customs here, my shoulders and knees need to be covered in public. But There are few times when I can wear shorts or a tank-top – mostly when I am in Stone Town at more touristy places or going out to a bar at night.
The farther out from Stone Town you get, the fewer and fewer mzungus you will see. Mzungu is a Swahili word for “visitor” or really, “white person”. Most people call me mzungu in a friendly way, but there have been times where, even though I don’t speak Swahili, I could tell the inflection was much more negative or biting. It is nearly impossible to get on or off of a daladala (small vans/busses used for public transport on the island), without someone commenting or calling out to me “mzungu!!”, and after three months, it has become a little draining. It’s this interesting kind of race, ethnicity, and class relationship I have never truly had to confront in my life. — While I have thought about and explored these relationships, tensions, and confrontations through discussion and personal journaling, I’m not sure if I have any coherent, succinct way of expressing how I feel… and honestly, I don’t know how much of it I want to share on the Internet, at least not at the moment. A lot of this year, and especially my life in Zanzibar is something that I will need to process for a long time to come – maybe soon I can circle back and write more about those confrontations — For now, being noticeably different and constantly pointed out, even harassed for my physical and assumed (albeit, correctly) economical differences, it has made it difficult to feel like I really have or even ever could, integrate into the culture here.
For most of my stay here I lived in Bububu and Fuoni, small towns just 10 minutes outside of stonetown. The name “Bububu” comes from when the island had a train (why, I am unsure because it takes an hour or less to drive anywhere…), and the village was named after the sound the train whistle makes “buuu buuu buuu”. My stop on the bus was called “Bububu – Bamboo”. Try saying that five times fast… I loved living outside of the center of Stone Town. It was such a nice break from the repetitive, same day-in and day-out places and routines I and others fell into when in the center. Very few, if any, short-term tourists visit places like Bububu or Fuoni (there isn’t really a reason for them). So, unlike in Stone Town where tourists are everywhere, I stood out on my evening walk to et mishkaki (delicious meat kebab) for dinner. Prices are higher in Stone Town and other resort/touristy places (e.g. a coconut should cost 700 shillings (39 cents), at a resort, they will charge you 10,000. TEN THOUSAND. That’s like $5.50). – it has not been cheap to live in Zanzibar, with food and things costing nearly as much as it would in the states, but it’s been fascinating to live in an economy and that is so tourism-centered.
I visited many parts of the island during my stay. Every part was just so beautiful. My favorite trip was to Michamvi with Anna. We stayed in this adorable little house and the beach was INSANE. I lost my glasses that trip.. We had laid out our thing on the beach, then went swimming. All of a sudden we turned around and the tide was crashing into our stuff! We scooped it up and brought it higher up shore, but amidst the hurry I think I forgot I had set my glasses on my blanket and they got swept away! Jinkies! hahah. No worries though, I brought a spare pair with me on the trip just in case something like this happened… the same frames, of course.
The norhtern part of the island was also super beautiful. Villages like Kendwa and Nungwi had some of the most beautiful beaches and clearest oceans I have ever seen. The blues were incredible… I honestly don;t know if I have seen or will ever see something as beautiful as the crystal shades of the water agaist the clear skye – everything so blue, it almost hurts. One day freinds and I took a day trip over to Changuu Island or “Prison Island”, which is home to a species of giant tortoise, orginially from the Seychelles, brought to Zanzibar as a gift. Some were 130 years+!! Here are some pictures from up north, as well as Changuu:
What else should I mention..? Food! Well, it was a mix of a lot of things. In Stone Town, you can find basically anything you want – there’s Italian, Thai, Chinese, American, Tanzanian, etc. – pretty wide-ranging for a small island. My favorite local food was mishkaki, or kebabs, and chips mayai, a kind of omelet with french fries in it. SO GOOD and so cheap. It’s amazing I’m not 500 lbs.
Every night there is the Night Market at Forodhani Park, which is basically a big street food fair every night. Stands like “Mr. Big Bannana” and “Mr. Nutella” sell Zanzibar Pizza – this crepe meets Taco Bell’s crunch-wrap supreme thing that is so delicious. Other stands sell fresh (and not so fresh) seafood, french fries, fruit, and my favorite, sugar cane juice. Made from squeezing fresh sugar cane, the juice is not too sweet and almost milky. Many dinners were spent sitting by the water with friends, enjoying Night Market.
Overall, I still don’t know how I feel about Zanzibar. I loved the sun and the beaches, but sometimes the heat was unbearable. The culture was fascinating, but from my view, so oppressive towards women and misogynistic. Time there wasn’t this linear progression, but felt cyclical and repetitive; groundhogs day, always. I made wonderful friends, but also found it hard to trust people (more on friends and people in the 4th part of this series). I loved my work, but know there is SO much more I could have done and feel guilty but helpless in leaving. Like I said before, it’s a seesaw kind of place. I have a feeling it won’t be the last time I visit the island… the whole repetitive time thing has lodged itself within my brain and needs more investigating.
In the next part of this series, I will talk more in depth about the Watson-related work I was doing over the three months: working with recovering drug addicts in two Sober Houses called Detroit and Free at Last.