“Shikamoo,” we greeted the old man. His skin was dry, dark and leathery, and he had been watching us with clouded, watery eyes.
When he heard us use the Swahili greeting showing respect – shikamoo, I respectfully greet you – his face broke into a wide toothless grin. He rose slowly to his feet and reached out his gnarled hand.
“Marahaba,” he responded enthusiastically. Marahaba, the proper response to shikamoo, means “I am delighted”.
Two men sitting in the shade of a large mango tree glanced over at us. They played bao, deftly shifting small stones from one hollow to the next in the crudely carved board. One of them asked a question, and the other one shrugged. The only word that I understood from their exchange was mzungu, the Swahili word for “white person” that every non-black visitor to Tanzania hears countless times each day. I say “non-black” because my travel partner with Asian ancestry was as much a mzungu as I was in this part of the world. The men smiled and waved at us.
Hisdori, our friend and a member of the village, introduced us to the men.
“This is grandfather. He is very old,” he whispered, stating the obvious. We smiled and spoke to the old man in our broken, inadequate kiSwahili.
“Habari gani babu?” How are you, grandfather?
“Nzuri. Nzuri sana. Karibu Kizimbani!” I am well. Very well. You are welcome in Kizimbani!
Hisdori led us past the three men and the tuck shop with the bright red Coca-Cola sign. We sidestepped to avoid the many chickens that scurried between the huts and the trees, and walked towards Hisdori’s home. His mother stood in the doorway, grinning widely and motioning for us to hurry up. She wore wraps of bright green and yellow, the cloth around her head matching the one that was wrapped around her voluminous waist. Her eyes shone as she waited for us.
When we stepped up to the house, she engulfed us in her huge embrace.
“Karibu madada!” Welcome, my sisters!
She held my face in her hands and scrutinized me for a moment before clucking her tongue and nodding emphatically. I suspect that she decided I was much too skinny and needed some fattening up. She ushered us inside, where we shook off our sandals and sat cross-legged on a grass mat on the floor.
The house smelled of spices and wood smoke. I breathed deeply, inhaling the sharp, pleasant odour of ginger, cloves, and other spices I was unable to identify. Mama chattered happily, asking questions and making observations, while her son tried desperately to translate quickly enough. Ali, another friend, sat in the corner smiling serenely and surveying the scene.
This was our second trip to Kizimbani. We had been in Zanzibar town for a week and a half. There, we had been befriended by Hisdori and Ali (who insisted we call him “Rastababy”). The first time that we had visited Mama Mariam, she had fed us fruit, sweet potatoes and homemade coffee. One thing that I had learned during my travels in Tanzania: language barriers are easily overcome with large volumes of food.
On this day, we ate pilau (ginger chicken and rice) from a large carved wooden bowl, and sipped spicy, milky lemon grass tea. As we ate, I was careful to use only my right hand; the left is reserved for less genteel purposes. After our feast (“Eat more,” urged Mama as she pushed the bowl at us), we were content and full. It was time to attend the event that had brought us to Kizimbani: the wedding party.
On our last visit to Kizimbani, we had wandered through the village, meeting Hisdori’s friends, gnawing on sweet jackfruit, and learning about the mshamba (or farming) community. We were invited to return to celebrate the wedding of a young couple. Anne and I had accepted enthusiastically, and then had worried and fretted over what was appropriate behaviour.
What should we wear?
Should we wear veils, as Kizimbani is almost completely Muslim?
What type of gift should we bring?
Hisdori and Rastababy laughed. “Wear what you like,” they told us. “Just bring yourselves. You are invited to help celebrate, not to bring gifts.”
And that is how we found ourselves in the village centre, swimming in an almost overwhelming ocean of colour and sound. Zanzibari music, a unique blend of Arabic and African styles, blared tinnily from a portable tape player. Laughter and shouting punctuated the music, and every so often a baby would start wailing, only to be hushed and rocked into silence by her mother.
“Karibu marafiki!” Welcome my friends!
The groom’s father walked over to us, his arms spread wide. His son followed him. He could not have been more than twenty years old. Hisdori informed us that the bride was still sleeping; the seventeen-year-old woman was recuperating from the previous night’s festivities.
The entire village population – at least 150, from what I saw – was gathered on the dirt clearing between two houses. The women were wrapped in kangas, brightly coloured wraps with Swahili proverbs printed on them. They wrapped one cloth around their waists, and wore the other as a veil, a head wrap, or a baby sling.
Hisdori translated the proverbs on the kangas for me:
“Do not envy your neighbour”
“Lucky is she who is surrounded by friends”
“It is a blessing to be married”
The women danced in a tight circle, close enough to be touching, swaying their hips, laughing and throwing their hands in the air. The men danced in another circle, waving fistfuls of money. “They are telling the women that they are worthy of marriage,” Rastababy told us with a grin. I watched the human circles turn in opposite directions, the rhythmic movements creating a constantly changing kaleidoscope of colour and texture.
As they danced, the women held out their hands to us. “Njoo, dada!” they shouted. “Come, sister!” I shook my head shyly and backed away, too unsure of myself to attempt to dance to the unfamiliar beats and rhythms of Zanzibari music. They heckled me good-naturedly, laughing and shaking their heads at my cowardice. As she moved past me, stamping her feet and rocking her body, a young mother whispered something in her baby’s ear.
“Njoo!” the little girl called out. Come!
The entire gathering erupted into a roar of laughter and exclamation. My face flaming, I concentrated on finding the rhythm that continued to evade me. “White chicks can’t dance,” I thought, giggling to myself. The woman behind me placed her hands on my hips, guiding my steps and helping me to sway to the unfamiliar beat.
As the tight circle of people moved slowly around the village centre, children giggled wildly and pointed at me. Three adolescent girls sat on a bench and watched me with shining eyes, grinning and whispering. I grinned back at them, shrugged, and called out “Mzungu chisi!” – crazy white person. The girls burst into laughter, one of them laughing so hard that she fell off the bench and onto the dusty ground. She jumped to her feet, ran over to me, and gave me a high-five, before slipping into the circle and joining the dance.
It was a true celebration. Friends embraced, children raced between adult legs, and people crowded around the groom, slapping his back and congratulating him. I was surrounded by smiles, laughter, banter and singing; Kizimbani was crackling with the positive energy of family members celebrating one of their own. I smiled and closed my eyes, and forgot about feeling intimidated by the attention of my hosts.
I laughed as I remembered something that Hisdori had told me earlier in the day. I could take comfort in the fact that I was not the only person who had felt intimidated. The people of Kizimbani have very particular traditions concerning weddings. The bride’s mother, aunts, and other elder female family members are all present during the consummation of the marriage. They watch all night, to give guidance and to ensure that the husband doesn’t hurt his new wife. The young man and woman spend their first night as newlyweds under the watchful eyes of mother and aunts. Who am I to talk about intimidation?!?
The sun was hot, pounding down on the tight congregation of people. Men mopped at their faces with handkerchiefs, while women used a corner of their skirts to wipe their foreheads. The air was heavy with the pungent – yet somehow not unpleasant – odour of hot bodies in close quarters. The groom’s father passed around with a bottle of water, and I drank from it gratefully, forgetting for a moment my refusal to drink untreated tap water.
In the evening, the happy group began to break up, people leaving in groups of two or three. It was time for us to go home, back to Zanzibar town. I climbed onto a motorbike, carefully tucking my sarong around my legs as I settled in behind Anne. As we left, we waved at the people who remained. Over the roar of the bike’s motor, I could barely hear the words that someone shouted after us:
“Karibuni Kizimbani!” You are welcome again in Kizimbani!
Author’s note: we were joined at the wedding party by Gemma Pitcher, another friend of Hisdori’s. Her stories can be found on the BootsnAll Tanzania travel stories page. How’s that for a crazy coincidence?!?
About the Author
The travel bug bit Stephanie Lemieux at the tender age of two, during one of many family road trips. Since then, she’s studied in Brazil, fallen in love with Scotland, backpacked through Eastern Africa and worked for a non-profit organization in South Africa. She’s also travelled extensively in the US and in Canada, where there is – as her sister so eloquently put it – “a whole lot of damn trees”.