One of the 1001 Night Stories – Zanzibar, Tanzania

One of the 1001 Night Stories
Zanzibar, Tanzania

That night’s boat trip from Stone Town in Zanzibar to Mkoani in Pemba was one of the lesser 1001 Nights stories. Although I had bought a first-class ticket, it was uncomfortable. Mainly, I felt very self-conscious.

The whole boat consisted of men in long white robes with their wives veiled in bui-bui and their crying children staring at me. (I never got used to people staring, pointing and calling me names while traveling in Africa.)

Looking for the toilet, I went the wrong way and got myself in the lower deck where people were sitting and lying on the floor, probally third class. The smell was more disgusting than upstairs and the display was like a slave caravan.

The name “Zanzibar” was reason enough for me to come. Pemba is a part of the Zanzibar archipelago. The main island has taken the name, the admiration, the tourists, the money and the best architecture, leaving Pemba its forgotten partner – a good reason for me to visit.

There’s not much to do, but to do nothing. I could have easily hung out in the hammock from dawn until dusk. I had accommodations in Mkoani, on a hill. Every evening, lying in the hammock, I saw the sun go down in the ocean through the palm leaves.

Hot and humid – sweaty and sticky – mozzies galore. They are inside, outside, everywhere. Dying of malaria was only an annoying thought. Paranoid I was about the voodoo or other black magic, a random Pemban witchdoctor might practise on me. Pemba is known for its dark secrets. (But we have Harry Potter and he has his Nimbus Two Thousand!)

Then there was the possibility of fragmenting my skull. I had banged my head against the ceiling a hundred and three times too many, while the kids in the vehicle were vomiting everything. Believe me, these journeys are long-suffering. Going 60 m.p.h. in a converted pick-up truck on the solitary, undeveloped, potholed, bumpy, dusty two-way cliff road can give you heart failure. Allah is great. So is our world. I would like to see more of it, tafadhali!

The local transport operates sporadically, as well as the opening times of the four shops in Mkoani. I suffered from dehydration waiting for Muhammed, Abdul, Ali or Omar to come back from praying so I could buy a bottle of maji. I could also have suffocated during the night from the heat – the fan not working. There’s no electricity at nighttime. The island operates on a big generator which is turned off from seven in the evening until the next morning.

After three days in Mkoani (and getting lonesome), I visited Chake Chake, Pemba’s main town to find out there was no internet (there was one holy personal computer, if you could afford it). I went north to Wete. I had kind of made up my mind to reach Mombasa, Kenya, by crossing the ocean. (Little did I know it would be Titanic-style.)

This is not a legal route for foreigners. There are no passenger ships. Dhows, traditional wooden sail boats, are the only option. I inquired around with locals about the safety and about the shipwreck stories. I got various answers.

I might die/I might live
From five hours/to 16 hours
The sea is still/The sea is rough
No problem/Big problem

It was a tough decision.

In the meanwhile, I really wanted to get off the island. Pemba stunk! Was it the fish? Was it the mangrove swamps? Was it the people?

I got into Wete on Saturday afternoon. I inquired for boats at the port. They told me there might be a cargo dhow the next day. I came back on Sunday morning waiting for any dhow to sail off. Dhows to Kenya hadn’t reported themselves yet and the only one leaving was to Tanga, on mainland Tanzania.

I was at the port again on Monday morning. The man at the port entrance saw me coming. “Aah, Mombasa, leo iko, saa nne.” Great! Ten o’clock. I went to collect my bags from the hotel, said kwa heri to a couple of nice locals I had met and stepped on board into a new journey.

It didn’t feel like the year 2003. This transportation mode was very authentic. (Nothing like our European classic sailboats.) There were about 30 more Africans on board – men, women and children. We sat or lay down on the dirty wooden surface of the dhow. Everything stunk. The dhow looked overloaded with cargo goods, but I was paying five dollars for the trip. Could I complain?

I wanted to take pictures. It wouldn’t have been appropriate, though, and I was already the center of attention. I don’t think I have to describe the toilet as there was none. After a couple of hours, the wind got stronger, the waves more huge. The sailors began to scoop and throw buckets of water out of the dhow.

For three hours, my head didn’t come out of the plastic bag. Others kept vomiting onto the floor – a normal thing to do. I had never been so scared of dying.

The dhow trip lasted 20 hours! We arrived in the morning at Shimoni seaport. I felt so relieved. Had we really survived this passage? I promised never to do this again.

At Shimoni, about 100 kilometers south of Mombasa, we had to wait for the immigration officer. I got my passport stamped quickly. A couple of hours later I arrived in Mombasa with the Matatu, the Kenyan version of the dalla dalla in Tanzania. There’s no limit to this transport – not for passengers nor for speed.


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