Five days ago, after an hour-long, sweaty commute by foot, daladala (local bus, usually a converted Japanese van) and bajaj (slow-moving three-wheeled motorized rickshaw) I set foot in my Dar es Salaam office for the second time in this whole adventure. My project manager, just back from vacation, was waiting for me.
“So, I’ve been here a month, and I’ve done all of this stuff, but I barely know Dar es Salaam,” I told her.
“You’ve been here a month?”
“Yeah, I have! I just noticed that myself this morning. It’s the eighth.”
She quickly added up the dates in her head and made a hand gesture, drawing a tally mark on an invisible wall.
“One down!” I said.
One month of this big, colourful (approximately) twelve-month adventure down, eleven to go. One month down, and I haven’t been robbed, I haven’t been deported (although I did, blunderingly, leave the country on a single-entry visa and have to pay again to re-enter) and I haven’t had malaria (although I did get food poisoning from a really foul chicken sandwich at a branch of an American-style fast food chain — live and learn). I haven’t sent most of the Christmas presents I bought in Zanzibar and Kampala. I also haven’t written very much, at least not in this space. So forgive me if this one entry starts to sound like one of the Russian novels I brought but haven’t read, as I try to narrate my travels through Zanzibar, Kampala, Kigali and Bagamoyo.
Stone Town Story
Zanzibar. It almost sounds like a three-syllable myth. Like Timbuktu or Siberia. I think the first time I heard the word “Zanzibar” it was on a kids’ cartoon show where they were reciting an African-themed alphabet song — “Z is for zebras and Zanzibar, can’t forget about Zanzibar…” It was just a funny word. The second time I heard about it was when I was 20 or so, reading Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Shadow of the Sun (inspired by real events) when the Polish reporter and his colleagues talk their way into landing a plane on the island to cover the Zanzibari revolution of 1963, then talk their way on to a boat off the island, then end up on the uninhabited end of the same island — out of reach of anything — rather than mainland Tanzania. It’s a tense, funny, swashbuckling story that might have actually happened. Kapuscinski called the island “a sad, dark star; a grim address,” which, on the surface, seems very hard to reconcile with the verdant party island I set foot on 50 years later. The third time I saw the word “Zanzibar” was probably on the label of a jar of cloves or vanilla extract. It’s one of those places that you hear about as a child at storytime, a place filled with witches or talking animals or forbidding weather, and only later find out is a real place, where people have been living, working, visiting and going to school every day for centuries. If you live in Dar es Salaam (as I technically do, even though I will have spent four nights in the shared Cuso flat in Dar by the time my first month in East Africa is over) Zanzibar is as close as a bus or cab ride downtown and a two-hour ferry ride across the strait.
The historic hub of Zanzibar is Stone Town, which reminds me of a sun-bleached Vieux-Québec or Sarajevo or the historical centre of a European town…really, of anywhere constructed before the invention of the car. It’s an impossible yarn ball of winding alleys which motorcyclists, taxi drivers and bicyclists careen through, honking before rounding a corner, scattering cautious locals, oblivious tourists and skinny, streetwise cats and chickens. When you least expect it, you come upon quiet courtyards and elegant arabesque patterns on stone balconies and wooden doors.
Unlike other African cities I’ve stayed in (and unlike a lot of North American cities) Zanzibar has a lot of green space. On one end of Stone Town, on the water’s edge, there are the elegant, Arab-designed Forodhani Gardens, where local families and tourists both drift during the evening to sample some street food at the night market (squid and lobster masala kebabs, a spicy soup made with mango juice and falafel, and a calzone-like thing called a Zanzibar pizza are some of the highlights) and watch the local equivalent of Friday Night Lights — crews of local teenage boys do synchronized dives into the harbour, demonstrating graceful front 360s, belly or back flops with a shout of self-deprecating laughter and everything in between. Near the Forodhani Gardens are a few elegant, light-coloured, sea-burnished, softly disintegrating wood and stone buildings that have been turned into museums or art galleries. One of them houses a music academy, where students and teachers play Zanzibari fusion music (a bit Arabic, a bit African, a bit reggae) a few nights a week for the tourists. On the other side, there are the quiet, steamy Victoria Gardens, where mango sellers wearing long Islamic veils gather and chat under the shade trees and elegant older men feed scraps of their lunch to the stray cats.
Between the two parks is where they send the tourists, a winding stretch lined with restaurants, cutesy cafés with wi-fi and English menus, and air-conditioned curiosity shops — not to mention the Freddie Mercury house, which is actually where the singer grew up, and which has not, surprisingly, been turned into a museum yet. Anyone who looks like a tourist will get trailed by souvenir sellers, taxi drivers, tour guides, the occasional teenager looking to practice English or Italian, and…a few random guys in Rasta attire who are probably a bit mad. I admit I went all in on the whole « tourist » thing, going on a guided tour to a spice farm to watch a guide shave cinnamon bark from a tree, and going on an outlying island tour on Christmas Day in a dhow with a rounded bottom that tipped perilously at every wave. Thanks to my marine safety training (or possibly just my innate common sense) I grabbed a life jacket from under the seat, figured it out surprisingly quickly and cinched it tight. No one else did, and I thought of the safety director on the Aquarius and how he would have bawled them all out. We arrived unscathed on the beach, and when I realized there wasn’t actually much to do on that island, I took off my trousers and belt and jumped into the bathwater-warm Indian Ocean. I wandered back to the youth hostel and started chatting with an Australian civil servant on holiday — we wandered down to the waterside, had fresh watermelon juice, and then went back to an Indian restaurant for palak paneer and cardamom ice cream — cardamom being another spice that’s fresh and abundant in Zanzibar. So that was Zanzibar, and that was Christmas.
The traces of slavery
Another important thing to remember about Stone Town: the city was home to one of the world’s last slave markets, which only formally closed in 1873. On the site now stand an old Anglican cathedral, a guesthouse and one of the holding pens where captured slaves used to await sale or onward transportation. Before you arrive at the holding pens, you pass through a chilling exhibit where excerpts from former slaves’ biographies or transcribed oral histories are written on panels. Slaves were captured from central Africa and pressed into forced labour in a long list of industries, from rubber to cloves to domestic service to the transport of ivory, which was later used to make luxury items like piano keys, billiard balls and little decorative boxes, decorating the London or Paris drawing rooms of people who probably didn’t know or care about the blood — human and elephant — that went into their toys. As I walked through the exhibit, talking to a Belgian doctoral student in migration studies who I’d met at a concert the night before, a French boy of about six or seven was behind us with his father. “Papa, c’était qui les méchants? C’était qui les méchants?” he demanded, in that insistent way little kids do. “Who were the bad guys, daddy? Who were the bad guys?”
One of the panels, quoting from an abolitionist memoir, had what I see as a pretty good answer: “The man of civilization condemns with indignation the barbarisms of the Arab slaver, but let the white man pause and think for one moment and he will realize how deeply he himself is implicated…who is the purchaser of the costly elephant tusk?”
C’était qui les méchants? Millions of people — from those who bought slaves, to those who transported them, those who bought them, those who bought the goods they made and those who turned a blind eye.
“The threat of extreme punshment and the certainty it would be carried out was critical to maintain control,” the panels continue (I photographed some of them). “Many adult slaves were chained and yoked together to prevent them escaping. They often carried heavy cargo long distances over challenging terrain.” The old, the young, the sick, the weak and any who couldn’t carry their assigned loads were quite simply left by the side of the road, like rotted wood, to die of exhaustion, to be eaten by wild animals or, nearer the coast, to be carried out to sea.
Once they had made it to market, “they were cheap. An adult cost two yards of common cloth, a child one yard. They were urged forward on the march like cattle, beaten about the face and head.” Children, especially girls, were felt up and made to trot up and down like horses.
And then there were the holding cells – fifty to seventy people were forced to stand for hours in this.
I was immediately reminded of Libya.
I’ve never been to Libya, but for three months in 2016, I worked aboard the Aquarius, a rescue ship that assisted migrants in distress in the Mediterranean. Many, perhaps most, of the men and women we pulled, dripping and nearly dead weight from exhaustion, up that metal ladder were survivors of forced labour. A number of the women had been trafficked for sex — or were about to be. Women and men told heartbreaking, distressingly consistent stories of being forced to sit in dark holding pens exactly like the one above, sharing one chapati or a bit of spaghetti and a small bottle of water between four people. They would be taken out to work in Libyan homes, and often beaten. More frequent than forced labour was extortion — they would be held for ransom and beaten when their families couldn’t be reached or couldn’t pay. Then they would be taken on a forced march — sound familiar? — and herded on to unseaworthy boats. “It’s sad, because they’re Africans like us, and they treat us like goods for sale,” an 18-year-old kid told me.
“I was a car washer, and even when they paid us, they threatened us with weapons,” someone else commented.
Perhaps the best thing about the museum is that it doesn’t try to present “the slavery era” as a pat historical myth with a beginning, a middle and an end like, say, the Second World War. “This happened, and it was horrible, and many people died, but it’s over now because the good guys won in X year. Thank you for coming.” No, not here. It does acknowledge the tens of millions of people in present-day forced labour. Amnesty International and CNN have documented slave auction activity in Libya as recently as 2017. Slavery may be the stuff of museum exhibits in much of the world, but it is by no means over.
To be continued.