Saturday, September 11, 2010

"After Ramadan, we will party-party"

As I sit sweating in the near triple-digit heat of my third floor apartment in Zanzibar’s historic Stone Town, I’m a little overwhelmed by how significantly my life has changed in the last week. I’ve moved from a steadfastly Christian, HIV- and drought-devastated, mostly maize-eating rural homestead in the land-locked, SiSwati-speaking absolute monarchy of Swaziland to the cultural heart of the sun-drenched, 100% Muslim, Kiswahili-speaking, fish- and coconut rice-eating island of Zanzibar...during Ramadan. This place may, in fact, be the opposite of Swaziland. And I’m loving it.

(Sidenote: “Swahili” is the culture of the coastal people from Kenya to Northern Mozambique, including the islands of Lamu, Pemba, Zanzibar and a few others. “Kiswahili” is the language of the Swahili people. Saying that Swahili people speak Swahili is kind of like saying that Americans speak American.)

After several hours of wandering aimlessly through the winding streets of Stone Town last Friday, I finally met up with Victoria and Jenn (PCVs from Swaziland) and Laura (our Finnish friend) so that we could get lost together. Stone Town, where I live, is the centuries old historic district of Zanzibar Town, and it’s BEAUTIFUL, but basically impossible to navigate. Hundreds of narrow cobblestone alleys wind and weave through ten square blocks of three- and four-story white-washed buildings boasting elaborate Arab-influenced archways, European-style latticed balconies and facades, and ornate Swahili hardwood and brass Zanzibar doors. Small shops selling homemade yogurt, glass bottles of orange Fanta, and a random assortment of everyday necessities line the alleyways at the street level, and brightly colored kanga wraps sporting Kiswahili idioms hang from the balconies above. There’s a constant flow of foot, bike, and Vespa traffic through the alleyways, and every couple of blocks the narrow streets open up to courtyards full of chai masala (spiced tea) vendors, fruit sellers, and kofia-clad men passing the heat of the day in the shade of the stoop outside their Mosques. It’s easy to lose a couple of hours strolling through Stone Town, snacking on street food and practicing my Kiswahili with curious little Zanzibari kids, and I LOVE it.

The only problem is that during the day every street looks the same to me, so I have a hard time getting places when I DON’T have a couple hours to spare. I’ve managed to find a few landmarks to help me navigate—things like “the old man I bought bananas from that one time” and “the place with the G Unit graffiti”—but most of my landmarks are completely transformed after dark. Chips mayai (potato omelet) vendors and chai carts replace the old ladies doing henna and the fruit stands, and suddenly I find myself completely disoriented. Some nights, it’s taken me as long as 2 hours to find my house; I just keep wandering around thinking, ‘wait a minute, I’ve been here before,’ but without the slightest idea of where I am in relation to my house. The last two days I’ve made a conscious effort to practice a few direct routes between my house and various places of interest (the market, my classroom, the local yogurt vendor, my favorite chai place, etc.), and I’ve done pretty well not getting lost. But if ever I stray from those paths, all bets are off.

Being here during Ramadan has also been a pretty unique experience. Ramadan is a sort of holy month for Muslims, and it is VERY much observed here in Zanzibar. The vast majority of the over-five population is fasting between sun-up and sundown, and things like smoking and drinking are extra haram (prohibited) in public. This means that 99% of the restaurants are closed, street food is only available from 6:30 to 11:00pm, and I’m not allowed to eat or drink in public places, while walking through the alleys, or in my classroom. (That includes water. Need I remind you that it’s like a million degrees here?) If you don’t count water, I’ve managed for the most part not to eat during the day in observance of Ramadan, but sometimes I still cheat a little in my house when nobody is around to be offended by my munching, and every day I eagerly await the sundown call to prayer that signals the opening of the markets. Fortunately I’ve only got about one more day of Ramadan to survive because Eid (which they call “Sikuku” here) is coming either Friday or Saturday, depending on the visibility of the moon and the whim of the Imam. (Apparently the end of Ramadan is different in Africa than elsewhere, and especially in Zanzibar, so when Ramadan ends elsewhere it doesn’t affect Zanzibari Ramadan.) I’m not sure exactly what to expect from the Eid/Sikuku celebration other than a wide variety of delicious foods that I currently smell cooking in houses throughout Stone Town (including the chickens that are currently hanging out on my landing awaiting their deaths…it’s funny that I still have to walk through chicken poop to get to my house), but the promise of fresh pastry alone is enough to keep me from going to the beach this weekend.

But, to be honest, I’m kind of beached-out already after only a week here. I’m the kind of person who gets bored and whiny after lying on the beach for more than an afternoon, and there’s only so much snorkeling, sunbathing (and sunburning), overpriced beer, and sandy-floored beach bungalow I’m willing to pay for. That combined with my (completely justifiable) fear of the brutally fierce sun is enough to keep me in Stone Town for the majority of the week. Seriously, who wants to sit through a 4 hour Kiswahili class with a painful, itchy sunburn? Not me.

The girls (Jenn, Victoria, Laura) and I DID take a pretty fantastic trip up to Kendwa Beach on the northern tip of the island last weekend. After spending the afternoon sunburning and building sand castles with very curious locals, we hired a dhow (traditional Swahili sailboat) to take us to Mnemba Atoll Marine Reserve for snorkeling, which was absolutely INCREDIBLE. There was at least 40 to 50 meters of visibility in the water (which is unreal) and a wide variety of colorful tropical fish to swim with (sometimes into…they don’t move), tons of starfish, a school (?) of squid, and lots of little tiny jellyfish that left welts all over my bare stomach. Plus the guys sailing the boat caught a big tuna on the way out to Mnemba and cooked it up with coconut rice and vegetables for lunch after snorkeling, all of which was incredibly delicious. (Even the fish eye they made me eat in exchange for a second slice of watermelon. Totally worth it.) We also went on a spice tour through the spice farms in the central part of the island, which was both educational and tasty. I learned that black, white, and red pepper all come from the same plant, and got to taste raw cloves, curry leaves, cocoa, nutmeg, and a whole bunch of other delicious things that I’m now trying to learn how to cook with. Zanzibar is a foodie’s paradise!

I also took a non-food related trip out to Changuu Island (aka Prison Island) with Tim, Jamie, Jason, Erica (all PCVs from Swaziland) and Laura on Wednesday afternoon to see (and touch!) a colony of giant tortoises (kobe in Kiswahili). Changuu is a privately owned island originally used as a quarantine station for ship passengers suspected of having cholera or bubonic plague, but now it’s home to a big resort (“Changuu Private Island Paradise”) and about 100 giant land tortoises. Aldabra Giant Tortoises are, quite logically, endemic to the Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles and were brought to Zanzibar as a gift from the Seychelles Government to some British military officer in 1919. After 90 years of breeding, there are just over 100 tortoises on the island, including three of the original four shipped over from the Seychelles (they’re each 125 to 150 years old). On average they live to around 100 years, but most of them on Changuu are between 25 and 40 because it took a while to get the colony well established enough to get them to breed (and secure enough to keep people from stealing them to sell their shells). It was kind of surreal being there and getting to walk with them and touch them and feed them spinach, and thinking about all the things that have happened in the world in their lifetime…150 years is a really long time! Also, their skin feels like I imagine a dinosaur’s would, which is really cool. (I guess that’s what 150 years of Zanzibar skin does to unprotected skin. Let this be a lesson on the importance of sunscreen…)

Fishes and tortoises aside, the bulk of my time in Zanzibar has been spent learning or practicing Kiswahili. That is, after all, why I’m here. Zanzibar is such a cool place to study Kiswahili because the language basically originated from the archipelago and, due to the isolated nature of island culture, it still remains more pure (less adulterated by English or tribal languages) here than elsewhere in East Africa. My class, which I’m taking through a language institute called Kiswahili Utamaduni (KIU), is four hours every morning and consists of three students (all American) and two teachers, which means that it’s really intensely interactive (and perfect for attention span-challenged people like me). In my first four days of class I honestly think I’ve learned as much as I did in four months of Kiswahili class in Nairobi, and being in Zanzibar gives me ample opportunity to practice everything I learn in class with everyone I meet on the street or in the market or wherever. As soon as I start TRYING to speak Kiswahili everyone is really excited and helpful and patient with my slow and labored sentences, but practice is definitely doing me good and I find myself much more comfortable using Kiswahili than I was just a week ago. There’s a Dutch girl in the advanced class who has been here for 6 weeks and speaks Kiswahili convincingly enough that I thought she’d been here for YEARS, so I’m pretty excited for the future of my Kiswahili language proficiency.

I’m also LOVING the class and the language. Obviously, I came here because I liked Kiswahili and wanted to learn it, but now I’m remembering exactly why: it makes perfect sense. There are 7 noun classes, 4 completely logical tenses, a total of 4 irregular verbs, and grammar rules that explain the structure of the language perfectly to my rule-oriented mind. It’s not like it’s a SIMPLE language to learn, but it seems to work the same way my brain does so, compared to when I was learning SiSwati, I feel like a genius.

In learning Kiswahili, though, I’ve come to realize just how much SiSwati I actually have in my head. I find myself THINKING in SiSwati and spelling words in slightly complicated SiSwati-esque ways (like adding H’s where they don’t belong) and, occasionally, slipping a SiSwati word into my sentences. It’s kind of annoying (and very confusing for the teacher), but it makes me feel confident that I won’t lose my SiSwati even after being here for a few months. And that’s comforting.

Anyway, I’m supposed to have two more full weeks of Kiswahili here and then move onto the town of Iringa in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania to do an intensive Kiswahili course there, but I’m thinking maybe I’ll see if I can extend my stay here for another month or something so I can stay for longer. I mean, I already have a cheap and convenient place to stay, I like my teachers and the format of the class, and I’m getting increasingly competent at navigating the streets of Stone Town. I’m comfortable and happy here and, increasingly, I’m thinking maybe I should trust that. (Plus when will I ever have another chance to spend a random extra month in Zanzibar??) But maybe I’m just trying to rationalize staying in the land of fresh chapattis and cheap seafood…

Nimemaliza. Baadaye.

(I’m finished. Later.)

The night market at Forodhani (the water front). It's very touristy but still super delicious. I had a wide assortment of grilled fishes, lobster, calamari, and some Zanzibari soup. All for about $10, which, by Zanzibar standards, is super expensive. We've since found the same places way cheaper elsewhere, and I've learned how to argue with the sellers for "bei mkaazi" (the resident price).


Jessica D. said...

This makes me miss Zanzibar. I want to BE at that night seafood market! It was delish!

You would also have been able to experience the spice tour like that before if you weren't totally dying... :)

MISS YOU! Unarudi marekani sasa!

Anonymous said...


My name is Tracie Lamb and I am with Topeka Model United Nations. We donated money last year to your project. I have a question for you. We would like you to be our speaker in March at the 2011 TMUN. Will you be in the states at that time? March 8 and 9. Please email me at