letters from zanzibar

The Road to Zanzibar: Letters from a Painter 1

Zanzibar Fish dance

It’s not that a person is forced to participate in the local beliefs and practices exactly, but a show of empathy by not eating in public is mandatory, so after about a week of Ramadan a person can start to feel the pressure, my discipline on the path of Muhammad had let up a couple of times and you don’t want to go about scoffing food without discretion right in front of a bloke who hasn’t seen so much as a grain of rice or a salted caper since the night before but at a certain point its hard to maintain the same fervor and commitment to the task when you’re not a particularly ardent fan of Allah’s more ferocious disciples at the best of times, and I’m not entirely unfamiliar with the ways of religious fanatics growing up in Belfast with a daily diet of the spiritual exhortations of the very reverend preachers and the public ranting of the hellfire mob at Cornmarket on a Saturday morning after a less than holy night of hedonistic debauchery down at Morrissons, and I remember a bloke with a ruddy face and a perforated complexion going about with a sandwich board with the cheerful slogan, ‘you’re going to burn in hell’, and a voice that outshone the boys with the crew cuts and the Belfast ‘Tele’ under their arm, and I thought that fellow looked like he’d spent a couple of nights with Beelzebub and all his hellish instruments of death himself but I was more given to the works of William Butler Yeats than the Lutheran protests, and my eye was more inclined to the paintings of Marc Chagall and Egon Scheile than the piety of Giotto and Fra Angelica and sometimes just a glance of Piero Della Francesca would send a chill up my spine, like the minister at church whose face would move in a way disconnected from the patterns of his speech and his forced smile lied like the sound you got when you flicked a cheap wine glass, and I soon tired of the piety so it was time for a few days of rest up North in Nungui to lie naked in the turquoise womb of the Indian Ocean where the women do a kind of ‘fish-dance’, as the sun sets, they all move apart to form a large circle, splashing with one hand, and holding the net in the other, moving in toward the center, one woman splashing with both hands, leading the charge as they converge pulling the nets closed to trap the evening’s catch, it was a kind of ceremonial bonding ritual and they were clothed in bright colored sarongs and head scarves, covered they were, but these village women were not cloaked in austerity like the urban Arab women in full black burqua on the streets of stonetown Zanzibar, these women had color in their spirit, and their glance was charged with the warmth of womanhood.


The Road to Zanzibar: Letters from a Painter 2

behind the veil

The sun shone in its relentless repetition as Mosques rang out the praises of Allah and chants echoed through the narrow streets of Stonetown in friendly rivalry with the distant beat of African djembe drum, and the shoes piled up outside the forbidden holy place bore witness to His all-pervading omnipotence, while women walked the streets heavily clad in full black robes and I had wondered what it might be like to be beneath the veil, and how Maasai and Muslim shared the streets and over layers of time had come the traders from the Indias and the Orient carried by the wild winds of the monsoon, dhow boats from the North and then the Sultans of Oman, and in 1498  Vasco Da Gama and his Portuguese fleet had braved the Cape of Good Hope and landed here to seek the spices and exotic secrets of this paradise and to plunder her for riches, and Bantu people had migrated from the South and others were brought against their will and sold to the ships enslaved, and here today the sounds of mosque and drum beat, the smells of the spices carried on the gentle breeze, merge together in a fabric as intricately fashioned as the history itself, and somewhere in its complex weave is an equally unlikely harmony living still within the laughter of the day.


The Road to Zanzibar: Letters from a Painter 3

Rain in Zanzibar

When it rains in Zanzibar it’s a far cry from the Belfast drizzle of my childhood, Allah just unloads the whole package at once and when the deluge is dropped the streets become rivers and people skip to shelter on one side or the other, women wearing their shadow, and men well turned out in full length flowing caftan, so they all hitch up the length and lilt from side to side like Morris dancers without the customary handkerchief, the robes are kept spotless and the men look like princes when they go to get prostrate at the mosque, but the houses are all laden with centuries of accumulating layers of mystique and charm, that grow on the walls unchallenged by household detergent, in grand stone buildings laced with intricate carving, proud like the Sultans of Oman, and harboring the handiwork of the masters of Persian antiquity, doors fit for a glass case at the British Museum but decorated with kitsch photographs of fluffy white pussy cats and tablecloths with a plastic print of a basket of flowers on a grassy lawn, William Morris would sob – factory produced goods are prized here where handcrafted originals are common place, and strangely  I like to have my coffee at Emerson and Green’s place where a couple of blokes from San Francisco have respected the Omani intentions in the restoration of their hotel on Hirumzi street and though I generally prefer to get a fresh roasted coffee for 20 shillings and hang with the locals at Jaw’s corner in the heart of Stonetown, now and again I will pay 800 for a lesser brew, just for a quiet hour or two of classical music and to be clothed in the consummate visual poetry of the Sultans, who weren’t known for respecting human rights and liberty for all men created equal in the eyes of Allah, or any other holy being, but they could certainly tie a few colors together in a fine tapestry, and they knew something about an arch or two sensitively distributed, and they were familiar with the glory of a heavy wood stair, draped with folds of soft hand-woven fabrics pouring through its well, in counterpoint to the weight of the structure, finished with some fine carving in the details here and there, and every society needs to change the structure of its powerful elite now and again to restore a little equality and justice, but if only it could be done without eliminating the bourgeoisie, thus risking the extinction of an endangered species, the ‘gifted in taste’.


The Road to Zanzibar: Letters from a Painter 4

Memories of Arusha -

Daniel Singanola whittled away at the ebony log clamped precariously between his unshod feet, there beneath the baobab tree near Malabwe village and in his work the memory would fade of his younger brother who met his untimely end at the mouth of a hippopotamus, but almost everyone I met had lost a sibling to one of the more stealthy predators, the mosquito and the HIV virus, but Daniel was different from the other carvers, more consumed and dedicated to his task, and there was a warm humanity in his heads that set them apart from the rest, and as he worked his log, man and tool were one, and though there were days in the hot sun without food or drink, there was a pride in his craftsmanship and when I watched the loose rhythm of his blade and the precision of the stroke as it chaffed through the turning log I thought of the Mexican bloke who had cut the marble pieces at Xavier Longueras studio in Hollywood, and laid them into place like he was crafting the pieta, this was no Michaelangelo, don’t get me wrong, but there was love in the labor, and how many people in this kind of poverty could see beyond the challenge of survival and elevate their daily duty to the consummate poetry of a dance, and poverty was a hollow word to me now, I had seen spiritual impoverishment of a chronic nature amidst the wealth of California and here were people charged with ‘joie de vie’ whose broad white smiles would open up for anyone who could get it out of them, and whose deep wide eyes held no fear, and between them boundless fraternity that cast no-one out into isolation from the family of man.



The Road to Zanzibar: Letters from a Painter 5

The Walk To Water

Saiti Chigwenembe was building a lodge by the lake with gum poles and grass thatch and I was under loose contract as architect of the proceedings and each day Massassa rose at sunrise and the men would take off early across the lake in dugout canoes, once worked by their own hands and risk their lives on a daily basis to hunt the evening meal and from sun up to sun down in the merciless and unrelenting heat the village women carried water from the lake in pails balanced on their heads and Paulina could shift more water than the other girls, even with her baby strapped to her by striking colored canga, like a marsupial, and her eyes were deep and her stare unflinching, and she had known pain, and when she looked in me she stirred me but there was an understanding between us of the impossibility of our union, that governed the likelihood of the consecration of our yearning.


The Road to Zanzibar: Letters from a Painter

Maasai Herdsman

Simon Peter Mtuy was half Chaga, half Maasai, and I could see he was no ordinary bloke the moment I met him on the streets of Zanzibar, his eyes were set deep into dark sockets in his head and his attention more directly fixed than the shifting focus of the blokes selling trinkets on Gizega street, Simon had the tall dignified stature of the Maasai, but carried a softer charm of a man who has spent his early years cradled in the warmth of a Chaga mother’s canga, and he reminded me more of the Chichewe men at the south of lake Malawi than the Tonga warriors in the North, but Simon was the first man in Africa, bold enough to admit to me the pain of circumcision, although I had my suspicions it was no stroll in the park, but it was not respected for a man to show weakness in the face of this particular agony but Simon was clear he would not choose this road again, nor had he fond memories of the long walk home bleeding after the merciless knife had torn through the innocence of his youth, neither was he an advocate of the female equivalent despite a deep respect for his mother who performed the dreadful act, but Simon had survived the trauma and as a child in Moshi, amidst the arabica coffee plantations at the foot of Kilimanjaro, he had gazed at the great mountain and there at the summit dwelt his dream, and he had climbed that mountain, and he had climbed that mountain again, and he had carried packs for tourists up and down, and now he could run up and down again in less than nineteen hours, and he was one of the fastest men in the world over a hundred miles, unshod, and his marathon was up there with the best of them, but he was only warming up after twenty-seven miles, it was at fifty that he would stretch his lean legs with the grace of a gazelle and Simon could speak seven languages, and hold a conversation with the poise of a professor, but going to California had thrown him for a loop, machines everywhere, the sound of birds replaced by fridge, computer, mobile phone, and Simon thought she’d lost her mind when his girlfriend put the dishes in the wall, but what vexed him most was that he couldn’t borrow sugar from the bloke next door and instead he had to drive twenty miles to buy a packet at the local department store, the western world had a good deal more stuff but that was not necessarily equivalent to a better way to live.


The Road to Zanzibar: Letters from a Painter 7

Streets of Stonetown

This was Ramadan and Muhammad reveled in the fast, and he was not like the other fellows on Gizenga street, he took pride in his own abstinence and held no bitterness to those who hadn’t the rigor or discipline to keep to the fast, this was his chosen path and we were welcome to our own, and he took us from the stone town out in a dalla dalla into the interior of Zanzibar, where the forest owned the mud banks and the houses were grouped like birds nests around the clearing in the trees, past the jack fruit tree, banana plants, the pineapple and the lemon grass, to where the spices grew, nutmeg, turmeric, cardamom, and cloves, and back across the river, to the mango trees, if this was poverty in the simple huts there was no lack for variety on the taste buds, but Fatima was a single mother and her husband had left her only months before, and in her simple ways Fatima had prepared for us the feast of kings, we all sat huddled in the hallway, cross-legged on the mud-baked floor, spread before us, bowls of beans, tomatoes, noodles with coconut, gently spiced with turmeric, we had not a word of one another’s tongue but there was something understood between us and we laughed and ate, and how we ate, our hands the only instrument of our indulgence.


Footnote:  A “dalla dalla” is a Zanzibari bus.


The Road to Zanzibar: Letters from a Painter 8

Massassa Village

The mud was caked hard by the timeless onslaught of the African sun and it was not like the sodden turf of Ballymena after a sound thrashing of winter rains that had strained the back of my great grandfather, but Ishmael broke the ground like he was taking Cassius Clay beyond the fifteenth round, and every rippling sinew on his sculpted form shuddered when his spade swept across his back and struck true against the earth, and I was breaking out in beads of sweat just watching him, until the sun went down and the moon lit the way for the fishermen to board their dugout canoes for the evenings hunt, and I remembered Seamus Heaney as he watched his father’s labor from a window and mused, ‘I’ll dig with my pen’, and Ishmael was the last born to the relentless ‘Chigwenembe’, who had been the architect of two families prior to this one, before he spent his final noble seed upon the earth, and both his parents gone at sixteen Ishmael had been forged in pain, but there was a monk-like quiet in his spirit and he stood proud and strong as if planted into the earth like a Baobab tree, and in him was a sense that he was crafted by no unholy accident, but that it was divine intention that drove the hand of his creator, and in his poignant letter to me he wrote


‘I don’t have more words.

They gonna tell you about me.

I’m Ishmael.’


The Road to Zanzibar: Letters from a Painter 9

Four Women

Four women stood chained together with heavy iron collars around their necks in nonchalant defiance of the slaver who had raised his ill begotten weapon of authority high above his head in threat of strike, the postcard had been there in the center of the coffee table in my room on Hirumzi street for days trapped between the pineapple and the coconut shell ashtray to keep it from sailing off on the air currents provided by the reluctant ceiling fan which daily fought the layers of dust that had gathered since the sultans of Oman were overthrown, the image was a sepia print from 1890 and one of the women stood taller than the others, turning her back to her oppressor, in confident disregard of the fellow with the new fangled photography machine who had set out to record the scene, as if to say, ‘you might chain me and beat me but you will never own me’, and I wondered how humanity had come to this, and how history had been forgotten on the streets of Zanzibar where African and Arab jostled together amongst the chaos of the day, loose liberty of nature, and rigorous discipline of culture, set in symbiotic motion as routine anarchy ran its daily course.