Published in Africa Geographic, April 2005
Ahmed’s smile lit the room. “My parents say they are honoured that you are here as their guests” he said. His mother, a tiny woman wearing an orange sari with many gold bangles hanging from her slender wrists, put her hands together in the Indian greeting and smiled shyly, her eyes lowered. “She got up at 4 o’clock this morning to go to the market. She is cooking you a special meal. Very special. It needs very much time to prepare. Please, can you come in…” he looked at his watch “… three hours time.”
We happily agreed. Now was the chance to explore Zanzibar by bus – something the woman at the Zanzibar Friendship Bureau said was forbidden to foreigners. We didn’t care. After grey, decaying Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar walloped us with sensations: the warm, moist air smelled of cloves, the wind rustled the dry leaves of palm trees, and the colours! Blue sky, turquoise sea, green, green vegetation, and flowers of every hue. The forbidden buses were wooden, open-sided vehicles garishly painted with whatever theme took the owner’s fancy.
The bus stopped and we climbed aboard with the other passengers. The chatter was briefly silenced as we took our seats, but our smiles and Swahili greetings were returned and the ticket boy took our money. It didn’t seem to matter that we didn’t know where we were going. We jolted our way out of town into the countryside. The young man in the seat next to us asked where we came from. “England! Yes, Mr Harold Wilson! You know Mr Harold Wilson?”
Outside every small house there was a carpet of brown cloves drying in the sun and our neighbour jumped out to collect a handful so we could see and smell them. Another passenger put his hand in his pocket and pulled out an egg-shaped object veined with brown. “Nutmeg” he said. After about an hour the bus stopped in a small settlement and the remaining passengers got out. The end of the line. The driver indicated that the bus would make its return journey in 30 minutes so we wandered through the market, strolling between pyramids of tomatoes, piles of small orange mangoes, heaps of lemons and tangerines. Paw-paws and spiky green breadfruit waited for the prodding fingers of experts to test their ripeness. Woven baskets contained crabs trying to make their escape and rows of fish, sorted according to size, gazed up at us with bright, unseeing eyes and gloomy open mouths.
Ahmed’s living room was transformed. A cloth had been laid on the ground and covered in banana leaves. A wonderful spicy smell drifted from the kitchen. Motioning us to sit cross-legged on the floor, Ahmed brought in a jug and bowl and poured hot water over our hands. He and his father took their places and the dishes started arriving. The only thing we recognised were the chapatis: freshly-baked, golden and steaming. Everything else was a mystery. There were no knives and forks so we watched Ahmed and his father, imitating them as they broke off chunks of chapati and used it as a spoon. We started recognising the local produce we’d seen in the market: mangoes, breadfruit, paw-paw all adding subtle flavours to the curried meat and fish. We ate with our right hands, licking gravy off our wrists. This is obviously something that takes practice. Ahmed’s mother didn’t eat with us, she stayed in the kitchen preparing the dishes and bringing them in whenever there was a gap. I remember vividly the sensuous feeling of picking up a fried egg with my fingers.
We were on the final stages of the meal when a police siren sounded in the street outside. Ahmed’s father’s eyes widened in fear. He stood up cautiously and peeped through the window. “Lie down!” he whispered urgently. “Here”. We wriggled to the area directly underneath the window where we could only be seen by someone leaning over the sill. We lay still, our hearts beating. Our host was sweating profusely and was clearly terrified. Ahmed, too, looked frightened. After fifteen minutes or so the men peeped through the window. The street was once again empty. The police had gone.
“He was beaten so badly”, Ahmed said as he walked with us to the airport. “It was five years ago in the rebellion, but he is still very afraid. Me too. Zanzibar is for Africans, they say. But it is also home. Now I work in Dar es Salaam because there is work for Indians there. But not here. They hate us here.”
Twenty years on I returned to Zanzibar on a cruise ship. The passengers came ashore in zodiacs and formed three groups for their tour of stone town. We passed through the market along aisles of local produce: pyramids of tomatoes, tables of paw-paws and mangoes while Moslem women in sombre bui-buis slipped like black ghosts between the garishly dressed tourists. The guide explained what the exotic fruit was and which dishes it was used in. Then we toured the clove-growing area and got a lecture on the importance of spices to the Zanzibar economy. Back on the ship I was chatting to the restaurant manager, praising the wonderful array of fresh fruit but surprised that there seemed to be no local produce there. Or nothing that I recognised as local, anyway. He smiled proudly. “It’s all flown in from Holland” he said. “We need to be sure of the quality, you see.”
© Hilary Bradt