19. Zanzibar, Tanzania, Africa

The ground moves here.  It may look like a patch of dirt, rubble or cracked concrete, but it you crouch down and just wait a few seconds, it starts moving.  Tiny ants doing reconnaissance, larger ones lumbering through, smaller red insects that look like pin-point spiders everywhere. Long things with many legs, beetles, and others start to circle and weave along some hidden meshwork that is beyond the understanding of humans.  Or maybe it is just random, chaotic radiation, turbulence, Brownian motion.  Scurrying like white noise.  There are no straight lines in Africa.

I write “Africa” in the sense that most people that I have met use it here. Chadians will refer to themselves as Africans, as will Sudanese, Tanzanians, Kenyans, Congolese and so on.  It does not escape the Chadian pastoralist that he has a vastly different language and life-way than his neighbour in the next town, the village up, or over the lake yonder.  The word “Africa” resonates as a whole for the people who use it, and this is remarkable.  A few words of Arabic or Kiswahili, and millenia of trade, land rights, marriage arranging, brotherhood brokering, animal husbandry and herding, water-balancing.  These forces stretch a continent.

Shift ahead a few days.

A small place called Bwejuu.  South-East coast of Unguja, the main island of the Zanzibari archipelago, itself just off the coast of mainland Tanzania.  It was a seaside town, that forgot to close down, and moved at about that pace.  I’d arrived in the trough of low season, but met a few similarly wayward travellers nonetheless.  By day three I felt that if I was any more relaxed I’d slip into a coma.  Which was nice.  My mornings were spent snorkeling through the fringed coral reefs, and I awoke to the sound of small yellow birds that make small teardrop-shaped nests in the trees all around my bungalow.  Jeremiah, one of the Masai fellows working at the small guest house at which I stayed, asked me if he could take my motorcycle (250cc of Honda Baja glory) to the beach and ride it.  He had the energy and smile of a gleeful person, which struck me as a strange quality in someone carryone no fewer than three concealed blades under his flowing red garb.  As we went out to the beach, I realized that he had never ridden a bike.  But hell, neither had I until a week ago.  The problem came in trying to explain what a clutch is with twenty shared words!

Zanzibar is called The Spice Island, which is a misnomer. Sure, it may have once been the hub for trade in cardamom, lemongrass, nutmeg, chili and peppercorn, among others, but the food is of the blandest I’ve ever eaten.  Luckily this is well made up for, among many other things, by the spectacular views.  I had not bought a new camera by then, so I’ll just have to describe the scene.  Rough-hewn locally made tables on a white-sand beach.  Low-light candle in a corner.  The sun sets quickly and leaves a blotted underbelly of fiery reds and purples on the clouds.  It looked like hell upside down, and from a safe distance.  Lateen-rigged dhows are off in the distance, small wooden fishing boats that have a triangular shaped sail with a scythe-like curve that is masted close to the front of the sliver of a vessel.  Every image was charmed… that kind of a place.  I looked over to the right of me while I was sitting out there and saw about eight other people on the beach, seven of whom were taking photos.  This is a well photo-documented generation.  It struck me that it may be the case that more photos were taken of sunsets that one day than in all of the 19th century.

My days on the island were coming to an end, though, and I had to run back to the capital, Stone Town.  This is, incidentally, also not really a meaningful moniker.  I suspect that it would have been more accurately called Smelly & Cracked-Concrete Town, but alas, that did not track well with focus groups.  The point, though, is how it is that one finds their way around this island, back to the capital.

These were the directions: “Turn right at the T-junction, then left at the second round-about, past the big “Foma” detergent sign, and when you’re close to town, you’ll see an intersection that looks like a platypus… turn hard left there…” and so on.  I was becoming a bit frustrated… the lack of street signage makes it difficult to know where you are, and where you should be going.  Over the past week, with no real destination in mind, this had bothered me none.  I had my rented dirtbike, miles of road and beach, and, of course, throngs of people everywhere to ask directions along the way.  And this is when it struck me… that image.  The one that comes at 5am, wakes you up, and just sits there.  You know the type, no?

Back a few nights.

Imagine a hard flat surface like a book or open hand slapping forcefully against another surface, that of a placid body of water.  Scale is unimportant.  Look at the streams of water that are jetted out from the sides, shooting outwards but connected by small tendrils, some thick and goopy, others impossibly thin.  A viscous crown of molasses-like mesh, curving in all directions.  Like in networks of veins just under the skin or on a leaf.  Patterns on wind-swept desert sand.  The mesh of a sponge.  The petrified pith of trabecular bone.

This was the road back to stone-town, and the people were the network along which I would wind my way.

It started to rain, and I pulled over under the metal sheeting of a small hut where kids were selling fruit.  My clothes were soaked through, but it was warm enough to ward off the chill.  I bought a large papaya and ate the reddish-orange pulp while chatting with the kids in some broken pidgin of English and my ten Swahili words.  The boys were fascinated with the multitool leatherman that I had used, and took turns over the next two hours passing it among them opening and closing every knife and screwdriver.  Despite the rains, lots of bikes, motorized and not, whizzed by.  I waited for the rain to stop, pointed in one direction and said “Stone Town?”  To which the boys smiled and nodded yes, trying to curve their hands to the left, which was what I had to go on.  There are no straight lines in Africa.  But with a belly-full of papaya and the hot sun drying your clothes, this seems less important.

5 Responses to “19. Zanzibar, Tanzania, Africa”

  1. Hiba Says:

    Loose thoughts: I hadn’t seen the circular painting before – looks like a dance.
    Where there are straight lines, they mostly turn out to be illusory. Africa might be more honest that way.
    “…a belly full of papaya…” hmmm. And to link to “Assume Resilience” many posts ago and your own ‘power’ to participate: If there is a human soul, I believe its essence is not in the immutable parts but the opposite, the parts that can & do change, even evolve. The capacity to invent oneself a new story, better story, recreate a worthy identity after trauma demands leaps of imagination and flexibility. To see more than there is or feels in a moment. Surviving trauma probably takes Art rather then science, an aesthetic ability to connect to what is beautiful in the surround and the self. Can we start a dialogue on connections post-trauma? Any takers?

  2. susan Mann Says:

    So what’s with the pictures, Steve? Interesting, the one with the M little basketball player. I have two M’s, a guy and a gal, dancing to a juke box tune. Push the button on the top and out fall the M & Ms in a “drawer” at the base of the juke box. I took it to Deline on Great Bear Lake, when I was there last September. The kids loved it,… so did the adults.
    Another thought provoking diary…


  3. alison Says:

    ‘Oh, oh, oh!’ (indiscriminate/ imperceptible animal noises attempting to get Hiba’s attention while wildly waving arm in the air like an over-zealous elementary kid who thinks they have the correct answer to the proposed multiplication problem). If only these blog dialogues had questions/ outcomes as straightforward and formulaic as algebra… But given the ‘on the other side of the world’ distance, Hiba doesn’t notice Alison and her attention-seeking antics, so Alison regresses to the more ego-soliciting: ‘Me! me!, me!- pick me!’. It’s quite the scene from this side of my screen! And so yes, Hiba- it seems that somewhere, on some far-away Indonesian island you have a very enthusiastic taker! :)

  4. Hiba Says:

    From Judy Lamb, OT who works with Personality NOS secondary to traumatic developmental processes, with whom I shared part of Alison’s “turn power upside down” email:
    “p.s. enjoyed musings on power…the words are a little stretch for my mental capacity, but have a sense of the meaning. For me the paradox resolves with a mental paradigm shift. When I become “the learner” (and I have much to learn) it takes me out of the polarities, and I engage actively in the process of learning from where I am. I see with my patients how paralyzing the attribution of judgment, evaluation, unfairness and blame is, both against themselves and their environment. They spin their wheels. It is becoming my mantra…you are learning/ evolving…I am learning…your system is learning…we are all learning together…we start from where we are, there is no right or wrong, perhaps just more or less comfortable. Sometimes the lessons are hard…” When we withdraw from the active learning mode, we fall back into one side of the polarity or the other (I know nothing/ powerless, or I know it all power-full)… excessive humility vs. excessive arrogance….. (perhaps simplistic…more challenging to keep our equanimity if we lived in Chad with bandits…very hard lessons there)”

  5. Hiba Says:

    Alison Pluim tried to post this, credit goes to her:
    Logotherapy founder Viktor Frankl suggested that it is meaning and the will to live which fosters resilience. Years later, ‘La Vita è Bella’ depicts the story of a spirited father who playfully convinces his son to help amuse the tyrannical Hitler dictatorship by participating in an imaginary game of ‘the first person to get 100 points wins a ginormous military tank’. This fictitious competition allows the duo to insouciantly exist the extent of their persecuted stay at a concentration camp during Nazi occupation. Imagination wins the contest! and at the movie’s conclusion, one begins to draw closer to believing Leon Trotsky’s last testament (from which the film’s title was borrowed): ‘I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.’ Imagination: the alluring culmination of meaning, intention and creativity- yes, Art. A healing encounter which invites us to accept our humanity while simultaneously tapping into our divinity to give rise to a newly storied reality. And yet at either end of this continuum realm is the potent constituent for both unimaginable love and unfathomable evil. Depravity is also coddled by the imagination and precisely why imagination is needed to be called in to conquer and cure when heinous acts have been committed. A pure imagination to win over a twisted and perverted one when moving through the traumatic; but also in the less aberrant, less atrocious…What if the imagination could conjure up magic for making love after a mastectomy?; for shelter after a tsunami; for moving through lazy days unemployed; for an anorexic skeleton to happily envisage healthy flesh on frame; for the refugee to turn a few grains of rice into a rich man’s feast; for the lyrical chime of a child’s laugh despite infertility? And… ‘What if you slept? And what if, in your sleep, you dreamed? And what if, in your dream, you went to heaven and plucked a strange and beautiful flower? And what if, when you awoke, you had the flower in your hand?’ (Coleridge). …Yet how to therapeutically translate moving into imaginative realms without talking only of fairy dust and Tinkerbell?

Leave a Reply