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.