Photos from our day trip to the Kilwa Ruins on Kilwa Kisiwani (Kilwa Island). I’m not a history buff like the DiploMan, so I’ll leave it up to the photos to tell a story:
Due to an aforementioned hit from rainy season, original plans to go on a self-drive safari through nearby Mikumi and hiking in Morogoro a couple weekends ago were called off at the last minute. And what is I am sure a saying somewhere in the world, when the jungle won’t work, pack up and head to the beach.
So after a dinner party with friends where the conversation led to stories of a successful road trip to Kilwa, it was settled. Kilwa is a small fishing village (there seem to be so many in Tanzania) about 300km south of Dar es Salaam, along the main (only) highway, B2. Like any other road trip from Dar, getting out of the city is half the battle— it took us about 45 minutes to get out of the city proper, and that was considered a good day.
After 4 chicken sandwiches, one roadside restroom stop, a short stretch of unpaved road, lots of checkpoints, countless speed bumps, and one split second where I thought our car was going to end up nose diving into a deep mud pit, we made it to the little town of Kilwa.
Kilwa is a sad little story of a 14th century powerhouse (due to its strategic location between Africa and the Eastern Arab and Asian world), who rose to power under the rule of one former Persian prince who arrived in Kilwa town to purchase the neighboring island. Legend says he purchased the land for “enough silk to wrap around the circumference of the island”. Thereafter, great palaces and mosques were erected on the tiny island, and soon enough it became the seat of power in East Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. After centuries of domination as a stopover for ships and tradesmen, it changed hands to the Arab, Portugusese, and eventually over to the Omanis.
That’s a quick, one-minute history of Kilwa. Today, it is far overshadowed by Dar’s large and deep water port. It’s island is now inhabited by local villagers who have since built up their farms and huts under the shadows of once-great mosques and castles. On mainland Kilwa, a small strip that is the center of town exists, with one bar, small single-standing shops propped under metal sheeting, two two-pump gas stations, one bank, one post office, and a few guesthouses scattered along the beach. We were witness to bustling weekend activity, as villagers walked back and forth the strip of beachfront, performed running exercises, played with their children in the shallow ocean bay, and in general gathered to hang out along the breezy shore.
We stayed in a beachfront property recommended by friends, a place run by an Italian woman who preferred the quaint quiet life of Kilwa even to the more glamorous paradises of Zanzibar and Fiji. The lodge itself was a perfect balance of rustic amenities and modern comfort–Housing were bandas that opened up to the beach, with sparse yet comfortably furnishings: the locally familiar four-post beds and mosquito net, along with large open showers that pumped out hot water at any time of day and electricity available at any time. No a/c was available, but powerful fans were supplied in the rooms and a strong island breeze swept through each night.
Speaking of the night, with a waxing crescent moon our party of four saw more stars than ever visible in Dar es Salaam; More stars than I’ve seen since spending time in Montana two summers ago. It was as if a careless painter completed a haphazard paint job, splattering droplets of white paint against a massive wall of black. With the lights off in our banda and no devices to connect to internet, the blackness and silence was completely humbling. It certainly called my attention to how much artificial stimulation is constantly present in my life, where every night in Dar there is always the glow of the security lights just outside my room, an a/c humming throughout the night, and my phone(s) sitting beside my bed and occasionally glowing upon the reception of an alert.
Both night and day, Kilwa was a nice break away from it all, and such a great road trip from Dar.
At first, the rains here in Africa (cue Toto) seemed completely unlike the monsoon rains of Asia, as they occurred with far lesser frequency and for shorter periods of time. Here, at first, the rainy season meant something less palpable than a few monsoon months; an ambiguous length of time where downpours of rain might occur at oddly short intervals, interspersed between periods of beautiful blue skies. The rains didn’t come everyday, and hardly for more than fifteen minutes at a time.
That was at first. And indeed, for the nine months I was first here, Dar’s ‘rainy’ weather was like this, all the way until two weeks ago. Then for four nights in a row (and during some mornings), rain thundered on rooftops, conveniently pausing during most of the daytime hours but inconveniently coming back again each evening and flooding homes, businesses, and roads. Medical supplies washed up on our beloved Yacht Club’s typically pristine beach. Our household staff’s homes in the poorer areas of town washed over. Typical 20 minute commutes extended to 1.5 hours. It was the rainiest I’ve seen Dar in my near one-year living here.
This is when I am reminded—despite the fact that I can find Nutella on my supermarket shelves—that I am living in a 3rd world country. Severe lack of infrastructure and planning caused what would be a nuisance in America: four days of rain, to render much of the city frustratingly unaccessible. And when I say a lack of infrastructure, I’m not talking about the fact that we need to pave a stretch of road; I’m talking about the need to create complicated irrigation systems, implement systems of drainage, and re-map entire communities and their layouts.
Last week, I felt terrible pangs of irony as I watched rain water pool into muddy pits and sloshing about the sides of the roads. In a country where untainted water is scarce, there it was just falling out of the sky, potentially available for anyone who could collect it, but instead wreaking havoc to the same folks that desperately needed it. It seemed like the most vengeful example of the snarky comeback, ‘you get what you ask for’.
It’s been raining a little more lately, not for four straight nights, but on most days viscious downpours for fifteen minutes, half an hour, a few times a day. This morning I left the house, looked at the bright blue sky, and forwent my umbrella. Three hours later sitting in a second-story coffee shop, I thought we were being attacked by flying monkeys on the roof (it was just, disconcertingly, very VERY loud rain). Bless the rains in Africa.
I don’t have any of my own photos of the rains and flooding it may cause here in Dar, but in order of appearance the photos are from 1), 2), and 3) a blog I just came across called ‘View From Dar‘ (no longer updated), 4) Al Jazeera, from a feed with weather photos from across the world, and 5) an AllAfrica.com article from the floods last year
My favorite part of learning any language (aside from that “aha!” moment when you figure out how a mess of words fit together into an actual sentence) is in the very beginning, where you don’t know yes from no or stop from go, but regardless you start by learning basic salutations and greetings. There are quite a few unique and funny ways that every culture uses to say ‘hello’, and Tanzania is no exception.
Some of these greetings are teachable. For example, you can drill a Chinese kid named God (true story) to greet his friends with “wussup”, so that he won’t stop saying the word no matter who he meets, but regardless at every utterance of “wussup” you will smile, God will smile, and everyone who hears will smile.
The physical greetings, though, those always throw me for a loop. Do I kiss once, or twice, or three times? Do I look you in the eye when I bow, or at your feet? Do I curtsey, or touch your feet, give you a high-five? Am I allowed to touch you, and if so, where? Am I exempt because I am so obviously a foreigner? Can someone just tell me what to do?!
Here in Tanzania, in addition to a very long roster of verbal greetings one must memorize, there are physical cues one must master when greeting a local. For example, the different forms of handshake that are always welcome, or more often, expected.
There’s the mutual-grabbing-of-the-wrists handshake, although I’ve only seen this a few times. More popular is the three-switch-up-handshake, where start with a soft cupping handshake with your fingers facing down, then switch quickly to a handshake facing up, and then switch facing back down, leading me to think of it as the “secret-clubhouse” handshake. Sometimes this handshake is done slow and leisurely, others more quickly where the second switch is barely even existent. Another common one is the handshake-sans-shake, but rather just two hands that meet in the middle and barely grasp each other, then remain as such for the first 10 seconds of a conversation bobbing up once or twice as if to say casually, “oh yeah, this is a handshake”.
Unlike America’s obsession with a firm handshake, the Tanzanian handshake is usually limp and noodle-y. I’m learning first hand–no pun intended–how to offer my hand, ever-so gently, to each familiar face I meet. I’m learning how not to grasp tightly, as I was conditioned in the States, but rather to barely bend my fingers around that of my counterpart. I’m learning how ten more seconds of holding hands with an almost-stranger is a sign of respect in this culture.
My favorite fruit guy at my market, John, smiles when he sees me. He stands up from a usual napping position to say, “Habari! Jessie, Karibu!” and stretches out his hand with a wide grin. After he takes my hand he doesn’t let go, he proceeds to ask what I want for the day. We continue a conversation–about mangoes, about avocados, about these weird new pears with rough skins that he got in recently–all while this kind man with a huge belly is holding my hand. At first it seemed like forever that this strange man was holding my hand, but I’ve since gotten used to it.
The guy who sells me chicken feed hollers at me, “Mama, Karibu!” from afar. It’s raining out, so he has some sort of old t-shirt or rag over his head which serves the dual purpose of keeping rain away from his eyes as well as provide padding when he hoists the 50kg bag of chicken feed onto his head to carry to my car. Before he grabs my bag of feed, though, he comes over to me and takes my hand. Mama, Habari? he asks. We exchange pleasantries, ‘Habari za kazi?’ How is work? ‘Habari za familia?’ How is your family? We’re still holding hands, slowly shaking up and down.
The guy at the fish market knows my car by now, and it seems like the other guys barely bother to get up as quickly as he does when I approach. ‘Hi, sista!’ He yells. ‘How are you’, he says in accented English, the melodic sing-song way that I’ve recognized the Swahili accent to be. He’s a young guy, who wears a red Arsenal jersey almost every single time I see him, and he initiates a three-switch-up-secret-style handshake.
I think back to my hometown in California, where while growing up I must have seen the same cashier at Safeway over and over, and over again some hundreds of times (and still do, when I visit my parents), yet there is nary a feign of recognition–on either of our parts. Here in Tanzania, these limp and barely-there handshakes, these weird wrist-grappling methods of saying hello, and these learned handshakes that make me think I’m in a special club–they do more than simply say “hi”, and they’re certainly a language all their own.
Another trip to the Zanzibar market. This time, to practice my newly refined Kiswahili. After all, there’s no better way to practice a new language than to barter with shop keepers at a local market.
I’m the proud owner of several new kintenge (local batik-printed fabrics) and a few more spices to add to my shelves. Also, a bunch of bananas, but those were a little more short-lived.
Being of Chinese descent, I’ve got a bit of a handle on how other cultures deal with illness and health. Sometimes sensical, as exemplified through the use of herbal tea concoctions, acupuncture treatments, holistic diets, and essential oils. And then there are some concepts that might garner a skeptical eye in the western world, like the idea that sitting in front of an air conditioner will undoubtedly result in you catching a cold. Seriously, most Chinese would rather sit in a puddle of their own sweat rather than bask in the cool wind of an a/c.
One of the many great things about traveling to countries outside of my own United States is to witness these cultural beliefs and to learn about traditions relating to health and medicine, however silly. Of course, whether one decides to believe in these ancient methods of healing is up to the person – although I’ve never met anyone who discounted the magical healing powers of a therapeutic massage.
On our second day in Zanzibar, we set off to go see a group of local village healers. We exited the narrow alleyways of Stonetown and started down a long paved road outside of the city center. Just as I was about to doze off, the bus made a sharp turn into a narrow dirt road. After passing a group of schoolchildren and wildly growing trees, the road suddenly widened into an expansive meadow. Around the meadow were flat fields on one side, and all around in a large circle were a tall wall of palm trees.
If I ever imagined a place to visit a local village healer, this would be it.
Most locals visit these healers to see about minor treatments – psychiatric consultations, dealing with problems with relationships and marriage. Some come with bigger problems, like impotence and fertility issues. Fevers and stomachaches also account for quite a few patients, but not as many as those with heartache. Then there are some who come with symptoms that are unsuccessfully resolved at the hospital, and are seeking perhaps not complete remedies but simply ways to cope with the issues at hand- AIDS, diabetes, cancer, and the like. These healers are, in fact, part of a loose association (though, alliance is probably a better word) that is actually recognized in some way by the government, so it’s not like they are just practicing mumbojumbo.
We spoke to the village healers under the canopy of shade provided by a large tree as a dozen little chickens (and one very ornery calf) clucked around us. The head healer sat quietly, stoic-ly in the background as the others spoke. His father had practiced before him, and who knows how many more generations before them. Each of the men (and one woman!) wore a red headband and red shawls, to signify their official status. After we inquired about their “uniform”, one said with a big smile (as translated to us) “this is just our work uniform. You should see us in our city clothes, we look so fresh, you wouldn’t even recognize us!”
Bushes, trees, and plants grew around the small hut of a treatment center behind us, where the source of all medicines came from. The healers pointed out leaves and roots, explaining how some are boiled down in water to drink while others only require the steam to help, for example, soothe a cough. Mnana for psychosis, making a hyperactive crazy individual dazed and loopy as if on valium. Mvudye taken for seizures, mchaichai in the event of yellow fever or dizziness, pambawake for women to drink during their menstrual cycle, msiatu for insomnia, and mvinte in soothing asthma. For each modern diagnosis, an ancient recipe was provided to aid it.
Here, I witnessed one of the oddest juxtaposition of beliefs – a very strong Muslim faith mixed with an intensely spiritual calling. For example, at times, if a “sick” person goes to visit the village doctor, the patient will be asked to sit on the Koran as the Healer conducts his consultation, sometimes calling upon the spirits to speak through his body. Scripture is written with special red ink and then left to dissolve in water to drink as tea or medicine or to bathe in. Verses from the Koran are scrawled on a single egg, the broken in the case of trouble- a hearing in court, for example. Numerology is employed, but so are the fundamentals of Muslim faith. And above all else, these healers are only healers because they have been called upon by some spirit.
All talk of faith aside, both Muslim as well as spiritual, I find the herbal remedial properties that were shared on that day particularly interesting. Americans are just now beginning to catch on to the whole active culture thing with Kombucha. Maybe we can take a cue from this part of the world, and be a little – just a little– more holistic. After all, if the western world started to use more of that valium-like plant, I bet we’d all be a little better off.