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TravelBlog #9 -- The magic and hard reality of Zanzibar

Original post made by Keith Schuman, Palo Alto resident and world traveler, on Aug 5, 2009

Nkhata Bay, Malawi -- July 29, 2009

Apologies for my absence, I have been about seeing some things I thought I ought to see.

Due to what I have felt have been articles with a lack of substance, I am going to write about my experiences which I find more meaningful and go beyond the narrow the scope of merely travel and adventure.

There are villages I have been to, people whom I have met and words that have inspired me to try new things and take bigger "risks" in the great pursuit of quality. I hope this article cuts a little deeper than others I have written. I enjoy the criticism that some have directed toward my travels -- I welcome them with a victorious smile.

Zanzibar. An island situated just off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean. For an island with such a small geographical presence its various, social, cultural and political currents are vibrant. On the surface it is a place where many go simply to take advantage of the beautiful beaches, clear water and climate. I chose to do the same -- at first.

I arrived by ferry as many Mzungus (white foreigners) do. Instantly the influence from the Arab world is apparent. The island overwhelmingly is comprised of devout Muslims. Much of the unique Zanzabari culture originated from the melding of Eastern slave and spice traders (who were the first foreigners to settle the region) and the Swahili culture that predated their arrival.

Religion, food and music all are incredibly fascinating. Samosas, seafood, chips and chapati filled the air with an aromatic appeal that begged for my attention. The African drums and music wailed into the evening hours, accompanied by the melodic voices of Swahili musicians.

Every morning, the call for morning prayer reverberated through the narrow alleyways of Stonetown.

Zanzibar has a very rustic and authentic feel. Much can be discovered here.

I ended up making my way to the east side of the island, to Paje. It is a small local village consisting of subsistence farmers and fisherman, beautiful beaches -- the nicest I have ever been to -- and small beach bungalows / resorts. I spent a couple of days unwinding, taking in what truly is a place to which to bring a book and forget about your troubles.

For some reason, it wasn't enough for me. As I perused the beach and started to wander into the village and interact with the locals, I became far more interested by their lives than the vitamin D that got a 20-year headstart on shriveling my skin.

This is where my Sub-Saharan African experience truly began.

I befriended the local fishermen in Paje village. I ate with them and their families. I learned about how life on the island has changed, how many foreign-operated resorts have refused to buy fish from the local fisherman and instead purchase from co-operatives where their mainstream commercial objectives are more in line with the Western standards of the hotels, rather than local interests.

This became a main theme. I began to resent the package tourists who fly in on foreign airlines, get bussed directly to foreign-owned hotels and interact only with foreigners except to order an overpriced foreign drink from the bar.

There is a lot of money coming to Zanzibar from abroad but very little touches the local economy. Tourism is important. But equally important is maintaining the integrity of the local populous. The beauty of their land and their resources are sovereign to Zanzibar, not to Italy and France (the two nationalities with the largest presence on the island).

The island lacks basic infrastructure, is dependent on the mainland for power and has a depleted education system. The economy survives from the export of cloves, other spices and tourism.

Much of the funding received from abroad consists of fundamentalist Middle Eastern businessmen who seized the opportunity to push their agendas on the island after much of the Western aid ceased in the mid-1990s.

The only reputable schools on the island are private and cost more than the overwhelming majority can afford. After my days of conversation with many local fishermen, most stated that they have to resort to "other" means of income to afford the fees required by many of the schools.

Despite many problems on the island affecting the prosperity of the population, there are many positive changes. Increased foreign investment has improved living conditions for many. The tourism industry is training many previously unemployed people and preparing them for lives that can provide a better future for the next generation.

The local fisherman are organizing to combat the larger mainland companies. Certainly the local economy needs a push, but inevitably it has to be able to stand on its own two feet.

I cannot stress the importance of developing sustainable growth on the island. If the lack of organization and education persists, the gap between the few wealthy operating on the island and the majority of the population will continue to grow exponentially. Over the next 10 years, the island will see continued development and foreign investment. It is my hope that the benefits of this will make its way through all the levels of Zanzibari society.

If you travel to Zanzibar or other developing regions, be mindful of where your dollar is going -- it is easy to lose track, or look away. I would rather eat at a local restaurant that gives its owner a fighting chance than to fatten a foreign bank account (and the local food is typically better).

"Why should the rest of the world move on while we remain a museum," a man in the village of Jambiani said to me, I agree. Just don't erode the local culture when you go.

I commandeered a press pass to the Zanzibar International Film Festival as a "journalist" who was "covering" the event. There were many films entered from across the continents of Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe. Two stood out as being worth taking a look at if you get the chance.

The first is a South African film titled, "Jerusalema," directed by Ralph Ziman. It is about a criminal lord who comes up in a township outside Johannesburg during the ending of the apartheid and eventually runs the Hillboro slum as a crime boss.

The second is "Godforsaken," directed by Jamil Dehlavi. It is a gripping movie about redemption, faith and forgiveness. Set in Pakistan, Godforsaken deals with the choices young men make between their true family and their family on the streets.

So there's my journalistic coverage, I suppose.

After spending my time in the villages, I made Stonetown home for a week. It was there that I met three men, all different, all unique and all people whom I hope to find along the way at some other point in my life.

One is an ex-professional golfer who had once been a top-200 player but who experienced a series of debilitating hardships. Another was the ex-golfer's childhood friend, the eldest son to the ruling man of Zanzibar.

Both men were born on the same day, one white, the other black, but both Tanzanian.

Thr third was a journalist who was actually sent to write about the film festival on assignment for the British publication, "The Africa Report." The journalist had studied in Zanzibar for two years and was friends with the golfer and the eldest son.

The four of us stayed up until sunrise having wild conversations about what we called "the higher echelons of logic." We debated classical versus romantic schools of thought, development in Zanzibar and Africa, how tossed this world really is, and other topics that got more skiddish as the night wore on and the darkness gave way to the light.

It just so happens that the media pass I secured had the name of the journalist on it -- it is now my alias that I travel by and while with “the Crew” was used in the realm of discussion about fantasy, illusion and reason. The four days and nights with the Crew became intense. Our discussions, the mannty in which they were conducted and the ex-golfer's sporadic behavior added to what was already a fiery atmosphere. I could write a book on the few days spent with these three men. Truly unrivaled company.

Enough for the time being -- I skedaddled on out of Zanzibar towards the African interior.

Next: Part II of this posting -- the Serenghetti plains, Ngorongoro Crater and up Mt. Kilimanjaro -- all as great as you have heard about, and quite touristy.

Seven continents, one world, one person just calling it how I see it, with wide eyes and an open mind.

[Web Link ==B View the TravelBlog photo gallery==]


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