x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Swahili coast: all at sea

Exploring East Africa's exotic and historic Swahili coast on a creaky wooden dhow

An old fishing boat rests on a beach in Zanzibar, a multicultural island off the coast of Tanzania that has been swooned over by travellers for centuries.
An old fishing boat rests on a beach in Zanzibar, a multicultural island off the coast of Tanzania that has been swooned over by travellers for centuries.

There are certain formalities - and that's using the term loosely - involved in leaving Zanzibar the old-fashioned way, in a leaky dhow rather than the motorised ferry from Stone Town to Dar es Salaam. 

Trying to board the vessel in Mkokotoni, a fishing village on the northern part of the African archipelago's main island, I find myself facing one of the most laid-back immigration officers I have ever encountered. The T-shirted Tanzanian looks like he is not much older than 20. There is nothing to indicate that he is in a position of authority, except two framed photographs of the presidents of Zanzibar and Tanzania on the wall behind him and a paper sign saying "Mkokotoni Immigration Office" stuck to the door of his office - which, I might add, is located at the back of a storage shed filled with disassembled wooden bed parts.

We make a few jokes about my bad Swahili, which has yet to progress beyond "Hakuna matata" ("No problem!"), but then his tone abruptly changes when it comes to the matter of my passport stamp. There's a slight problem, he explains - and I know immediately that I'm about to be asked for some cash. "Our government has prohibited us from allowing foreigners to transfer from here to other areas by using those vessels," he says. In other words, they're safe enough for locals, but these boats to the mainland are too dangerous for foreigners like me. The presidents gaze down admonishingly, reminding us that drowning tourists is harmful to the country's economic health.

My goal on this journey is not to drown in the Zanzibar Strait, but to see what remains of the ancient maritime civilisation of the Swahili coast. But to do this properly, one really should sail in a dhow - and not the spruced-up kind used to ferry tourists around, either, but the creaking wooden vessels used by locals for the last 1,000 years. Starting in Zanzibar, my plan is to cross to the nearest point on the Tanzanian mainland by dhow, then continue up the coast by bus, passing through the port of Mombasa and ruined coastal settlements along the way, ending at the idyllic Kenyan archipelago of Lamu.

Swahili language and culture emerged from an intermingling of Muslim Arabs and Bantu Africans in mediaeval times, long before the early 16th-century arrival of Europeans. Powered by Indian Ocean monsoon winds, traders from Arabia, India and even China enriched a string of Swahili kingdoms from Mogadishu in the north down to Quelimane, now in central Mozambique. It was the furthest reach of the gusts that blew south from November to March and reversed themselves in the months that followed.

The merchants were "drawn like kites to a growing trade in tortoise shell, gold, ivory, amber, leopard skins, myrrh, frankincense and slaves", writes the naturalist Peter Matthiessen in The Tree Where Man Was Born. To this day, the Muslim-majority ribbon of coastline represents the furthest southern extent of the widespread influence of Islam in Africa - or, for that matter, anywhere. Travellers have long swooned over Zanzibar, where I've already started my journey. Here's Sir Richard Burton, the English explorer, writing in 1872 with lyrical excess almost as nauseating as the boat ride I'm about to endure: "The island itself seemed over-indolent, and unwilling to rise" along a "sea of purest sapphire ... lazy as the tropical man"; its land was "voluptuous with gentle swellings, with the rounded contours of the girl-negress, and the brown-red tintage of its warm skin showed through its gauzy attire of green".

What's more striking about Stone Town today is the mélange of Indian Ocean architecture: cantilevered balconies from Gujarat, fronted by fretted screens; from Oman, wooden doors carved with rosettes and arabesques and studded by iron spikes; and in both posh hotels and cheap guest houses, netting hung from spiral-fluted posts on thigh-high canopied beds, the hallmark of Swahili style. Despite its merger with Tanganyika to form Tanzania in 1964, Zanzibar retains a degree of autonomy, including its own passport stamp. And this being Africa, there are obvious ways around the government's lack of support for my planned journey. "For that there is a special paper," the Mkokotoni immigration officer explains. "You commit yourself that whatever happens is upon your own risk. Understand that? So for all of that, you have to pay only just 10 US dollars." With mock indignation, I talk him down to 10,000 Tanzanian shillings (about $6.50 or Dh24), adding to the $20 (Dh72) I've already paid the boat owner. Locals, I later learn, pay about $4.20 (Dh16) for the same trip.

Turns out that "special" piece of paper is a blank A4 sheet on which I scribble the following: "I, Scott MacMillan, am aware of the risk of travelling from Mkokotoni by boat to Pangani." Unsure of what else to write, I add, perhaps redundantly: "And I go at my own risk." I sign the statement with a smiley face and - hakuna matata - the formalities are complete. I'm rowed out in a dinghy to the anchored dhow, where about 40 people are piled inside higgledy-piggledy, arranged uncomfortably on and among boxes of cargo. Life jackets? Don't count on it.

Back in the day, merchants would spend a month or more in these single-masted wooden tubs, all too often with tragically unfortunate human cargo. According to the historian Michael Naylor Pearson, a dhow leaving India in December would typically make it as far as Zanzibar in 20 to 25 days if conditions were good, quick passage for the times. Thankfully, this 40km journey is considerably shorter.

For five hours, we rock through rough seas, powered only by a triangular lateen sail, the crests of the swells rising above the sides of the hull, sometimes even spilling over and giving passengers an eyeful of salt. Women duck their heads under the kanga, the colourful cotton sarong worn by Swahili ladies, to vomit into plastic bags. Next to me, the base of the mast is bound to a crossbeam by rope, and the wooden pillar creaks warily with each sway.

"Do you have fear?" asks Humphrey, a painter from the Zanzibari resort town of Nungwi, when he sees me regarding the mast. "This is normal travelling situation. Do not have negative thoughts. Have only positive thoughts." Easier said than done, especially given the region's dark history and the fact that it's still, for the most part, mired in poverty. We hit land after dark in the village of Kipumbwe, south of Pangani, once a major hub of the African slave trade. Today Pangani hosts a clutch of rural resorts with beachside bungalows, but there will be no lazing on a hammock tonight. With no onward transport from Kipumbwe, I've no choice but to overnight in the hamlet's only guest house. At $3.20 (Dh12), the squalid shack is too dear for my new friend, Humphrey, who sleeps in the parked bus set to leave in the morning. I retire to my mosquito net as the entire village gathers around a television for a World Cup semi-final.

At the crack of dawn, I begin the day-long trundle up the coast to Mombasa, Kenya, the largest port in East Africa and my next overnight stop. The Kenyan and Tanzanian coasts are dotted with ruins of settlements from the 13th to 15th centuries, the most famous of which, the regal ruins of Kilwa, a Unesco World Heritage Site, lies 400km to the south. I jump off the bus at Tongani, a small village virtually untouched by tourists, to see the remains of a Shirazi Persian settlement from the period. The caretaker of the Tongoni ruins, a grey-haired man with the suitably biblical name Job, walks me through the crumbled limestone and coral walls of the mosque, pointing out tombs marked by hexagonal pillars that soar from the grass.

Remarkably, one tomb bears traces of recent burnt offerings, with two ash-filled ceramic mugs next to a rocky recess in the soil. "Up to now the people around this village still come to pray here," says Job. "They believe that if they have problems, they come to pray, problem solved." Though obviously one of the settlement's notables, nothing else is known about the grave's 600-year-old inhabitant.

Crossing the Kenyan border, the rugged road turns smooth as a sealed track takes us to Mombasa, the bustling port city that is still the de facto capital of the Swahili coast. Amidst the heart of Mombasa's urban sprawl, local groups are trying to keep the region's storied past intact, especially in Baghani, the old port area surrounding Fort Jesus, built by the Portuguese in 1593. I stop at Jahazi Coffee House, a local hub of arts and culture that was opened in an abandoned palace four years ago. There, I meet a well-known personage of old Mombasa, Ahmed Sheikh Nabhany, a professor at the local Swahili Research Institute. Up until the 1990s, many of Mombasa's historic buildings were in danger of being torn down, but in a bid to preserve the old city, Nabhany's institute began teaching traditional carpentry and craft skills to local youths in 1992.

"There were beautiful houses that were demolished here, but now we've turned to preserving our culture," says Nabhany. The results are tangible, with once derelict buildings turned into shops selling Swahili furniture, masks and knick-knacks, creating a tourist-friendly zone while retaining the gritty character of the old port area. My journey continues northward, with a stop at the atmospheric and mysterious ruins of Gede - atmospheric due to the vastness of an abandoned city nestled in a quiet wood, and mysterious because no written trace of it exists. Overnighting in nearby Malindi, a town visited by Vasco da Gama en route to India and now a heaving resort town catering to Italians, I end my coastal crawl the next day in Lamu, the vehicle-free archipelago that has long encapsulated the Swahili coast's image as a chilled-out sanctuary.

Budget travellers cottoned onto Lamu years ago, but now monied European tourists come to experience that languid lifestyle so beloved of Sir Richard Burton. Many spots along the embankment are piled high with bags of cement, a sign of construction to meet the needs of incoming tourists - and a suggestion that the tropical men on these sapphire seas aren't quite as lazy as Burton would have it. There are those who worry about over-development in Lamu, but I've been told to think only positive thoughts during this journey. In any case, just as rural villagers keep one eye on tradition, praying at the tomb of a long-forgotten Persian nobleman, chances are slim that the Swahili people will lose their traditions any time soon.

If you go

The flight 

Return flights on Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com) from Dubai to Mombasa via Nairobi cost from $578 (Dh2,120), and from Dubai to Dar es Salaam from $622 (Dh2,285), including taxes.