x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Seeking out history in Africa, the continent of new beginnings

I don't know why I'm so obsessed with beginnings. Perhaps my own family history lends itself to such contemplation, but I'm interested in the idea of migration.

Zanzibar’s complex past is evident in the streets of Stone Town, the historic centre. Bruno Morandi / Getty Images
Zanzibar’s complex past is evident in the streets of Stone Town, the historic centre. Bruno Morandi / Getty Images

It is in Ngorongoro where I first hear the word mhindi. So far I've been travelling with white people, so despite being of mixed race, I was called mzungu. Now I'm with a Gujarati friend who was raised in Kampala, kicked out of Uganda by Idi Amin in 1972 and recently returned to reclaim his family property. He's a mhindi through and through. "Tishani," he calls, "forget about India as the mother country. Africa is the real deal."

Of course, India is a country, and Africa, an entire continent, but I feel some truth to his claim, driving along the rim of the Ngorongoro crater, looking down at the caldera below. The animals look like smudges of coal against golden grasslands and the entire scene has the quality of a Brueghel painting, charged with an ancient light that leaks through the clouds. It feels as though nothing has changed here since the beginning of the beginning.

I don't know why I'm so obsessed with beginnings. Perhaps my own family history lends itself to such contemplation, but I'm interested in the idea of migration - where people are born and where they end up, their life trajectories, their reasons for moving and reinvention.

What better place to think about these things than East Africa, where Ethiopia gave us Lucy, Tanzania has the Olduvai Gorge and Sudan was home to the Nubians.

Zanzibar, the place where I kick off my frenzied week in Africa, is famous for beginnings too. In the 19th century it was the gateway to East Africa's slave and spice trade. Thousands of Indians arrived here as indentured labour, and others, following the Arab trade routes, worked as merchants and dukawalas, giving rise to the first generation of mhindi families. In the labyrinthine streets of Stone Town, the historic centre of Zanzibar, I meet a one-eyed Goan historian called John Baptist da Silva whose father was dressmaker to Sultan Khalifa.

John Baptist tells me that the Omani sultans derived their love of concubines and carved doors from India. He also tells me that the Indian crows brought to the island as scavengers in the 1900s are going to be exterminated because they have made many indigenous species extinct.

I am simultaneously charmed and repelled by Stone Town. It is an extraordinary palimpsest of a city with layers of history, time, religion and revolution pressing down upon it. Its skyline is expansive enough for Hindu temple spires, the mosque's crescent and the Anglican cross. In its streets you will hear a chattering of Kiunguja and Kiswahili and smatterings of Gujarati, Arabic, English and other tongues.

On a weekend night, if you walk through the Forodhani Gardens you will find vendors selling everything from skewered seafood to Zanzibari pizzas. Rivulets of women in black pass by with men in their Sunday best and little girls cavort in brilliant birthday cake dresses.

It appears to hold its various cultures in perfect harmony, except for the underlying level of aggression - be it the shopkeepers sitting on their barazas bombarding you with "Karibu, to look is free", or the frequent muggings of tourists. This "Venice of Africa", like the real Venice, requires some serious navigation to step away from the tourist's well-beaten path.

From Zanzibar I fly to Arusha via Dar es Salaam. On the road to Ngorongoro, we pass desiccated villages, Maasai markets, tinga-tinga paintings, goats, cows, dust tornadoes, acacia and yellow-fever trees. Our driver and guide, Samson, informs us we are now heading off the smooth Japanese roads, so get ready for "African massage". Because we are mhindis, he thinks we should know that most of the accidents in Tanzania are caused by "Bajaj".

Bajaj are the manufacturers of the ubiquitous Indian auto-rickshaw, known as tuk-tuks to the rest of the world, and Bajaj in these parts. "But Indian movies are great," he offers, as concession.

For two nights at the Serena Lodge, hypnotised by the crater below, I am relieved to replace the migratory stories of people with those of animals. For the third time in my life I have "just missed" the migration of the wildebeest, but at least they are moving, in herds of hundreds, slowly, like ants against the horizon. It's the scale of nature here that invigorates somewhat my shattered Stone Town nerves.

Never mind that we have to witness three lionesses hunting a baby buffalo along with 18 other jeeps filled with people who wield their cameras like weapons. At least there's room enough to applaud the weirdly wonderful ostrich, who is strong enough to kill a lion with one kick of its scrawny foot, and marvel at the grace of cattle egrets, who perch like dancers on the backs of hippopotami.

My real African breakthrough comes a few days later in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, in south-west Uganda. With trekking permits at US$500 (Dh1,837) a day, it would be disappointing not to have a life-altering experience. To get there, we must travel 12 hours by road from Kampala each way. In other words, 24 hours of African massage in exchange for one hour with the mountain gorillas. Was it worth it? Absolutely.

We were lucky to find our family sprawled out on the forest floor in a moment of repose. "It's a good viewing for you," our tracker says. "Usually they're climbing up trees or on the move." It is a completely domestic scene in the undergrowth: the silverback holding court in the centre, females fussing with infants, children beating their chests in play. Watching these vegetarian giants, who share 98 per cent of human DNA, I finally felt I could stop in my own story. I am in Africa, I thought, where things begin.