Sunday 25 August 2013

o : Mafia Island, No. 2 (Change is Coming)

The Container Bar
Mafia Island

Dear o,

Change is coming to Mafia Island.  Nobody knows exactly when it will happen, for there isn’t anything that could be formally called the news on the island.  The only shop I’ve found that has newspapers uses them to wrap their chapati, and so for over my lunch today I read about election preparations in Kenya’s The Standard, from February 2012.  I would even hesitate to say there is gossip, because even this makes it sound like there’s a rumour mill somewhere, churning out half-baked information.  No, what there are on Mafia Island are the loud and lonely few who long ago surmised that there is a bigger and more loving audience for precise pronouncements and exact answers.  Witness this behaviour in action when you receive 24 different responses upon asking what hour tomorrow’s ferry leaves.

But news or rumour aside, nobody can deny what they see.  A brand new dock, perhaps 500m long, is currently under construction at Kilindoni port, and by the look of it is nearly complete.  All the platforms are in place, and construction is finished all the way to the end; only the wings are left.  Two work-boats float at the end of the dock, shifting heavy material and placing new green pillars into the shallow sea, while workers hang from under the platforms and hammer away.  The story is that once the dock is complete, Kilindoni and thus Mafia will begin receiving regular, direct passenger boats from Dar es Salaam and/or Zanzibar.

At the moment, tourists can only arrivewithan expensive airplane trip to Kilindoni airstrip, or with the swaying, creaking, life-jacket-less ferry on afour-hour trip (or more, depending on whether or not the pilot gets caught on a sandbank and forgets where he’s supposed to point the bow) from Nyamisati, about 150km south of Dar es Salaam.  Now, I’ve only been here a week, so count me out as an expert on Mafia Island tourism.  But it seems that the bread and butter of the island’s travel industry is composed of those pre-arranged visitors who booked their Tanzania vacation months ago, and pegged Mafia as the ideal location for a post-safari kick-back on the beach.  The island, especially the south end by and near the marine park, is dotted with family-friendly lodges catering to this crowd.  The big activity is snorkelling and scuba-diving, and the big underwater attraction is the enormous yet non-violent whale shark.  It’s currently off-season for this big bottom-feeder, but that doesn’t stop the island’s small cadre of flycatchers and hustlers from advertising cruises to go out and see some.

As for the other kind of tourist?  The ones who update TripAdvisor and write feedback to travel guides whilst hopping around the continent with backpacks, phrasebooks and a budget?  They’re here too, mostly with the Nyamisati ferry and in smaller numbers, and they’ve come for similar reasons.  They’ve read the same stuff in the Lonely Planet about a“tranquil island paradise” where you “dive or relax on white sands” and “stroll along sandy lanes through the coconut palms,” about a “stronghold of traditional Swahili culture” that “remains refreshingly free of the mass tourism” that plagues Arusha and Zanzibar.  And they are overwhelmingly disappointed.

It’s easy to understand why, when you think about how Mafia has been, up to now, set up for tourism.  All the island’s hotels and lodges are expensive, ranging from TSH 140,000 (about €70) per person per night, and up to, well, I’m not sure yet.  And worse, if you stay at any of these lodges, you are obliged to pay an additional $20 per person per day in marine park fees, regardless of whether or not you actually enter the park itself.  The only exception to this rule is accommodation in Kilindoni, and here the spread goes from cheap guesthouses, to the Ibizza Inn with its always-blaring satellite television, to the tucked-away Whale Shark Lodge, with a terrific view of everything you can’t get close to.

Since being stranded in Kilindoni I’ve met quite a few of the travelers who aren’t whisked away to their lodge by private taxi from their airstrip or beach arrival.  All of them are shocked when their motorcycle ride or dalla-dalla (shared minibus taxi) en route to a cheap hostel in Utende stops at the marine park gate, where they are asked to pay the fees up front by bored and crabby staff.  The few hardcore divers shrug, and hand out the bills with a smile.  Some suck it up, shake their heads with a mutter of TIA (“this is Africa”), and stay a day – maybe they force themselves to go for a snorkel because what the hell, they’ve come so far, they don’t want their $20 to go for nothing – while others just turn around and come right back.  Either way, once returned to Kilindoni, these mid-budget deal-seakers, youth-eyed backpackers and shoestring tent campers take a walk around town, visit one of the two bars, and catch the next day’s ferry out.

This is what happened to the Swiss couple Al and I met in Nyamisati.  They are traveling on bicycles, which they brought to the island, and hoped to do a full circuit of Mafia.  After turning back at the marine park gate they found the Wapi Wapi Beach Camp where they could pitch their tents for TSH 7,500 per person per night.  Disappointed but not discouraged, they looked at their map and saw the big chunk of the island not within the pink park boundary, and decided to go north.  They cycled all the way up to Bweni and planned to spend the night at the lighthouse 10km north of that town.  But in the village they were chased down by an official with an official coat and official forms, and asked to pay the official fee: TSH 5,000 each, just to enter Bweni.  On principle, they once again turned around, decided against bushwacking around the village, and returned to Kilindoni after nightfall in time to purchase ferry tickets for the following morning.

On the night they returned I was meeting up at the bar with two French youngsters, an Italian girl and an immensely tall German fellow.  The Swiss joined in and the conversation soon turned to money as it relates to the African Way, a chat spurred on by the waitress who tried to charge the newcomers more than normal.  The tall German argued that it was okay, he didn’t mind paying extra, that he could afford it.  The Swiss and I countered that it was not only wrong to rinse and cheat the mzungu (Swahili for foreigner), but that it was socially unhealthy, and eventually bad for the local people.  The Bweni villagers who might reap the odd TSH 5,000 probably don’t realise what could be gained by cutting that out and welcoming visitors with something original and interesting, and more germane than a handout.  It’s the classic African malady: short-term greed frustrates long-term prosperity.  But then again, there was precious little retort to the German’s rebuttal: who are we to say what’s unhealthy or unproductive here?

I imagine that this multi-lingual discussion we had in the bar is common to Kilindoni backpackers, and irrelevant to the island’s tourist workers.  We hassle for cheaper sunset boat trips, turn our backs on triple-price for a SIM card, and count our change.  Why bother with us?  Just yesterday on my morning run I visited the only lodge on Kilindoni’s beach.  Maybe it was because of my sweat, but when I asked to see the dinner menu and suggested Al and I might come for a meal next time she visits (a respite from the ugali, rice and beans) the bartender shot me a suspicious glance and said we would have to ask the manager.  I said, fine, we’ll chat with him if and when we come.  No, he said, in advance.  Subtext: not welcome.  We are too few to make a difference, we wanderers.  We aren’t the real money here.  Not yet.

When the ferries start running direct from Dar es Salaam or Zanzibar, or both, you can bet your ass that things will change, and fast.  Imagine walking around Dar es Salaam, in the centre or near the port.  You see the usual signs everywhere, the talk with other travelers, and the hustler’s keywords: safari, Serengeti, lions, Kilimanjaro, tanzanite, Zanzibar, Mafia Island.  What’s that last one?  I’ve never heard of it.  Diving, beaches, paradise.  How do I get there?  Get on a boat for five hours at a decent price, and above all: it’s easy.  Tanzania has more impulse-buying tourists than I’ve seen in Africa since Morocco, and they’ll flock to this island.  When the ferries start, there won’t be enough hotels, eateries, diving trips, cultural tours, market stalls, cheap Chinese-made trinkets and hustlers to service the first boat load.  And the locals here, for the most part, aren’t bothered.  And that itself worries me: if Mafians don’t build this infrastructure and get set for the whirlwind, better-practiced mainlanders will come instead, and steal the business from under them.

And so here I am, going on about the sweeping change of tourism, the great benefits of travelers who redistribute their wealth around the world in the name of going other places.  My letter’s implication is that the increased supply, demand and competition will all be better for the lowly backpacker, the sagacious merchant, and the local people to boot.  But I’m well aware of the coin’s other side – and it’s a side that’s dark, smudged, and scratched out all across this continent.  I know what it could mean for this unspoilt island.  The kids on my walk on the village road who wave at me, chase me, jump on my hands to lift them up – they’ll get bored, go home, and learn to say “mzungu,give me money” as a few of their cohorts have already done.  The road to Utende will be paved (it’s being done right now) and the ride will become less bumpy – but the locals’ only means of transport, thedalla-dallas,will still be worn-out gas-guzzlers, breaking down on the hill just outside of town where there is nothing for a tourist to see.Bweni villagers might make even more cash from lighthouse visitors – but where will that money go, if not to the headman and his boys?  Restaurants will crowd Kilindoni and offer all sorts of choice: chipsi mayai (chips and fried eggs) will be served alongside burgers and pizza – but prices will rise concomitantly, and the locals will have to go further out for their affordable sticky balls of maize.  New lodges and hotels will spring up just near Kilindoni or in the north, outside the ‘extended’ marine park boundary to avoid the fee, and eventually the park warden will only charge those actually entering, caving to pressure from the lodges going out of business – but the marine park will lose that income, cut programmes, and lay-off some of their staff.  An unsustainable number of snorkelers and divers might even wreck havoc on the reefs.  Mafia will be easy, affordable, tourist-friendly – and, for some, no longer Mafia.

So sayeth my prophecy?  No, let’s call it conjecture.  I don’t even know if the ferries will be so regular from the mainland, if they come into service at all.  Sure, the dock is nearly complete, but what if it’s one of those big-spending big-government gambles that won’t pay off?  What if the new batch of tourists are turned off, and change is cancelled – or at least postponed?  All I’ve got are the mumblings, after all, which build up to rumour, like puzzle pieces that only fit with an overly optimistic solution and enough pressure of the thumb.

Oh, and the biggest rumour of all?  The president is coming on Wednesday to formally open the new dock.  I wonder if he’ll tell us when the new boats start sailing. Where does his news come from?



The new dock
Under construction
The new dock, and one of the Nyamisati ferries
Fishing boats next to the dock
The crane ship
Hanging out