Monday 9 September 2013

o : Mafia Island, No. 3 (A Day)

The Isaya Guesthouse
Mafia Island

Dear o,

It’s any odd day on Mafia Island.

At about 5am, before first light has touched the sky, the soundsystem of Kilindoni mosque sends out the singing voice of the muezzin for the first call to prayer.  Between his syllables the island remains silent.  On some mornings you let the intoned prayers wash over you and send you cruising back to sleep.  On others you wedge your head under the pillow, curse religion for forcing itself on those who just don’t feel like getting up yet, and try to dream about a plan to steal away in the darkest hour of the night and smash the damn speakers to pieces.

Unless it’s Friday the prayers don’t last forever, and an hour later you rise.  You throw on your salt-stained running clothes and head for the beach.  Above you the sky is dark blue, but the stars are giving way to the sun, and the blooming clouds are tipped with pink.

You are a far cry from the early bird, and the worm has been got a long time ago.  The fruit-sellers are in place as if they never slept.  Roadside cooks offer a breakfast of chapati, chai, samosa and fried banana.  Two young men cover the empty lots by the market stalls with sheets, and onto the sheets they heave sacks of rice.  Hungry crows stand on the metal roofs and watch as the men untie the knots and spread the rice evenly on the ground to dry out under the approaching sun.  When the sun sets the men will shoo away the birds, who are in fact bored by the same old plate of rice, and repeat their routine in reverse.

You walk across the town on roads of sand.  You join the traffic of old men with canes, teenagers blasting Sheryl Crow from their mobile phones, bicycles with a rider and two hangers-on, a few trucks and motorcycles, and long lines of white-and-blue uniformed students who each carry a book in one arm and a piece of wood in the other.  Most people say jambo or mambo, habari or za asabuhi.  Some stop and stare at you, especially the children.  A mother takes her boy by the arm and walks with him right out onto the road in front of you.  She grabs his hand and waves it for him, and says, “bye bye”.  She wants to introduce him to you as if she were tossing him into the playpen of chickenpox-infected kids.  But the boy starts to cry, and his mother smiles at you and takes him away.  He’s not inoculated from you yet.

You come up to the usual place.  An assemblage of women who cook between the road and a house whisper something to each other and behind them.  Suddenly the expansive old lady, who reminds you of a bigger, balder version your Great Auntie E., leaps out from her wood-enclosed kitchen stockade, throws her arms up, and shouts “Jambo!” – and the world has woken.  Kids have gathered to watch the exchange, and the cooking women are already laughing.  You greet her, and she goes on, “Jambo!  Jambo!  Jambo!”  You say “shikamoo,” the respectful greeting to an elder, which she returns with the expected, “marahaba”.  You shake her hand and feel the hard leather of a life’s work within your fingers.  Her chest is strong, her alms are bulk, and her face lights up the street.  She is leading the laughter, clapping her hands and stomping in the dirt, as you say whatever words you can come up with.  Eventually it ends with “Tutaonana” (good-bye), and she returns to the stockade, yelling at the other women.

You do your stretches in a field which hosts afternoon football/soccer, but is now quiet and peaceful.  Some kids on their way to school stop across the pitch and emulate your movements.  The sun peeks through the trees and lights up globules of red and orange in the shadows.  You take a sip of water, hide your bottle behind a fallen palm trunk, and run on the village tracks. 

You arrive at the beach right beside the dividing line, which is unofficially demarcated by the yellow wall of the hatchery, between the island’s two great industries: fishing and tourism.  To your right are scores of boats double-tied to anchor and shore, and hundreds of men who are getting ready for a day’s work, or who have just returned from a night out.  The smoke of fifty breakfast fires fills the little bay, and a low but rising sun lights up the haze from behind.  Because of all the boat-lines to the right which make it nigh on impossible to run, you turn left, towards the tourist industry, and plant your jogging feet into the deep sand alongside a beach camp and a lodge.

There are only three boats here, all identical and made for off-island tours, probably for spotting whale sharks; they send no lines onto the shore, so as not to interfere with the strolls of the beach-loving guests.  Most are still sleeping, while the lodge workers in dark green t-shirts set out cushions and tables and open the kayak shed.  A Norwegian family of three emerges for their morning walk, and the Englishman you met yesterday sits on a recliner above the sand with his face in his Kindle.  He doesn’t say Jambo.

The sun is already hot on your skin as you run down the beach to the inlet, which is an engulfing river at high tide and nothing but a creek in the sand at low.  There are thousands of crabs burrowed into their holes.  They sprint from the surf as you approach and crouch half into the ground, watching.  Just before you step over them, they dart down to safety.  The two dogs finally see you, rush out from the palm-forest, and try to play.  They bark and whimper and get in your way, but you’ve got to keep running.  Eventually they, like everyone else, give up and watch.

Morning has become day.  You return to town by way of the fishermen’s beach, which is really an obstacle course of boat-lines that sway up and down with the tide.  Some are brightly coloured and thick; some you can’t see until your nose is already smacked.  You step over or crawl under the lines, and in search for the best points to pass you walk zig-zag along.  From the sky you probably resemble a fish.  And that is the smell that is everywhere along with the smoke: huge sheets spread out to dry fish in the sun; they are mostly small and likely bait.  Fishing nets are also thrown out over the ground, and men repair rips and tears in monkish contemplation.  Others hammer at boats wedged up onto the beach at low tide, or hang back on the bank if the tide is high.  Some are out alone in their dugout canoes, shifting their paddle from starboard to port with such grace that you think they must have been born with it in hand.

Back in town the traffic has become bustle, and all the shops are open: hardware merchants near the waterfront; fluorescent-lighted barbers with their loiterers; stationeries that are actually stationeries and stationeries that are actually music-playing video stores; the mzungu shop with its Pringles, Nutella, shampoo and toilet paper; and more mobile phone kiosks than Manhattan.  By the fruit market the antisocial woodworker is turning the lathe and making yet another table-leg.  He has huge cheeks, and perenially foggy glasses.  And he is still wearing that same white toque.

There is a wide variety of available establishments for lunch, but they all serve the same thing at the same price: rice or ugali (soft, sticky ball of maize and/or rice), beans, a thumb-sized chunk of lamb or beef, and a dollop of tomatoes-and-onions.  Today you find and pick a new one, and the portion is substantial enough.  You won’t need to go hunt down some chapati, chipsimayai (chips with fried egg) or a kebab of meat later on.

The afternoon heat sends people off to chat or play music, or if they cannot leave their post, against the wall to sleep.  Noise mixes with the temperature: televised English football from this stall or that, men revving their motorcycles as if to make harmony, even the odd ambulance or landing airplane.  On most days at about this time the power goes out for an hour or two, but the only indication of it is comes when the local headquarters of the ruling political party (Chama Cha Mapinduza) switches on their generator.  The covered, tunneling market is still cool, meanwhile, and regardless of electricity the conversations only mumble through its wooden frame.  You meander through it and then to the town again, catching on the noise and falling with the sleepers; you are restless and thirsty and water doesn’t help.  Nobody is busy, nobody is going anywhere, but everyone continues to go.  You join them.

You trek out of the centre of town, around the ring-fenced airstrip, past the police station and behind the hospital to the practically invisible Whale Shark Lodge.  You catch the sun lower between the trees of its outstanding, ridge-top view.  It’s hard to believe the day is already ending, but so it is.  You order some food and are told it will take two hours to prepare.  You’re fine with that.  You watch the sun set, and see the dozen crowded fishing boats cross under it, going out to sea.  The trees down the ridge in front of you rustle, and you figure school has finished.  But then you see the dark figures leap from branch to branch, and realise they are Black Monkeys.  They call each other, play with each other, and stare at you.  When the sun gets dark and red you don’t know what to pay more attention to.

The Indian-inspired food is excellent, and it better be; at five times the price of a downtown stall meal, you hope you aren’t just paying for the privilege to sit.  And as the sun’s last light goes, you see two sets of stars.  One above, the southern sky, somehow stranger, more brilliant, more punctuated than that of the north.  The other set of stars are out on the sea: the fishing boats have switched on their lights, and form a long line of twinkles across the ocean horizon.  You think you can hear them, the same commotion from the beachside at dawn now played out on the black water, and echoing back to you.  You watch and listen, it comes in waves, and the night passes as fast as the day.

From a different mosque and in a different voice, but in the same tones, comes the last call to prayer.  The middle three all jumbled together, but this one is clear and final.  You walk beneath it on your way home.  You won’t go out to the Container Bar tonight to watch the school principal bump hips with young ladies, nor swap Swahili and English with Jake at the roundabout.  You want to listen a little more.  The island town is still buzzing and light and fun, and there is music in all corners.  But it has reached its apex, and begun its inexorable drive to the silence of dawn.

You don’t dream about smashing speakers against the mosque walls, but of gently unhooking the wires and burying them under rocks.  They must have had an extra set, however, for there’s the muezzin all over again, starting a day that doesn’t always want to be started.



The 'tourism' side of the beach
High tide
A dhow near the new dock
Fishing beach
A dhow
Fishing beach