One of the best things about volunteering (and the list is LONG) is getting a “behind the scenes” look at how local people really live. The smells and sounds and sights behind the safaris and sailing trips – these are the bits that really make me feel connected … and alive. And here in Zanzibar – we are literally living and working right smack in the middle of two villages.
The African Impact volunteers (who come from all over the world) – five dolphin & marine focused and six others working on the local education project – live in Jambiani at “Grand”, a cluster of white-washed bungalows nestled right up against the Indian ocean. I can hear the waves from my simple twin bed in the room I share with two other volunteers. We eat delicious collective meals at a long wooden table situated under a steeply vaulted ceiling constructed from palm fronds and rope made from coconuts. Oh – and it’s outside. With a view of the pale blue-green ocean. Though it’s far from luxurious, it’s not too shabby.
Jambiani is situated on a long, white sand beach with a few hotels scattered here and there. But we spend more time in the village behind the beach front … swinging by the “Marine shop” for cold soda and ginger digestive biscuits that are inevitably softened by the salty sea air. Even better – every Wednesday we get to have “local meal” at one of the villager’s homes. One of the beautiful women cooks up bowls of soft, seasoned potatoes and curried cabbage and roughly chopped vegetables cooked with fragrant ginger and tomatoes along with squid and chicken and freshly made chapatti (the local flat bread that resembles a thick tortilla). Flasks of hot spice tea are passed around to fill a mish-mash of mugs and the entire dinner is usually followed by bittersweet oranges and, when we’re lucky, freshly made “doughnuts” (fried dough laden with sugar and fresh cinnamon). We gobble down all this delicious fare seated cross-legged on packed sand “floors” – usually under the stars, often with our generous hostess looking on to make sure everyone has enough to eat. As you may guess – it’s a weekly highlight.
The marine & dolphin volunteers also get to spend a lot of our time in another village 25 minutes away… Kizimkaze is the local fishing village from which we launch our dolphin monitoring boat and head out into the wild blue. We get to know these villagers quite well as it’s terribly important that we gain their respect so we can function effectively in their midst. The marine project manager has done a terrific job of befriending the locals… Mr. Pandu (or Mr. Beard as we lovingly call him – referring to the long soul patch that falls from his chin) is our main point of contact – renting us his boats and communicating with the local fishermen to help supply us with critical information for our fishing practice research.
We assess local fishing methods to determine how the locals handle endangered species. Sadly – concern for conservation isn’t really on their radar … like with the dolphins it’s all about the mighty dollar (or shillings in local currency) so they’ll fish for and catch anything. For instance we recently walked up to their fish cleaning area (a huge cement slab upon which voracious, skinny local cats inevitably perch) and found them cleaning a handful of small reef sharks – and sadly several were pregnant … their tiny little shark babies falling out of their stomachs when the fisherman’s massive knife opened their bellies. With time the project managers hope to educate these men about the ills of these practices. But for now we merely take out our iPhones and photograph the carnage.
On a happier note, we also got a fabulous village tour from endearlingly well-intentioned Rama, our very own Conservation Club Assistant Supervisor (the first and only!). He is perhaps 14 years old and he showed up for our tour sporting a jaunty, homemade banana leaf hat. At first he appeared shy, speaking toward the sandy ground in a quiet voice. But as soon as he got rolling about the local banana and coconut harvests he couldn’t be stopped. I had no idea there was so much to say about banana varieties and so many things to do with coconuts!
He walked us around his village, joyously showing us the “dump” (where the villages just throw their waste … a sad sight to see), the senior villager’s home, the chicken “coops” and other important highlights. He then led us to his own home where he lives with his mother and siblings. We toured their lovely little cement brick house with the open air “living room” and then he pointed to the corner. There stood the toilet – a huge luxury in these parts. He explained proudly that he and his brother had saved for over two years in order to purchase it for his mother. As he escorted us out of the tiny house and, with a huge toothy grin on his face, he insisted we snap a picture of he and his family … which to this day remains one of my favorite from the trip.
The memories I will hold from these local interactions will remain forever vivid – likely even more so than the colorful sunsets and stunning, multi-hued ocean views. Sadly, I haven’t had an easy time grasping Swahili, but I hope that the communication – be it smiles or thumbs held up or small bows of gratitude – has conveyed to these lovely people how much I appreciate, adore and respect them.