Month: October 2015

Zanzibar – A Glimpse of Village Life

Volunteer lodging - our front yard

Volunteer lodging – our front yard

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.

View from the fishing village

View from the fishing village

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.

The chopping block ... complete with local cat

The chopping block … complete with local cat

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.

Proud rooster from village tour

Proud rooster from village tour

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!

Did someone say bananas!?

Did someone say bananas!?

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.

Proud Rama & family

Proud Rama & family

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.

A Day With The Dolphins

Our view from the "office"

Our view from the “office”

Like many of my volunteer experiences, my time here in Zanzibar is nearly impossible to condense into a few paragraphs. There’s just so much to share… So I’ll just try to cobble together a few stories and see where that takes us.

The first day “on project” started early as the other four volunteers and our project coordinator and I crammed into the van to get to Kizimkaze – a small fishing village where our “headquarters” are located. We hurtled down the road at breakneck speed (as one does in Tanzania … fast driving seems to be a thing), with some hip hop tunes by local African artists blaring from the speakers. When we arrived, we tumbled out and headed to the “office” … a portion of an open-air restaurant with the most amazing view where the volunteer team completes our data entry and hangs out between trips out into the ocean and over to the fish market.

Morning view from the fishing village.

Morning view from the fishing village.

After we arrived around 6:45am, we all piled into a medium-sized, fiber boat with a small motor and headed out looking for dolphins … and tourists. Part of the project I’m working on is dedicated to assessing how the local tourist boat drivers behave among the dolphins with the goal of helping preserve the dolphins and their local habitat. More on that later.

On and on we went … driving for about 30-40 minutes over shallow waves looking for dolphins or tourist boats. And then, finally …. nothing. Not one dolphin. The other volunteers had never experienced this before. Huh… So we turned around and started heading back. And then … on the horizon, a burst of activity. A cluster of movement in the distance. As we neared we came upon 20 tourist boats brimming with 74 over-excited tourists. They had spotted the dolphins and were in hot pursuit. We finally saw some dark gray fins sailing in our direction so we stopped our boat, ready to “clinically” assess what we saw. I, however, was unable to remain objective that first day…

That first sight of the dolphins was magic – seeing their shimmering bodies gliding through the aquamarine water is something I’ll never see without my breath catching. But at the same time, I felt like crying. They were being harassed by the boats who were zooming toward and, at one point, over them. Finned, masked, snorkled tourists would throw themselves in the water as soon as they neared, hoping to get as close as possible to these beautiful beasts.

I sat slack-jawed, and soon began to steam. And then I started feeling super self-righteous and judgemental. How could these idiotic tourists behave with so little intelligence and care – so little grace? THEY were the animals… And I grumbled about the boat drivers … screaming under my breath (is that even possible?) as they gunned their motors at the first sight of a fin, screaming off to beat their competition, positioning their boats to trap the poor dolphins so they couldn’t escape. It was mayhem. It was chaos. It was … just really very, very sad.

But that is why we were there. These boat drivers don’t really know any better. They’ve never been trained to understand dolphins or safety or environmental respect. They are there for the job. They are there to make money. And these, I promise you, are not judgemental words. I have seen how these people live. It’s not poverty per se … most of those I’ve seen living on this island don’t live with much but they have a village life that works. They have food to eat and a roof over their head. And a community that works together to provide. They seem happy. Very happy actually. But – I would imagine a boat driving job is in high demand. And happy clients means more tips, more job security. And a client who actually gets to swim with dolphins is a happy, tip-paying client.

Many might think, well why can’t you just tell them how to behave? But with every day I spend doing developmental volunteer work – I learn that nothing is as simple as it might seem. It takes time. It takes understanding behavior. And gaining trust and respect. This project I’m working with started over two years ago and we are now just starting to work on workshops that will be given to these men. So they will hopefully be more CAREful with the dolphins. But this education won’t likely happen right away. Politics and language barriers and custom … everything comes into play.

So we will continue to drive our boat out into the ocean and unpack our clipboards and count the number of times the dolphins surface amidst the chaos. And the number of times the boats drive at high speed in their midst. And my eyes will likely continue to well up as I watch this dance. And I’ll just have to continue to hope that what we’re doing will ultimately make a difference. God I hope we can make a difference.


Postnote: apologies for the lack of photos on this one. Dolphins are very, very difficult to photograph. Especially in these circumstances. And I didn’t feel the silly tourists and the busy boats warranted a picture.

Postnote 2: I am a bit hesitant to publish this post… not very sunny or exciting or fun-filled. But this was my reality on this particular day…

A Room With A View

A few steps out my front door.

A few steps out my front door.

OK – I’ll admit it. I have been almost ceaseless lazy since I arrived in Zanzibar five days ago. I attribute my sloth to a multitude of things … a dodgy stomach upon arrival, not one but two days in which I allowed the sun to burn me to a crisp (you’d think I would have learned the first time) … leaving me writhing in bed all night – my legs resembling sticks of cinnamon chewing gum (ruddy red covered with a thin veil of white, chalky dust – which in this case is the powdery sand that infiltrates everything). But really – I think my body just needed a break. Day after day of hauling donkey legs around in dilapidated wheelbarrows in 100 degree heat will slow a girl down.

So I decided to listen to my body and, for the most part, just chill out. This M.O. is fairly foreign to me … the one who views being uber productive and “getting sh*t done” as a badge of honor. Thankfully – Zanzibar seems as if it was built expressly for relaxation – and the beach on which I’m staying continues to offer up ample entertainment no less than a few slow footsteps outside my door.

On the first morning … gassy mopeds whizzed by followed by slower bicycles laden with one boy, two boys, three boys (but never girls …?).  A few other gangly teenagers sat in an old, box-like contraption as a poor, skinny donkey ran them down the beach, weaving about to avoid the shallow waves. Multitudes of local kids ran around – some trying to impress with cartwheels and back flips off low sand hills.

Faithful Zawadi

Faithful Zawadi

And then there is the daily parade of animals. I already mentioned Zawadi – the sweet, skinny dog who welcomed me on my first day (I later learned her name is really Lilly but I’m sticking with Zawadi as she continues to be a huge blessing) and ceaselessly greets me every morning – often hanging by my lazy side for most of the day.

Just a few cows out for a stroll...

Just a few cows out for a morning stroll…

But in addition to my sweet canine friend I have encountered … a herd of cows out for a morning stroll, a pack of puppies who, along with their watchful mother, tore across the beach to literally nip at my heals (that is, until they spotted the meandering cows … then they were off like beagles after a fox). There are errant goats and a scattering of roosters.

Puppies! I mean ... come on!!

Puppies! I mean … come on!!

And let’s not forget the tiny, pale beige crabs who almost blend in with the oatmeal-colored sand – until a wisp of wind blows their cover, picking them up off the ground  and floating them in every direction for all to see. When they land, they look momentarily discombobulated and then start their magical, skittering dance again.

Skittering sand crab

Skittering sand crab

With all this entertainment, I have to say that perhaps my most treasured sighting came earlier this morning – right before noon. I was reclining on a chaise lounge (covered in 100 SPF and set up square under a solid thatched covering, thank-you-very-much) when I glanced up from my tattered paperback murder mystery (which I was happy to find amongst all the German and Dutch version of Dan Brown books left on the hotel’s heavy oak tables).

As I gazed at the large wooden boat that I had looked at day after day from this very perch, I spotted a man climb aboard. Which wasn’t too out of the ordinary – except it was low tide and the old boat was teetering on its side, stuck in the sand. As I watched, the man stood on one of the boat’s benches and became very still. Then he slowly lowered himself down to kneel – and then prostrated himself on the narrow piece of wood. Then he rose and started again. The wind was blowing the heavy leaves surrounding me but it felt as if silence descended. I couldn’t look away … even though I felt like I was an interloper. He continued with his prayers, rising and falling… rising and falling. And then he stood – silent and still. Then, he held onto the boat, threw his legs over the side, delicately jumped into the shallow blue water and sauntered away.

A beautiful boat for prayer.

A beautiful boat for prayer.

So much to see … so much beauty … such unexpected sightings. I’m glad I’ve allowed myself to just be. Think of what I would have missed…

Jambo Zanzibar

The coast of Zanzibar from the tiny puddle jumper I flew in on

My view of the coast of Zanzibar from the tiny puddle jumper I flew in on

“Ahhh – you are very most welcome to Zanzibar, Kathryn!” sang Abu when I told him it was my fist visit to his country. I use the word “sing” because I want to find some way to describe the magical manner of speaking of this jolly African man who gathered me at the airport upon my arrival. Waiting with a simply drawn sign and a huge smile on his face, Abu greeted me like a long lost friend and when he gently added,  “You will please sit next to me in the front seat?” – I became immediately smitten with Zanzibar and its people.

During the hour and fifteen minute drive across the island to Matemwe where I would be spending the following six days before starting my next volunteer project, my new friend Abu regaled me with stories of the pending elections, his many childrens’ activities and his long and colorful work history. When I asked him if he was happy with his current job – his face brightened even more and, with a hearty laugh, he replied, “Oh yes – this is the very best job. I am a very very happy man.”

When I didn’t think he could get any more cheerful, he abruptly pulled his minivan to the side of the road in front of a pretty woman wearing a bright blue and yellow printed kanga* draped over her head and another printed one around her body. “Who might this be?” Abu asked gleefully. Before I could answer, he continued, “Ah it my beautiful wife!!” I rolled down the window when we stopped and gave her the paper parcel Abu handed me – receiving her warm greeting and desperately wishing I had learned more Swahili before I arrived in Zanzibar. “Hello!” I responded enthusiastically … and we were off.

The view from Abu's van

The view from Abu’s van

Soon Abu stopped his minivan again – escorting me to an array of rickity roadside tables laden with  fruit. He helped me pick out a bunch of tiny bright yellow bananas and diminutive mangoes (“Sorry my friend, not in season right now,” he, warned, “but delicious!”) and a few green oranges. We then continued our journey – slowing down as the skies opened and hard rain poured down for a hot minute, shuttling past gangs of children coming from school – all dresssed in various uniforms, usually bright royal blue, and looking impossibly starched and perfect in the humid afternoon sun.

The first hour of our trip sped by so I wanted to be sure to ask the myriad of questions on my mind. “Abu … do you like seafood?” I queried. “Ahhhh – how very much do I love seafood!” he responded … spending the next few minutes talking about his favorite varieties. And then I asked the million dollar question. “And what about octopus?” “AAIIHHH!!”  he cried – his eyes rolling back and his already huge grin taking over the rest of his face. He could hardly contain himself – such was his love of this delicacy. So we spent the rest of the ride talking about his beloved eight-footed sea creature along with the spices his lovely wife uses (chief among them ginger, cinnamon, cardamom … it is Spice Island after all) and every other culinary question I could think to ask.

When we finally pulled up at the Matemwe Beach Village, I was sad to say goodbye to my new friend. But he had erased any concern I had about being by myself on this island for the next several days. I felt utterly welcomed. And I’m happy to report that the warm people who work here where I am staying have carried on Abu’s tradition of warmth and friendliness. And I can’t wait to tell you about my best new friend Zawadi** … the local dog who adopted me on my second day here, staying by my side throughout the morning and afternoon – as if placed into my life to make sure I know I am not alone. Stay tuned!

My new friend Zawadi

My new friend Zawadi

* Try as I might, I could not figure out an accurate description of the local Muslim dress worn by women in Zanzibar. I don’t believe it’s called a traditional hijab or a buibui – so I chose “kanga” which is a brightly colored square of fabric or sarong.

** Nobody on the beach seems to know this sweet dog’s name so I decided to call her Zawadi … Swahili for “gift”


C’mon, C’mon

Walking with lions

Walking with lions

There are countless commands given during a lion walk. And I’m using the word “command” intentionally. Our highly trained lion handlers are not giving mere suggestions. When I hear “watch your back” – I quickly look over my shoulder, determine which way a lion will be passing and step aside – giving him or her a wide berth.

“OK, we go,” is another command – meaning it’s time to move on to another location. This might be because it’s simply time to get the lions moving again after a lazy session on the banks of the Zambezi. Or it might be because one of the scouts has spotted wild elephant or buffalo in the area and we need to scram. Regardless of the reasoning, when I hear these instructions, I listen.

Lazing by the river

Lazing by the river

The words “C’mon, C’mon” are not a command directed at us. This one is for the lions. The handlers use it to get them moving. As volunteers, we are encouraged to call it out when the lions are lollygagging or lounging too long. These words are inevitably sung out countless times as we traipse through the bush. And at some point, the lions usually drag themselves away from their spots in the shade or their perches on the banks of the river and lumber along after us. Though I often think to myself that they look like they’d much rather stay put.

Caphas (before "we go")

Cephas (before “we go”)

As my time here in Zambia comes to a close, I’m becoming more reflective. And the other day one of the handlers, Cephas (a biblical name pronounced “Kay-fass”), called out to us, “OK, we go.” And I thought to myself, “Yeah… OK, we go” – not thinking about unfolding myself up off the comfortable, shaded log I was sitting on but rather that it’s getting close to the time when I’ll need to depart. To move on from Zambia. And as I sit here typing, gazing out at the still river during my mini-break on Bovu Island, I feel like I want to throw up. I don’t want to leave Zambia. I want to stay put. It hasn’t been long enough. How can the next part of this journey possibly live up to this past month? These people I’ve met – the handlers and the project staff and the volunteers – how can anyone possibly compare to them? And the lions!? What about the lions? Will I ever get to stroke a lion’s hot-from-the-Zambian-sun fur as it slides past me again? And… cue the tears. Dammit.

Of course I have no idea what’s to come. No doubt there will be magic and mayhem and mystery and all of that. For now – I think I just need to try to behave as I do during my beloved lion walks. Be present. Stop thinking about what transpired in the past or what may happen in the future. Because I might just miss something. Like a brilliant black and white kingfisher dive-bombing fish in the Zambezi. Or a mama baboon quickly scurrying across the lawn, her twin babies clinging to her stomach. Or, god forbid, a call from my new friend Happy telling me to watch my back because a naughty lion is galloping toward me – looking overly interested in tumbling into my bare ankles.

Mama baboon & babies

Mama baboon & babies


Not from this morning's walk ... but a WILD elephant nonetheless

Not from this morning’s walk … just a wild elephat glimpsed on another day in the park

“Don’t panic,” Cara said to Nina, another volunteer walking with our group on this morning’s lion walk. A few moments before I had thought I’d heard something suspicious but I shook it off… there are always odd noises out in the bush. But then we heard some loud rustling and then an even louder trumpet call … definitely an elephant. Soon after that one of our guides, Sunday, came crashing through a heavily treed area, running faster than I’ve ever seen him run. And then, from Cara …” RUN!!!” I hadn’t realized that I had grabbed someone’s arm, gripping it tightly during the melee. I can’t even recall at this point whose arm it was. But I quickly dropped it and took off after Cara and Nina and Sunday – speedily negotiating heavily-thorned bushes that I traditionally walked gingerly around. We only ran for a minute or two at the most, until we were out of harm’s way, but it felt like an eternity. I didn’t even give a second thought to where the lions were during our sprint. None of us did. Safety was all that mattered.

Sekulu - chilling after this morning's excitement

Sekulu – chilling after this morning’s excitement

So – quite an interesting start to the day it would seem. However, in actuality my day had started much earlier. At around 5:30 in the morning I had rolled over, searched for my headlamp and peered at my iPhone to discover the time. Figuring the sun would soon rise I decided to start my day and, since it was a rare morning with power, I quickly opened Facebook to see what was happening on the other side of the world. The first post I read made me sit up straight. My dear friend Amy’s father had passed away suddenly. And she wrote the most beautiful tribute … tinged with sadness but also brimming with deep love. Reading about the passing of this man I never knew really struck me hard. And reminded me of the preciousness and fragility of life. Again. Just yesterday I read a post from another friend, announcing the return of her cancer. While I am thankful that I only know a handful of women who were diagnosed with breast cancer around the same time as me, I am saddened that this makes two who have had a reoccurrence. Sobering. Very sobering.

Our brilliant Zambian sky

Our brilliant Zambian sky

So between the news of death and cancer and this morning’s threatening walk … today I am left a bit … how to explain it? Obviously saddened by the news and a bit rattled by the walk. But really? Alive. Newly aware and appreciative of my lot in life. My zest for sucking up every ounce of life every second of every day is reinvigorated. And I know this will wane again as time goes by. But for now … I find myself grinning as I collect fresh elephant dung to make toys for the lions and can’t wait for what’s next – whatever that may be.

© 2019 Onward Voyage