Tag: African Impact

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…

Care and Feeding

Happy with one of the girls

Happy with Safiya

Following a breakfast of a lovely fried egg and the most welcome surprise of bright orange melon (a first!), our main Lion Manager Cara put her two closed fists out in front of another volunteer and me and asked us to choose. The other volunteer Carol picked one fist which, when opened, had nothing inside – so I got the mysterious silver ring … which meant I was the lucky volunteer who got to take medical notes during the upcoming lion operation! I was instantly giddy … being entrusted with simple things like jotting down the time the lion was darted and when he went under from the heavy drugs. Perhaps these activities sounds banal, but I’ve come to care so deeply for these cats that being able to provide any kind of assistance has become highly meaningful. All the more so when I regard how the people who work here care for these animals.

I have been struck since day one by the deep concern and passion displayed by every member of the Lion Encounter staff. Watching the lion handlers – whether it’s Kennedy or Trywell or Happy or Sunday – walk with these cats day after day is like viewing fathers caring for their children. They stroke them softly as they glide by – or reprimand them just sternly enough when they are acting “naughty” (i.e. giving a volunteer an overly interested look or moving quickly toward a guest walking nearby).

Everyone is equally caring with all facets of this operation. “Enclosure cleaning” is a big part of most days – meaning walking through areas looking for and gathering lion poo and discarded bones from previous feeds. These big, strong men walk with us volunteers, surveying the dry earth – picking up tiny shards of femurs and using thin sticks to gather the smallest remnants of poo. It might sound odd to note this – but I am always struck by the attention they bring to every task … forever ensuring these lions have the most optimal surroundings possible.

Ndulu surrounded by those who care for him

Ndulu surrounded by those who care for him

So when we all heard that Ndulu, one of the male lions, needed a minor operation, it was no surprise that fifteen of us (volunteers and staff) surrounded the two vets as they probed and removed a small growth from his side. At two and a half, Ndulu has had several small procedures like this – Cara simply calls him a “lumpy lion” … and the hope is that this latest growth is also benign. Regardless, four of the handlers gently picked Ndulu up after he fell to the earth from the effects of the strong tranquilizer dart and carried him to a shady area – some of them covering him with their bodies during the procedure to keep him as cool as possible. All of us silently watched as the vet used his scalpel and then delicate stitches to tend to this beautiful cat. It is a sight I’ll never forget.

I’ve had tears in my eyes several times since my arrival here in Africa … during my sunrise visits to the neighboring elephants as I watch a mother wrap her trunk around her tiny daughter or as I sit watching a delicate vervet monkey with just one leg valiantly hobble along after his brothers and sisters. And I have no doubt I’ll tear up when have to leave these amazing cats and the people who care for them. I’m just grateful that most of my tears are coming from joy and amazement. That what we are all doing here is making a difference. That, hopefully, the care and feeding provided by my new African friends (as well as staff and volunteers from around the world) will help sustain and improve the plight of lions in Africa. This would be a dream come true.

Early morning elephant visit

Early morning elephant visit

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