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Kenya – Swahili Sinbads

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Text by David Adams
Photography by David Adams

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For the better part of a thousand years, the coasts of Tanzania and Kenya were the destination for traders, adventurers and fortune-hunters from as far afield as Persia, Cathay and Europe. The name of Zanzibar evoked tales of perfumes, spices, exotic animals and of course slavery.

The legend of Sinbad conjures up the romance of Arabian Nights, the Tales of Sheherazade and Aladdin. The first known reference to this sea-faring hero was in the tenth Century AD, with Sinbad setting off on long voyages in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, where he found pirates, adventure and treasure. His inspiration was reputedly “the promptings of the soul as well as the desire for profit”, betraying his mercantile background – and the fabled riches with which he’s usually associated.

I wanted to meet the modern-day Sinbads; the seamen who still sail by the stars on dhows along the East coast of Africa – from Lamu to Zanzibar, the island of spices. Little has changed over a millennium: there are still pirates off the Somali coast; the haggling in the markets of Lamu and Mombassa is still fast and furious; the dhow’s tell-tale triangular white sail still dominates the ocean horizon.

I start my journey in Lamu, Kenya. Once a fortress port protected by the Sultan of Oman, Lamu was a medieval Cape Canaveral – a launch pad for men brave enough to sail off the ends of the earth in search of fortune. Lamu is an island, town and archipelago. While it’s part of Kenya, it has little in common with the East African country’s culture, due to the Arab influences brought to bear on this little island for centuries.

 

 

It’s a favourite place for holiday-makers, largely thanks to the easy-going pace on this island. Vehicles are forbidden here (except for the District Commissioner’s Land Rover), electricity supply is intermittent and phone lines stubbornly silent. The perfect place to get away from it all.

It’s also – like Mombassa further down the coast – Muslim, so the muezzin’s mournful call to prayer is a common sound. The architecture is very Arabic, and Lamu is famous for its doors. Carved doors are to Lamu what glass is to Venice, and they are as sumptuous. Wood carvers have been plying their trade here for centuries and the result is one of continual surprise and discovery as you wander through the tiny alleyways of Lamu.

The market place, where I start my journey, is typically frenetic and chaotic, with sumptuous piles of fruit and spices, baskets of squawking chickens, ghat sellers, old men playing dominoes, traders announcing their wares loudly to the world.

First stop: the dhow, to ensure my sea passage from here to Zanzibar. I have to find a captain willing to take me for the length of the journey. Thankfully, I have Swali, the local shipping agent, to help me out. Never try to bargain quickly in Africa – pushiness and impatience gets you nothing but higher prices.

The captain suggests 5000 Kenyan Shillings which is a bit rich for my blood, and after much nodding, umm-ing and aa-ing we finally agree on KSh 3500. It’s probably still quite expensive, but I’m pleased that I’ve managed to bring the price down in the time-honoured manner of Sinbad. We’ll sail with the afternoon tide.

I also have to buy my wares in Lamu, before I set off on my journey South. It’s strange to imagine that Sinbad once walked this market place, haggling and bartering for cheap goods, spices, ivory, leopard skins, rhino horn, peacocks and slaves. But being a muzungu – a white man in Swahili – and not very familiar with the going rates, I need to be careful. And I only have four hours to find all the goods I’ll be trading down the coast before the dhow casts off, so I have to hurry.

A group of Masai men, dancing and singing on the beach north of Mombassa I look for antiques and perishables – like grain and tobacco – and I have to make a profit when I sell them again, so I need to put on my poker face. Thanks to Swali, I find the best antique shop in Lamu. It’s stuffed full with knick-knacks, junk and treasure and my eyes grow wider and wider as I peer inside.

I see a sword, a scimitar – the kind I’ve always wanted. The shop-owner tells me it is an original jambia, from 1370 and after more haggling I exit the shop with my goods: the jambia, a knife, a chest and an Aladdin lamp (it seemed appropriate) – and all for KSh 56,500, which is around $500. Not too bad, considering the original price was KSh 300,000…

And now for the perishables. Swali is already waiting for me at the grain store and he’s helped me buy good tobacco, saffron and ten bags of millet which I can sell further down the coast. I’m ready to sail.

The dhow – Sauda 4 – is a teak-hulled beauty. She’s around 50 feet long (17 metres) and weighs about 25 tons. With a good monsoon breeze in her sails she can do around 8 knots, which is 13 miles an hour. There’s no engine, no radar, no GPS, and no winches to haul her boom up. Everything depends on the lanteen sail. This simple piece of triangular design is how the Arab sailors dominated the oceans from the Mediterranean to China – or Cathay.

Back in the Middle Ages, dhows used to have planks just sewn together, rather than nailed, and I’m glad to notice that this is a modern dhow. Ship-wrecks were common and very little survived. In fact, because the only metal component of an old-fashioned dhow was the anchor, that was also the only traceable bit when the ship sank – which is also how shipping lanes were discovered. Join up the dots of anchors and follow the lines.

This does not instil me with a great deal of confidence, but then again the crew have been sailing all their lives and they look as if they know what they’re doing. Inshallah!

We’re off, sailing into the unknown. Somewhere, far over the horizon, lies Zanzibar, the island at the end of the world. I feel as if I’ve sailed back in time – the creaking of the wood, the snap of the sail, the crackle of the cooking fire… Cooking fire? I double-take at the flames that one of the crew is fanning and wonder how wise that is on a wooden boat. But Ali, the cook, is completely relaxed – down here, as I discover on our long journey, Ali works culinary miracles. Every five hours or so he whips up a feast for 12 hungry men.

Meanwhile, the captain, Aliboss, is sizing me up and probably wondering how much use I’ll be on board. I may have paid for my passage, but there’s an unwritten rule on the Sauda that every man pulls his weight and, being muzungu, my usefulness is evidently questionable to Aliboss.

It’s said that Sinbad went to sea after losing his father’s fortune. Aliboss was never in so luxurious a position to start with: he only has sail power to rely on. But with one wife in Lamu and another in Zanzibar, he’s considered to be one of the most successful dhow traders on the East African coast.

Our first landfall is Kipini, a tiny village about 50 kilometres South of Lamu and it takes us around 6 hours of sailing to reach it. By moving the huge spread of canvas from one side of the mast to the other, the crew can tack and catch the changing wind. It’s much more adaptable than a square sail.

I suddenly get the urge to take a photograph from the very top of the main mast. Aliboss is not impressed. From the look on his face, it’s clear he thinks this muzungu paying passenger may be more trouble than he’s worth – no sensible person would go to such lengths to take a photograph. I had asked permission before, but Aliboss probably thought I was joking. He looks at me like I’m crazy. But I climb up, the sea breeze on my face and marvel at the see-sawing view.

Soon afterwards we land at the shores of Kipini and are welcomed by the villagers. 150 years ago, these people would have been part of the slave trade – either as slave or trader. The coastal villagers helped sell slaves from the inland to the Arab and European merchants, or supplied slaves from their own number. Back then, the sight of a dhow’s sail would have instilled fear in the hearts of the villagers.

But now the welcome is very warm. I can see small boys stop their playing on the beach and run towards us, laughing and waving; small boats are launched to come out and meet us; and there are even people playing drums (presumably drumming up trade..?) A typically warm African welcome.

Everyone from the village is on the beach, in the hope of making good trade. They have cooking bananas, coconuts and mangoes, hoping to trade them for millet, wheat or maize – which won’t grow here due to salty soil – and that’s exactly what I have. Kipini is famous for its sesame, which is used here by pregnant women for ante-natal massage, post-natal consumption and long life. Let the trading begin! This is no different from the trading bell rung at the start of the day in western stock markets. Actually, this is a lot more fun.

The villagers have come alongside the dhow and pass up goods to be squeezed, smelt, checked and appraised by Aliboss – who’s in this not for the novelty of course, but to make a profit. In the end I give the villagers a sack of grain in exchange for a sack of mangoes, two bunches of cooking bananas and a sack of tamarind. I look at my wares with exhilaration – it’s as if I stepped into a time machine… and it worked!

Next stop: Mombassa. It’s around 200 km to the South, and with a good wind it should be an easy sail. But with no engine, no compass and uncertain weather, we are literally sailing into the unknown. An old Swahili saying goes: “You cannot turn the wind, so turn the sail”. It will take around ten days – plenty of time to get used to my sea legs and get to know the crew.

I discover that Aliboss is now 60, but first went to sea at five as a cabin boy. He navigates using nothing but the skyline, the sun and his memory. Muni is a Kikuyu tribesman from Mombassa and has been at sea for ten years. He’s saving up to get married. The oldest man on board is Ibrahim Salim, he’s 80 years old and has spent most of his life as a fisherman. He tells me he no longer likes to go ashore, but he’s got two wives – I’m not sure if the two facts are connected. And then there’s Ali Ahmed, the cook and so a very important crew member.

We sail under the African skies to African rhythms and as I lie on deck, looking at the stars, I realise my fate is entirely in the hands of these skilled sailors and of the gods – I am content. Aliboss is steering by the stars, the rest of the crew are asleep, and softly the old man recites the Qur’an:

He it is who hath appointed for you

The stars that ye guide yourselves by

In the darkness of land and sea;

We have made the signs distinct

For a people who have the knowledge;

Inshallah.

A day later, as the sun sinks, Aliboss looks for a safe anchorage. The reefs off Mombassa are far too treacherous to approach at night, so we pull into one of the safe mangrove harbours that line the coast to wait for tomorrow’s high tide. As usual, Africa has a surprise for us: we see a group of Masai men, dancing and singing on the beach – in typical Masai fashion, they jump high into the air, their singing is a low rhythmic pulse, punctuated by high ululations. They are far from home. The Masai’s territory is far inland along the Rift Valley, but these men are working as security guards on the coast.

Meanwhile, on board the Sauda, the crew makes their nightly devotion to Allah and the prophet Muhammad. It is all a reflection of East African history: on shore there is ancient Africa, a culture plundered for centuries for slaves, ivory, spice and gold. At sea it is Arabic culture, producing merchants of all descriptions.

The next day, Aliboss has a surprise for me: a bullfight. For hundreds of years, the Portuguese dominated trade along the east coast and they left behind fragments of their culture, including this. It’s a bizarre spectacle. While the men dance to work up a little courage, and the children sit safely in their vantage points of the trees, the officials bring out the bull – which clearly doesn’t want to be here – into the open. There is no arena, and the bull is kept tied to a long rope. It duly charges at anything that moves, not so much out of blind anger than out of a wish to charge for the wild blue yonder, but at least it’s not killed at the end of it all. It’s too valuable to the villagers for that. The final effect is an informal festival in which the villagers play with the bull, rather than stick swords into it – which is something.

We finally sail into Mombassa. The earliest known reference to Mombassa dates from150 AD when the Roman geographer Ptolemy placed the town on his map of the world. From then on, it became an important port of call of Roman, Oriental and Arab/Persian sea-farers and traders. Today, it has a population of 550,000 and is the largest concentration of Muslims in Kenya. We sail in under the looming 16th Century guns of Fort Jesus. The old Fort, with walls of up to 3 metres thick, was used in the last century until 1958 as a prison, but today it is a museum. From the mid-16th Century, the Portuguese and Muslim potentates fought bitterly for control of Mombassa – 25,000 Portuguese and their allies died here in one siege alone.

Here we must clear customs and I have to sell my antiques – Aliboss says this is the best chance I’ll have, as the merchants here have more cash than those in Zanzibar. I go in search of Jimmy Doti, the most famous trader of Mombassa.

I unpack my chest of treasures, nervous at what he’ll say. He offers me KSh 50,000 – less than what I paid. In the end, we barter because by that point I’ve spotted some beautiful masks in his shop, which would be worth a lot of money in the West.

As we sail out to sea again, I think Sinbad would have been proud of me. Although my newly acquired masks should not be taken lightly, since they’re not just decorative. As the sun glints through the shaman’s eye, I’m struck by their real purpose: voodoo. And it’s brought home to me all the more by our next stop: Pemba. Voodoo island.

Pemba is our first port of call in the Zanzibar Archipelago. It lies at about 40 kms north of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania. It is famous for two things: cloves and voodoo – or juju as it’s called here. Pemba’s clove trees have been in each family for generations and were introduced in the beginning of the 19th Century from Indonesia. At harvest-time, schools close so that the children can help out.

But voodoo is Pemba’s more infamous trait. Its reputation for witchcraft is derived largely from the presence of a creature known as the Pemawayo. Myth has it that the Pemawayo was a demon which had taken on the form of a fruit bat and was tormenting the people of Pemba – a kind of East African Dracula. Until a powerful spirit medium cast it out across the sea to Zanzibar, although it’s said to return regularly as a malign force. Often men and women alike report being seized in a fierce embrace in their beds at night, before being sexually violated by the Pemawayo. In some instances, entire neighbourhoods have been reduced to hysteria by the demon’s activities.

Today, sorcerers still come to Pemba to refine their skills in the black arts, and victims come to be healed or exorcised from demonic possession. Aliboss has agreed to take me to such an exorcism – I’m not entirely sure what to expect.

We enter a village and already I see the patients: two women sitting on the ground, their heads entirely covered with cloth, their bodies swaying to and fro as if listening to some inner music only they can hear. They are ill and have come here to be cured by the African priest. The shaman comes out of his hut carrying a bowl of magic water, which he sprays over the villagers to clear the way for the women’s dead relatives. There is a charge in the air, with the women wailing loudly now and the villagers encouraging the spells with outbursts of songs, screams and wild dance. The ghosts of ancestors are ready to make an appearance, take possession of the women and diagnose their illness.

Apparently it works: the women start flailing on the ground epileptically, marking the moment of their possession by their dead ancestors, and the gathered crowd enters a near hysterical state. The priest meanwhile has been told what the illness is by the ghosts, writes the cure for the women’s illness in his own blood on a plate, mixes it all with more magic water and gives the medicine to his two patients. The ceremony reaches fever pitch and I find myself willing the women back to health.

The women’s clamouring and writhing dies down, they sit up and quite suddenly it’s all over. I’m emotionally drained by the whole experience, this glimpse into another world, and I’m relieved when we make the journey back to the dhow and the relative normality of sailing and trading.

After selling the millet to the local shipping agent (at cost price since there is a glut on the market apparently), we set sail for Zanzibar. Zanguebar, as it used to be called, was the fabled island of spices, riches, gold, ivory, slaves and an enterprising man could make his fortune here.

It seems the gods – or Allah – are against us for the time being. We are becalmed and dole helplessly, limp-sailed, on the flat surface of the Indian Ocean. Dhow crews have died like this, unable to get to land, at the mercy of the scorching sun. We could be out here for days.

But after several hours, the crew jumps into action: Aliboss has spotted ripples on the water a little further out, and we soon catch the wind in our sail. Heartened by the development, the crew breaks out in a Swahili sea shanty and Aliboss gives me the biggest compliment he can: he gestures at the tiller, and allows me to steer. I am truly honoured and even break into a hearty verse of Waltzing Matilda as the crew sings on.

At last, Zanzibar is in our sights.

A Tanzanian official had said to us: “What you have to remember about Zanzibar is that it might be Africa but it is not of Africa. Persian, Arab, Indian – even British to some extent – but it is not African.” Indeed, merchants from all over the world had been arriving here for centuries at this journey’s end, this terminus. From the time of the Egyptian empire, traders from Arabia, India, Indonesia, China and Europe have come here to pick up their cargos. It’s still the busiest dhow port on the East African coast.

What made Zanzibar so rich was not just the spices. It was ‘Black Ivory’ – slaves – that ensured it its fortune. For centuries the rival Portuguese and Arab slaving empires had maintained their strongholds along the coast at Kilwa and Mombassa. Then, in 1832, the Sultan of Oman, filling the power vacuum left by the waning Portuguese hegemony, moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar – his sole aim to make the island the hub of a commercial network based on slavery. Within a few years, 40,000 slaves per year were being sold on the markets of Zanzibar. It is estimated that approximately 1.5 million slaves from the interior reached the coast and ten times as many died en route.

I, however, am selling tobacco and Aliboss tells me we’ll get a good price for our 60 kilos. Aliboss and the boys have taught me a lot about a disappearing world and I feel much closer to the legend of Sinbad. I can imagine him doing exactly this. Around a thousand years ago, he would have come ashore right here in just the same way.

Another famous person who has been here is Farouk Bulsana, born here in 1946: yes, Freddy Mercury, lead singer of Queen. Bizarrely enough, Queen’s hit Bohemian Rhapsody, has become the rallying cry for all Zanzibari Islamic separatists wishing to secede from mainland Tanzania – the reason being the lyric ‘Bismillah will you let him go’, with ‘Bismillah’ meaning ‘the word of God’ to Moslems. The thought of clerics and mullahs giving a loud rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody is somewhat absurd, but it’s absolutely true…

Meanwhile, we sell the tobacco and actually make a profit! I sell it for 300,000 Tanzanian Shillings and almost double what I paid for it back in Lamu. The crew and I go off to celebrate our profit and an unforgettable journey by eating octopus at the open-air food market. It’s delicious: sea-food doesn’t get any fresher than this.

Sadly, it’s time to say goodbye. The Sauda will be heading back up North again, to the coast of Somalia. Thanks to them and their professionalism, I understand the legend of Sinbad. Like Davy Crockett or Robin Hood or Daniel Boone, Sinbad is part myth and part reality – an amalgam of many men and many deeds.

But I know Sinbad the Sailor is alive and well today. There are hundreds of Sinbads sailing up and down this coast, and Aliboss is just one of them. I know that somewhere we’ll meet again, because the spirit of Sinbad will always take us on a journey to the ends of the earth.