Imagine sitting down to your first meal with your host family in Zanzibar. You sit cross-legged on the floor in the living room, the fan whirls up ahead, you are served lentils, rice, plantains cooked in coconut milk, and fresh mango juice. Nothing out of the ordinary. Your Baba switches on the television, and everyone urges him to turn to channel ten. It’s nine o’clock in Zanzibar and that means it’s time to watch Cuidado Con El Angel, a Mexican telenovela, duh.
I believe I am the only one in our household that finds it odd that we watch Mexican and Filipino soap operas dubbed into English over dinner. What is more is that the two ladies that help with the housework who don’t speak English seem the most enthusiastic. I suppose the trials and tribulations of Latina heroine Marichuy cross linguistic barriers.
In Zanzibar I have left behind air-conditioning, hot water, and washing machines. Maybe those things seem irreplaceable. Considering that we live six degrees south of the equator, you would think I would at least miss the air-conditioning. It’s hot here, but I know, as surely as the blood is coursing through my veins, that I am thriving.
The ferry ride from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar was pleasant. I was too excited to get a book out and read, and about 45 minutes into the journey a movie called Sarafina! came on. I wasn’t able to finish watching it because we arrived in Zanzibar before the ending, but it was a wonderful film set in apartheid South Africa which told the story of the thousands of students who died in the Soweto Riots. The heroine is Sarafina, a pretty school girl who dreams of becoming a star. It was an engaging and enthralling film and I highly recommend it. I hope to see the ending sometime soon!
When the ferry docked at the port in Stone Town at about three in the afternoon, once again I picked up my baggage and went through immigration. Why did I have to go through immigration when travelling within the country? Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania which encompasses the main island Unguja (which is usually just called Zanzibar itself), and Pemba, a slightly smaller island to the north. I am living and studying in the capital on the main island, called Stone Town (Mji Mkongwe in Swahili). The dialect of the Swahili spoken here is called Kiunguja (Ki being the prefix meaning language, so language of Unguja), and is considered the purest and most grammatically correct Swahili. Many people have asked me why I chose to learn Swahili. Among other reasons, I chose Swahili because it is spoken in a number of countries (Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, D.R.C., Rwanda, Mozambique, Oman, and some others). And it just so happens that Swahili originated in Zanzibar and along coastal Tanzania, which is why I have found myself with an excuse to traipse around a tropical island for six months. Getting back to the issue of immigration, Zanzibar has insisted since Tanzania as a whole gained independence from the British back in the early 1960s that it will maintain its own government, called the Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar. This includes its own president, law-making body, political parties, and immigration counters for people coming by ferry from the mainland.
The moment I finished at the immigration counter, I was accosted by several taxi drivers and tour guides. Luckily I was mentally prepared for this, and declined their services politely. Within ten minutes my friend Naheed came down from her apartment, took my duffel bag, and led me straight into the labyrinth that is Stone Town. No matter how much you have read, and how many Google images you have seen of the place, nothing will prepare you for Stone Town. I am not exaggerating when I say that the city is straight out of an adventure novel. The entire city is actually a World Heritage Site. There is so much to write about this tiny capital which has become my home, and over many future blog posts I will fill in the details.
That day, Naheed took me to Vuga Street, where my baba met us and took us to his house. My Baba is the best baba in the world. Truly, I have never known a kinder, wiser, more patient, good-natured, and hilarious person. I cannot express in words how much I adore my entire home-stay family. There are seven people total that I live with: two little brothers, one older sister (whom I love!), my Mama and Baba, and two house ladies. I have yet to feel homesick here, and it is only because of the lovely people whom I live with who have fully adopted me as a family member. I remember being concerned that my vegetarian diet would be a problem on an island where fish is consumed on a daily basis. Not to worry, because my family started preparing fresh vegetarian food that is to die for. They make sure I get enough protein by serving me beans and lentils. I am incredibly well looked after, and so fortunate to have been recommended to stay with such a family (Thank you, thank you Jacquelyn!).
My house itself actually consists of two houses: one smaller one where Baba and the rest of the family stays, and a big house with two stories for all of the home-stay guests. Right now, I am the only home-stay guest, with the exception of two Omani men who are their relatives. My baba told me that I am only a guest for the first three days, and after that I am family. So, I should say that we are all family here, in both houses. The big house has several rooms, and a giant living room with a library upstairs. It is a retreat which I savor when returning home after spending hours under the Zanzibari sun. What is more is that my neighbors are such good people. I have a friend whom I call Auntie Sharifa just around the corner, and yesterday my Dada (sister in Swahili) and I visited another neighbor who had just given birth to a baby boy. My Swahili teacher from my language institute, whom we call Bibi Amina (Ms. Amina), is my neighbor too!
Life here is bliss. Granted, the entire island was without power for over three months from November to March, and by way of my May arrival, I avoided that rough patch. I am certainly still adapting to some cultural elements, like the modest dress for women. And I could definitely do without the overly friendly men who lurk in certain parts of town and follow foreigners around. My desire is to portray an accurate picture of my life here, so besides these few things, my Zanzibar is enchanting and inspiring. Among the most wonderful things about Zanzibar are the songs of the Imam’s call to prayer. Zanzibar’s population is about 97% Suni Muslim, and there are 51 mosques within the small area of the city. I first heard the call at five in the morning my first night in Zanzibar. The sound is ethereal and unlike anything I have ever heard.
Besides watching telenovelas with my family, one of my favorite things to do is to just sit in the living room, and listen to the sounds outside. Many sounds remind me of India. I once heard a noise that sounded the way I’d expect a rabid cat to sound. Or a rabid infant. Either one. Some things which I find funny, no one notices. Today while I walked upstairs there was an odor emanating from the living room, which I realized was coming from a live chicken that was being used for a prayer ceremony. Here, I laugh a lot. And smile. Still, I have only been here for a week and a half.