To Count the Cats in Zanzibar

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The rusty old ferry surprised me by getting across Dar-es-Salaam harbour without sinking; and the second ferry, to Zanzibar, surprised me more by being comfortable, modern and fast. I had a seat booked inside but resigned from that and went up on deck and sat in the sun with my legs over the rail.

Zanzibar– the zan in Tanzania – hub of the East African Spice Islands, centre of the Arab slave trade, was, by turns, settled by Persians, colonised by Portugal, governed by the Sultan of Oman, made a British protectorate, given independence and ruled as a sultanate for all of a month until the revolution, a massacre of Arabs and Asians (from hundreds to tens of thousands, depending on who tells the story), and an uneasy union with neighbouring Tangyanika. In Stone Town’s jumble of narrow streets, the buildings look faintly Mediterranean with rotting shutters and crumbling limewash, but then, here and there, is a great studded door like nothing in Europe, and mosques and madrassas which evoke the old Middle East.

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I stopped for lunch at a restaurant overlooking the harbour and knew what to order before I even got the menu: Zanzibar fish curry, made with tomato, tamarind and coconut milk shot through with garam masala. A stray cat came begging and I slipped it some fish and the more the waiter tried to shoo it away, the more I secretly fed it. I think they might have been in it together.

Touts worked the little scrap of a beach, while fishermen sat in their boats, sheltering under awnings from the formidable mid-day sun. Young men leaned against walls either side of an alley to chat. An older man trundled a handcart past them, piled high with coconuts. Schoolgirls in hijabs giggled home from madrassa. Little boys kicked a burst football. Then the muezzin cried out across the city and the streets emptied as everyone went to mosque. Dozens more cats sneaked in the shadows and looked deeply suspicious and hurried away when I tried to be friendly. I remembered a line from Henry Thoreau, “It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar”.

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I got repeatedly lost in streets which the map insists have names but which have no signs to confirm it. Sometimes I turned into a street full of tourist shops, brilliant with paintings and football shirts, sometimes into a sepulchral alley, which exploded with sound when a scooter appeared from nowhere. Always, though, no matter how far I seemed to have strayed from the tourist beat, no matter how conspicuous I had started to feel as the only white guy in a crowd, I ended, eventually, back on the main street in front of the harbour.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

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