Beaches, Boats and a Brother from Another Mother

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Kendwa Beach on the northern tip of Zanzibar is a version of the Maldives for backpackers. The sand is as soft and dazzlingly white, the ocean as inviting, the sky as unblemished and blue.

It was a lazy few days. I sprawled on the beach, listened to the shushing of the waves, felt the sun warm my skin and watched the sailing dhows slide past. I walked now and then to the other end of the beach where the fishermen stretched out their nets on the sand to dry and sat in beached boats under canopies and bantered. I turned down a few dozen offers of snorkelling trips, and sunset cruises and bags of weed from the touts who worked the beach.

Hey Rasta man,” they called when they saw my band. It is from Bolivia, not Jamaica, but it is the same red, yellow and green.

Hey.

Jambo. You okay for tonight brother?” He meant did I want any weed.

Yeah, no worries.

Hakuna matata.

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Another guy kept pace with me down the beach, trying to bully me onto a sunset cruise on a dhow.

I’ll think about it.”

“Okay brother from another mother.”

Then he called out to the skipper of a dhow who was about to cast off and pointed to me and said something in Swahili.

No, no,” I said, shaking my head and crossing my palms in front of each other; and he got incoherently angry.

I’m a man,” he said, “but you make me into a woman.

What!?”

“I’m a Rasta man. Allah, he see everything.”

Don’t you mean Jah? I thought, but decided not to share it.

I thought you were a good guy, brother. Not like the other white guys who promise one thing and mean another. Now you make me look bad.”

“I didn’t promise anything. I said I’d think about it. I haven’t made you look bad at all.”

“I speak to the captain. I told him to wait cos you were coming”.

“Well I didn’t tell you to.”

“You’re not in England now, brother. You’re in Zanzibar. Be careful brother. Be very careful”.

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I knew he was just trying to get me to give him some money, but I avoided his end of the beach after that, and I was kind of glad to go back to Stone Town to get the ferry for Dar es Salaam.

I went up on deck and idly watched the crew loading cargo at speed. A guy who must have been a foreman – or thought that he ought to be – darted about shouting instructions, then slipped and fell on his arse. The other guys roared and he leaped up and silently loaded all the heaviest things at a hundred miles an hour.

Then after a sporty crossing, a walk and another journey across the harbour on the rusty old chain ferry, I was back where I had started three days before. I watched as hundreds, if not a couple of thousand, surged down the steps, along the ramp and up the road, as vendors threaded between them or shouted from stalls, and honking cars forced their way inch by inch out of side streets.

It was a mundane, everyday sight: the equivalent of a crowd descending on the subway in a European city. Yet the image will flash across my brain whenever I think of Africa, long after the big sights have faded from memory.

© Richard Senior 2015

If You Meet a Lion, Just Pretend Nothing Happened

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If you meet a lion on your way to the toilet block,” I was told, “whatever you do, don’t run. Only food runs. And don’t turn your back on it either. Walk slowly, back to your tent, zip it up and pretend nothing happened. Just remember that you’re not their main source of food. And make sure you have your torch with you at all times.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to face a lion without it,” I said.

The Serengeti is just south of the Equator and the nearest town is hours away, and when the sun sets it just drops from the sky and the darkness is suddenly total. The piercing whistle of ten thousand cicadas stole the silence, and birds sporadically cackled and whooped as I zipped up the tent and turned in for the night.

There was nothing to stop the animals coming into the campsite, no fence, no hedge, no one ready with a tranquiliser gun, just in case. Two separate herds of elephants had wandered through that afternoon and trumpeted, stamped and flapped their ears if anyone went too close with a camera. Buffalo and wildebeest grazed around the edges. Baboons were all over the place.

Something woke me up in the middle of the night and I made the long, lonely walk to the toilet block, surrounded by the buzzing cicadas. A glow worm would have been disappointed with the light my wind-up torch gave out. The oinking grunts of the wildebeest were close at hand but they were out of sight. They sounded to be inches away. If they were nearby then, surely, so were their predators. There might have been a lion a foot from me. Remember that you’re not their main source of food. Not their main source!

Don’t run…don’t turn your back on it…walk slowly back to your tent. It is easy enough to say; but if the yellow eyes of a 400lb lion had blazed at me through the night, I would undoubtedly have turned and run, in any direction but the right one.

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Baboons began barking. It is a horrible, heart-rending sound: a sound of terror, a sound of unbearable pain. Or so it seems, at least, when you hear it when out, alone, in the sinister East African night. “If the baboons are barking,” I recalled someone saying, “it means that leopards are close”. So leopards were out there somewhere, as well. The cicadas hissed, the wildebeest grunted, the baboons barked, a bird trilled, but still I saw nothing. I would not have seen anything, even if something was there. With my useless torch, I would have fallen over a leopard before I saw it.

The cicadas hissed, the wildebeest grunted, the baboons barked and something howled. Hyena? Jackal? I didn’t know what it was but quickened my step until I was all but jogging and reached the toilet block and shut the door and flicked on the light and met an enormous spider.

I got back to the tent and fell into an uneasy sleep, until I was jerked awake again by the gurgling roar of a territorial lion. I would, I supposed, get used to all this in time.

© Richard Senior 2015

Serengeti Snapshots

Early morning in the Serengeti, squeezing six to a pop-top Land Cruiser.

Jambo Frederick.”

“Karibou.”

A herd of wildebeest crosses the road, five or six deep, stretching for ever. Hundreds of wildebeest, a thousand perhaps. The hooves collectively thunder; a cacophony of oinking grunts. A few get confused and run the wrong way, young males stop to pick fights and hit on the females; but they are all sucked back into the relentless flow.

Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles, impalas, giraffes and dozens of zebra graze at the side of the track. A dung beetle rolls a dropping the size of a baseball uphill.  A young wildebeest bounds into a herd and tries to take over, but the dominant male sees him off.

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A stream choc-a-block with cooling hippos and, a little apart from them, a solitary croc. They respect each other, like nuclear states, because each could destroy the other. A lioness pokes her head out the bush, peers around, and strolls along the edge of a stream to a shadier spot, followed at a jog by ten unruly month-old cubs the size of little ginger cats. A second lioness acts as rearguard.

Back to the same spot in the afternoon, the trees by then thick with vultures. A lioness appears with blood on her face and paws. The cubs jogs after her in ones and twos and they all clamber down to the stream to drink and wash the blood from their fur, then leap over the water and move on, leaving the carcass to the vultures.

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Poa kicheze,” Frederick says.

What’s that?”

“It means ‘cool’; ‘very cool’.”

“Porky cheesy?”

“Poa kicheze.”

“Pork a chaise, eh?”

A herd of elephants wants to graze where the lions have gone, and elephants think nothing of lions. They spread out and advance in a row, like soldiers clearing a jungle. One lioness hurries the cubs away while the other stays back and glares at the elephants; but the elephants press on with slow determination. The lioness has to save face, so she waits till the elephants are inches away, then leaves with studied nonchalance.

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Sawa-sawa?” says Frederick, “Okay?”

Yes, sour-sour”.

But the jeep will not start. The elephants are looking at us now. One of the bulls flaps his ears and looks angry. Elephants are bad-tempered things. And an elephant will toss over a jeep as casually as you would flick a bug from your arm. Frederick calls out to another driver and asks him to shunt the jeep from behind to get it going. It works.

“Asante sana, Frederick”.

“Karibou”.

Thank you very much. You’re welcome.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Zanzibar Night Market

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When the sun goes down, trestle tables go up in Forodhani Gardens in the middle of Stone Town. They are filled with lobsters, gleaming white squid, fat octopus tentacles, kingfish, marlin and tuna. Dozens of vendors light charcoal grills and wheel in juice presses like old-fashioned mangles. The crowds swarm in and jostle each other and the vendors shout and orders are placed and fish is thrown onto the grill. The juice man works at pit stop speed, forcing sugar cane through the press, folding it, forcing it through again, then again, and again, until it has given up all of its juice. Then he mixes in lime and ginger.

Squid is deceptively hard to get right. So many restaurants cook it too long, or not long enough. But the grill man knew better than that. He sliced it up with a few quick strokes and tipped it onto a paper plate with a handful of salad and a good squirt of chilli and tomalley sauce. He owed me some change but talked me into settling for a coconut bread. I ate the squid and the bread as I looked round the rest of the stalls, then replaced them with kingfish and green pepper skewers.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

A Drive through Ngorongoro Crater

Frederick inched the jeep down the track to the floor of the crater, a huge caldera formed when an ancient volcano imploded. To the right was a salt lake pinked with all the world’s flamingos. To the left, buffalo feasted on tall yellow grass while oxpeckers feasted on their backs. Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em. And little fleas have lesser fleas and so ad infinitum.

But the flamingos and buffalos were a distance away, half-hidden behind trees and termite mounds, and after ten minutes I was prepared to be disappointed with Ngorongoro Crater. Then a warthog waddled down the road towards us, a squat, ugly thing with a mouth like a shovel with nails hammered through it. The warthog waddled right past the jeep – just inches away – stopped briefly for photographs, and waddled off into the grass.

A hundred yards along the road, we stopped for a zebra crossing. There was an abundance of zebra, an embarrassment of zebra; they were as plentiful as sheep in New Zealand. The zebra graze side-by-side, nose-to-tail so they can swat flies from each other’s faces with their tails. They graze with the wildebeest because they eat the same grass and the same carnivores eat them and each can look out for the others.

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Hyenas!” someone shouted as three furry heads popped out of the grass and one broke cover and loped down the track at the side of the jeep. I never cared much for hyenas. They are always the villains in wildlife documentaries, nasty little things which laugh inappropriately and steal the poor cheetah’s cubs. But they need to hire a PR consultant because they are a lot cuter in person than they seem on the screen with their fluffy coats and sorrowful faces like bears’.

Simba” Frederick said.

Lions!” everyone else said, translating the one word of Swahili the whole world knows.

A coalition of four males reclined in the sun, looking pleased with themselves, as male lions will. The females do the hunting while the males strut about looking hard. Sometimes they roar; often they just stretch out and doze. But when a female comes back with the kill, they bully her out of the way and eat all the best bits themselves. There was a mixed herd of wildebeest and zebra within easy jogging distance, but hunting is not their department, so they ignored them.

The lionesses were round the corner, planning an ambush. Two fanned out, crossed the road and hid while the others crouched low in the grass, just metres from us. A moment later, a dazzle of zebra strolled over the road and across the grass in front of the crouching lions. They let a few pass and then pounced. The zebras turned and bounded back the way they had come, but the other two lions leaped out of hiding and came at them in a pincer movement. Lions to right of them, lions to left of them, lions in front of them; the zebras swerved and dodged, the lions ran after them, kicking up dust as they spun, but the zebras, narrowly, got away.

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(c) Richard Senior 2014

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

Getting Stoned in Kenya

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Everything changed when the police started shooting.

High school students had blocked the road to Namanga, so no-one could cross the border. They were protesting because their school had been waiting five years for a bus to be delivered. Trucks and cars were backed up on each side of the road. Drivers stood around chatting and texting their mates. The protesters danced and chanted. One boy pogoed high in the air, as if performing a set piece for tourists. We jumped out of the bus to enjoy the mid-morning sun. Maasai herdsmen strolled along the track by the side of the road in scarlet robes; they carried traditional knobkerrie clubs in one hand, but one held a mobile phone to his ear with the other. A snake nosed out of a bush. Meerkats sat up and took notice then vanished. A vulture settled on an acacia tree.

Then the police arrived. There were half a dozen of them to fifty or more protesters, but they were just kids and the policemen were big, intimidating men; and they had automatic rifles, tear gas and riot shields. Disperse and go home, the senior one said, or words to that effect in Swahili. But the protesters carried on chanting and dancing. The drivers carried on chatting and texting their mates. We carried on enjoying the sun. The vulture left its perch.

The policemen were frustrated at being ignored and started firing over the heads of the protesters, who scattered, except a boy of somewhere around thirteen who lay on the road in a puddle of blood. Someone said he was dead; someone else said just badly injured. He had been shot; no, hit by a rock; no, trampled by fleeing protesters. No one really knew what had happened.

We got back on the bus in an orderly panic and the drivers melted back to their cars. Then the riot began. The protesters flung stones and they thumped off riot shields. The police replied with tear gas. But the tear gas ran out before the stones and the police sprinted across the plain out of sight.

The protesters, then, stormed down the road, stopping to pick up more stones, determined to throw them at someone. When they stopped level with the bus, we dived onto the floor and the stones came through every window. I held my daypack over my head while more stones hammered into the panels beneath the windows and a few landed inside. A chunk of compacted glass went down the back of my shorts; I was bleeding from a cut on my arm. More protesters passed, right by us, banging on the side of the bus as we stayed down on the floor and hoped they would not try to get in.

Then they were gone and it was quiet and we got up and abandoned the bus and walked to a nearby campsite, emptying the glass out of our clothes as we walked. The road was clear within a few hours and we crossed into Tanzania a bit later than planned and I never found out for sure what happened to the boy who was laid in the road.

No doubt the school is still waiting for its bus.

(c) Richard Senior 2014