To Count the Cats in Zanzibar


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.


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”.


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

Smoke That Thunders

Dr Livingstone thought that Victoria Falls sounded better than the local name Mosi–oa-Tunya which means “the smoke that thunders”. The government says that it is going to change the name back, which has got people worked up in support and against, but is hardly among the more urgent things which need to done in Zimbabwe. To outsiders, at least, it is what the falls are which matters most, not what they are officially called.

The word “awesome” has become as devalued now as the old Zimbabwe dollar but, when it pops into your head at Victoria Falls, it belongs there. A mile of water, hurtling out of control, tumbles over the edge and disintegrates into abstracts: thick gouache white swirling over slime green, tumbling, tumbling, tumbling a hundred metres into the gorge below, hissing and rumbling, roaring and thundering like some massive industrial process; the spray rebounds, a gathering storm, higher – way higher – than the top of the falls, until a perfect rainbow chops it in two and it comes down again as an unseasonal shower and soaks the path and the tourists who stand there and gawp.

Vic Falls ruin waterfalls for evermore as surely as the Grand Canyon ruins canyons.


(c) Richard Senior 2014

Getting Stoned in Kenya

phone 27 236

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