Matemwe, Zanzibar

photo (2)For a Dutchman, or for any north-west European person I guess, stepping onto a pearl white beach, and dipping your toes for the first time into a turquoise ocean, a soft wind blowing in your face, the sounds of fisherman and the gentle rolling of the waves: It is bliss. Like stepping into a postcard. I don’t care how cliché that expression is. Matemwe is that place. Paradise.

We arrived here from the capital of Zanzibar, Stone Town, by using the islands native transport: the dalla-dalla, an upgraded pick-up truck, fitted with benches and, for some mysterious reason, a tiled roof. They drive like the devil, and pack up to 30 people plus luggage (rice, furniture, cattle). We moved to the front of the dalla-dalla. An unwise decision we would find out. Every time the driver steps on the break, the full load of people sitting in the dalla-dalla pushes up against us and into the back of the cabine. I do believe I have become a bit slimmer during the 1 hour ride it took us to get to Matemwe, the end of the line.

We are received by Ally, the manager of Key’s Bungalows. He is a short Indian looking man, balding at the front, but compensating by growing out his hair at the back. It gives him a greasy look, the kind of look you would expect from the owner of a quircky backpack place. Jovial, smiling, he greets us: “Hey man, you looking cool, you looking like a cool guy!” Cool, he says? I am litterally dripping sweat, heaving a backpack, pain in every limb of my body. But ok, I’ll take his compliments, albeit a bit premature considering we met a moment ago. I  look around: A high palm leaf roof constructed around a wooden frame, oil lamps as lighting, Manu Chao bongo-bongos through crappy speakers. A small bar with flags from different countries, some locals with fake expensive sunglasses sit lazily at tables made from old fishing boats. I’ve already been to this place, in Thailand, India, Indonesia, South Africa. I feel right at home.

I spend the day strolling around the beach. The sunlight is so bright I can hardly see. It is reflected by the incredibly white sand. I’ve never seen sand so white. It is low tide. The water is about a meter deep all the way to the old coral reef. Over there, large waves crash into it, making it dangerous to swim there. I float around in the lukewarm water. The ripples of the sea water are copied into the sand. Seaweed floats around me and tiny zebra fish join me, nibbling at my feet. Fisherman drag large nets across the low water. Others hit the water with sticks, scaring the fish into the net. Women harvest seaweed, throwing it across their backs. Their buttocks proudly pointing upward to the painfully blue sky. The sun is intense, even at this early hour. On the beach, young children kick around something that resembles a football. They clothes are colourful and torn, faces covered in the fine white sand. All around the beach are scattered the sun bleached wooden fishing boats. They have to manoeuvre the shallow waters, and are fitted with two catamaran like floating rafts on each side. I admire them, they are simple, effective, not build to last more than two or three fishing seasons. Some fishermen are busy perfecting them, burning the outside of their boat to make them water tight.

I talk to an old man on the beach. his English is excellent. He tells me in his younger days he used to take tourists out diving and dolphin watching. I aks him about the economy of the little fishing village: The wood for the boats they acquire from another Island, Pemba. The fisherman, weather permitting, go out each day to fish and sell their fish on the fish market next to our hostel. People flock to it from neighbouring villages each day. They catch red snapper, tuna, sea snakes and many others I don’t recognize. If they’re lucky, they catch a shark in the deeper, colder waters far out at sea. I imagine the tiny boats on the enormous swells of the vast Indian Ocean. Furthermore, he tells me, the villagers collect coconuts, passion fruit and oranges. They buy rice from Stone Town. The simplicity of it all charms me. No long supply lines. Everything local. What else do you need when you live in Paradise, right?

That evening I walk along the beach to scout out possible restaurants. I find nothing except a lot of abanoned building projects, mostly because of lack of investment I am told. The economic crisis has also touched Paradise, it seems. The ruins have pillars and ancient Arabic looking architecture. It looks like it could be hundreds of years old, but I know that isn’t true. To the north, some luxury resorts. Infinity pools, beautiful restaurants, cottages with bubble baths and laundry service. Prices ranging from 400 dollars a night to 2000 dollars a night. (We pay a meagre 40 dollars a night)

A strong wind blows from the sea. The beach is empty. The fishing boats have returned and are wobbling on the incoming tide. I walk into the village directly behind the beach for the first time. I am shocked. People live in stone shacks. Many of them abandoned and crumbling. Roofs, if they have any, are made from wood and metal plates, no glass in the windows. Goats, chicken and cows roam around freely. Garbage litters the narrows spaces between the shacks. I spot a goat chewing on a plastic bag. No roads. Children are everywhere, from the houses I hear babies cry, women (I haven’t seen any yet, except for the children) are talking softly. I peek through windows: the sand gets into everything, some blankets for beds, no musquito nets. People eat fish, coconuts. The infinity pools, luxury restaurants with Wifi and drinks called Coconut Kiss and Mega Margarita, it all seems absurd. The contrast is just to big.

Does none of the money made by these hotels and resorts, even our simple hostel run by Ally, does it not reach the village behind? Do these people need help? Are they healthy? No. Malaria is rampant on Zanzibar, especially among children. Most girls are married by 15. Because of this many girls die in childbirth. Most people only had a few years of education. There is only one well for water in the village. Zanzibar is poor, even in comparison with the rest of Tanzania. Poverty, patriarchism and a lack of education and lack of institutions for the common people are evident. But wait! there is an office where tourists can go when they are scammed by local merchants for selling them fake spices.

I walk back to my hostel. Everywhere people yell Jambo! Hello! Happy, smiling faces. Sitting at the bar I have another beer, and I am already looking forward to swimming in the ocean tomorrow morning.

photo (4)

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2 Responses to “Matemwe, Zanzibar”


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