Zanzibar is a bit gloomy in the drizzle, in low season. Especially when you leave the faded beauty of Stone Town. But I quite liked the cool, grey weather, the empty streets, and the quiet.
First stop, a group that gives microloans to women. My colleague and I take our shoes off at the door and squeeze into a tiny office, where about 14 members are already waiting for us. At the end of the discussion, we’re presented with our “soda” of choice and three pieces of cake. The women remain seated in front of us, watching us eat.
Next, a group that wants to build a borehole and water pump. The neighbourhood, on the outskirts of Stone Town, used to have running water but it was cut off six years ago. Since then, people use water from a not-very-clean well. Abbas, a father of six, is the group’s representative. When we’ve finished the site visit, he brings us to his house: more sodas, fetched by his son, “half-cake”, and glucose biscuits. The kids get excited when I take out my camera and when I agree to take their picture, scramble into position as if they’ve been practising this pose all their lives.
Third visit is far from Stone Town, and we have no transport. Abbas – who has a limp – walks us back to the main road and finds a man with a battered car, who says he knows where St Augustine’s church is. Of course, he doesn’t; we get lost.
The parish priest of St Augustine’s needs money to furnish the kindergarten he has built. He arrived on the island 11 years ago, lived for ten years in a sort of basic hut; and now, finally, he can show off his house, his church, and his two freshly-painted classrooms. Eighty 4-6 year old kids, Muslim and Christian, will be taught here.
Before all of this, though, lunch is served, and our driver and Abbas are invited inside too. The Father says grace, and opens bottles of beer.
Back towards Stone Town, we’re running out of fuel – this always happens in Tanzania. People don’t have money to fill the tank, or the filling stations don’t have fuel to sell. We conk out once on the main road, but make it to a petrol station before drying up completely.
We take a detour via Abbas’ workplace, where I get narky at having to hang around waiting for something that’s nothing to do with us. Is this the biggest difference between Westerners and Africans? We don’t like wasting time. We rush to get on with things. They are generous with their time, or they don’t have much else to do anyway. And so Abbas and our rent-a-driver now take us on a mission – one they enjoy more than I do – to find a hotel.
The first “GEST HOUSE” they show us is truly depressing; the already occupied room we’re shown costs a mere 12.000 TSH (about EUR 6) per night, but is seemingly also available to rent by the hour. My colleague puts his foot down, and I’m relieved. It turns out I’m not so keen to spend a night in the real Zanzibar after all – I’ll take pretty, overpriced, tourist-packaged Stone Town over flooded streets and power cuts and grubby bedsheets.
So off we go, traipsing round the city: my colleague, me, our rent-a-driver, and Abbas-with-the-limp, and sometimes another hanger-on who offers to show us to the hotel that he (it’s always a he) recommends, like we’re in some kind of children’s story – maybe Chicken Licken, all on a mission to find somewhere to sleep, when really it should be easy, because in low season the island is beautifully quiet.