January 6, 2008

Questions Arising from Zanzibar

“To you [white people], everything is new,” the wild-eyed tout reasoned as he tried to press a polished shell into my hand for five dollars. Dressed in dirty second-hand clothes and trying to light a clearly-foraged cigarette butt, he had a point. Like many things about Zanzibar, the semi-mythical spice n’ slave island just off the coast of Tanzania, it made me think.

How did I end up here with four JHR interns (and their assorted associates)? We only met for a week in Toronto during training and there we were reassembled on a beach somewhere in the tropics. We all got along like old friends, though. Must be something about people that ask a lot of questions and drink heavily – you cover a lot of ground with it-getting difference-makers.

Why does Zanzibar feel so much more developed than mainland Tanzania (Colonial equation: Tanganyika + Zanzibar = United Republic of Tanzania)? The easy answer would be because Arab slave traders made a fortune on trading spices and people, but actually re-invested some of it into law and order. Mandatory seatbelt usage, sewer grates that people don’t steal and a deep sense of its own historical importance: haven’t seen that anywhere on the mainland yet.

What’s it like to swim with dolphins? Terrible. You go far too early in the morning after a messy night, get a nasty blister from too-small flippers and ingest litres of seawater for a precious nanosecond of dorsal fin and blowhole.

What was the difference between the east and (more infamous) west coast slave trades in Africa? Zanzibar was one of the main transshipment points for slaves going from mainland East Africa to Arabia, Persia and beyond. But unlike the West African trade – where slaves were cogs in the wheel of industrial farms of the New World, in the east they had more social mobility and were generally treated less as chattels. Also, since intercontinental trade has existed on the Swahili Coast since the sixth century, it outdates its western counterpart by more than 1,000 years. So Europeans didn't invent African slavery after all...

Why am I not hungover after drinking at least five different kinds of alcohol on New Years Eve? Because the air conditioner in the hostel room broke in the middle of the night and I sweated every possible foreign substance out of my body. “These bedsheets ought to be burned,” as my friend Chris aptly put it.

Where do spices come from? Well, thanks to the touristy-but-fun-anyway ‘spice tour’, I got out to a plantation taste fresh cinnamon bark, tumeric roots and vanilla beans. Then they tried to overcharge us.

How come I have no cool ‘Zambia stories’ to tell? It’s the Manitoba of Africa. And Lusaka is its Winnipeg.


Scott said...

If a phrase from this post sounds verbatim from the mouth of Ron Burgundy it's: "you cover a lot of ground with it-getting difference-makers." Serious, say it in your best Ron B. and it sounds funny.

Someone - can't remember who - told me the same about swimming with darshins. Overrated.

Wow, that's a pretty harsh zinger on old Zambia. And Lusaka = Winnipeg? Ouch.

B. Scott Currie said...

I thought of it more as a declarative Colbert/Burgundy combo. I blatantly stole the term 'it-getters' from Stephen. 'Difference-makers' is 100% Currs Branson, though.