Sunday, May 29, 2011

Nungwi, a little corner of paradise

When we looked out of the bedroom windows it did rather seem as if the old cliché about dying and going to heaven had actually come true.

View from hotel, over the beach towards Nungwi village.
The north coast of Zanzibar is a paradise of silvery white sand, long beaches, wide horizons, tall gangly coconut palms, and low fishermen’s houses. You may not be aware of it but Nungwi is the dhow-building capital of the Indian Ocean and boats built on these shores are bought and sailed by Kenyans and Somalis – and quite possibly by pirates, I suppose. Young westerners also flock here for the snorkelling and diving for the greeny-blue seas are beautifully clear and contain lots of wonderful sea life, or so we are told. Too old and lazy for that, we just alternated between swimming and the loungers.

Sheltered from the sun, using an adze to hollow out a new boat.
Dhow being punted along the seashore.
Small dugouts, with outriders for stability.
Well, not quite ‘just’, we did go for a walk along the beach one day. The shoreline took us to Nungwi village. Still dependent on fishing and dhow-building, the village folk are trying to protect their most valuable resources as well as seeking other sources of income.

Pulled up above the high tide mark, Nungwi lighthouse in the distance.
Village boys playing by the anchored fishing fleet, as the sun goes down.
Realising that Zanzibar’s green turtles are under threat, not least because they are considered a great culinary delicacy, the locals have decided to turn a small lagoon into a turtle conservation area. Here they hatch, breed and protect young turtles before letting them loose into the ocean. By giving tours of the site they also hope to educate visitors and provide their project with much-needed financial support.

Green turtles in the lagoon.
Another of the community’s activities is to offer guided walks around their village. It is very easy if, like us, you are staying in a comfortable hotel with all facilities on site, to remain almost oblivious of the local people and their way of life. I do worry how much money really does trickle through to the local community.  The latest figures we have found for Zanzibar indicates that at least two thirds of the fresh produce used by hotels is brought in from outside the island. However, we hope the hotel buys its fish locally and we know the fishermen give trips in their boats. Some villagers no doubt get jobs as cleaners and gardeners, but the hotel chains such as the Hilton where we were staying will often bring their own trained hospitality staff with them when they set up a development. So, offering an accompanied village walk encourages visitors to step out of their bubble and learn about the local culture without any of the voyeurism associated with camera-flashing go-it-alone approaches. It also ensures that money goes direct into community coffers.

A typical old village house built of coral.
Our guide was a young man who, having completed S4, went on to do a tourism course set up locally by the government. He had lived in the village all his life and so was able to chat to his friends and neighbours and ask permission for us to take photos. Usually it was granted and when it was refused we at least felt that we weren’t encroaching on people’s privacy in this traditional Muslim culture. We were able to watch people go about their normal daily tasks without feeling that a special show was being put on for us.

Building a dhow.
Internal ribs of mangrove wood and external planks of mahogany.
Good progress on this dhow.
The encouraging aspect of this bit of local enterprise was that it had been generated by members of the community themselves. In Uganda, we are surrounded everywhere we go by people working for donor agencies and NGOs like our own. So much of the development work seems to have originated outside Uganda itself and, while it is undoubtedly well intentioned and focused on addressing real and pressing needs, we do sometimes feel uncomfortable about the dependency culture which has built up over the years. Despite the warmth and friendliness of our Ugandan friends and colleagues, outside our immediate circle, in the community at large, we get the sense that westerners are often seen simply as sources of money. However, what was so refreshing in Zanzibar was the relative invisibility of the aid agencies. Here in Nungwi, it was the people themselves who had decided how they were going to go about improving their lives.

Sticks for sale, but we can't remember what for.
Fish for sale.
Blacksmith with tools for sale.
Doors for sale.
Nungwi village has no source of water – so not quite paradise. The authorities bring in drinking water. One or two houses have rainwater tanks for bathing and washing. The village grows few crops, which leads to a healthy trade with inland villages.

Rainwater tank.
Mending nets.
We also met the women of the village,  though we didn’t photograph them, except for the busy lady here who showed us how to grind millet, make rope out of coconut fibre and weave raffia.

Grinding millet.

Visitors are always interesting.
The village has a health centre, built with the help of local hotels. Unfortunately, we were told, it has no drugs.

The health centre.
It also has a private nursery. The children each had a pencil and were drawing pictures and learning to write. We didn’t see any other resources except outside, where an organisation had donated play equipment.

Early writing in the nursery.
Nursery playground.
When we drove around Zanzibar we saw far  more evidence of children attending school than we are used to in Uganda, where we see too many children hanging around the compound or the streets, looking after siblings and doing real work like digging the fields. However, the Nungwi primary school was as bereft of teachers actually teaching as Ugandan schools. The teachers were sitting around the office and the children milling about. It was Friday, a half day, and they would shortly be going to the mosque. As in Uganda, learning resources appeared to be minimal, with many classrooms without any desks at all. Blackboards contained screeds of notes for copying down.

Now write this.
However, there was a very good building for secondary pupils (by African standards), which was only a year or two old and had been built with money from one of the hotels. It had been operating without desks, but these were now being put together.

Almost brand new secondary school.
Newly assembled desks.  No doubt chairs will also appear.
The campus also had a computer room, donated in memory of a young western teacher who had died during her time in Nungwi.

The school's computer room.
Then it was back to the hotel, and our comfortable holiday way of life.  Sundowners and an excellent meal looking over the sea at the boats coming in. We were a bit uncomfortable about the Masai dancing display which the hotel laid on, however. Zanzibar is a long way from Masai land, though the young Masai men come over to the island to earn hard cash. I did feel it was a bit exploitative, though it was an impressive display.

Masai dancing, long hair swinging as they jump high into the air.
However, the highlight of the holiday had to be the dhows, whether the whole fleet sailing out in search of fish, or the  one or two stragglers when the sun finally left the sky. If Nungwi isn’t quite paradise, it’s as near to being a little corner of it that we know.

Getting ready to leave.
The first dhow on its way.

Rain in the distance, but all's clear in Nungwi.
The first boats in the fleet present a majestic sight.
Back home, and time to rest.
Back home for us, too, but, unfortunately, by plane not dhow.

Ready to fly, Zanzibar airport.

You may also find the following posts interesting:

Nungwi: Life's a Beach slideshow

Making connections, changing lives: Stone Town, Zanzibar

Zanzibar: Out and about in Stone Town

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