MAROONED ON MAFIA ISLAND

“If this is paradise I’d rather be in hell”. An exaggeration perhaps, but by then we all shared something of George’s sentiments. We were sitting under the corrugated iron verandah of the Bismillah Guest House on Mafia Island watching torrential rain hammering at the steaming jungle. The four of us, on our Easter break from teaching in the Kilimanjaro Region, had arrived five days ago. A gruelling journey in a tiny wooden cargo boat from Dar had brought us there. But with no sign of any return voyage, we were beginning to wonder if we would need a miracle to take us back.

Mafia has acquired near legendary status among travellers, since so few manage to get there or so the guidebook said. That was the bait. Hooked by this promise of adventure, we had spent an afternoon in Dar es Salaam docks, clambering from dhow to dhow in the pouring rain. Eventually we found a compliant captain. Bedded down on sacks of cement in the hold, we chugged out into the Indian Ocean at first light. An angry wind and saw-toothed sea had turned what should have been a days journey into a 50-hour ordeal. When at last we sighted land, 1 could have sung.

My first sight of Mafia was at dusk. Between the grey of the torpid sea and the immense thundercloud sky, there was a ragged fringe of green. Dense jungle blanketed the island, sprawling right to the sandy shore. Dead ahead, pinpricks of lantern lights glimmered in the twilight. We drew near, and a cluster of squat huts like a smugglers nest emerged from the gloom on the shoreline.

There was no quay, so we weighed anchor among the dhows at rest in the bay, and waded waist deep to the beach. A modest crowd had gathered. Ragged young kids scurried between the groups of older youths, their shrieks swallowed by the sea and the forest. The youths were silent, watching the boatmen and us. We pulled on our trousers over wet legs, grabbed our packs and trudged up a sandy track cut through the jungle. We had reached Kilindoni, the largest settlement on the island. Kilindoni is one side of Mafia. For the first couple of days we were content just to slip into the rhythm of the place, and not to worry about getting home. Our room in the run-down Bismillah Guest house was tiny, with one single bed so we’d take turns to sleep on the floor. The electric light didn’t work, and we’d wash in cold buckets of water in the cell-like shower.

But in Kilindoni I found something of what I had been searching for in Africa. It wasn’t all beautiful or comfortable. Days were sometimes long, spent watching the almost incessant rain. But it had offered us a welcome. We would laze for hours on a wooden bench at a market stall. An unsmiling old man in a skull cap, with a leg disfigured to resemble an elephant’s, brought us cups of milky tea. We talked, but in different languages. It didn’t seem to matter. And we gobbled mandazi, the little fried dough cakes that are delicious when warm but sit like cobble stones in the stomach. For lunch Swahili women wrapped in vivid khangas served us rice and yellowy fish soup in plastic bowls. They cooed like mothers issuing us with spoons while the local lads who joined us simply rolled the sticky rice into balls with their fingers. The younger women, hair cropped and earrings flashing, breaking into huge gleaming grins when we turned to look. They wanted us to marry them and take them to Europe.

Long evenings were spent at the beach. There the crumbling mud homes of the town gave way to huts woven from palm leaves. By day they were hives of cooking and eating. Tropical fish and rubbery squid were fried whole, and sold hot from trays by little children wandering the beach in silent orbits. Rice and tea was ladled out to fishermen returning from a mornings punting on elegant skiffs. At night it was still – the only movement the play of shadows on the sand cast by the cooking fires within and the twinkling of stars.

There was one exception. A little hostel on the edge of town stayed open past midnight. Local men would gather and swap stories. We drank more tea and munched more mandazi, listening to the same Madonna album played on a tinny tape recorder over and over again. The four of us talked about everything we could think of. And we felt at home. Only after a few days did we begin to wonder how we were going to get back in time to teach.

That was how we discovered the other side of Mafia. We ran into an English guy in one of the few bars. He was working on a conservation project on the other side of the island, and he fixed us a lift to take us to the lodge we’d heard about. Early the next morning we raced across the island in a fourwheel drive, taking the only road, little more than a rutted sand track. The jungle fringing the island subsided, giving way to marshes and patches of sandy waste ground. We splashed through streams, alive with the low trill of bullfrogs. Invisible birds hooted and tawny reptiles scuttled off the road. In the heat and wetness, Mafia was flourishing. In half an hour we had reached the Kinazi camp. It was a different world. A central club house and bar formed the hub, built in an African-hut style with thatched roof and ochre walls. But there was nothing indigenous. It was lavish and built to last. Smaller ‘huts’ were scattered throughout the lush tropical gardens, with neat paths and beds that cascaded stepwise down to the beach. And king of this little piece of paradise, was Ian.

Wealth, like poverty, is impossible to hide. The hungry, but patient eyes of the boys on the beach would not soften if you gave them proper clothes instead of rags. Even if Ian had been dressed like Robinson Crusoe, it could not have concealed his aura of wealth.

He smoked a brand of cigarettes called Winchesters and was in his early thirties. He was blond, with longish hair, a beard and blue eyes. His accent was South African, but he said the sea was his true home. We chatted a little awkwardly, conscious that we stood in his little kingdom by our own invitation only. In a few minutes of conversation, he conveyed the impression that he had seen and done it all. So we felt a little less like daring travellers, a little more like schoolboys.

Ian owned the yacht in the bay. Three-masted and magnificent, it rested on the water like a little white gull. He also owned a plane, which he flew into Nairobi occasionally to pick up luxuries for his guests. The Lodge was his as were the beach huts, the immaculate tropical gardens, and every shimmering-leaved palm.

An engine buzzed alive at the waters edge, and an orange launch loaded with whooping guests powered out into the bay leaving a white V spreading over the water. They paid one hundred dollars a night.

Ian sent us snorkelling with one of his five dive instructors, and we spent a couple of hours exploring the coral reef in the cove, for a price. But as far as getting home went, our guess was as good as his. He pointed us in the direction of his neighbour, but warned us not to mention that he had sent us.

By then it was late afternoon. Duke was having tea in the garden with two young men and a Scottish woman. We never quite worked out their familial relationships. After a tentative and apologetic entry, we were welcomed into their nascent gamefishing lodge. Kinazi was a different world. This was a different time.

Duke was an Englishman in his late fifties, clad in khaki. He was a bullish Empire-builder, tough and domineering. We gathered that there was some rivalry between him and Ian. The two younger men, in their thirties and deeply tanned, had also seen a bit of the world. Rugby, game fishing and boats were their topics. The middle-aged and wiry Scottish lady lead the welcome, and told us to help ourselves to tea and mandazi. “Hamida, lete maji moto” ordered Duke.

The hot water appeared, poured by Haida, a ghost-like servant girl. She did as she was told. I was rather pleased when Duke boasted that he could ‘knock-down’ the in-charge of the workmen who were laying the foundations of his challenge to Kinazi, but found that they would not compromise as readily as he had thought.

We sat around the table in the garden drinking tea and wrestling. For conversation with Duke was like wrestling. He would pronounce. Our objections would be brushed aside, and then he’d jump on us. Malaria is nature’s method of birth control. AIDS is not yet quite as effective. Africa is doomed. But he had no solutions to our transport problems. We slept in damp foam in tents in the garden. The moon cast a shimmering path over the opaque waters of the bay, reflected in the Milky Way above. Palms danced in the sudden wind, a refreshing breath from the ocean. Waves caressed the sand. Magical is inadequate.

The next morning we missed the daily run by the Kinazi truck to Kilindoni. In the hot light of day, it became clear that our brief liaison with the other side of the island had only been a flirtation. We crouched in the shade of an abandoned mud hut, and I meditated on the whine of crickets. After a couple of hours we flagged down a clapped-out Landrover, crammed with chattering islanders. I’d spent enough time in Africa to know that ‘full’ is a word only used by apathetic guest house proprietors. Transport is always fair game. We elbowed our way into the back, and I found myself in rather a compromising position with a young khanga clad woman who seemed oblivious to my embarrassment. It was hellish, but no worse than we were used to. We sweated, heaved and jarred. Elbows stuck into softer parts, necks craned, and still they chattered. For them, everything was as it should be. Biting curses or grinning sheepishly, we were the ones out of place. A lifetime of western comfort does not foster stoicism. Nor optimism. We crawled back to Kilindoni in an hour and a half, having failed to find a way home. The air was thick as if compressed by the weight of the thunder heads towering above us, and the vegetation seemed to sweat like we did. We reached the Bismillah just as the storm broke. Once more we found ourselves staring into the rain, watching rivulets then little streams of brown form a flowing latticework in the sandy street. Then George said what we were all thinking. It did feel a bit like hell.

We escaped Mafia three days later. By then I felt half in love, half estranged. One day when the rain cleared, leaving the air humming under looming cloud, we had gone for a walk along the scimitar shaped beach. We wandered along it for hours, skin burning, feet scorched, squinting in the glare from the white sand and cobalt sky.

I imagined the images we found there cut out and pasted on a billboard back home, advertising the Kinazi camp. The solitary palm curving over the gleaming sand, the lap of the tide. Only there would also be a beautiful girl luxuriating in the sand. Images can deceive. In truth it was one of the most desolate places I have ever experienced.

We left Mafia as we had arrived – at dusk. By chance, the Canadian Spirit, a large passenger ferry, and cargo ship that plied the route from Dar es Salaam to Mtwara was picking up passengers from Mafia. It waited a couple of miles out, bright lights blazing over the water, like an alien presence surveying a primitive shore. The sunset was unearthly, a golden furnace raging behind the thunder clouds on the horizon. A launch sped us out across the water, and Kilindoni faded back to the pinprick it had been when we arrived. George was right, paradise it was not. But we had discovered something else. Half moth, half chameleon, we had flitted between two societies. But we were members of neither, and never could be. Such is the travellers delight. And such is his curse.

Matthew Green

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