Meeting ‘George Bush’- on Nungwi Beach- Zanzibar- Tanzania

I love visiting Zanzibar; the place is old Swahili like going back in time a walk through the bazaars of Stone Town is an adventure into the lost world of Spices and Aromas. The shop keepers are welcoming, always asking you to stop and look or sit and have some tea.  I met an old lady in Stone Town years ago I will never forget, I based her on a character of an old woman selling clothes in ‘African Ivory’ one of ‘William Brody’s African Adventures.’  She was so small and frail but looked tough, I would have guessed she was about eighty years old.  She sat on the floor of the street surrounded by second-hand clothes all piled up, this business is called Mitumba in Africa, we receive all the old out of season clothes and seconds from the high-street shops of the West. This old lady was dressed in a brightly colored Kanga, a cloth wrap that has garish patterns, along one edge is a saying.  The old lady was very happy to let me know that the saying on her Kanga was, ‘Una piga guitar na mbuszi’, the saying means you are playing a guitar to a goat. In Swahili, it means it is a waste of time talking to stupid people, then she asks with a smile “Are you stupid?”

The ancient old crone proceeded to try to sell me all manner of clothes and shoes, it is hard to resist, when your salesperson looks like she could hardly get up off the floor. Her skinny, brown, hard-working hands are quick as they flit in and out of her Kanga, she produces a long block of tobacco, then rubs her finger along it and rubs her toothless gums, with a wicked laugh she says “I can’t live without my rub!” Which is her chewing tobacco. After a lot of laughter, I moved on through the bazaar. The spice shops look the same as they have for hundreds of years, in fact, the whole place does, you can easily imagine the Sultan of Zanzibar in his flowing robes walking along the same street hundreds of years ago. This place is bright and colorful, the spice shops have every different type of spice you could ask for, and they come in all the colors of the rainbow, your senses are assaulted with the smell of Cinnamon, Tamarind, Turmeric and many more freshly ground spices all on display in the street.  The people are easy going and always ready for a chat. Living along the coast of East Africa and surviving here is a skill, this skill is honed by learning to watch how the locals live. In Zanzibar, the people want to interact, they have time to say hello and good day, a typical Swahili greeting can go on for a few minutes just asking how you are and how your family are, it is a totally different world. The rush of Western civilization is looked on with disdain, if a tourist wants to rush through a transaction the trader will often not even bother, money is only part of the deal here, the journey is as important.

I left Stone Town heading for my destination of Nungwi a small town on the North-Western tip of Zanzibar. Once you leave the bustle of the largest town on Zanzibar you can really feel the island life, there are bananas growing all along the sides of the roads.  The children sell them for pennies, then a cool ‘Madafu’ or coconut cost less than fifty cents, this makes the journey long but enjoyable. The town of Nungwi is typical of East Africa, small shops set along a dusty street, the Dala dalas, fourteen seater passenger vehicles that have seen much better days sit tooting their horns, the touts moving among the people looking for trade to take back to Stone Town or other villages on the island. Full of bananas and coconut juice I head for the beach, the dry, dusty marram road twists and turns as it slowly heads for the beach. Along the way are the tourist shops, these are always worth a look the African art is wonderful, full of color and abstraction there are paintings of ladies with brightly colored kangas and long necks carrying water gourds on their heads all walking in a line. The beach at Nungwi is spectacular, soft, fine, pale white, sand leading into aquamarine water, then just offshore only about forty yards it goes a deep navy blue showing the drop off to the depths.

The first place I always head for is a bar on the beach, this is very easy in Nungwi as there are plenty. Just sitting and watching the waves wash up against the beautiful sand with a cold Kilimanjaro beer in your hand is heaven for me. It is not long before I find a friend, here it is inevitable, the guy is a Rastafarian beach tout, they are men and boys, no women, who look for work for the locals.  These guys work on commission only, they live on their wits and are very interesting to talk to. My new friend is called George, in fact, George Bush! He has dark shades covering his bloodshot eyes, a Rasta woolly hat on his head to cover the dreadlocks, a worn nondescript T-shirt and cut-off jeans shorts. I buy him a beer, and before long we are chatting, this guy looks young, but from his story, he must be in his fifties.  He originally came from Malawi where his mum still lives, he worked on the Cape to Nairobi overland tours for nearly eleven years.  It is fascinating the amount of times he has traversed Africa, he tells me he got bored after the eleven years and wanted a change, so decided to head for Zanzibar. That was in the early 2000’s he has been here living on the beach ever since, he has no passport or travel document, he lives in a small one-room apartment near the beach and lives off the trade he picks up on the beach. During his time chatting with me he does not try to sell me anything, we just pass the time of day talking about where we have been and what we have done.  His next plan is to head off for Mafia Island to the south. This is a beautiful unspoiled place just off the coast, his stories give me the wanderlust, I am already thinking of heading that way now. Years ago I was diving with a group of Americans off the shore on Mafia, we sailed a 40-foot sloop down and dived in the crystal clear waters with Manta Rays, but that is another story.

After some delicious Deep Fried Calamari Rings and Kingfish Zanzibar Curry full of spices, and of course a few more beers. George says he has to head off to do some work, I am not sure the beers did him much good as he was staggering a bit as he left. We had arranged for me to go snorkeling on the small atoll of Mnemba just off the coast, as a usual tout, he promises a large wooden sailing Dhow, with as many beers as I need, plus fresh orange juice for breakfast, and lunch of grilled Kingfish on a local deserted beach. I head off to my bungalow to listen to the waves lapping against the shore as I doze off.

After breakfast I am set and ready, George is waiting for me on the beach, his first statement is he was up until 3 am working with some German people, so he is very tired. Then he says the boat he was meant to arrange did not turn up, so we have to take one of the local canoes. The story slowly comes out, the oranges did not turn up, the kingfish is actually a local fish called Changu Changu, and there are only three beers left. I can remember when I first set foot in this country some twenty years ago, when this happened I lost it, and no one could understand why. I would go off on some rant about promises and deals once struck cannot be broken, then I would have refused to pay and shouted at George and his cohorts. When I was finished, I would storm off back to my hotel in a bad mood saying things like, “What do these people think, am I an idiot.” Well that was then, and this is now, I have learned, to get half of what I had expected, would have been a good day, so we board the small canoe and head off. Oh, by the way, the cooler box for the drinks has no lid and the only place left on the boat for it is in the sun. There are two blocks of ice resting on the top, my new friend decided he will sort the situation out and break the ice to keep my precious beer cold. However, the captain has no hammer or metal to break the ice, so George has the genius idea of using one of the bottles to break one of the blocks, after ten minutes we now have broken glass on the boat as well! The crew and I collapse laughing at poor George and his brilliant idea, the next twenty minutes he has to endure constant reminders about beer hammers!

But what the hell the ocean is flat with just small ripples breaking the surface tension, you can see the sand some twenty feet below, and we are heading out offshore to a lovely sand island, to me life could not get much better. After about an hour of driving, we reach the edge of Mnemba Island. Apparently, it is now leased to Bill Gates he has set up a marine reserve to try to save the last remaining corals.

I fit my snorkel mask and fins then backroll off the side of the boat, I love snorkeling or diving it just takes you away from life, you are on your own. The water at the Atoll varies from between six feet deep to well over one hundred. Floating just above the edge of the corals you can look down into the dark depths which seem to go on forever. Around the corals at the surface there are loads of small fish, a large shoal of Pipe Fish, the small fish here have been fed so are very friendly and swim right up to your mask.  If you take a breath and dive down the little orange and black Nemo Fish come out of the soft corals to chase this new predator away.  I could stay forever, but time and tides wait for no man, so it is off to the deserted beach for my fish lunch. However, it seems everyone comes to the same deserted beach for this lunch, but I get the chance to make some new friends!

You have to love East Africa and its ways, the people and the life are second to none in my book, take it all as it comes, and you will always go home happy. Never get angry, just smile and get on with it, always be ready to sit and chat you will be surprised what you learn.

A trip to Zanzibar is great, if you get the chance go spend a day in Stone Town, then head to Nungwi ask for George at the Guru Guru bar, he will probably still be there, or out on the beach doing his best for the day, and most importantly, “Take it Easy.”