After an exhilarating ride from Nairobi, Manu & I set sail for Zanzibar. Volunteering in an island paradise seemed like a dream ticket, yet idyllic scenes were not without their drama.
We landed in Zanzibar exhausted, amid a downpour. Our journey to the island was shared with 50 other passengers crammed on to a tiny rust-bucket of a boat, which for five hours pitched and rolled on the rough seas. We’d saved money ‘going local’ but we paid a high price. An ‘authentic’ experience it was but - unlike us - no-one there would have chosen it if they could have afforded an alternative. It was a memorably unpleasant crossing punctuated with vomit (other peoples), nausea and glances of desperation. Welcome to paradise!
The torrential rains didn’t relent on our arrival. After 15km with the light fading we put our bikes on top of a local bus and caught a lift on the ‘dalla-dalla’ in to Stone Town. Our spirits lifted as we found our way to the apartment that had been loaned to us for the next months. We were living on own slice of Swahili history right by the sea; a merchant house complete with a roof terrace, elephant-proof door, and a four-poster bed. The fact I could only fit in the bed lying diagonally with my feet dangling off the end didn’t detract from the wonder we felt. After a miserable day we’d arrived and it was worth it!
A few days later Manu and I were joined by my sister and her partner Guillhaume, who’d come to visit and we all spent a few days getting acquainted with the white sands and turquoise seas, the rusticated old streets and with Fahari, the NGO where we were due to volunteer.
We were also joined by Tarek, with whom I’d helped to start Bidna Capoeira in Syria. Tarek had just finished a Bidna project in Palestine and with no prospect of returning to Syria, we invited him to join us. “Stone Town is like Damascus on a beach” I told him. Three days later he was with us smiling at the sunset.
We already had a feeling that the one month we’d initially pencilled in might turn out to be more.
The mission of Fahari is to provide training and income to local women through making high quality bags, jewellery and accessories, with the profits reinvested in training - a social enterprise. The project was founded by a British designer, Julie who had spent the past 4 years training groups of local women and most recently opening a shop in the heart of Stone Town. It seemed like great project with lots of potential however Julie was struggling to manage and was exhausted - a scenario I’ve seen several times on my journey.
Tarek begun teaching capoeira, and Manu and I started at Fahari in earnest.
Manu began filming the ladies for a fundraising film and I got geeky creating Excel systems that would provide the information Julie needed. At the time I tweeted:
“=SUMIFS('Excel Gurus'!$D:AN,'Happiness'!$A:Z, ">="90%", 'Strange_Places_To_Learn'!$ZA:NZ, "="IBAR) RESULT="New Skills && Happy Geek"”
...which seemed very amusing at the time and surely indicates quite what an Excel geek I’d become.
The end result is if I do say so myself a very user-friendly, simple and useful complement of systems* managing stock, production, pricing and finances – providing a very rich set of information with minimal effort, even for a technophobe.
*If you're ever in need of such a system get in touch, I've created a generic version I'm happy to share
Getting a clear picture of the finances is a double-edged sword: you know you need to know the real financial picture, but often when you do, you wish you didn’t. When we started to get a clear picture at Fahari the signs weren’t looking good.
Before we’d arrived Kenny had advised us not to get too involved. It was advice we probably should have heeded.
The details of exactly what happened during our time at Fahari are quite sensitive; it was an incredibly turbulent time. Julie seemed to think the world was against her and two months after we arrived she quit. The staff who were dependant on the project were devastated. We needed a plan B pronto.
Working with the staff, the board, sponsors and Julie I tried very hard to come up with a plan that could give Julie time off to recover and the enterprise the financial changes it needed to survive.
When I presented my plan to the main stakeholders, everyone was excited and optimistic. It all seemed so close to working, a bright and profitable future for Fahari. But in the end, the devil was in the detail.
I’ve become very strict on the matter of finances; accurate financial reporting is a legal responsibility you accept when registering an NGO and receive other people’s money. Many people find managing finances difficult however too often the lack of transparency is too convenient and it can be abused – a sad reality that I have encountered more than once on my travels.
Trying to clear up some of the financial queries proved a very sensitive subject. Despite my best efforts to be understanding, there were questions I had to ask - money unaccounted for. Julie felt I crossed the line. However to me there are no questions of financial transparency that can’t be asked in an NGO. The law agrees. Amid scorn and vitriol, Julie demanded I leave.
It was a sad end. To be honest I was exhausted from it all and relived to stand back. The amount of hours I’d worked had had it consequences personally and I needed a break. There was no effective board governance to resolve the situation so the only sensible choice was to walk away.
There is no doubting the impressive things Julie has achieved at Fahari. She deserves tremendous credit for getting the organisation this far. In spite of our differences, I hope the enterprise survives, most of all for the wonderful staff, who were so fun and welcoming during our time there.
The Bright Side
Despite the setbacks, volunteering on a paradise isle clearly has its benefits. The white sands and turquoise seas made for a perfect escape from it all. We often practised yoga with the sand between our toes in the morning and we use weekend sojourns from Stone Town to explore many different beaches around the island.
A highlight was a stay in a stunning seaside cottage belonging to Julia one of the board members of Fahari. After all the furore, she decided Manu and I deserved a break and offered us a getaway.
When we arrived at ‘Dua House’ we were grinning from ear to ear. It was in Metemwe, one of the most picturesque spots on the island and the house itself was full of character. After falling in love with the place, we returned to Stone Town and pedalled up again with supplies for a divine week in the sun.
As a thank you I setup a website and took some photos for Julie to help her to rent her idyllic home. On seeing my snaps a friend of hers asked if I’d like some more work, which later led to my first professional photography job on safari in Kenya. A supreme stroke of luck.
Below the surface
Zanzibar’s culture is very unique, combining Arab, African and colonial influences, a handful of Rastafarianism – as well as something more distinctly indigenous. It leads to a fascinating yet at the same time confused culture which was for the most part, hard to connect with.
Meeting a delightful couple Caity and Mahsin gave us an insight into local life. Caity was a Canadian teacher who’d met Mahsin, a local musician, a few years ago.
Mahsin told us that while he was at school, the pupils was not allowed to ask questions. If you really think about the implications of that – being schooled not to question – it becomes hard to comprehend how much that would affect your approach to life. Secondly Mahsin’s education was split 50/50 between traditional subjects and the Quran.
These facts may explain the strange lack of outrage when yet another boat sank on the crossing from Dar, leaving hundreds dead. The boat was illegally overloaded - someone was clearly looking the other way – and toppled over in rough seas. Bodies were being pulled out for days, yet the government official responsible simply announced it was “God’s will” and that seemed to settle it – even for the relatives involved, two of who we were working with.
It is not as if there isn’t discontent here, there were some riots during our stay; however they seemed more to be the result of political manipulation as part of an on-going argument for Zanzibar’s independence from Tanzania. Conspiracy abounded about this one.
All of this was quite befuddling and I got the sense however long I might stay in Zanzibar I would always be a ‘mzungu’.
The disconnect from the general didn’t limit us from enjoying the individual and we met lots of lively and amusing characters who brightened almost every wander through the streets. Samwel Samwel – the dancing musician, Ali – the Portuguese speaking waiter at Lukkmans (divine local food), Striker – the man with omnipresent ‘Eddie Murphy’ smile, Tobiko – the sleepy maasai, Muaalim – the Zanzibar pizza supremo, Hassan – the hospitable chef with a ‘please don’t kill me with your food sign’ outside, Jackson – the man with the million dollar smile … and many more. It makes me miss the place to remember them all.
Winding Down & Sailing Out
After things went pear-shaped at Fahari we had a lot more time on our hands. Manu volunteered at a Montessori School and I helped Mahsin out with some plans for a talent show to promote Swahili performing arts.
By now we knew the best little restaurants, the real price of food in the market, learnt how to deal with the rats scurrying about our kitchen, how beat the water shortage by going for cheeky power showers in the 5 star Serena Inn, and enjoy almost every day in this peculiar paradise.
By the end of it all we were ready to move on. No need to go local this time, we shelled out the extra $30 and got our own puke-free boat back to the mainland, leaving the island on a high.
Tutuonana baddai Zanzibar – see you again.
Tips for Zanzibar
Most people will only have about a week or so in Zanzibar so if you’re going here are my tips:
- Visit in June – it’s not too hot, the rainy season has finished yet it’s before the tourist rush – prime time!
- Spend the first three days in Stone Town – enjoy strolling about and inevitably getting lost, enjoy the banter with local sellers (don’t get annoyed it will only provoke them), eat local style in Lukkmanns, watch the sunset from Africa House overlooking the acrobatic local capoeira crew (go and say hello they’re awesome), get an evening bite from Forodhani Gardens and breakfast from Anna at Stone Town Café and enjoy possibly the best shake of all time – Banana Date & Honey - at Lazuli, all of which will barely cost $20
- Sail on a Safari Blue Tour – visit Jackson in Safari Blue tours near Lebanon Square while in Stone Town and for $60 you’ll get to sail on a dhow for a day, visit a sand bank in the sea, a lagoon and a desert island while enjoying some fantastic snorkelling and freshly grilled lobster for lunch – oh yeah! One of our most memorable days
- Squeeze in a Spice Tour – its sounds like a total tourist trap, in fact it’s a riot for the senses and great insight into the original industry of the ‘Spice Islands’. It should cost around $15. Go by ‘dalla dalla’ from Stone Town for an amusing, yet very cramped, authentic local travel experience
- For quiet tranquil beach holidays head east to Jambiani or Metemwe. The simple truth is that you get what you pay for. You can pay $10 or less a night if you stay with locals like Hasan in Jambiani – highly recommended. If in Metemwe get visit Mohammed’s Bungalows for the truly outstading coconut curry. Be aware that in the East the sea is out beyond the reef from mid to low tide
- For party-time and revelry head north to Nungwe – good fun, beautiful beaches but somewhat spoilt by over-development for me. We barely spent any time there
- Go snorkelling on Nemba Atoll, super stunning snorkelling - $15 – accessible from Metemwe or Nungwe
None of this is particularly original but I can assure you, you’ll have a blast.