Carolyn and Dave Vincent at work in a Zanzibar classroom.

Carolyn and Dave Vincent at work in a Zanzibar classroom.

Slice of Life in Zanzibar

Esquimalt teachers teach and learn in African country

By Carolyn Vincent

Ah, Zanzibar, the island of spice.

Set in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Tanzania, it was to be our home for a year while we worked with a volunteer organization in education.

We knew living in Africa would be quite an adjustment to our western lifestyle. Plus, Zanzibar is 99 per cent Muslim, so we also wondered how that would impact our everyday lives.

We arrived from a Canadian winter to Zanzibar, which is six degrees from the equator and hot and humid year round. Different sights, sounds, and smells overwhelmed our senses.

There were no stores as we know them – just small shops (dukas), market stalls and fruit and vegetable stands. Services such as electricity, water and telephone were usually available but with inconsistent service.

Our lives changed quickly as we adapted to the culture surrounding us.

Food and drinking water were items we had to gather frequently. Clean drinking water was essential and a 12-litre bottle usually lasted two days. When it was empty, it was time to head off, by foot in the heat, to the duka (store) for a replacement.

Sometimes this required more than one trip as the stores closed without warning for prayers, religious observances or … just because. If they were closed, you just hoped they would be open upon your return.

Fresh fruit and vegetables spoiled quickly in the high heat and humidity. Therefore, it was best to purchase small amounts often from one of the many roadside stalls.

There were vendors who peddled their bicycles through the villages and compounds, selling fresh fish. They would announce their arrival by sounding a bell or horn and calling out their product. When the cats in our neighbourhood heard this they all came running and were usually rewarded with a few fishy tidbits.

We had a water tank in our building, but the water was for washing only, and the supply was sporadic. If we were lucky, we could fill the tank once a week. Washing clothes, sheets, and towels was a constant chore as it was all done by hand and then hung to dry on our roof.

Electricity, telephone and Internet services were all voucher driven. To service your account, you purchased a voucher and then applied the voucher number to your account over your cellphone. Cell phones were cheap and everyone had one.

Money transfers were often done with a system called Mpeza, so bank accounts were not needed.

Transportation throughout the island was by dallah dallah. These small converted trucks and mini-buses should have carried about 16 people, but always had at least twice that number. These vehicles also carried chickens, goats, fruit, fish, vegetables, meat, firewood, charcoal, and building materials. It could get quite cozy.

The road that ran in front of our building had many brightly coloured houses, private schools, an Islamic academy, a mosque, dukas, fruit and vegetable stalls, and some small cafes.

The roads were overshadowed by huge mahogany, mango, palm and baobab trees and were bordered by flowers everywhere.

Our building stood in the middle of a local village compound, which was usually filled with friendly smiling people and many, many children. People always stopped to say hello, and this could be a lengthy process as there are a variety of different greetings in the Kiswahili language.

Zanzibaris are very friendly people and greetings are a vital part of their oral culture. We very much miss the friendly spirit of the island.

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Carolyn Vincent is an Esquimalt resident.