Zanzibar has had no power for two months but many people believe the outage will bring only good in the long run
(This article first appeared in Sunday Times Ecosse on 14 February 2010, this is the unedited version.)
On 10th December, on the Indian Ocean island of Unguja, the lights went off. They are still off. For almost two months, there has been no mains electricity, following an explosion at the power sub-station bringing electricity from mainland Tanzania. The event failed to make international news – Unguja had no power for six weeks in 2008, so this is nothing new. Nonetheless, the outage has seriously dented the livelihoods of many of the one million living on this stunning island.
Without refrigeration, fishermen have to sell their catches cheap. Many food and drink vendors lost stock and now have no means of earning. Tourists, nervous about the implications of a black-out, vote with their feet and cancel holidays, hurting many of the thousands of people employed in the tourism industry, Zanzibar’s main earner. The island’s two mineral water bottling plants have ceased operations for the immediate future. Word is that the power will return on 20 February, but nobody knows what will really happen.
My husband Culture and I moved to Unguja (the main island in the Zanzibar archipelago and often what people mean when they refer to ‘Zanzibar’) in 2008, after the birth of our daughter Jasmine. Before that, I worked as a political journalist, but after the birth it seemed like a natural time to up sticks and do something new. Culture is originally from Zanzibar, and now manages a small hotel there, Mustapha’s Place, which he helped his best friend Mustapha to build over ten years ago. It’s locally owned and locally run (I help out a bit with anything computer-related but otherwise take a back seat). It is rustic and quirky, with tropical gardens and the beach only two minutes away.
For us, the power cut was not a problem at first. In fact I even blogged about it on our hotel website, two days after it started, saying: “It isn’t all bad. The dark Swahili sense of humour makes it bearable – of course the power supply would blow up just before Christmas and New Year, when the hordes descend on Zanzibar. The struggle to keep everything together unites neighbouring houses and businesses, and a spirit of co-operation reigns.
“Best is the realisation that the natural beauty of Unguja is unaffected. There may be no TV, fans or fridge, but the birds still sing, the flowers still ooze their decadent scent, and best of all the decrease in light pollution makes the stars pop out of the sky. Last night I saw a shooting star. I thought about wishing for the electricity back but decided instead to let fate take its course.”
But tourists took it more seriously – our hotel lost almost three-quarters of bookings as guests cancelled. The Christmas high season, during which many hotels bank a healthy chunk of their profits, was a washout. Some big name hotels closed down entirely to protect their brand and the risk of not being able to match guests’ expectations. Others struggled through by pouring endless petrol into generators and therefore haemorrhaging their profits. Boo hoo, poor hotels, you might say, especially as most are run by expats, rather than locals – but high season losses will mean many staff redundancies.
At home, our cheap Chinese generator lasted a couple of weeks of being fired up in the evenings, giving us light, Internet, phone charging time and allowing our freezer to act as a makeshift fridge. Then one evening, it spluttered and died. The next day our hotel generator burnt out. From then on, we lived in the dark, and spent most of our days chasing mechanics and spare parts. Working online became a challenge, as did charging mobiles, or indeed being able to see anything at all in the evenings. Ironically, it was the better off, like us, who noticed the biggest difference. Many Zanzibaris saw their lives little changed because they rely so little on electricity.
Zanzibaris are also a tolerant people, and whereas in Kenya or South Africa, two months of no power might well have led to civil unrest, here a sense of “inshallah” prevails. This is a Muslim island, and most people believe firmly that what will be will be. Neither is the opposition party criticising the government’s handling of this energy crisis. Why?
Looming on the horizon is the island’s most complex general election in years. Elections are usually face-offs between the incumbent Chama Cha Mapinduzi party and vocal opposition party the Civic United Front, who have for a decade been almost neck and neck at the polls. However, this election, due in October, is different. The island’s outgoing President and main opposition leader met in 2009 for the first time in years, and proclaimed that they had had significant discussions. Now, there is talk of “unity government”, with proposed positions of power for opposition politicians for the first time since the island’s bloody revolution in 1964. This new-found entente cordiale between the main parties means that the opposition is keeping quiet about the island’s energy woes.
So life continues, and the people of Unguja adapt, because they are patient and resourceful. (Nothing gets wasted here – plastic bags and yoghurt pots are all repurposed and container after container arrives at the port with Europe’s cast-offs, from last season’s sofas to TVs that ‘aren’t worth fixing’. Everything will be used.) Nobody complains. Locals don’t even talk about it much, except for jokes, although expat conversations are peppered with generator chat in the same way the middle class dinner parties in the UK feature mortgages and school waiting lists.
Living in Zanzibar, and focusing on freelance travel journalism, I can work as and when I want, and proximity to mainland Africa makes work trips a relative breeze. But the fragility of the power supply does throw a spanner in the works of even the most flexible journalist. Computers need charging, and filing features requires Internet access. The energy impasse is making everyone from business owners to community groups think long and hard about self-sufficiency and the value of renewable energy – solar panels here, a wind turbine there. Personally, £600 of solar panels would buy us a few lights, a way to charge mobiles and computers and power for an Internet router. What it wouldn’t cover is fridge and freezer, or fans (it gets hot in Unguja and is currently in the mid-30s).
As a family we can analyse the best way of meeting our electricity needs, and invest accordingly, but many others have been hit hard in their pockets, and renewables often require large sums of money upfront for long-term savings. It’s possible that co-operative purchasing and import of renewable technology for businesses and communities could solve this problem, with the right momentum. If a lack of electricity means Unguja accidentally ends up becoming a world leader in renewable energy take-up it would be no bad thing. We have sun, waves and wind to spare.
And even in the midst of the power crisis (a melodramatic word given the nonchalance with which it has been greeted by most) there are few better places to bring up a young child. The attractions? Fresh air and the chance to play outside year round; the abundance of beautiful natural foods, from locally caught fish to fruit from our own garden; and the friendliness and warmth extended by most people towards children. That European scourge of childhood the television ceases to be a threat and instead seems hardly to exist; a meaningless object in the corner of the room for a child whose natural environment is sand, water and tropical garden.
It is sad that tourism has been hit so hard by the lack of power, for other than fans to cool guests at night, much of what makes Unguja special can be enjoyed without electricity. Music festival Sauti za Busara, which takes place in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Stone Town, is going ahead regardless of the lack of electricity, and has adopted some creative solutions, such as “Busara buddies”, helpful locals who will walk festival goers back to their hotels through the dark streets of town. This spirit of invention and determination prevails, so travellers should not be scared to venture here during the blackout. In fact, you have the advantage of getting much of the island to yourself...
Electricity aside, some have in recent years tried to write Unguja off as overdeveloped or too mainstream. In the manner of a lothario casting aside a beautiful young girl once he has had his wicked way, there is a particular kind of backpacker that hypes a place as unspoilt then abandons it when anyone else actually turns up. The fact is that the beachy fringes of Unguja are gradually getting more developed, but that development is generally low-key, with the norm being bungalows built with local materials scattered behind the beach – and emphasis on quality rather than quantity. Meanwhile, the surface of the real Zanzibar has hardly been scratched by travellers.
Later this year I am going to, with other journalists, launch an online magazine called Mambo for the Zanzibar archipelago, including Pemba and Mafia islands, that will uncover some of its most exciting secrets and off-the-beaten-track experiences. From whale shark spotting to indigenous forest reserves, from Zanzibari high fashion to its interior villages, we are planning to show travellers the richness of experience that can be had, above and beyond the white sand and turquoise ocean clichés. (Although the white sand and turquoise oceans of Unguja are so archetypal that they are almost clichés, sometimes running into the lapping azure waves invokes a sense of unreality, like the whole island is a tropical Truman Show.)
But the truth is that for now Unguja still feels very much off the map. Like the Hebrides in the 1950s, communities are tight-knit, the shelves of local shops are often sparsely stocked, and the mainland seems a long way away. Gazing from our local beach (Paje, on the island’s gorgeous east coast) out to sea, you breathe deep into your lungs air that has travelled all the way across the ocean from Indonesia without encountering land.
Considering that the island is well populated (it is about the size of Skye, with a population of about one million), it feels remote. It’s Africa, but it isn’t. It’s Africa, Arabia, India and Persia distilled into a heady cultural mix. (Zanzibar’s traditional taarab music sounds more Middle Eastern than African, despite Tanzanian capital Dar Es Salaam only being a few miles across the water.) The island has long been a melting pot, but can also be insular and cautious. Zanzibaris are often complex people, and Zanzibari society is layered and opaque. Foreigners who have lived in Unguja for decades often struggle to analyse the island’s character. The island’s tumultuous history of colonialism, slavery and revolution no doubt has contributed to its unsolvable equation.
Whatever the inscrutable algebra is that dictates Swahili island culture, its mystery and strength forms much of its attraction for those who want to look beyond the beach and the beautiful ocean. But if all you want on your holiday is a gorgeous beach and some great diving, then you will still leave satisfied. Although Unguja remains in the dark for now, its future is bright.