This is an article I wrote for the May-June edition of Swahili Coast magazine, which came out earlier this week. It's about the southern Zanzibari village of Unguja Ukuu, a location scarcely visited by tourists but with a rich mythology and stunning islands to the south.
The invisible village
Rachel Hamada explores the histories and the mysteries of Zanzibar’s ancient seat of power.
It’s the best advert Coca Cola never thought of. In Unguja Ukuu, the ancient capital of Zanzibar, if you walk round behind the health centre, through a little forest, take your shoes off, and scramble down a coral and leaf-strewn slope, you come to a small cave. Festooned with red and white scraps of material, and with numerous Coke bottles underfoot, this is where people have come for millennia, well before the advent of Islam, to ask for help. Whether a seemingly infertile woman pleading for a child, or a poor farmer pleading for a good harvest, those who got their wishes would come back to the cave to make an offering of thanks – traditionally something like eggs or honey. The practice continues to this day, and in the hush of the small valley where the cave sits it is evident that the modern offering to the gods takes the form of Coca Cola. If you get the job you want after a visit to the cave, the cave gets a soda.
This practice is not by any means unique to Zanzibar. In fact it closely mirrors the Celtic practice of “clootie wells”, caves or wells where in pre-Christian times people would leave offerings to pagan gods in exchange for assistance with earthly matters. Whether the practice arose separately in two different parts of the world, or if the cultural practice was somehow spread by the movement of people in ancient times remains to be seen, but what is striking is the convergence of the ancient and the modern, the sacred and the banal.
This isn’t the only secret nestling in the heart of Unguja Ukuu – a place where Zanzibar’s tourists rarely if ever set foot. This isn’t like Tumbatu, a place where visitors are often less than welcome. Instead people are friendly and open. Nevertheless, it has an otherness about it – one of Zanzibar’s most fertile places, its profusion of forest makes it feel like a place where spirits and magic reside, unlike Zanzibar’s typical tourist destinations of Nungwi and Paje, where the harsh sunlight of the coast means little time spent in the shadows.
Another example of Unguja Ukuu’s magic is the legend of Mohamed wa Joka. Famed as a seer, wa Joka died as recently as 1920, at the age of about 80, according to village elders. His grave, which could easily be mistaken for a chicken shack without insider knowledge, sits unremarkably at the junction before the turn for Unguja Ukuu beach. Wa Joka was famous because he could foresee illnesses, bad harvests, and find lost children. He also anticipated the arrival of the car in Zanzibar – “dhows will fly out of the sea and move instead on land” was basically what he told the people of Unguja Ukuu. He was also well-known because he had large plantations of coconut trees, but if anyone stole one of his coconuts, even if they smashed it up, made coconut milk and cooked food from it, he would always know which food had been made from his stolen coconut.
His cleverest trick, and one which would make David Copperfield blush, was to make Unguja Ukuu disappear. The authorities wanted to build a road from the main west-east artery down to the settlement. A team of surveyors made their way down toward the sea, but could not find Unguja Ukuu where it was supposed to be. They only managed to find the village in the end by approaching it from the ocean in a dhow. Later, Zanzibar’s first school was to be built in Unguja Ukuu, but wa Joka decided that he did not want this to go ahead. So when the building equipment was shipped by sea to Unguja Ukuu, the sailors failed to find the beach.
Like much oral history it is difficult to separate fact from myth, but wa Joka was clearly a real man much respected by other villagers who did see him as some kind of prophet, and it isn’t just any old village that can boast one of those, especially one alive within the last century. There is an abundant tapestry of local history and fables that form the warp and weft of village life here, and which historians would do well to tap into before the oral tradition dies out.
Another story comes from villager Dalali Ali Dalali Nadi Umari Khatibu Hassan Makame Mkwaju Shirazi (this is his full name, given by him to illustrate his own background). He is the “keeper” of the history of the Shirazis who populated East Africa over a thousand years ago and built the island’s oldest mosques. He can recount the history of these people from their flight from Iran and their settlement in Pemba, Unguja and Mafia islands to their adoption of Unguja Ukuu as an island capital, and their cultural practices here. He explains how the different branches of the original Shirazi family that settled in Zanzibar would meet annually for feasts and to report on the success of their villages. Also, he says, the famous practice of Mwaka Kogwa (New Year) in Makunduchi, where villagers set a hut on fire and men stage symbolic fights, actually originated far earlier in Unguja Ukuu. The practice does not, he says, stem from a literal worship of fire, but is instead a symbolic representation of surviving in the face of adversity.
He also explains why the Shirazis enlisted the help of the Arabs in fighting the Portuguese, why the Arabs were allowed to rule Zanzibar afterwards, how Indians came also to settle on Zanzibar and why Africans ended up in such subservient roles. It’s a Shirazi worldview, and some of it would be regarded now as non-PC (for example, the Shirazis supposedly wanted the Portuguese out because of their practice of sodomy), but nonetheless it’s a wide-ranging and valuable account that he says has been passed down through generations from his direct ancestor, Sheikh Fatawi bin-Issa. Researchers from Sudan and Zanzibar Universities have already come to hear his story, he explains proudly. His young son is with him and listens enthralled throughout the account – this is no dry potted history, but the tale of Zanzibar’s origins, told with a storyteller’s verve and flamboyance.
We move again, this time to go to see Unguja Ukuu’s “local hospital”. This is a mud and coral rag hut deep in the village. A consultation is taking place, so we sit and wait. We are handed a fat baby, who we play with. In the mid-distance a girl in a party dress alternately teases and pets a monkey on a piece of string. The monkey gives as good as it gets. The consultation finishes, we give the baby back and go into the hut ourselves. It’s smoky and pungent inside but the smell is pleasant. There are two herbalists, an older man and woman, and a big pile of twigs, roots and leaves, as well as a bottle of red ink.
For all its remoteness, this herbalist is well known, and doctors from Mnazi Moja, Zanzibar’s main hospital, often refer children here. One method of treating illness is to write short passages from the Quran on a piece of paper with ink, then to wash the piece of paper. Patients drink the resulting water. For skin diseases, a treatment will be made up by boiling bark or leaves and applied to the skin. For some other ailments, tea will be made. I foolishly ask what they would recommend for a bad stomach. The mganga smiles and hands me an earthy root, instructing me to gnaw on it. I have to be polite, so nibble off soil, bark and wood and try to chew while maintaining a happy face. The taste is vile, but there are no after effects. Are there concerns about such expertise dying out? Nothing is written down, instead herbalists know the properties of each leaf and branch by memory. No, they smile, the next generation is being taught already, this knowledge is being safely passed on.
From the fertile heart of Unguja Ukuu, where the alchemy of the forest, soil and people creates a remarkable atmosphere, to the beach that Mohamed wa Joka rendered invisible. It’s not one of the open, tourist brochure beaches of the north or east coasts, though it is beautiful. It is a quiet, sheltered bay where locals dominate and few travellers tread. It feels still and timeless. From this embarkation point you can go on the one and only tour from Unguja Ukuu. Offered by the estimable Eco + Culture Tours, a not-for-profit organisation that designs low-impact and cultural tours to benefit local communities and the environment, the Unguja Ukuu tour is a taste of heaven.
Paddling out into warm shallow waters and clambering aboard a wooden boat, you head out through the bay, where you can miraculously catch sight of downtown Dar Es Salaam. Although your eyes tell you it is only a matter of miles away, your instincts say it is actually a universe away, and perhaps if you set sail directly toward it, you would never get there. It’s a glimpse into another dimension.
We pierce our way through the roiling waves. The breathtaking ocean fluctuates between emerald, azure and turquoise, then as we get further out, resigns itself to a moody inky blue. Out here, the islands of Nianembe and Miwi squat, uninhabited masses of coral populated by scores of rabbits and a few snakes. At Nianembe there is a stunning sandbank where you can stop to eat lunch – a Zanzibari feast from the sea of octopus, squid, prawns or lobster. The snorkelling is tranquil, with shoals of curious fish nibbling at your feet. On a good day (one in five, our guide Mr Kassim says) you will see wild dolphins, rather than the tourist-tamed beasts at Kizimkazi. Sea turtles also abound.
But even out here, there is no escape from the sorcery and mystery of Unguja Ukuu. The side of the island is honeycombed with caves, some as deep as 60 metres, rich with stalagmites. And on the island is an ancient grave – nobody knows even if it is a man’s or woman’s, but stories of spirits haunting this spot abound. Large tourism companies and the government itself have been to check out Nianembe and its potential for a luxury development. At the moment, the spot is pristine, and it’s sad to think of that changing. If the time comes, perhaps the spirit of Mohamed wa Joka can be invoked to make the island disappear.