06 June 2010

notes from a magical island

The name alone sounds like something out of a fanciful children’s story: Zanzibar. After the Lost finale I thought I had permanently lost my ability to believe in magical islands, but Zanzibar is making me believe all over again.

In addition to being a tropical paradise, Zanzibar is a cultural melting pot. Strategically located along Indian Ocean trading routes, Zanzibar has seen wave after wave of foreign influences, including Portuguese, Arab, Indian, and British. While the continent was being carved up among European powers, Zanzibar was colonized by the Middle East. More accurately, it became a part of the Sultanate of Oman, and the Omani Arabs liked it so much that at one point the Sultan’s court was moved here. As a result, Zanzibar’s historic Stone Town has a decidedly Middle Eastern feel, and the overwhelming majority of Zanzibaris are Muslim. They are also among the friendliest and most laid-back people you will meet anywhere. Even the most assertive of the street vendors are pretty genial, and I regularly walk around Stone Town with my laptop bag around my shoulder. That says a lot about how safe it is here, given that in Dar I was feeling a bit of the post-mugging PTSD from Cameroon.

Magical island or not, I am here for work and not for play. One component of my internship is helping implement a survey in Zanzibar, and I’m here with a nice little research team consisting of an American consultant hired by headquarters (Sam), a Zanzibari consultant (Fadhil), my co-intern for the summer (Elana), and yours truly. The pilot interviews went amazingly well, but for the last few days we’ve been bogged down with a lot of back-and-forth with DC about revisions to the survey instrument. As a result, we’re several days behind schedule and antsy to get going in earnest. That said, I can’t complain too much about the work environment. Most days we’ve set up shop in a hotel restaurant/bar with a killer view of the Indian Ocean, and the other night I had my first-ever conference call in a hookah lounge.

This has been my first time interacting in a significant way with a conservative Muslim society. While strolling through the narrow streets of Stone Town, you can frequently hear the call to prayer from a nearby mosque or children singing at an Islamic school. Most Zanzibari women wear some kind of headscarf, and a sizable minority wear the full burqa, with only their eyes showing. To avoid offending the locals, tourists are advised to keep their shoulders covered and not to show too much leg anywhere outside of the beach. During Ramadan, I am told, it is difficult to find food anywhere in town during the day.

Unfortunately, the enchantment came to a crashing halt the other night. I met a Zanzibari woman who just came home from a year of teaching Swahili in the U.S. on a Fulbright grant. She is a friend of Elana’s, and she and her husband joined us for a visit Zanzibar’s famous night market. Smart and charismatic and bursting with energy, she gave me a few rapid-fire, impromptu lessons as we strolled around the lamp-lit stalls selling seafood and sugar cane juice and Zanzibar “pizza.” Elana told me that she would be working as a secondary school teacher here for a shockingly small salary, and I asked Elana if she plans to do any individual tutoring on the side, since I have a tutor on the mainland but not on the island. Elana had already asked on my behalf, but the response that as a man, I wouldn’t be able to see her unless Elana or another woman accompanied me. I was even more astonished to learn that the day we saw her was her first outside the house in the week since she’d come back to Zanzibar (though to be fair, she’d been receiving dozens of guests at home). I don’t have much insight about how she feels about any of this and I don’t want to project my opinions onto her, but it depresses me to imagine what kind of opportunities even a woman of her caliber is routinely denied.

I’ll be here for at least another week, so more pictures and stories to come soon!

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