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Answers from Zanzibar

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The masses have been asking for another installment about life in Zanzibar. I’m doing audience response this time:


Do you have a washing machine? If not, do you outsource?


I have a washing machine and dishwasher: her name is Amina. She comes three times a week for the grand sum of $8 (and I pay her well). She does housekeeping, laundry, dishes and prep cooking. Laundry finds its way from the basket back to the bureau, clean and pressed without any trouble on my part. She’s not a very good cook so I pick up where she leaves off after the washing and chopping stage. Everything goes into the fridge in little plastic boxes so when I’m ready to cook, ‘voila!’


What do you think you’ll miss most about Zanzibar? Why?


Amina. See above.


Living by the sea also ranks high. Even on days when I don’t go to the ocean, the color in the sky above reminds me it’s nearby. Kicking off my shoes and sticking my feet in the sand for ‘happy hour’ melts away whatever has walked through the study site that day.


I also love how much time I spend outside here. My house has two verandas and two sets of French doors and 12 windows in the front room. It’s always open to sunlight and fresh air. Even my office has six windows. I walk fifteen minutes to work with sea views along the way. It’s a great way to live.


What is the most exotic culinary adventure you’ve had there?


Ever been to a Swahili restaurant? Think meat with rice, coconut oil and salt as side dishes. Rather disappointing as there is so much potential in ‘Spice’ and ‘Island.’ Lack of imagination in local cuisine aside, the most exotic spot for dining is Forodhani Gardens (or ‘Foro’ as the locals say)—a night market by the sea where fishermen sell grilled seafood. My favorite is fish kebabs—skewers of tuna, barracuda, white snapper, marlin, etc. alternating with carrots and grilled on a charcoal B-B-Q. The crunchy sweet of the carrot along with flaky, soft fresh fish served hot and sprinkled with lime is divine.


There is also a restaurant out of town a ways called Hakuna Matata where a German chef challenges the status quo along with the taste buds. My favorite meal there was pan seared tuna, French style green beans with vanilla and rice pilau. Rice pilau is consistently good here since fresh spices are abundant. A couple of other spots around the island have tickled the tongue as well. Overall, the culinary joys are fresh, tropical fruit and really good fish. I’m not complaining.


What habit of yours do your co-workers feel is the most strange?


I have to guess here as I’m not brave enough to ask them! What they comment on most [and that I understand] follows:


  • Drink so much water. I drink during office hours more water than most of them imbibe in a day. Around the world, Nalgene travels with me. 


  • I walk in the sun with an umbrella. Unlike parasols in Victorian days or sun-phobic women in Asia, this is just downright odd here. I carry an umbrella rain or shine because the sun is strong, it’s freaking hot and I’m lousy at putting on sunscreen. I just don’t like having anything on my skin in a climate where I’m going to melt like wax lipstick before the day ends. 


  • Wear crap shoes in the street and slip into ‘nice’ shoes at the office. This is so backwards to Zanzibari. I have seen the ground in the street versus the floor in my office. Even though fewer people see my ‘nice’ shoes, I think my way is preferred. 


  • The legacy I’ll be remembered for eternally here: the way I fuss over the cats. This is the first thing my co-workers tell any visitors to the office. Not that I’m from America, or my name, or that I’m running a research study, or that I probably understand enough Swahili to know what they’re saying about me. None of the above. They say what roughly translates to “the foreign woman is crazy about these stray cats. Ain’t that the darndest thing you’ve ever seen?” Office cats prove the perfect amount of cat for me. I play with them for a few minutes each day and feed them. The cats come seek me out when they want something and I do the same. Beyond that, we carry on content knowing the other is there. 




Has anyone asked you to marry him yet?


Add yet another country to the list where I’ve received a marriage proposal. This time from a modest peanut salesman called Michael who hangs out in front of the hospital. He asked to talk to me one day at 4:00. That particular day, I had to go negotiate with some sex workers to get them out of a nasty boycott they were staging for our study so I blew off our appointment. Not deterred, Michael waited until I left the office at quarter-to-six and asked to walk me home. (I did not ask him to carry my books.)


He started off saying “Li-li-an.”


I interrupted to say “Leigh Ann.”


Again, “Li-li-an.”


Again slowly ‘Leigh Ann.’


The third time he got it and in a rush of words spat out “Leigh Ann, Iloveyousomuch.”


And so it went from there—the request for marriage, the feelings of his heart.


He followed a week later with a promised ‘gifty’—which he delivered a day after asking, “Are you excity?” (My second favorite question in Zanzibar—can I offer you sleep support? remains hard to beat).


In the end, Michael and I compromised. I gave him a little money for English classes—because he asked—not because my sense of humor is that warped. Although, it probably is. He gave me cashews and Colgate toothpaste in a pink gift bag with roses.

I declined his offer for wedded bliss.


The Goddess has granted you one single wish for the people of Zanzibar. What would it be?


The men to go blind so the women could take off their veils.


And since no one asked “what was the most recent moral outrage of your life here?” I will enlighten.


My co-worker Hussein, formerly of rock star status for being the one who called to offer sleep support, came into my office two days ago and asked me to give him a table. At this time, three people were sitting at it for a training session. I told him “Hapana. Impossible.” Swahili-English for “not a chance, buddy.” Hussein left and I thought the matter was resolved. When we finished using the table for that purpose, we moved it back to its typical location for the role where we use it everyday like we have been using it for four months.


Apparently, he decided his use for the table was now more pressing because he came into my office during the night and took the table!


I arrived at work and found the table missing. Nothing was in its place so there was a gaping hole where the table used to be. Hussein moved it to a locked room so I couldn’t go take it back. I called him and told him this was “matitizo kubwa”—Swahili for a “big f@%*ing problem”—for me because there were materials in the drawer of that table which I needed for work now. He remained ever so polite and came to the office a few hours—and a few more phone calls—later and I found him sitting in his previously locked office where my table now holds a photocopy machine.


There is nothing particularly special about this table. Except it was mine. And we used it for work seven days a week. And it had a drawer where we kept things we need for work every day. Now it is holding a photocopier in another office I don’t have a key to. And even more insulting, the contents of the drawer are things like rubber bands and a remote control for the air conditioner. I know. I looked.


I tried to have a calm discussion about how Hussein could make things livable for both of us by shifting tables so that I have the one with a drawer since I need a safe place to keep important things like money away from drug addicts. And he needs a way to keep a photocopy machine off the floor. He responded to my comments by walking out of the office, locking the door, getting on his bicycle, and riding away.


Hours later he returned. I cornered him in another room and told him “Yesterday, you had a problem and I had no problem. Today, I have a problem and you have no problem. I want to find a way where we both have no problem. I need a table with a drawer.” He told me “you have to give me a chance. I will find the drawer.”


He better find the drawer. He also better watch carefully where I might stick it.

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