The ten-seater was the smallest plane Sam had ever been in. We flew over the tropical waters of the strait and landed on the tiny airstrip. Mafia, home to 45,000 people of mixed African, Arab and Indian descent, had been fought over for centuries due to its strategic position. The Arabs, the Portuguese and various African tribes and kingdoms had held sway at different times, with vicious battles for supremacy and atrocities committed on a disturbing scale.
Exiting the airport, we found the only budget accommodation on the island and settled in. We were the only guests, and the first guests to stay in over a week. This was despite the hostel’s spectacular position on a beach-side precipice, with sweeping views across the Indian Ocean back towards the African mainland. George, who ran the hostel, said tourists were staying away because of the upcoming general election in Tanzania; people were spooked about potential political violence. It was hard to imagine significant activity here, let alone any violence.
The three of us, Matt, Sam and I, took a stroll down the beach a couple of kilometres towards the small town of Kilindoni, which served as the island’s capital. With the tide out, fishing boats marooned by the receding waters lay tilted on the salty flats stretching away from the beach, where mounds of sand dotted blue-green ponds of seaweed and shells. A seawater swamp of colour and beauty that stretched nearly to the horizon.
On the beach, fisherman worked on their nets, children played with crab shells and old anchor chains and women carted sacks of grain and buckets of fish on their heads. It seemed like we were the only wazungu on the island, but of course we knew we weren’t. There were some 5-star resorts on a small island called Chole off the coast on the other side of Mafia.
In Kilindoni, we walked into a dodgy and dimly lit bar to have some lunch. Maiai na chippi – eggs and chips, seemed the order of the day. We ate our lunch while Matt tolerated the slurred rants of a local alcoholic on the scotch at midday, and I tried to decipher the persistent requests from a woman who clearly had some intellectual impairment (I think may possibly foetal alcohol syndrome). I eventually figured out she wanted me to take a photo of her so she could request some money from me for doing so. I relented.
Back in the glare of the ramshackle town, I unsuccessfully shopped around for a wallet to replace the one stolen in Dar before we grabbed a tut-tut back to the hostel. The afternoon was a slow-down affair of playing chess, games of 500, reading books and Kindles, watching the massive tide sweep in over the sea-swamp and pluck up the fishing boats from their resting positions, our footsteps from the midday stroll now three metres under water.
The perfect sun swan dived to the horizon, wobbling into nothingness in the mauve atmosphere, failing to hit the finish line on the edge of the world. George rustled up some decidedly good Indian seafood and we slept well under the echoes of village life outside the hostel walls. Dogs, roosters, Islamic prayers through crackling speakers and laughter on the sand-lined streets.
This Is Africa