Zanzibar for Beginners

A crazy Lovestory

Sexy dress!”

The voice sounded rough, somehow interesting and erotic, sounding like a man about fifty years old. Sofie looked down at the leopard pattern of her dress and saw beside her a pair of bare legs, stuck in orange-red Bermudas with black palm decorations. Long slender boy’s legs. Barefoot. Cursorily she looked into a dark face of indeterminable age, more likely young. Short Rasta curls that stuck out from his head like coiled feathers. Were adolescents already starting to flirt with one in Zanzibar, she wondered.

“Thank you,” she said.

“Looks like a cheetah, kind of wild,” he said.

“No, more like a leopard, I think,” she said, “but you’re right about wild.”

Smiling, slightly slanted eyes. Cat eyes. With deep shadows underneath.

“Do you think I look tired?” he asked abruptly.

“Because I’ve hardly slept in three days.”

Like me, she thought.

“Yeah, you do look pretty tired,” she replied.

Just like him, she had spent the last three nights at the Busara Music Festival in Stonetown, the vibrant old town of Zanzibar City. Even the opening of the festival had been spectacular: In a long, colorful parade, people dressed in exotic tribal costumes, feather-adorned shamans and bare-chested artists painted with white chalk had danced through the old town, imitating spear fights and African healing rites. In the evening, musicians and dancers from all over Africa had brought the audience to ecstasy and the city to rocking on the stage in the Old Fort and Sofie had danced half the night to African rhythms as if in a trance.

Several times she had been approached by Massai, who suddenly stood in front of her as if they had come out of the ground, wrapped in red checked cloths and with white plastic sandals on their feet. One of them, after a short conversation, had asked her very directly if they could become “boyfriend and girlfriend”. She thought she had misheard. “If you’re my girlfriend, I’ll protect you too,” he had added with a laugh, pointing to the long knife he carried under his scarf, which had inspired her respect. How had he gotten through the security checks at the entrance with it? But unlike the Italian women who were known in Zanzibar for having a thing for Masai, that wasn’t necessarily the case with her. But they smelled exciting, laughed a lot, and seemed completely uncomplicated. Even when Sofie flatly refused their advances, they remained friendly and unconcerned, radiating a fresh, almost childlike naiveté that touched her. Eventually they disappeared as smoothly and silently as they had come.

“By the way, my name is Seif,” the young man said, holding out his hand.

“And my name is Sofie,” she said.

“Sounds a little similar,” he said. They both laughed.

From then on, Seif didn’t leave her side. Surprisingly, she liked it, he surrounded her like a gentle breeze, a great lightness emanated from him and the conversation with him relaxed completely effortlessly, she was not bored for a second with her youthful companion. Only when in the fervor of his narration – it seemed to her unintentional – he moved closer and closer to her, she felt a slight disturbing sensation and politely drew his attention to the greater need for distance of a European woman.

“Oh sorry, I didn’t notice that at all,” he apologized and moved a bit away from her.

“I’m very black,” he said suddenly. She looked at him and thought he was exaggerating.

“You’re more of a dark brown to me,” she replied, “but does that matter?”

Why did he call her attention to it? Did he think he was the first dark-skinned man she had come into close contact with? Unconcerned, he told her that he grabbed his guitar first thing in the morning to improvise a few songs. “She’s my woman, you know?” He was a musician and performed in various clubs on the island. A few years ago, he had come to Zanzibar from the mainland, from Dar es Salaam, because the job opportunities were better here. However, he could not make a living from music alone, because the clubs hardly paid more than 50,000 shillings for his performances, which was the equivalent of about twenty euros. Therefore, he organized trips for tourists on the side or accompanied them as a guide. For a time he had run a small bed & breakfast with his Swedish girlfriend, but then gave it up when the relationship broke down and he had to pay her off.

“I totally crashed after that,” he said, “with coke. But that was a long time ago, thankfully. Now I just smoke weed. If you feel like it, I’ll buy you a joint.”

She was certainly in the mood. In no time at all, Seif weaved his way through the people, who by now were crowded around her, and appeared a moment later with a small paper cylinder.

“Bushweed from Arusha,” he said. “Not very strong but okay.”

He poured the contents of the cylinder into his hand, sorted out seeds and stems, mixed the weed with some tobacco, and routinely rolled the joint. After a few puffs, Sofie felt deeply relaxed. Everything was fine the way it was. By now they had taken seats on two sisal-covered wooden chairs in the back of the club, where they could watch the action but still talk. Dark-skinned Zanzibaris and light-skinned European women were engrossed in conversation or were letting loose on the dance floor. That was the fascinating thing about Zanzibar’s social life: That locals, immigrants (also called expats), and vacationers of different ages mingled here in a completely casual way.

“What is tourism actually like for the local population, who surely are still strongly attached to their old traditions?” asked Sofie.

“Like everything in life, there are two sides to it,” he returned. “On the one hand, of course, tourism is good, but on the other hand it destroys the original life of the fishermen here. Jambiani has developed a lot in the last few years, but many people have sold their land far too cheaply to Europeans, who have built hotels and restaurants all along the beach and made a lot of money. However, there are more jobs as a result,” he acknowledged.

“And the free movement of tourists – isn’t that a problem for the Muslim population?” Sofie had read that 95 percent are Muslim and had wondered when she saw young female NGO workers on the streets of Stonetown dressed only in short shorts and spaghetti strap shirts.

“As far as that goes, Zanzibaris are rather tolerant, hakuna matata, no problem, because they know tourists bring money. But to get a better impression, I can only recommend you to go to the village or even to the interior and see for yourself how the people live there.”

This young man with the body of an eighteen-year-old and the mind and voice of a fifty-year-old amazed Sofie. He seemed European to her.

“How old are you, anyway?” she asked.

“I’m thirty-four,” he replied. “And you?”

“You don’t ask a lady that.”

“I’d guess you’re in your late fifties, but you actually look younger,” he said. “Most men my age feel inferior to older women, but it’s not that way with me. I think you’re really cute, by the way!”

Sofie’s breath caught in her throat. At first she thought he was a bit cheeky, then she felt flattered and, more importantly, younger than she was.

“So, so, cute,” she said wryly.

“Yes, and I find it exciting to meet a woman who has so much life experience.”

Did she really have as much life experience as was commensurate with her age? Doubts were quietly stirring inside her. Often she felt immature. But that he suggested a need for counseling she found interesting. In any case, he listened to her carefully. When at one point he said, “Fuck capitalism,” she interrupted him.

“Are you jealous of people who have more than you?”

He looked a little irritated and then, after a moment’s thought, said, “Yes, but in a good way. You know, it’s more self-development envy that spurs me to do more.”

She thought he was original.

“I think we definitely need to meet again,” he said. “By the way, I’m singing at the Demani in Paje on Thursday, that’s in the neighboring village – why don’t you come there?”

“Yeah, why not, I’d love to hear you.”

“I see, so you don’t want to see me, you just want to hear me?”

“That’s just it!” said Sofie, laughing.

For some reason, she had avoided looking at him more closely all evening. Maybe it was the shadows under his eyes. She just couldn’t get an accurate picture of him. She looked at her watch.

“I have to go, I’m sure my cab will be here by now.”

“I have something to show you first,” he said. He deftly made a path for himself and her through the dense crowd, gently pushing people sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left.

“I know how to move people,” he said, turning to her briefly, smiling.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could tell they were causing a stir, comments like “You’re looking cool, like a young girl” flying her way as they strode toward the exit. Outside, Seif sat down on a large rock and pointed upward. Above them stretched the most fantastic starry sky Sofie had ever seen. Amid thousands and thousands of brightly shining stars, the Milky Way was clearly visible as a broad band of light. “Incredible,” she whispered in awe, considering sitting down on the stone next to Seif, but then finding it too close.

Fortunately, at that moment, the cab pulled up.

“Hey, if you feel like it, you can add me on Facebook,” he said as he opened the door for her.