“Do you want to taste a Zanzibari male?
“I’ll be the first souvenir of your visit to the island,” said the young guide. “You won’t be disappointed.”
He was annoyed when I said no. This was not the first time that my naivety had gotten me into trouble. I was pissed off at myself and all things in Zanzibar. I was on the island for less than an hour. Things were not going well.
I was nauseous from the hour and a half hydrofoil ride across the Indian Ocean. At the Zanzibari wharf the passengers were swarmed by friendly guides offering to carry their bags, point out the way to customs and arrange taxis to hotels. I was desperate for a rest.
Disorientated I allowed one such tout to smooth out my confusion and anxiety about arriving in an alien island. His fee was peanuts. Besides he was young and quite cute. The guide knew the custom officials. After he hailed them the officials asked me to open my backpack and then closed it immediately. No hassle. With the guide’s help I even jumped the immigration queue. Then he took me to a taxi.
I idly remarked to the taxi driver that the guide was a pleasant young man. The driver’s startled response unsettled me, despite his attempts to cover it up. I wondered what local rule I had thoughtlessly broken.
The Florida Inn Guest House was the fourth place that we checked for rooms. All the others were fully booked. The Florida Inn was in Stone Town, the oldest part of the island. The inn had only four double rooms and it appeared to be clean and cosy. I checked into room 101. It had two single beds, a Persian carpet and walls panelled with roughly grooved timber.
The innkeeper was a friendly young man who talked about Michael Jackson and Bob Marley. Under his flowing sky-blue djellabah he wore jeans, a white T-shirt, and white running shoes. He was about 19 years old. Even though the room smelled slightly of mildew I decided to take it. My throbbing head needed a rest.
I rested for about half an hour but the headache and nausea would not go away. I walked along the narrow streets following the scent of the sea. Under a palm tree on a white sandy beach, I sat and watched a group of fishermen mending their nets. They checked their small wooden boat as they prepared for the day’s work. The rhythmic swish and swoosh of the surf calmed me down. I pondered why this particular paradise had not yet touched my soul.
On the way back to the hotel I saw a Muslim woman riding a motorbike. Only her eyes were visible as she wore a black chador that covered her from head to toe. She also wore black gloves. Her chador covered arms made her look as if she had wings like a bat and was about to fly.
He was waiting for me at the hotel.
It was the guide who had helped me at the wharf. He and the innkeeper were chatting. I was astonished and asked the guide why he was there.
Before answering he gave me a present a – small plastic bag filled with tropical fruits. The guide replied that his friend the taxi driver said I had asked about him. Reluctantly I accepted the gift even though my gut was telling me it was a bad move. The innkeeper gleefully watched my discomfort.
I figured that the innkeeper was thinking that this black tourist was no different from all the others. She was on the island for only an hour and was already prepared to sample the other ‘s’. No: it was not the ‘s’ in sun, sand or sea.
Things became worst. I had to tell the guide to wait in the lobby. He was not to follow me to the room. I took my time in the room to do nothing. I could not think of how to get out of the mess. Hunger forced me to leave the room and to face my unexpected guest.
The guide escorted me through narrow twisting alleys to a restaurant. His behaviour indicated that we would lunch together – at my expense. Angry with myself for being so stupid I ordered two sodas. As he sipped the soda, the guide asked me if I wanted to taste him.
He was irritated when I said no. If I was not interested, why had I asked the taxi driver about him, the gigolo demanded. Now I knew why the taxi driver was startled. It was just idle chatter on my part. I did not realise it carried more meaning in Zanzibar. I wanted to eat but did not want to do so with the guide. My stomach was still queasy from the boat ride.
Out of nowhere a tidal wave of panic smashed my soul. I wanted to run, far, far away. One moment I was hot and sweaty. Then I was cold and shivering.
My head felt detached from the rest of my body. It was floating away to another place far from here. My throat was dry and raspy; as if it had been lined with sandpaper. My eyes refused to focus. One moment I was squinting. The next my eyes were wide open in fright. Something was hammering inside my head.
I was afraid. My mind was dismembering itself in paradise.
The guide noticed the sudden change in my behaviour and the pained, drained expression on my face. He made me lean against a cool wall to collect myself. It did not work.
I do not remember how I got back to the hotel. Sitting on the bed I fought back tears of raging despair. Then the room began to crowd in on me. The walls were trembling as they shrank to entomb me. I tried to beat the walls back with my fists. I had to get out.
Along the twisted streets I shuffled. My mouth was clenched to stop the screams. Then I stopped.
I hurried back to the hotel in less than five minutes. I could feel the despair and panic choking my senses. It was hard to think and make decisions, such as which street to walk down.
I felt as if a stinking fog had enveloped my senses and rendered them next to useless. My head and heart throbbed and vomit assaulted my taste buds. All I wanted to do was run. Sprint away from the loneliness, the loss of adventure and the loss of spirit.
I wanted “Xhemasi” Mbinga Anthony Kafunya. And I wanted to go home.
I was on the spice island. It was a place where travellers, conquerors and traders had come for centuries. And I, small, insignificant I – loathed the place.
No amount of pretty sunsets, beautiful people with fascinating features or passing ships could change the foul mood that I was in. The streets were not quaint with their narrow, cobble-stoned and twisting passages. They were nasty, dirty and claustrophobic. I could not stand being suffocated in the maze of alleyways.
I hated the place because I was alone. I was sick and tired of travelling alone, of sharing experiences by myself, and of watching other people in couples and groups. I wished that I could have lost consciousness, only to wake up in my apartment in Canada.
I wanted to get off the blasted island. I wanted my man and I wanted to go home – now, now, now!
The panic attack scared me.
I felt that I was on the edge of a nervous breakdown. One false move and I would be over the cliff of despair in less than a breath. I prayed to God or Allah as he was called there: to keep me sane; to help me, in this hour of despair, when I could not help myself. I begged him not to forsake me, now that I most needed him.
Either help me or let me be stone cold dead, without feelings, thoughts or memories. At least in death I would find peace as there would be no more loneliness. I pleaded with Allah to have mercy on my miserable, despairing soul; to show me the way, the truth and salvation, plus the exit from the hell that I had placed myself in.
I could not face tomorrow if it was going to be a repeat of today. If death and salvation did not come by night, then drugs or alcohol would take their place. I needed something to deaden my senses and mask the despair feasting at my soul. I sat on the bed fighting the temptation to scream and pull my hair out.
I thought what would the Zanzibari make of me, this strange black woman who came to paradise only to go mad?
Others came for the island’s beauty, exotica, erotica and perhaps to fulfil a dream. And here was I, with all my things falling apart. My centre could not hold. My internal anarchy was loosed upon the landscape of my daydreams, turning them into a waking nightmare.
As sleep refused to come on this edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown-day, I went to open the window to get some fresh air. There was no window. Behind the curtain was a blank wall. I wondered how I had not noticed it when I surveyed the room before checking in.
I needed Xhemasi or failing that the company of other women.
I did not want to meet any more Zanzibari gigolos. They gathered like bees around the honey of the tourist money. I wanted companionship but not if I had to pay for it. It seems like every female tourist was accompanied by a local male ‘friend.’ I did not want one, but the options were limited. There were no female guides. I had asked.
Excerpt from my book Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love