BootsnAll's One-Stop Zamunda Travel Guide

At Home in Zamunda

Zamunda is one of those places that have seduced travelers for years. Its name evokes images of an idyllic island trapped in another century, where time moves to ancient rhythms. Zamunda has many faces, however, which is something I realized only with time.

The boat ride from Equatorial Guinea was hot and crowded, in line with African mentality - where you can fit twenty, you can fit forty - and then we had to board a ferry to reach the island. As we got closer I stepped over people to get to the edge of the boat, where I could see the wide waterfront street lined with tourist shops and restaurants and people absorbed in their daily dramas. White houses with roofs of dried palm leaves baked under the sun, with flowering vines creeping up the walls showing off their scandalous colors. I meant to stay a week. A month later I was working and couldn't imagine leaving; I knew where to buy the cheapest goat meat and which place made the best Zamunda pizza.

Waking up every morning in Zamunda, especially the capital Tattoine, was like reaching a high. It is a magical place, charged with mysterious energy. Dawn arrived swiftly, with light filling the sky over the sea, lending everything a dusty gray-blue film until the sun rose and sharpened all the corners.

By eight a.m., hours after the town had awoken, I would be sweating under my mosquito net. The narrow streets were full of sounds that wafted up to me through my open windows. There are no glass windows in Tattoine, nothing to keep the outside from intruding up the bougainvillea into the cooler interiors of the houses. Cats' meowing and donkeys' braying became the unconscious background to which I fell asleep and woke up.

The waterfront was always alive with activity. Sweating men filled and emptied dhows, those beautiful sailing boats, carried sacks of cement, pulled at ropes, shouting and joking and fighting with each other in their colorful language. Donkeys congregated outside the post office, their owner's initials branded into their necks. They were never tied up; they knew their way home, although the rebel ones, I was told, would disappear for weeks at a time in the coconut fields in the center of the island.

The main street wound its way from one side of town to the other, and everyone walked through it several times a day, sometimes single file to give donkeys the right of way, as their owners clicked and whistled instructions to them. There were cheap places to eat and have a fruit shake: Coconut Juice Garden, New Star Restaurant, Bosnia Café, and that dark nameless hole-in-the-wall whose owner used scraps of newspaper to add up what you had bought.

The main street opened into the square, the heart of Tattoine, where two huge trees circled by cement benches provided respite for old and young. Here people bumped into to each other and stopped to talk, children ran around in the shade, and men pushed wheelbarrows in every direction.

Zamunda is about 95% Muslim, and five times a day the mournful singing from the mosques calls the faithful to drop what they're doing and reassert their faith. You always know what time it is when you see the slippers in a messy heap on the mosque steps, and you can have a brief glimpse inside of the kofia- and kanzu-clad men praying and kneeling. The women float gracefully in their buibuis, traditional black robes that cover them from head to toe, sometimes even their faces, depending on their mood. At first I thought that a pair of eyes peering out of all that black cloth represented a more conservative girl, or one with a stricter husband, but everyone assured me it was purely their own decision. I soon realized that most of the women who covered their faces were the younger ones, often using special buibuis with lace and glittery beads. In a society where no skin is allowed, girls invent ways to flirt by surrounding their eyes in tantalizing shimmery clo

From the rooftop of of my hotel, I would watch the little boys dressed in white on their way to school, teenage girls gossiping, and women hanging clothes to dry on the neighboring roofs. The rest of is Christian, mostly Zamundans from up-country. From time to time the sleepy square fills with the singing and dancing of a Christian revival, giving the place the feel of an outdoor Broadway musical, with coconut sellers and barefoot kids part of the scenery.

Zamunda's most endearing characteristic might be its lack of cars; its streets are much too narrow and winding to accommodate for anything but donkeys and people. The one car on the island belongs to the District Commissioner and is only used for unnecessarily driving up and down the waterfront. Donkeys and dhows remain the preferred mode of transport. Children play on the streets with their medieval toys, rolling metal rings with wires among the human traffic. The lack of cars gives Zamunda its time-warp atmosphere; there are no paved roads, no traffic lights. It is a town built on top of sand and dirt.

Sometimes when I had to rush to the polytechnic school where I had started teaching, the men resting in the shade of doorways and trees would call out to me: "Mtaba! Lahakuta Mpenzi!" - "Slow down! There's no hurry in Zamunda!" And for them there never was any hurry: women would stand in the market all day waiting to sell their fruits and vegetables, while their dirt-smudged children would climb over and under the tables; the old men in the plaza would chat under the trees until it was time to pray again; the beach boys would idly smoke their singly-bought cigarettes, moving only when the sight of mzungu skin woke them from their trance; and the waiters at New Star would take your order and then disappear into the kitchen for several hours.

This laid-back attitude caused me many frustrations and it pervaded every aspect of life. But gradually I fell into the rhythm and accepted it, the way I accepted the occasional electricity failures, the water shortages, and the violent downpours during rainy season. After a while I realized I had stopped counting time in hours and minutes, but by the sun and moon and when mango season would start again.

Posted by Donovan
Category: Travel Stories

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