Driving from the airport on landing in Zanzibar the avenue is wide, with very little traffic for a warm morning, the streetlights in the middle carrying campaign posters indicative of a recent election. For someone coming from Nairobi with its perennial traffic snarl-ups this is heavenly, and I roll back the cab window and enjoy the wind whistling past. The avenue meanders and dips and up ahead the modern buildings lining the avenue give way to the ancient stone buildings of Zanzibar's Stone Town. Strung up on the streetlights a banner welcomes us to the Sauti za Busara Festival.
We cruise past the hospital - a reminder that even the romanticised spice island has its sick--the freshly-painted white-walled State House and the High Court and suddenly the broad street 'disappears' and we crawl into a narrow winding alley that can only accommodate one vehicle at a time. On either side loom the storeyed thick-walled ancient buildings of Stone Town that are reminiscent of Mombasa's Old Town or Lamu, save for Lamu's donkeys. It is difficult to tell whether we are in the financial district or not because a government office draped in national flag colours stands shoulder to shoulder with a tourist hotel.
As we inch into the bowels of Stone Town the streets suddenly fill with people, dreadlocked young men of mixed parentage wearing Bermuda shorts and casually-dressed tourists of all nationalities, all exploring the streets as they wait for the festival to kick off. We follow the coastline-hugging Mzingani Road that leads to the ferry terminal and finally stop outside the Old Fort, a huge thick-walled structure that is imposing in its stolid muteness. A group is waiting to buy tickets to enter the old fort, others mingling in Forodhani Gardens in front of the fort, enjoying the breeze and eateries from the food stalls set up by the locals.
As happens when travelling to a foreign country I had to adjust psychologically to the foreign currency. It takes a while to get used to five-figure bar bills without thinking that the waiter is trying to rip you off. The zeros can give you grand dreams. It reminded me of an incident in Somaliland when I paid for a cup of coffee with a wad of notes thicker than the Bible.
The festival kicked off on a high note with a colourful parade that started at Uwanja wa Tumbaku, opposite Magereza Hall, snaked through Mkunazini and Vuga and ended at the old fort, which was the main venue of the festival. It was the full works, complete with a brass band, capoeira and Kilua dancers, stilt walkers and the colourful umbrella ladies. Lending an air of menace to the ensemble were the Reki warriors, their bare bodies sleek in black grease, lithe glistening limbs poised to strike. It was a favourite with the kids, who hooted along in glee.
It was a precursor to the lively and energetic performances that were to be showcased at the festival over the next four days, and which were a blend of diverse cultures carefully selected from all over Africa and the Diaspora. A total of forty performances were showcased, all of them performed live. And they did not disappoint. From the high-octave act of Ihhashi Elimhlophe from South Africa to the mellow taarab tunes of the island's age-old Culture Music al Club, the shows were unique and distinct. You hardly knew what to expect next. And the crowd loved it, packing the venue ground to a man, dancing along as they sampled the various Tanzanian refreshments at the bar.
Beside the old fort where there was a main stage and an amphitheater for showing films, the festival activities were also taking place at the nearby Monsoon Restaurant, Forodhani Gardens and at the old Customs House which houses the Dhow Countries Music Academy.
With all the partying going on it was strange to imagine that at some point in history, the huge walled-in Old Fort yard accommodated prisoners in leg irons, watched over by guards carrying muskets patrolling on the ramparts ringing the thick walls above. I was reminded of this when I felt something poking my toe in the fawn-coloured grass. On closer examination it turned out to be the remains of a rusty four-inch nail that had been dug up by the sound crew when they were laying the power cables. There was a strange feeling holding that nail, almost like a gory souvenir from a forgotten age. Could it have been shrapnel from a bomb that had been fired over the wall during a siege on the great fort? Could it have been used to torture one of the prisoners? There was no way of telling, but it sure brought to mind the true purpose of the fort.
The crowd at the festival over the four days was a mix of all nationalities, from the native Swahili and Arabs to Latinos, Chinese and Italians. Simply put, it was a tower of babel. Walking around with a hand-held recorder eavesdropping in on conversations would have thrown the equipment's translation software into a spin. Practically every nationality was represented. And, like in all busy port cities, there was this unique group of mixed-blood people who looked neither black nor white, Arab nor Portuguese. They were of a sizeable number, predominantly sporting dreadlocks. They reminded me of my last visit to Cape Town. I always think of them as the true global citizens, and who give a city the cosmopolitan tag.
Zanzibar's famous pint-sized legend, Bi Kidude's shadow loomed large over the festival. On the first day there was a screening of a documentary on her last days titled I Shot Bi Kidude by Andy Jones, and which was a follow-up on his earlier film, As Old As My Tongue. The film focused on the fast-talking, chain-smoking rebel-rocker's last days and her alleged 2012 kidnapping before her death.
It is a contested twist in the controversial singer's life that some of the locals dispute, claiming it was introduced by the British film-maker to make it more captivating. According to some locals I spoke to, there was no such thing, and that Bi Kidude passed on at her home on the island due to old age.
Maybe it is where I was staying, or the fact that I didn't have enough time to tour the island's eateries, but I had the impression that save for the 'touristy' floating restaurants on the seafront serving cappuccino and the like, the ordinary Zanzibaris are not really strong on coffee and tea. On our first morning my Congolese colleague and I went into a local eatery in the Mnazi Mmoja area and asked for coffee. The café owner seemed surprised. I should have gotten the hint and realized that if you wanted an 'English breakfast' the place to go to was the Serena Inn further down the road. Anyway, we opted to settle for the chef's special for the day, after all we were tough Africans from South of the Sahara. What came was a bowl of watery soup in which our 'chef' had 'tumbukizad' (as we say in Nairobi) chunks of the meat rolls we had seen on display, roast potatoes, the vegetable salad and various other things that my taste-buds were supposed to discern.
Okay, it wasn't exactly a five-star eatery, so I have no cause to complain. In any case I had accepted to stay in a non- 'mzungu' place out of the same fatal curiosity that writers and the cat share. But the short of it is that when we asked for some eggs to help us solve the puzzle the 'chef' broke two hard-boiled eggs, chopped them in halves, and 'tumbukizad' them into the mix. There was pepper, salt and any other condiments at hand to flavor this magic concoction. We must have looked like aliens because, as we were wondering how to attack this wholesome all-in-one offering, a dreadlocked guy came in and the same was slapped on his table. He went on to gobble it all up in record time, washed it down with Zanzibar mineral water and left.
The next day, still exploring possibilities, we opted for another eatery where coffee was equally anathema, and where I was invited to try supu ya pweza (octopus soup). I had heard from some Tanzanian musician friends that it did something to the senses lower side of the belt, and naturally I was keen to explore.
Well, my pweza turned out to be another 'tumbukiza' in a bowl of soup, but it was way tastier than the first place. I tried not to look at the pweza's all-terrain tires and curling tail as I chewed the chopped pieces I fished out of the soup-- with my eyes closed I must have looked like Mr Bean doing justice to a raw lobster in a Paris café in one of his videos that my son adores. I then washed it down with a chilled Serengeti beer... yeah, In Zanzibar it is within the law to do that in the morning on a working day. To cut the story short this suspended meal in between breakfast and lunch became our routine throughout the festival.
The misadventures aside, this year's festival lived up to the billing as the friendliest festival on earth. There were hardly any incidences to report, and the atmosphere was just that: friendly. On the last day as we were jamming to the sounds of the electrifying reggae band from Algeria, Djimawi Africa, all I could think of were the reggae festivals that Nairobi has hosted in the last few years. The town's pick-pockets would have had a field day at Busara.