In travel, timing is everything. Dreaming of Zanzibar, it was the spice trade and breadth of cultural and ethnic influences that drew me. Never the partying. Certainly not the promise of a Covid deniers paradise.
But that’s the time I catch it. It’s February 2021 when I arrive. The president of Tanzania has made it clear that there is no Covid in Tanzania. They have prayed it away, used natural remedies, done a lot of steaming their heads over a pot of herbs – and overcome it. There is no need for masks or tests or the White Man’s poison. No Corona in Tanzania. Except that there is.
The president of Tanzania will be dead in a month. The cause of death isn’t known. It could have been heart problems. Could have been Covid. It could have been both. It could have been murder for standing against the dominant world government narrative on the virus. I don’t care.
But now, now he is not dead yet, and Tanzania proudly stands out from every other country in the world on their policies around the virus.
There is fear and mistrust. The virus is here. I smell death. I hear coughing. Many tell stories of people sneaking in the back door to the hospital and doctors begging patients not to let anyone know what they are being treated for. No one wants to stand up against the government, and most believe whatever narrative their government lays down. Most in the world, not just in Tanzania.
Before I even arrive I am horrified by the entitlement of those that would currently visit Africa just for the freedom to get shitfaced and party on the beach against a background of reduced restrictions and lockdowns.
I am flying Ethiopian from Addis Ababa, and there are no black people on the plane. In the gate area, fat white Europeans and Russians congregate in groups, proud to wear their masks around their necks. We’re still in Ethiopia, where masks are required, but there is power in numbers, and no one reprimands them.
They have smirks on their faces, like they have won. Like they own the place due to their relative wealth.
And so when I arrive in Zanzibar, there is no Covid test needed. As soon as I am off the plane – there is no one in masks. Pasty, large, white, bodies roam the streets of Stone Town in bright colored, skimpy clothing. The tourists are a blight. They stand out against the locals, in muted colors, mostly black, the women in hijab.
Zanzibar is Muslim. The call to prayer reminds me that even here amongst the tourist slime, there is divinity.
How to deal with a party place when I do not want to party? With trepidation. Yet – there is a friend on the island. A braver traveler than myself. A role model. They broke the mold when they made him. I’ve always wondered where we will intersect in the world, and here we are.
He sends me a map point.
I walk to the point, 15 minutes through the tourist throngs in Stone Town, clear to the other end. The locals ask me to enter their shops.
“No Corona in Zanzibar!” they say, in response to my mask. I pull it down, sexily.
“Yeah, you want some?” I wink. They don’t know where I’ve been. How do they know I’m not carrying it?
I get to the point on the map and there is nothing there. Just sand.
“Come to the edge of the water.” Says another text. I obey.
I stand at the edge of the water feeling like an idiot, surveying the scene. Locals are exercising on the beach, running it in a short circular track. Some drop down and do push-ups and sit-ups between their laps.
I notice it is only men. Then I notice that there are no local women at the beach. They are not permitted to swim. Yet there’s a smattering of white women in bikinis with giant drinks and curly straws. Gross.
However, it does not escape my attention that of all the fifteen African countries I visit in 2021, Tanzania is doing the best economically. There were no lockdowns, no closures, and no stopping of tourism. Things continue as usual. The virus may be present, but people are not starving in the street.
“Get in the boat with the guys with the green shirt and the blue shirt.” says the text from my friend.
A run-down boat with a sputtering motor appears in front of me. I curse my friend under my breath. Don’t trust boats. I get in the boat.
“Your friend is waiting for you.” Says one of the men. I’m still wearing a mask. Outside. On a boat. I’m too freaked out by the magnet of Zanzibar for Covid denial to let it go.
What looks like a floating house appears on the horizon. As we near it, I see it’s more of a sinking house. Ramshackle thing with patches and a thatched roof with solar panels. As we pull up I hear music.
The boat guys drop me off at a landing, telling me to leave my shoes at the door. I do, and step into this strange floating house to find it is a bar/restaurant/lounge. There aren’t many people on it, but they all warmly greet me with “Jambo!”, and point to the back.
I make my way out and see my friend, sitting on a swing, hat on head, giant vape pen in one hand, a drink in the other. Not the worst way to reunite.
We order drinks that take 40 minutes to make. We talk and move around the floating bar as the sun moves, sitting in the shade and catching up.
The days blur into a series of cocktails on top of roofs and quickly I tire of the sugar and the cheap booze and since my friend has been on the island for a month, aiming to leave but never quite making it off, I ask if he can hook me up with some weed.
He sends me a contact card via WhatsApp with a note:
My nose wrinkles. I laugh. My friend is also European. I love that the only warning he gives me is this one.
I text the guy and end up meeting him with my friend. The French guy shows up with his friend as well, who is Zanzibari, with long dreadlocks and a smile. He doesn’t speak much English. He’s clearly not Muslim.
The French guy surprises me by speaking fluent Swahili. He talks to his friend who then goes out to get the weed. While he is gone I ask about living on Zanzibar and what things have been like. I learn that Zanzibar has had 100% of the tourism it had pre-Covid for quite some time, and now it is more than 100%.
Yet, most of the money is collected in taxes by Tanzania itself. There’s a per night fee that all lodgings on the island need to pay. They’re collecting millions straight into the government off of tourism. Of course they’d deny Covid.
Like with most corruption in Africa, that money stays in pockets and doesn’t go into supporting the hand that feeds. No money is earmarked for building tourism. The iconic House of Wonders (Beit-al-Ajaib) – the building that is on every postcard from Zanzibar – collapsed a couple months before I arrived. It was simply not maintained. It’s still sitting in a heap of rubble when I visit.
The deeper look I take at Tanzania and Zanzibar tourism, the more I see through the fat, drunk, sunburned Russians into the stark reality: the policies are helping.
Kids are still in school. Businesses are still open. Money is flowing. People are happy and upbeat. None of the locals feel the way I do about the tourists. They’re relieved and happy. And no matter how much money goes to the government, SOME of it is going to Zanzibaris. They’re doing well.
The Zanzibari comes back with the weed. It’s three grams. I roll four joints from it and give one each to the Frenchman and the Zanzibari, thanking them. We don’t smoke together. I haven’t shared a joint during Covid yet.
I ask about the weed. They tell me it comes from Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland. I’m surprised that it made it that far, but many goods have come much farther to get to Zanzibar.
The weed is decent. Not too powerful, but not ditch weed. It adds a pleasant buzz to the sunshine and Covid anxiety.
My friend and I decide on a traditional meal on the rooftop. We snake through the streets of Stone Town again, and more cries of “No Corona!” follow me in my mask. My friend and I take turns dismissing touts. We both have developed a sweet and gentle way of dispensing with those that see us as walking dollar bills.
Through Omani doors into a five-story house built by a Persian trader. Beautiful and tall, carvings and tiles and a giant, hardwood staircase with steep stairs that take us in a spiral around an inner courtyard up to the roof. From here we can see all of Stone Town, and the ocean. My friend and I remark on the empty cruise ship piers that would block our view were they full. Cruises are not yet a thing again.
We eat a traditional tasting menu of Zanzibari food. Influences from India, Persia, Africa, and the Arab world. Delicious spices fill my every sense. The tall, black, hot Zanzibari waiter places a bowl of rosewater in front of me to wash my hands before the meal.
We sit on the floor, and the call to prayer wafts over the city.
Muslim party places in general appeal to me. Jogjakarta comes to mind. The money brought by partying tourists softens the religious edges and there is tolerance of alcohol. But respect for the locals’ beliefs tempers the parties, and a balance is achieved. Even here, now, at peak Covid denial, with all the bars open and at capacity, the sounds of revelry are hushed and mindful.
There’s rumors swirling about cases on the rise on Zanzibar. There’s no testing so no way of knowing, but other than my friend and myself – every person I hear of who visits Tanzania during this time period comes away with Covid.
By the time I leave Zanzibar, my mind and heart have been changed.
The visceral, immediate impact of seeing the tourism dollars build and bolster in a place that would starve without them has me side against lockdowns, border closures, and business and school limitations. Perhaps I wouldn’t go as far as denying the virus exists in my country, but when it comes to a small island where the impacts are easily observed it seems so obvious.
And moreover, instead of judging and shaming the fat, white tourists, I applaud them. I recognize them for making a bigger difference than those sitting at home in terror of the virus, spending their money locally, and never pausing to think about what impact their country’s policy has on faraway, exotic places like Zanzibar.
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