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we are waswahili

Upon our arrival in Zanzibar, we were immediately accosted by a dozen eager taxi drivers, all of whom seemed to belong to one taxi company. The taxi stand had a list of set rates that mirrored the inflated resort prices, with the crucial distinction that the taxi drivers were willing to negotiate. One of the first things our Swahili teacher taught us was the vocabulary for bargaining, and we dare say we did her proud, negotiating the price down by almost 30%. Interestingly, our hotel had sent its own shuttle to pick us up despite the fact that we did not want to make use of the hotel’s transport services. Even more interestingly, the shuttle operators refused to negotiate, seemingly content to go back empty-handed rather than deviate from the hotel’s established rate.

We climbed into a small taxi that was almost as old and decrepit as the guy driving it. Unlike Kenyans, for whom English and Swahili are both official languages, Tanzanians mostly use the latter only, even if they know English. So our driver was thrilled that we spoke some Swahili and happily let his mouth run, oblivious to the fact that we were straining to understand even half of his non-stop jabbering. One thing we did understand was that he wanted us to speak only in Swahili, particularly if we were stopped by the police. He even told us to say, if asked, that we were waswahili (Swahili people) because the police would bother us less if they thought we were locals.

In Kenya, the police force is by far the most corrupt institution in the country, with a recent Transparency International survey giving it an 88 out of a possible 100 corruption points. With that in mind, it did not seem unreasonable to believe that the police in neighboring Tanzania would also be likely to engage in bribery and extortion. We passed the first police checkpoint with relative ease, a few words from the driver sufficing to secure onward passage. Not so at the second checkpoint.

There were two men stopping traffic as we turned off the main road to make our way to the eastern coast of the island. One of the policemen was in uniform; the other had dispensed with such necessities and was exercising his duties in a simple brown t-shirt and pants. It was this non-uniformed “officer” who stopped our car and started giving our driver a hard time, asking him who we were and where he was taking us. When our driver responded that we were waswahili, the officer walked around to D’s open window to ascertain whether this was actually the case.

After exchanging the usual greetings, he cocked an eyebrow and asked, mzima? The word literally translates to “alive” though it is also commonly used to ask how one is doing. Mzima kama kigongo, D responded, indicating that he was as alive as a camel’s hump, this being one of a handful of idiomatic expressions he knew cold. This did not seem to be a response the officer had been anticipating and after a perplexed look at us, he asked where we were from. D told him that we lived in Nairobi. This, apparently, was the wrong answer as it provoked a long stream of incomprehensible and not at all happy sounding Swahili. At this point D looked to our driver for help who, after a brief exchange, pulled out a crumpled banknote and offered it to the officer. To our surprise, the latter merely looked at the proffered bill before waving us on impatiently and moving on to the next car.

We drove for another 20 minutes and arrived at a junction, at which point it became clear that the driver was not, as he had indicated, familiar with the hotel. Seeing a group of villagers, we stopped and inquired as to the whereabouts of Next Paradise Resort. One of them started giving directions, emphatically gesticulating to emphasize that we needed to make a left turn at the next street. His companions then proceeded to shout him down, and he gave us completely new directions, pointing just as emphatically to the right. Perplexed, the driver put the car back in gear, repeating the name of our hotel over and over again as we slowly drove towards the beach. Like a mantra, he must have thought that saying it would will us there. There were, it turns out, no signs – not even on the gate or the building itself – that would have indicated that we had arrived at the right place. Luckily, after we turned off the road and found ourselves driving on sand and dodging palms trees, a young boy ran after the car, pointing us in the right direction. We had arrived just next to paradise.

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