A beach in Zanzibar Field notes from afar.. by Conrad Duroseau

Zanzibar, an island state within Tanzania, has its own semi-autonomous government. It is 60 miles long and 20 miles wide, and occupies a total area of approximately 650 square miles. It was once famous for its spices and its slave trade.

This would be my first time in Zanzibar..

The Precision Air flight from Nairobi to Zanzibar had been comfortable and mercifully short at 1h 30m. The propeller aircraft (an ATR 42-600 regional aircraft) was a familiar and reliable mode of transportation. This would be my first time in Zanzibar and having planned to just be staying for a week; this most likely would only wet my appetite.

We touched down after 9:00pm. We exited directly onto the tarmac and walked to the terminal. The building itself was relatively small, clean and modern, though not as imposing as Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar es Salaam, the capital on the mainland. The Tanzanian immigration service and customs were efficient and courteous. They promptly issued an ordinary Visa, costing US$50, valid for 3 months. In addition to my passport, I had to show my vaccination booklet as Tanzania checks for Yellow Fever inoculation especially with respect to people coming through Kenya.

First morning on the beach..

The hotel, a cool and relaxed place located right on the beach in the small fishing village of Bwejuu (54km) on the southeast coast of Zanzibar, had sent a driver. I had chosen a quiet corner of the island instead of staying in bustling Stone Town. The drive down from the airport took about 1 hour. By the time we arrived, after 10:00pm, I went straight to my room for much needed sleep.

My room was a welcome mix of sobriety, comfort and..

The next morning I awoke refreshed and, at breakfast, met the owner, Peter, a Spaniard from Catalonia who was extremely welcoming. I had arrived during low season and was very fortunate to get personalised attention from Peter and Axel, the hotel manager. I stayed in their traditionally built cottage right on the beach. My room was a welcome mix of sobriety, comfort and cosiness.

Lunch was was a relatively simple fare, fish or seafood, my overall favourite was the octopus salad. I had it so often during my stay that I had the guilty feeling that I was starting to endanger the species at my location... However, in general, I have a rather spartan lifestyle as my life is geared towards making images, so everything else is really in support of that essential goal in my life. Food is fuel, sleeping is to be in shape to get up early enough to catch the light, research is in support of what is important to cover or photograph and to articulate the story arc, or what am I still missing so far, etc. This single-minded pursuit can get pretty boring if you're along for the ride.. unless you're working with me as a fixer or a translator.

Boys digging for shells at low tide on the South east coast of the island of Zanzibar.

For weeks prior to my arrival, I had been working in South Sudan photographing mother and child access to health care as well as stories on internally displaced people (IDP) for an international humanitarian organisation. Extreme heat and poor road conditions made it difficult to travel in South Sudan’s arid Northern Bahr El Ghazal province. The temperate air of Zanzibar was a welcome change averaging around 25˚C - 26˚C with a fresh sea breeze in June instead of the punishing 38˚C to 40˚C in South Sudan.

The hotel's newly installed WiFi connection would prove inadequate for sending large images..

I flew in on the Saturday and had wrapped up shooting my last story in South Sudan the day before. My filing deadline was fast approaching within a few days and while this was supposed to be a week’s holiday; I expected that I would be processing and editing images for a good half of it. One of the first things I did was to verify the speed and reliability of the Internet service. The hotel’s newly installed WiFi Internet connection would prove inadequate for sending large images through FTP although perfectly fine to send and receive standard email. Other arrangements would need to be made.

Women in Stonetown, Zanzibar. Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous island off the shore of Tanzania, has a majority of its population practising Islam.
I like to work up close using prime wide-angle lenses..

I am not usually the type to just sit on a beach and roast all day. In fact, I tend to use any vacation opportunity to go explore and try to shoot an interesting story in a different part of the world. This time, I figured that editing on the beach, under a large straw parasol, would be a different and possibly relaxing experience. The only other goal I had set in addition to filing on time, of course, was to test out a new 300mm lens I had barely used since buying it the previous year. In general, I like to work up close using prime wide-angle lenses ranging from 19mm to 35mm. However, in some situations “up close” may prove hazardous to one’s health, hence the 300mm.

Young women walking on the beach toward the town centre of Bwejuu.
In an unusual sight, I saw local people walking on the exposed sea bottom..

The first day was spent getting my bearings about the place, spotting my cardinal points and generally becoming familiar with my surroundings. As I had awoken to low tide the very first morning, it wasn't immediately striking that the sea level variations at this location were somewhat unusual in that the low tide could, at times, extend to as much as 1 km offshore. As such, this wasn't an obvious tourist destination, since it wasn't a great place to swim; the beach, though groomed, was also more natural than the usual tourist haunts. There were a few westerners on this 3 km stretch of beach, however they numbered no more than five, at least while I was there during this low season. In an unusual sight, I saw local people walking on the exposed sea bottom, apparently looking for seashells and molluscs according to my hosts. The weather was constantly shifting from bright sunshine to complete overcast, to rain and wind, true coastal conditions. The light was gorgeous, filtered through wispy clouds thus, at times, creating light shafts often encountered in gothic cathedrals.

During low tide, which can extend out to 1km off-shore, on the southeast coast of Zanzibar, people have a more direct access to fish and shellfish.
People have a knack to perceive when you're being genuine with them..

The Zanzibari I met during my stay were friendly though rather shy. They went about their business and paid me no mind except to respond to a hello. The main communication barrier was my lack of Kiswahili, the local variety - some say the original version - of Swahili. While I speak 5 languages, I really wish I had the time and opportunity to learn as many languages as possible. Communicating with people in their own language even if one doesn't master it goes a long way in eliminating barriers and establishing trust and removing you from the category of "Other". However, I found that even without being able to speak the language, I have been able to communicate with people with genuine eye contact, smiles and gestures. People, have a knack to perceive when you are being genuine with them and that, more than anything, will allow you to establish a rapport.

On the east coast of Zanzibar, during extreme low tides which can extend as far as 1km off-shore, local people are able to literally walk on the seabed in search of seashells.

On the third day, it started raining and the winds shifted bringing a much cooler breeze. It rained for 2 days, perfect timing for editing and processing close to 4,500 images.

Everything was over in 30 minutes..

Once the final selection of images was completed and processed, with three days left in Zanzibar, I asked Peter to make arrangements for me with the driver to go to the Shangani Post Office in Stone Town to file my images. The Shangani Post office, a traditional post office outlet, is a large facility which also includes many work stations using large desktop PCs. I paid in advance for my time and arranged to have my laptop connected directly with an Ethernet cable. With complete high speed internet service, once connected with my own laptop, everything was over in 30 minutes. After lunch, I walked around the old town and visited the old port area where I agreed to get a temporary tattoo. I was relieved when it faded away completely after three days.

I also took the opportunity to go to the local phone service provider to get my smartphone connected albeit for the last three days of my stay. It nevertheless allowed me to have access to my entire communication gamut, including social media.. Did I say it was a blessing?

My next door neighbour was a bit shy..

For the remaining two days, I spent my time on the beach, engaging with villagers and photographing some of their activities on the beach. My holiday was indeed coming to an abrupt end with an early flight on Sunday morning taking me back to the inferno in South Sudan.

Girl on the beach in Bwejuu, on the southeast coast of Zanzibar.
Equipment used: Nikon D800, 24mm f1.4G, 35mm f1.4G, 300mm f4D
Created By
Conrad Duroseau
All Photographs and Text © Conrad Duroseau, All rights reserved.

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