Vuvuzela: The Sounds of Zanzibar

Another evening lost walking home from Africana BBQ, but this time I got more lost than usual. The rains flooded the village. Navigating around the high water forced me off my usual route. I wove the dirt paths around stone buildings and tires, dirt soccer fields and schools, until I got so completely turned around I wasn’t even sure which direction home was in. The starless night sky offering no aid to my path. A local pointed me toward the “roadi.” I did not live on the main road, but I counted on being able to at least navigate more successfully from there, so I walked in the direction he pointed. I had little other choice. Once on the main road I realized just how far from home I was. Getting this lost after four days of living in the tiny village of Padje seemed unforgivable.

I looked around the unlit village laying quietly in beneath the dark night sky trying to get my bearings. Standing on the main road I heard the distant beat of African music. When I left California, I noted to myself the three things that had always given me the greatest joy, the exact things I had all but completely lost in my life as I barrelled toward burnout – swimming, eating well, and dancing. Standing on the main road, I found music to move my hips, and soothe my soul. The sounds were faint to be sure, but no less powerful because of that. I considered the large roll of newspaper wrapped take away chapati I was holding leftover from my evening meal, my dorky large frame eye glasses and my linen coveralls – I wasn’t exactly ready for the club. I briefly consider turning around and going home to change, put away my chapati and put in my contact lens, but the beat tugged at heart, and I decided to follow it. I turned toward the music, the opposite direction from home.

Sounds, like waves on the sea, can be farther away than they first appear. I walked along the shoulder of the main road for what felt like a long time, following the music growing louder, but not catching quite it. I found myself at the edge of the village, but still could not see the origin of the music. I paused for a minute to consider how far from home I had gone, to consider again the newspaper bundle of buttery chapatti that was now greasing my palm and my large dorky glasses and my Birkenstock sandals that would surely make it difficult to dance. But by this point I had lost all ability to do anything other than find the source of the sound; I kept walking.

Finally I was nearly on top of the music. I could felt it thumping in my chest, but I couldn’t see any buildings that could possibly be a club. I wandered in to a small fruit market for help; there a young boy took my around the corner to a large iron gate with a ticket booth and a small collection of staff. I hadn’t seen any buildings that could have been a club because there weren’t any. Behind the iron gate stretched a large dirt field with a concrete platform at its center and a DJ booth on one end. I handed the woman at the stone booth my last 5000 TSH for the entrance fee and gave the bouncer my newspaper roll of chapati and my eyeglasses. “Will you promise to keep these safe for me?” I asked the large man. “I can’t see without them.” “If you can’t see without them how will you walk from here to there?” he said in his breathy Zanzibarian accent, pointing toward the dance floor. “I can see the steps right in front of me” I laughed. He promised to keep my belongings safe, and I walked, as if  in a trace, toward the DJ booth and the spinning colored lights.

MyAfricanStoriesDance2.pngI made my way across a patchy field of grass to the concrete dance platform bordering a square dirt pit with concrete columns at its outside corners reaching toward the night sky. It looked something like an abandoned life size model of a roman temple, as if someone had stumbled upon this ancient relic and decided to set up a DJ booth before they finished the work of clearing the field and repairing the many cracks and breaks in the structure. About 50 feet away I could see the shapes of people at pool tables, and a well lit, fully stocked bar. On the dance floor I was alone. I slipped off my sandals and began to move. I could not see if the other people noticed me, if they were laughing at me, or staring at me, without my glasses they are nothing more than a blur of dark shapes. With this freedom, I closed my eyes and let the beat wash over me, rocking my shoulders, and then my hips, my belly, and finally my feet. It is dark except a few flashing colored dots making waves across the floor. The music is rich. I let it take hold of me, my movements growing fuller and stronger as the music embedded itself in my chest. I didn’t know any of these songs – they are African songs, all new to me. I didn’t know what the words meant. But their language speaks directly to my soul. My shoulders pulse, my arms lift and lower like the waves of the sea, my hips sink into the sounds of this night. I forget about my linen coveralls, the blur of people moving in the background. I am alone listening to the music speak directly to me and responding with the shapes of my body. I danced like this, alone, for more than an hour, sweat pooling at my hairline and dripping down my collarbone.

Around 10:30pm people start to file into the club. I find my Polish neighbor Pawel from my guest house playing pool. He and I have reconciled our fight from a day earlier. He has picked up other travelers. People start to fill the dance floor, first a group of three dancing in the center. Then more start to fill the modern temple.  I spot the fisherman, Rashed, from the ocean safari Pawel and I took earlier in the day. Rashed has showered and put on a light button down denim shirt. There is slight bungle at the shoulders where his muscles push against the cotton. He enters with the skipper and the women who cooked our lunch. He flashes me his wide toothy smile, white teeth shinning against the deep black of his skin. I make my way over to him, also smiling wide. I greet everyone in the group joyfully, trying to be gracious and to mask how happy I am to see him. We had casually agreed to meet here earlier in the day, but he was thirty minutes late and I wasn’t sure he was really going to show. Living by the beach men can be so lazy about their appearance, and I’m glad to see he made an effort. He looks even more handsome than I remember. I wonder why such a handsome man is still single. After out initial greetings he looks uncomfortable, and excuses himself to return a few minutes later with a beer. Then he leaves his friends and we start to dance. He quickly finishes his beer, puts the bottle at the edge of the platform and slowly, poli poli, but surely, moves his body closer to mine. And I move toward him, the rhythmic pulses of the music carrying our bodies toward each other until our hips are pressed together, my legs straddling his thigh. More sure of himself now, he wraps his arms around my waist and I rest my arm comfortably on his muscular shoulder. We dance. The pulsing music carries us and we dance. I move closer to him still and we dance. He beams that toothy smile at me, sure of himself now and I rest my head on his shoulder lost in the pulse, and the night, and his arms.

The night moves on. Dozens of people press into the club. There are no walls to contain us, but still it feels crowded. A blur of black and white bodies dancing, and drinking, and laughing with each other. Pawel, has picked up two men, one white and one black, and they are gathered around a table near the brightly lit bar, sharing stories. They are both young maybe mid 20s, and handsome. I introduce myself and notice the accents. “Are you from the UK?” I ask. “Yes.” They are from Wales. An older Masai man who often spends his evenings drunk at the same local bar where I eat dinner slides on the bench next to me and rests his hand on my knee. I lift his hand by his fore finger, as if carrying a dirty wet rag and return it to his lap as if tossing the rag in the trash. Prince, the young black Welsh man, laughs at this. The Masai man continues to talk to me as if he hasn’t noticed my disgust. I stand up to leave. “Do you want me to dance with you,” Prince asks, seeing his opening. “If you want”, I reply; I have no shortage of dance partners here. I walk back toward the rhythm and into the dark.

Familiar faces of the Masai tribe see me and we greet each other excitedly clasping hands and snapping. Kili, a young Masai man who I know from the beach, is among them. We had promised to go dancing together at some point. I excuse myself to dance with him. He moves his lanky body expertly to the beat, his red tribal robes swaying back and forth behind him. He is like a sculpture. We dance together like kids, jumping and shaking and laughing. It’s a welcome break from the intensity between Rasheed and I.

MyAfricanStoriesDance4.pngLike a ghost Chaggy appears out of nowhere, standing beside us, watching me dance with Kili. Chaggy is a rasta about my age, and a friend of the woman who runs my guest house. He is from Padje, and the sun has weathered him beyond his years. The night before he took me to a local club. “God brought you to me” he said in a confidential tone as he dropped me off at my door. “I want to be in your bed.” I told him no. He was nice enough, but I wasn’t remotely interested. He is staring at me now intensely, dancing with another man. “Jambo” I greet him, but I do not break from dancing. Afraid of getting caught in his embrace. Afraid of another fight between men over “who has rights to me,” as happened at Africana’s a few night earlier. I calmly hold my position. I see his eyes trace my body. “I am going to play a game of pool but I will come back for you,” he says. “Have fun,” I say casually and I wave him off and return to my dance with Kili. He and some other Masai men lead a line dance and I follow them. Kili counts the steps loud enough for me to hear. “You’re getting it,” he cheers me on. I laugh to myself. I am in Africa, on the other side of the globe from my former world and I’m still doing line dances like we did at union parties. It feels like an unexpected parallel universe. The moves come easily and I feel at home.

The dance finishes, and Prince, the young black Welsh man, is there at the edge of the dirt pit. He has taken his shirt off revealing the ripples of a perfect six pack stomach. I catch myself starring. “No line dance for you?” I comment, trying to recover. “I wouldn’t know what I was doing” he responds. During this brief exchange the next song has started, and I turn away from Kili toward him, our bodes move together toward the beat. It’s clear he does know how to move. The waves of the music carry us closer together, and again I am grinding with a handsome young man, my legs on either side of his, our pelvises pressed together in time to the beat. He slides his left hand around my waist, and lets rest gently on the bulge that is the top of my ass. I wonder if Rashed can see us, so I hesitate, but ultimately I have no control of myself and my right hand lifts to find Prince’s muscular arm. I wrap my finders around his bicep and rest my check against his chest pressing even closer into him. He is a head taller than I am. He pulls me toward him tightly. We move together to the music, pressing firmly against each other, enveloped in the funky smell of sweat and beer. I want to stay there, drunk of the sounds and smells of the night, blind to the outside world, resting against this young man’s firm body.

The night moves forward in a blur. Rashed does find me, and pulls me away from Prince and away from the glare of the disco lights to the edge of the dance floor and into the darkness. He says something about leaving. He has tears in his eyes as he tells me he loves me. That he will come back to America with me and poli poli he will learn English and poli poli I will learn Swahili. “Sweetie” he says, looking proud to have picked up this word from his careful studies of American cinema, “we can talk on the phone every day until I come to you.” Then he presses his deliciously thick lips onto mine and we kiss. I want to kiss him again and I do. I wrap my legs around his waist, knowing he is strong enough to hold me, and he does. We kiss again. Short sweet kisses, and then I nuzzle my face into his neck. I try to explain that he doesn’t love me. That we just met. That I am not going back to America right away, and he should not follow me there. I want to be gentle with my words. I can’t tell what he can hear or understand. He says little. I try to explain that my phone does not work here, that I didn’t buy a Zanzibar SIM card. He takes my number and I give it to him anyway, trying still to soothe this gorgeous beast of a man. I think he is leaving but he follows me back to the dance floor, the wide smile returning to his face. He keeps me close. And we dance again for some time.

He excuses himself for the toilet. Immediately a man I have never seen before steps forward to dance with me. He is a large man with milk chocolate colored skin and a large mane of black and blond dreadlocks. I’ve never been attracted to men with long hair, but on him the mane of hair is balanced against his sheer size. He steps in to dance with me saying nothing. After a song or two he wraps his arms around my waist and presses his pelvis into my ass. I feel small against him. My head tilts forward. He takes my neck in his teeth, like a lion capturing his prey. I let my body go limp and sink into his. I am drunk on this attention.

Rashed returns and I turn immediately toward him. He looks disquieted. I feel trapped between what I want to do and what is the kind thing to do. The music picks up pace. A short woman pushes between us, breaking his light hold on me. She cranes her neck back to stare into my eyes and presses her large breasts into my belly. She is more than a foot shorter than I am. She is drunk, screaming in Swahili and rocking her head to the music. Her wild movements clear space around us. Then I realize Kili is behind me dancing alone, watching me. He is taller than I am, taller than Rasheed, and he leans toward me whispering in English, loud enough for only me to hear. “You’re killing me” he says, “the way you move. I am crushing out on you right now.” Another English word that feels plucked from a movie. Rasheed reaches around the woman who has shifted to one side, and grabs my wrist to pull me back toward him. Again the short woman pushes her round body between us pressing her large breasts into me and waving her hands to the music. I do not understand why. Is she a lesbian? Is she jealous of the attention I’m getting from the local men? I don’t know what to do other than be polite and keep dancing. Again Kili whispers into the back of my ear. Again Rasheed pulls me back. And again the woman is there between us waving and shaking her arms to the beat. And again Kili is whispering. I am spun around and around between the three of them, blind in the darkness, my head spinning with the glare of the rainbow lights, the whispers echoing out of the darkness into my ear. My breath grows faster as I am pulled between them and the light and the sweat swirl around me tugging at me from every direction. Dizzy,  I need to clear my head.

I push myself away from them, out of the dirt pit and onto the platform but I loose my balance and fall backward into the pit. A man’s arms catch me and help me to steady my feet. “Are you ok?” I hear a voice ask. It’s Prince looking right into my eyes. The disco lights pulsing over the bright smile on his face. For a moment I can’t respond. He’s gorgeous. Our eyes lock. I can’t breathe. I want to be with him. I want to stay in his arms. I want to run my fingers over his chest and kiss his hairless body. I want to press my naked flesh into his. “Are you ok?” He asks again. I gulp for air. “Yes.” And without another word, I force myself to push him away. Prince helps me steady myself and I make my way toward the bright lights of the bar and the toilet behind it.

I tuck myself behind a post at the bar, out of sight of the dance floor. I don’t need the toilet, I just need to catch my breath. I am confused by all the attention. Both treasuring it and intensely intimidated by it all and by my own lust. I need to leave. I need to leave immediately and I need to leave alone. My breath is shallow and hard and I grip the post to steady myself. I am flooded with lust. I want these men. I want them all one at a time or on consecutive nights. I want them each for a different reason: Rasheed for his strength and gentlemanly manner, Kili for his sweetness and the easy way we relate to each other. But most of all I want Prince for the confident way he pulled me into his perfect body. It is the gentle way he rested his hand on my waist that has most intoxicated me. And I can’t let myself have it. Not here. Not like this. Not this night.


Before even half a minute has passed another man I have never met before slips over to me and slides his hand around my waist. “You,” he takes a dramatic breath while his eyes slowly follow the curves of my body down and back up, “are a good dancer.” His dark eyes looking directly into mine. I gently return his hand to him. “Thank you” “Come with me” “No” I respond, “I am hiding” “Then I will hide with you.” He buys be a ginger soda and we chat while he tells me about himself and his village and I half listen scanning the tables for Pawel. And then a streak of white – white t-shirt, white man – walks into the light. “Pawel” I call out to him. Loudly. Desperately. “Pawel” He walks over to me. Oblivious to the man who has attached himself to my side. “Are you ready to go?” I ask him. “Yes I was looking for you.” “Let’s go now, I just need to get my glasses.” “Then I will meet you by the gate in 10 minutes.” “Three minutes” I say back. “Only three minutes, please.” I thank the man for the ginger soda and stumble into the darkness blindly searching for Rasheed to say good bye. He finds me, and I hug him good night.“ Just wait here, I will drive you home.” I give him a hug and a light kiss “No, I am walking home with my friend.” I continue stumbling forward. Kili also finds me, “I am leaving now. I want to walk you home.” “I can’t.” “We are going the same direction anyway,” he tells me. “No, I’m walking home with my friend.” “Ok. Good. You shouldn’t walk home alone, it is not safe this late. I will find you at the beach tomorrow.” I look for Prince, but without my glasses I can not spot his black body in the black night, and I must leave quickly while I still have control of myself. I thank the bouncer at the gate for guarding my glasses and find Pawel waiting for me. “Let’s go.”

We walk quickly away from the thumping music toward our village and Pawel talks enthusiastically about his night, and the beautiful woman who danced with him with who turned out to be a prostitute. The words echo in my ears. I’m still catching my breath; still lost in my fantasy of the these men I want to take to bed.

∴ ∴ ∴

For days after that night I would feel the residue of lust under my skin. The heady feeling of being so intensely desired was always in the background of conversations no matter what the topic. Like many women who’ve been sexually abused, I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with my own sexuality. I’ve struggled with the confusing mix of thinking my self worth based on being perceived as physically attractive by men, and not wanting the attention of men. But being whole includes embracing my sexuality. After all it is this aspect of human nature that creates our very lives.


photos used with permission:


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