Paje village: balm for a Western soul
Zanzibar-based Michelle Hodgkinson teaches us that not all travel stories need to be about the destination.
Opinion is unanimous that the southeast coast of Zanzibar is bursting with possibilities, and so to be here now on the cusp of it all feels wonderfully fortuitous. The villages that span the spectacular shoreline from Michamvi to Kizimkazi retain their rural charm, though Western influence and infrastructure are becoming increasingly evident. Think Bali or Tulum twenty years ago, just in Africa. It is magical, and the time to visit is now.
Zoom into the village of Paje, the heart of the coastline, wedged between Bwejuu and Jambiani. Imagine white sand with wandering Maasai and cattle, swaying palms catching the trade wind breeze, and a turquoise ocean dotted with dhows and kite surfers from all corners of the globe. There are also stunning sunrises free for the taking every single morning. Hotels, hostels and lodges for a range of pockets line the beachfront – from excellent budget accommodation at Your Zanzibar Place (with high-speed WiFi) to the more luxurious and artfully designed Mr Kahawa (with really good coffee). In between the places to stay are kite schools offering lessons and gear rental (in some cases scuba diving and surf trips too) and restaurants serving a range of cuisines. Delicious pizzas can be found at Delight, and the best burgers are hands-down at B4 Beach Club. The Beach Club is equally tuned into electronic beats, hosting international DJs on a weekly basis. Paje is going to change a lot in the coming years, but for now rural life still wins in many ways.
Village life in Paje
Kids play amongst chickens, ducks and goats, rolling tyres along sandy roads, collecting water in water bottles and buckets from the nearby well, or folding and flying paper jets. Women are found drying seaweed or cleaning cassava and men return home with calamari slung over their bicycle handlebars, where they play Boa until after dark.
Cattle have on a number of occasions strolled right past my kitchen window and when they’ve let out a deep “mooo”, which ricochets off the alleyway walls, I’ve jumped in my skin. At the end of my road is a man named Dosty who used to walk past my home every day shouting “Micheeelllee!” to check I was in. I told him not to shout and he has since stopped, but I miss this now. His daughter’s name is Samira and even though she is hidden under a hijab, I can see she is very beautiful. Dosty’s young boys ride around on bicycles saying things in KiSwahili I don’t always understand. Maybe it’s better this way.
Tropical fruits are sold from the roadside, and I’m bemused by the fruitseller, Mariamo, who often conducts her sales while lying sprawled across a table. I notice fresh cow’s milk sold in recycled bottles from a nearby pop-up stand every evening from around 17.30 to 18.30. Miss this and miss out, or settle for a box of ultra-pasteurised.
Shopping is limited but the essentials can be found, otherwise it’s a trip to Stone Town (fifty kilometres away) or at times, a short airplane flight or ride on the ferry to Dar es Salaam. Spaza shops and roadside stands sell goods from super glue, footballs and henna dye, to mosquito nets, babies’ diapers and flip flops. To stay local I find myself adapting my needs and making do with what I can find here.
Although I’m going more with the flow, I have my routines. Every day, for lunch or dinner, I’m perched up at the Rooftop Restaurant, which offers a bird’s-eye view of the village, and the only viewpoint on the southeast coast (to date) from which you can really see the sun set. I wander off in thought watching life happen down below – women wandering in and out of salons (all spelled “saloon”) and cars racing up and down the main road. At night drivers sometimes even perform doughnuts; it’s dangerous with pedestrians but exhilarating.
I also eat at the roadside restaurants where freshly baked and fried breads (including chapatis) accompany steaming cups of black coffee with lots of sugar. If I sit still for too long, flies land on my food so I keep my hands in motion and leave when I’m finished eating. Plates are often dipped in one bucket then stacked for the next customer and I’m challenged to trust in my own immunity. It’s worth it – I feel like a local. Often after ordering a few samoosas (“sambusas”), I walk over to Godfrey at Gonaru Quality Ice-Cream and Food Service, where I’m greeted as “Shani”. I don’t correct him. Here, I order “a big one” of his date and nut smoothies, which he tops with two scoops of haba soda (nigella sativa – a cure for every ailment). Sometimes I pass without cash on me. Godfrey says hakuna matata meaning “no worries” and I pay him the next time I see him. I like this kind of trust here.
I walk a lot, often barefoot, sometimes past the locals playing football in the village centre at dusk, the sandy field framed by coconut trees, or past a large posse of kids on the beachfront who are always flick-flaking and somersaulting off stacked tyres. Just like they’ve become part of my narrative, I wonder whether I’ve become part of theirs. Like there’s the girl who is always in a “hurry-hurry” – anything faster than a stroll is cause for alert. Some locals refer to me as dala dala, which is a bus, a new-looking minivan or an open-air pick-up truck – all of which move at pace.
And when my two feet can’t get me far enough, or fast enough, I hail a boda boda (motorcycle taxi). Iddi is my go-to guy and he makes himself available to me at most hours of the day. He takes his job seriously, often arriving to collect me ahead of time and though the pay is small he has the most beautiful white-toothed smile that pops against his dark skin. Imagine we all asked ourselves more often in business, not what can I get out of this but how can I serve.
Many visitors to the village plot their return before they even leave, some simply set up business and stay. This week I found myself on a search for short and longer-term accommodation rentals for people preparing to explore the southeast shore, and for others already here and preparing to remain. I was accompanied by a man named Ali who was late to show me around, and when he led me down the beach in a saunter I had to ask him twice if we could pick up the pace. There is Swahili time and Western time, and you can try and fight it but this will only leave you frustrated. Pole pole means “slowly slowly” in KiSwahili. Life is slower here; it’s more natural.
Of the limited KiSwahili I’ve learned so far, haba na haba hujaza kibaba is possibly my favourite phrase. It means “little by little we make a whole” and I’m reminded of that in many ways. There’s a lot more depth to this island life than simply sipping on coconuts at the beach, especially when living here. Intermittent electricity and WiFi are the bane of my existence, but I find that softening to the chaos makes my whole experience more enjoyable.
Sometimes a travel story lies in the people you meet, a feeling a place gives you, or the lessons it presents. Borrowing from the words of Tove Jansson, thrusting oneself into a landscape that teaches you to look at things in a new way is priceless, and learning how to get along in a place that you don’t know inside out is the surest way to put some life in you.
I think I’ll stay.
WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY: Michelle Hodgkinson
PRODUCTION: Sarah Jayne Fell
Michelle Hodgkinson is a Creative Consultant living in Paje, Zanzibar. Educated in performing arts, fashion design, English and communications, her career is like a diverse and vibrant patchwork quilt – including managing PACHA on Tour in South Africa, facilitating media interviews for Vogue’s Editor, Suzy Menkes, transposing Screenwriter and Film Producer Mike Jefferie’s autobiography, and shooting in Bollywood. She loves excellent service, a good challenge, travelling in Africa, and a well placed Oxford comma. Follow Michelle on Instagram at @mj_hodgkinson, as well as her two new passion projects @pajepost and @zanzibareastcoast.