Sweatin' the Swahili Coast.

Sweatin' the Swahili Coast.

“My ankles are sweating,” I turned to tell Will. “Independently of the rest of my legs. I think even the tops of my toes are sweating.” 

He just smiled and rested his head on his backpack, then carried on watching the bustle of the city as we passed it by. 

The two of us were sitting in the back of a bajaaj – a little three wheeled rickshaw – heading out of Dar es Salaam towards the sleeper town of Bagamoyo, just an hour up the coast. 

Even at 50 km/h with the wind blowing in through the bajaaj's open doors, the city's midday heat is relentless. It hovers around 30-35 degrees C at this time of year, but the humidity weighs down like a wool blanket. It's the kind of heat where you step out of a cold shower, dry off, and are immediately thoroughly wet again as the heaviness of the air draws every drop of moisture from your skin. 

We've been halfheartedly trying to get some exercise over the past week, but it's 5am or bust. Once the sun's up, it's too hot to move faster than a languid amble. 

It's here – along this lush, tropical sweatbox of a coastline – where the Swahili culture came to exist.  

Stretching from southern Kenya, down Tanzania's shores to the northeast corner of Mozambique, the Swahili Coast is a cultural-geographic region that is home to the modern-day Swahili people, and the birthplace of East Africa's most spoken language.

Built through centuries of sustained contact between the native Bantu people and Arabic and Persian traders, the Swahili culture and language is a distinct mix of African and Arab influence. 

It's a sing-songy Bantu language with a considerable portion of its vocabulary borrowed from Arabic and a little from Portuguese colonists. It's the call-to-prayer bellowing out five times a day over the corrugated-iron rooftops of a sleepy African village. 

It's one of the few places in Tanzania where the locals don't speak a tribal language before Swahili. Swahili is the tribe. 

On my second day in the country back in June, I met a Tanzanian man named Allistair over breakfast one morning in Dar. We spent a day chatting, exchanged numbers, and then Allistair headed home to Bagamoyo and I left for Arusha. That was that. 

So when I called him up a full five months later to say “Hi, my friend Will and I are coming through Bagamoyo if you'd like to catch up,” I expected we would go for a few drinks or maybe dinner. 

But true to form for African hospitality, he immediately invited us to stay with him at his company's staff house in town. He picked us up at the bus station, showed us our room, showed us to the pool, then sent the doorman out for a few beers. 

Three days later, we hadn't moved an inch. 



Bagamoyo was the capital of German East Africa, and one of the most important trading ports in the region in the late 19th century, linking mainland East Africa to Zanzibar and the Indian Ocean trade routes. 

But the capital moved to Dar es Salaam in 1891, and in its subsequent decline, the formerly vibrant trading colony has relaxed into a slow-moving seaside town whose main economy is the building and fixing of dhows. Most of the streets are just sand and the large, elegant colonial buildings of the city's industrious past have become collapsing skeletons of their previous selves, being slowly consumed by the jungle like an East African Angkor Wat. 

Shabby houses made intermittently of stone, thatch, mud, and corrugated iron sit atop the flat, sandy streets with no apparent urban plan or grid, as if the whole town was just casually placed down upon a beach. 

Shanty stalls line the coast, slinging fried fish, chicken, and chips; and young men sell cold sodas out of coolers while the fisherman relax in any available shade, waiting for the right tides to head out.

They say that average human walking speed is 4 km/h. But whoever conducted that survey clearly forgot to include the Swahili Coast, because the locals here meander down the streets at the approximate speed of continental drift. Even a piki piki driver I caught a ride with drove his motorcycle at quarter speed, as if the tires would melt into the sand at any speed higher than a slow roll. 

But who knows, in this heat perhaps they would.

While Allistair was at work, Will and I wandered around to the town's few tourist attractions: a small slave museum; the first Catholic church in East Africa; a handicraft market containing the two-millionth pair of beaded leather sandals I've seen this month. 

We took a piki piki out to Kaole, the ruins of a 13th century Arabic trading port, where a young man who may or may not have actually worked there took us on a tour for a small tip. 

Our “guide” had the accent which is typical of Tanzanians who don't speak English very well, which is to say, adorable. 

When the British arrived on the coast, the Swahili language of Bantu, Arabic, and Portuguese origin then began incorporating a few English words as well, and they did it in a hilarious way. Basically, just take the English word and put an 'i' on the end, making the 'ee' sound. 

“Chipsi.” “Testi.” “Shirti.” “Fridgi.” 

There you go, you speak Swahili. 

As a result, when Tanzanians who aren't good at English try to speak it, they have a habit of just throwing gratuitous 'i's onto the end of any word they like. 

So our soft-spoken guide was walking us through the old graveyard and explaining how some prominent locals went out in a “boati” and accidentally got “deadi” in the sea when we came across the sausage tree. 

The sausage tree, as its name suggests, is a sub-Saharan flowering tree whose fruits bear a striking resemblance to long, thick sausages, hanging on ropes as though in a deli window. 

“This,” our guide explained, “Is a very special tree. It's used for traditional medicine.” 

For what, we asked. 

He smiled shyly. 

“If you have small pen-iss, you cut-i the fru-eet, and cut-i the pen-iss, and mix the joo-ees of the fru-eet with the bloodi of the pen-iss, and you will get-i a big pen-iss.”

“That's great to know!” Will laughed. “Does it work?”

The guide didn't miss a beat. “Yes.” 

We told Allistair what we'd learned about the sausage tree over dinner that night. 

“You know that tree does have a lot of medicinal properties,” he laughed, shaking his head. “But not for that. If that worked those trees would have been extinct years ago.” 

After a few days in Bagamoyo, Will and I had run out of things to do and Allistair had finished up his work in town, so we gratefully took him up on his offer to drive us up the coast, since he had to go that way anyway and he was using us as an excuse to get moving. 

North of Bagamoyo, there's an absolutely beautiful stretch of coastline called Pangani region. To its detriment or benefit – depending on whether you run a business there or enjoy solitude as a tourist – Pangani is a little bit difficult to access, since the long-promised tarmac road still has yet to be built.  

So your options are either to take public transit on the paved inland road up to Tanga – bypassing Pangani entirely – then find a bus back down the small stretch of coastal dirt road that has public transit. Or, take full advantage of the acquaintance you met five months ago who has a suitable car, and happens to live up the bumpy-as-shit dirt “road” that goes along the coast from Bagamoyo directly to Pangani. 

So we piled into Allistair's little truck and began the 80km, 6-hour drive from Bagamoyo to Ushongo beach, rolling slowly past quiet little villages tucked into the jungle, with the dust blowing in through the open windows to stick to our sweat-soaked skin. 

“If you drive in a straight line in Africa, you're drunk,” Allistair joked as he wrenched the truck from side to side to avoid massive potholes and tire trenches on a road that more closely resembled a scale model of the Grand Canyon than an actual transit route. 

We stopped for lunch at Allistair's primary home, a hand-built hideaway in the literal middle of the jungle.

“How do you get here in the rain season?” I asked. 

“I walk.” 

“The whole 10 km??”

“Yep,” he just smiled. “Welcome to Africa.” 

We finally pulled into Drifter's Beach Resort under the cover of darkness, ordered a few grilled fish, and grabbed a few beers to sit and watch the moon cast its glow over the Indian Ocean. 

The next day Allistair asked the barman at Drifter's where we should go for local food, and we set off down the beach for downtown Ushongo. 

“You need to cover up a little more,” Allistair told me, pointing to my bare shoulders, as we were heading out. “This is deep Swahili.” 

Downtown Ushongo – well, all of town Ushongo – is composed in its entirety of about 35-40 thatch huts nestled among the palm trees, two metres from the high tide line. Allistair asked a few little kids sitting under the shade of a dhow for directions to the restaurant, and they pointed to the first hut next to the beach. 

We entered through a low door, into a tiny mud-floor and palm thatch single room where a fat older man and his young daughter greeted us and motioned for us to sit at the larger of two wooden tables. 

“I don't know if I would have found this place on Trip Advisor,” I joked as Allistair asked the owner what was available. Today, beef and rice. 

Chickens scratched at discarded banana leaves in the small backyard where the man kept a fire to do his cooking. 

While we ate lunch we put in an order for dinner. Whole fish in broth, chapati, and coconut-stewed cassava root. 

In Tanzania, there are tourist restaurants, with upscale-African decor and sprawling gardens and western toilets and English-speaking staff. There's a printed menu and you can get pizza and burgers and imported liquors and wine. They show up on Google searches and are usually owned by a foreigner.  

Then there are local restaurants, with plastic tables and squat toilets and concrete floors, an open outdoor kitchen and a cage around the bar because there are no walls. You might be able to order in English but probably not, and you order by asking what's available then choosing between the limited number of items. They have names, but they wouldn't show up on Google. 

And then there are restaurants like this one. Where you would never even know it's a restaurant unless somebody told you it was. Where somebody had a hut and is a pretty decent cook so they just started telling their neighbours they're a restaurant and people started showing up and now they're a restaurant. 

There's no toilet and no sink and no bottled water and certainly no beer, but you could probably send someone out for a soda if you wanted one. 

There's no way in hell you could ever find the place or eat there unless you speak Swahili, and you can tell them exactly what you want for dinner because they don't keep any ingredients on hand - they don't have a fridge or cupboards - so they'll just send out for fish and cassava the minute somebody tells them they'll eat it.

After lunch we braved the afternoon heat to crawl the 1/4 kilometre back to Drifter's, where we spent the afternoon passed out in the shade. Even the ocean offers no reprieve from the midday sun, at 35 degrees C it's just an enormous salty hot tub. 

When the sun went down we strolled back down the beach for one of the best dinners I've had on the coast, 15,000 Tsh ($7 USD) for the three of us, then began the boomerang walk back to our bar.

As we walked, we said quiet hellos to Ushongo's residents, who, done with the day's work, were lying on straw mats outside their houses waiting for the evening's heat to die down enough so they can sleep inside. 

“On a really hot night, they'll just sleep there all night,” Allistair explained. 

After a few beers I retired to my little beach hut, where I lay sweating under the mosquito net with the door open to the shore's breeze. 

At some point, in a semi-awake semi-dreamlike state, I remember the Maasai night watchmen coming by and closing the door for me. Then the heat thickened and eventually the night took me, not falling asleep so much as surrendering to the exhaustion of trying. 

Eventually you get so hot you just pass out, and then it will be morning and the equatorial sun will rise again. 

24 Hours on the Central Line Train Across Tanzania

24 Hours on the Central Line Train Across Tanzania

Zanzibar City

Zanzibar City