Western Tanzania is not a face-paced place. A vast savanna, parched and dusty in the middle of the dry season, sparsely populated by subsistence farmers and wildlife. The 19th century slave trade and the subsequent German colonial campaigns of pacification thinned out the human population. Big game-hunting safaris did the same for the wildlife. A network of simple market towns, joined together by an unmaintained and evolving network of dirt tracks, serve as hubs for the scattered rural population. Vehicles are scarce. Battered and hardy pickup trucks ferry passengers from one town to the next, trundling their way over the rough tracks with the rear packed full of bouncing passengers, livestock and sacks of vegetables. The towns along the road are as simple as can be – whitewashed rectangular buildings constructed from concrete blocks, wood and corrugated iron. The ethnic tensions and looming presence of the military of the other states in the region is notably absent. Human settlements are rare and there is little evidence of the existence of the state at all.

The regional roadside food favourite was an omelette with chips fried into it. On our first evening I went for the option with meat and my omelette was served with a lump of greasy gristle and bone on top. People are as friendly and welcoming as usual, but in many cases we found that nobody spoke English – Swahili was the lingua franca of the region. For the first time on our travels through a dozen countries, speaking French and English was not sufficient to get by. We had to learn the Swahili numbers and a few phrases to successfully navigate our way through the region. The Swahili language originated in the East African coastal trading communities and spread through East Africa inland all the way into Eastern DRC. Europeans were very thin on the ground in many of these areas and never fully displaced the commercial elite.

Route Taken – Full Map

It took three gruelling days and five changes of transport, to cover the 400km from the Rwandan border to Mwanza, our destination, on the Southern shore of Lake Victoria. Three days of dawn to dusk dust, flies, sunshine and bone-shaking reverberations on the back of a range of eccentric vehicles with indeterminate agricultural origins. The final day’s journey, from Kahema to Mwanza, was the loosest interpretation of ‘road’ that I have yet experienced. The worn grooves of tyre-tracks that constituted the road disappeared into river-beds and broadened out into a mesh of interweaving channels and tracks hundreds of yards across, most of which had been rendered impassable due to deterioration of the surface. The driver picked his way expertly through the channels and tracks, on and off river-beds, occasionally merging again into something that resembled a road before disappearing into another road-swamp. The vehicle was made from a metal container that had been welded onto the chassis of a heavy-duty truck, with holes cut out for windows and seats bolted onto the container floor. As the truck rumbled over the rough, stony, hard, corrugated earth, the vibrations felt like being inside a pneumatic drill. For the first and only time in my life, I went to bed that night with aching and swollen testicles due to the quality of the road surface.

Mwanza, Lake Victoria

Mwanza, is the largest settlement on Lake Victoria, home to several hundred thousand people. It retains the air of a sleepy administrative centre of a provincial colonial backwater where not a lot has changed in a century. The setting is exceeding pleasant, set on rolling peninsulas that project into the lake like fingers. A whitewashed Hindu temple figures prominently in the downtown skyline – testament to the relative lack of religious and ethnic tension compared to its neighbours. Simple white-washed concrete houses sprawl all over the hillsides above. It is a workaday place with few Europeans and little in the way of tourism. Life is focused on the lake. Mwanza is a transport hub for ferries and freight on the lake and is home to a large fishing industry. It is large enough to support a few upmarket restaurants and hotels, which retain a colonial flavour, catering to a mix of local and European merchants and administrators who made up the local business elite and a wide range of bars along the lakeside to suit all tastes.

Mwanza – the City of Rocks at the shores of Lake Victoria |  Tanzania-Experience

We celebrated our arrival by visiting a lake side bar and feasting on succulent beef kebabs and cold beers in the garden, on benches set among bushes of tropical flowers spilling over the lake. Our fellow revellers were enthusiastic and friendly. We were joined by a man named Michael, who wore a neat buttoned up shirt and spoke English with a polished, educated accent. His companions were too drunk for meaningful communication, but Michael was sufficiently sober to tell us his epic hard luck life story. It involved a series of job opportunities denied, betrayals by unfaithful lovers and episodes of government corruption which continued to thwart his success. He was now stranded in Mwanza, with a half-built house, financed by a government program that had been eliminated as part of a recent IMF structural adjustment program. He needed just a few thousand dollars to put the roof on his house but had been denied all support. We were unable to help him with his home-completion project but we did visit his house the next day – sure enough it was incomplete, lacking a roof, although the view over the lake was fabulous. To cheer him up and to thank him for showing us around, we brought him out to one of the upmarket restaurants on the edge of town. It was delicious, if unusual, set in another flower-filled garden – a pizzeria run by an Indian family who belonged to a vegetarian branch of Hinduism. In a region where meat is a luxury for most people, the idea that an expensive upmarket restaurant might have a menu that did not include any meat obviously came as a complete shock to Michael. The look of dismay and disgust on his face as it fully dawned on him was memorable. He consoled himself with cocktails.

The Curious Case of the Ugandan Anarchist Democratic Forces

Access to computers, the internet and even telephones was everywhere severely limited in Africa in 2000. We had plenty of spare time while waiting for days and hours for transport connections in places with limited recreational opportunities. I would use these opportunities to write up notes in pencil in a notebook. Every time we visited a town with an Internet cafe, which were few and far between, I would type my notes up as an email and send them out to a list of subscribers. From there they were circulated to some international anarchist groups and email lists, in particular via a-infos, the anarchist email and web service, which I had been helping to run for a few years.

When I found an internet café in Mwanza, my inbox was full with messages relating to the emergence of a hitherto unknown anarchist guerrilla movement in Uganda. A few days before, a series of emails had arrived to the a-infos editors, announcing a successful armed action carried out by the “Anarchist Democratic Forces” against the state in Western Uganda. Subsequent messages set out the anarchist nature of the ADF rebel group, their opposition to the IMF and the Museveni regime and their basis in indigenous tribal cultures. Nobody had ever heard of this group and there was nothing about them on the Internet so the editors were inclined to doubt the veracity of the report. On the other hand, the anti-globalization movement and summit protests had featured heavily in the international news recently and anarchist-influenced armed uprisings such as the Zapatistas had emerged suddenly from obscurity in the recent past. Thus, there was considerable excitement at the prospect of discovering a new anarchist guerrilla movement in Central Africa. My input was being urgently sought as the editors knew that I was somewhere in the region and might have relevant information.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be an elaborate fake, although put together with some care. It combined an accurate account of an attack that had actually taken place with a convincingly authentic set of anarchist rhetorical justifications and popular ideological tropes – anarchist principles being embedded in traditional non-hierarchical African social structures for example. Only a couple of small details allowed it to be identified as a deliberate fake. Firstly, it described the rebels addressing the masses and chanting anti-IMF slogans as part of the raid – this clearly didn’t happen. Anybody who has been in the area would know it was absurd – the institutions of international financial capital and subsistence farming in Central Africa have a lot of layers in between them, only in the dreams of leftists do their worlds collide neatly in the form of slogan-chanting protestors. This was a deliberate fabrication by the author. Secondly, the author included some cut and paste phrases verbatim from a recent leftist speech that had been covered in the local Ugandan media. The report also omitted significant details – most importantly the fact that the rebels had killed and beheaded a large number of Ugandan soldiers that they had captured in the raid.

I conveyed my scepticism to the a-infos editorial in an email that summarised my reasoning for treating the email as a “hoax”. The a-infos editors were reluctant to abandon the hope that the report was genuine and circulated it along with my response as a disclaimer to warn subscribers to treat the news with caution. I was later surprised to learn that the sender of the fake report responded further and sent another email insisting on his authenticity and demonstrating further malicious intent to deceive. Chuck, the a-infos administrator, traced the emails back to IP addresses originating in central London.

There is, of course, nothing at all unusual in fake reports on the Internet; filtering them out was a routine task for a-infos editors. What made this one unusual was the attention to detail that had been applied in splicing together the details from the real news report with locally sourced and authentic leftist content. This was in an era when very little news or information from Uganda was published on the internet and many of the details in the report were only available in local printed media.

Uganda suicide attacks: Inside view of the IS-linked ADF rebels - BBC News

We had been in the area when the attack described in the email took place. By my reckoning, our trip around Uganda was quite likely the first time in history that European anarchists had ever visited the country. Certainly it must have been the first time in history that anarchists had toured the country to investigate the political situation and seek out information about opposition groups. The coincidence of the one and only known example in all of history of an elaborate fake story about anarchist guerrillas in Uganda happening at exactly the same time as we were visiting was strange. By the time I first saw the report, we had cut our stay in Central Africa and had already put a long and painful journey between ourselves and the area, so I was not tempted to investigate further. My instincts strongly suggested that attempts to contact the ADF, would be high risk, to put it mildly. Everything about them suggests that they are a mercenary army who carry out atrocities for maximum terror impact.

Locally, nobody in the media or on the ground seemed to know what the ADF rebels were fighting for, beyond the vague idea that they were somehow Islamist and had Sudanese backing. Muslims constitute a small majority in Uganda and there is zero support for political Islam. In the South West of the country along the DRC border, where the ADF are based and launch their attacks, there are no Muslims, let alone Islamists. There is obviously no prospect of such a group ever having any measure of popular support and they can hardly be interested in popular support when their methods involve beheading large numbers of people and dumping their headless corpses around towns. Their goal is clearly to create atrocities with maximum capacity to terrify the public.

Overrunning a small town in rural Western Uganda and capturing the local military garrison successfully requires significant logistics and planning. Uganda’s military have intervened directly in the DRC on several occasions and are as well armed and supplied as any force in the region. Their troops are battle hardened and wary of the risks from rebels. Such rebel military successes strongly suggest a core of experienced military professionals – guns for hire. In the wars in the DRC, targeted atrocities carried out by disciplined military groups under cover of night were often the prelude to the outbreak of more generalised ethnic violence. Given the never-ending influence of the great game and the competition for Africa’s mineral wealth in the region, there are no shortage of powerful interests with dubious ethics who have a lot to gain from retaining their control over various mining operations.

The Luxurious Train from Victoria

From Mwanza, we were headed for the capital city, Dar Es Salaam and the old Swahili culture of the East coast. For the first time on our journey since the leg between Dakar in Senegal and Bamako in Mali, a passenger train was available on the route. The service was reputed to be unreliable, taking anything from 30 hours to 4 days to complete, depending on break-downs and repairs. However, on the plus side, sleeping berths were available for reservation. It would surely mark a huge step up in comfort compared to the agonisingly rough roads we had been taking. As we were both big fans of rail transport, we decided to splurge on first class sleeper reservations, which were only a little more expensive than the regular versions.

The railway had retained its colonial era service ethos – in first class we had a butler in a waistcoat to ferry us three course meals with wine, make our beds in the evening and bring us tea and refreshments upon request. Above our heads a fan whirred atmospherically. The train crawled steadily along through the wide open savanna grasslands, now and again an antelope or a herd of scrawny sheep could be seen grazing under a tree, but otherwise the landscape was populated by nothing but low scrubby bushes, baobab trees and wispy sand-colored straw, all baked in the unrelenting sun. Every few hours we come to a halt at the platform of a simple station in a small dusty town that looked like it had been produced for the set of a wild west movie. The train would wait for a seemingly random period as passengers stretched their legs and hunted snacks, before abruptly continuing on its slow march. The towns grew larger as the train approached the coast. In the middle of the second day, we pass through Dodoma, the official capital, where the parliament moved in 1996 to reduce the cultural dominance of the coastal parts of the country over the agricultural inland. After forty hours of what was by far the most comfortable and pleasant leg of our entire journey in Africa, we arrived thoroughly refreshed into Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania’s commercial capital and largest city. The train may have been terribly slow by modern European standards, with a schedule of advance that remained quite unpredictable, and the infrastructure may not have been significantly improved since colonial times, but the favourable contrast with the alternatives available for long-distance transport elsewhere in Africa was extreme.

On the train from Mwanza to Dar, Tanzania

By the time that Tanzania was incorporated into the British Empire after the First World War, Britain’s major regional transportation infrastructure was already largely in place, with railways and ferries connecting the great lakes and the mining areas of the interior to their port at Mombasa in the West and the ports of the Cape Colony in the South. This gave them a monopoly on the infrastructure needed to supply modern armed forces to the interior, protecting their strategic Cape to Cairo axis running through the Great Lakes. It also gave them a monopoly on the infrastructure needed to extract minerals from the mines of the interior and to deliver them to ports ready for export. The Germans completed their railway line from Dar Es Salaam on the coast to Kagome on Lake Tanganyika in 1914. This challenge to Britain’s regional hegemony was ultimately disastrous for the aspiring German empire both in Africa and at home. British determination to protect the rich flow of gold, diamonds, copper and other minerals from Britain’s African empire in the face of German imperial expansion was an important contributor to the First World War. When war came, Britain invaded and occupied all of present day Tanzania by 1916, decisively and permanently removing the threat to their monopoly on the region’s mineral wealth.

The country and its infrastructure still largely retain the air of being an imperial afterthought, a permanent backwater whose development mysteriously froze in time a century ago. Britain already had a modern transportation connection from the Great Lakes to a port on the Indian Ocean at Mombasa. Tanzania’s infrastructure was important to the empire mainly as a backup channel for extracting minerals, providing redundancy for periods when political conflict or human crises interrupt the mainline flow from the mineral fields. The trains carry commercial products from Tanzania’s interior itself to the coast – fish products from the lakes, farmed products and some minerals from the interior. The only major extension to the transportation infrastructure of the early colonial era is a 1,800km railway line – TAZARA – built by a Chinese engineering firm, connecting Dar Es Salaam’s port with the copper mining areas in Zambia.

On balance, being a late acquisition of Britain’s East African Empire, without primary strategic importance, was probably a blessing, even if it did freeze the infrastructure at a Victorian era level of development. The recent history of the country is singularly free of military coups, ethnic strife and political violence in comparison to those around it. The first post-independence president, Julius Nyerere was an intellectual leftist who focused state policy, in particular the education system, on suppressing ethnic and tribal identities in favour of a new national Tanzanian identity. The effort appears to have been largely successful. His government even managed to survive a period in which they developed close ties with the USSR and advocated a form of village socialism – known as Ujamaa – without falling foul of a CIA assassination or military coup. The relative strategic insignificance of the territory probably helps explains the lack of concerted intervention to stir up ethnic conflicts by colonial authorities in order to destroy such non-sectarian efforts, as has been the norm in the rest of the region.

Dar Es Salaam

Although Tanzania’s largest city is, in many ways, a cluttered, messy, dysfunctional, dusty city, full of stark poverty, as one would expect in a modern African metropolis, it still somehow manages to retain an air of colonial charm, even amid the nondescript, scruffy, office buildings in the downtown area behind the port where our cheap hotel was located. We found a shop nearby selling a small collection of political books published by an obscure local Tanzanian publisher, which looked like aged stock left over from the Nyerere era of the 1970s and 80s. This allowed me to refresh my stock of reading material for the first time since Nigeria – I picked up a book, by Nyerere himself, containing a Marxist justification of his village socialism program, and another that had been published in the early 1970s, entitled “Portugal’s African Wars”, which contained a detailed account by a Tanzanian academic, of the war that was then raging just across Tanzania’s Southern border in Mozambique.

At Dar Es Salaam our journey reconnected with the main branch of the East African tourist circuit. This circuit runs between the island of Zanzibar and the famous safari destinations of Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro volcanic crater, all of which straddle the border with Kenya. It also covers the major cities of Nairobi, Mombasa, Dar Es Salaam and Arusha. These locations contain many large tourist hotels and lodges and are connected together by well-paved roads which carry a stream of modern tourist buses along the major routes. Outside of these few locations, there are no tourists and virtually no infrastructure. The contrast is stark.

Our main goal in travelling to the Tanzanian coast was to visit the major archaeological sites of the old Swahili Indian Ocean trading culture which developed in the area over a thousand years ago and survived as an autonomous state, in one form or another, until the late 19th century. The native coastal Bantu population became gradually incorporated into the broader culture of the trading routes to India and the Gulf, adopting Islam and the Swahili language. Victorian era imperialists tended to have a rigid view of the characteristics of racial groups and the sophisticated international trading culture that they found on the coastal areas was considered obviously beyond the capabilities of primitive Africans. Hence, until genetic evidence very recently conclusively proved the Bantu origins of the Swahili culture, they were often assumed to be founded by Arab immigrants, who had intermarried with the locals. The culture incorporated the modern day coastal ports of Mombasa and Dar Es Salaam, but was really centred on a string of islands off the East African coast: Lamu, Pemba, Zanzibar and Kilwa. When Portuguese sailors first entered the Indian Ocean in the late 15th century, they found a sophisticated international trading culture connecting these ports, centred on Kilwa. We were in Dar Es Salaam principally to try to organise transport onwards to these island sites.

Despite its dusty charm, Dar Es Salaam is more of a launching point for tourist excursions to elsewhere than a destination in itself. This meant that a large number of touts on patrol scouring the streets trying to sell excursions to tourists. Many of them were persistent and were difficult to shake off, following us for many blocks as we wondered about the streets, trying new arguments in favour of a safari trip to Arusha every so often as they trailed along behind us. The upmarket safari industry in the region was suffering from the impact of the synchronised bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam, which took place in 1997, and prices for tours to the most famous safari destinations were relatively low. The tours on offers contained a great variety of ways of visiting the famous safari parks, whether hot air balloons, horseback or helicopters is to your taste. We expected to have the opportunity to see wildlife in wilder and less visited locations to the South so we resisted the temptation of taking a romantic Victorian paddleboat Moonlight Serengeti Safari tour. Archaeological tourism did not exist as a concept. A major ferry connected the city to Zanzibar, but otherwise the touts had never even heard of some of the islands we asked about. We would have to organise our own way.

Fortunately, on the morning of our arrival, in the first café that we visited, we met a pair of Irish women, in their mid to late twenties, Rachel and Grainne, who had on a whim decided to go travelling to Africa but had somehow ended up stuck in Dar Es Salaam. They immediately took us drinking and showed us around the expatriate watering holes, to help us find somebody who might be able to take us to our islands. We spent the next week in the city, arranging visas for onward travel, stocking up on provisions and conducting an anthropological investigation of the alcoholic branch of the East African expatriate community. In addition to the traditional watering holes near the port, their principle habitat sits to the North of the city centre, along a peninsula that projects into the ocean, lined with beaches and elegant restaurants offering sea-food buffets in gardens overlooking the sea.

Expatriate Dar Es Salaam retains much of its traditional atmosphere as a colonial backwater. People typically affect the air of adventurers temporarily lying low waiting for the next part of their mission. Anecdotes about close brushes with death while piloting airplanes, parachuting or tracking big game feature heavily in the conversational repertoire. It was never quite clear what exactly anybody was doing in Tanzania – hush-hush business ventures were often hinted at. Our Irish hosts introduced us to Jim, an antipodean camera-man who had covered the war in Bosnia – thereby introducing close brushes with death by sniper into the mix. Almost everybody claimed to have a confidential connection to somebody with boats and airplanes but none seemed remotely convincing. We ended up just taking the normal public ferry to Zanzibar.


The port and major settlement of Zanzibar is known as “Stone Town” and it retains much of its historical legacy intact. The centre of the town is made up of a beautiful collection of whitewashed two-story houses, in a typically Arabic style from the 19th century, set around an ancient port, with an elegant promenade running alongside the jetty. The island enjoys an exceptionally pleasant climate and provides picture perfect examples of all the cliches of tropical paradises – palm fringed beaches, sundowner cocktails over spectacular ocean sunsets. Every evening, Stone Town’s main promenade hosts a huge open air seafood fair – offering every variety of grilled seafood imaginable. I discovered, for the first time, the great pleasure of the grilled octopus, chips and salad sandwich.

Stone town itself mostly dates to the 19th century, when the area had come under the rule of an Omani emirate. It’s elegant stone architecture, embossed doors and ocean views were built with the revenue from the European imperial slave trade. In the second half of the 19th century, the island became a huge slave trading depot – supplying the Dutch and Portuguese empires in the East as well as the Atlantic slave trade in the West. 50,000 slaves were transported through the the island each year in the mid 19th century. This trade continued until the British finally sent in the gunboats, finally suppressing the three century old large scale international trade in African slaves. However, the 19th century Omani controlled state was itself a new arrival – the earlier Swahili island trading culture had collapsed centuries before.

We had found a pamphlet in Dar Es Salaam which contained a map of the archaeological sites on Zanzibar. However, the island’s tourist infrastructure does not extend far outside stone town and a small number of beach resorts and hotels. We therefore rented a motorbike to track down the ruins that were scattered around the island. Immediately behind the elegant old Stone Town, one encounters another monument to the island’s history – a sprawling grid of high-rise concrete housing blocks, constructed in the Eastern-European style of the 1970s. They mark the period during which Tanzania was officially aligned with the USSR. Beyond the housing blocks, the palm trees resume, the sandy coastal road has little traffic and most of the beaches are empty except for cows. Here and there among the simple agricultural villages, remnants of centuries old shrines and settlements still stand. On the Northern tip of the island, around a village called Nungwe, a cluster of beach bars, hostels and beach huts, joined together by wooden walkways along the beach provides an almost perfect setting for a hippy-backpacker tropical island paradise vacation. The contrast in visiting Zanzibar immediately after Eastern Tanzania was extreme. We went from being crushed into pickup trucks, eating grizzle, we were cruising around a tropical island on a motorbike, with as much cheap fresh fish and fruit as we could eat and charming spots for sundowners never far away.


To Reach the island of Kilwa we had to depart from both the tourist trail and from the major transportation axes, all of which run to the North or the East from Dar Es Salaam. We set off on a 6 hour night ferry from Zanzibar to Dar Es Salaam, hoping to complete the journey in a single day. It took us almost three days in total – it took us until the second day to find the correct bus-station. The quality of the roads deteriorated markedly and continued to disintegrate as we travelled further. The connections were slow and infrequent. At dusk on the third day we finally arrived at the small coastal village of Nangurukuru, the end of the line for public transport. From there, we had to resort to hitching; a passing car soon took us along a small track to a village called Kilwa Kivinge, but this was only one of several towns called Kilwa in the area. We continued along another small dirt track along the shore to Kilwa Masoko, a small fishing village that lay across the bay from the island of Kilwa Kisiwani. There we found a friendly, matronly woman named Sophie who resided over a seaside guesthouse with the sparse décor of an old-fashioned missionary institution. The only other guests were a married couple from the Peace Corps who were taking a seaside break from their field work.

2 days Best of Kilwa Island and Songo Mnara Ruins

The island of Kilwa Kisiwani lies only a few hundred metres off the shore. The fishing village on the mainland has many dhows which can be readily hired to take one to the site. We had no problem in carrying out that part of the plan but then an unexpected complication suddenly emerged. I had to take off my socks to get into the boat. I took the opportunity to examine the underside of my left foot as I could feel a couple of blisters emerging there – blisters were not at all unusual while tramping around Africa. I drew up my left foot to examine the underside of my little toe, where I could feel the pain of a blister. As soon as I did, to my horror, I instantly recognised my error, as did the fishermen who were piloting the boat away from the shore. “That is a jigger” came the matter-of-fact statement from one of our pilots, disclosing publicly the terrible situation I found myself in.

Jiggers are small, dark-skinned worms that live in sand in tropical Africa. The pleasant sandy beaches of Zanzibar was the most likely source for my infestation. Jiggers burrow into the skin and once there they create a sack of eggs to surround them, which grows and eventually bursts, from where the offspring are distributed back into the sand so that they too may infest their own host. There is nothing particularly dangerous about them from a health point of view – the blisters become sore as the egg-sack grows and bursts but that is hardly life-threatening. They are, however, upsettingly large organisms to encounter living under your skin – a pea sized pod of eggs with a black worm in the centre.

Jiggers: a painful infestation - BugBitten

The big problem with jiggers is not squeamish sensibilities, it is social sensibilities. In East Africa infestations of jiggers are stigmatised as unhygienic – like a more extreme version of how children consider hair-lice (nits). As I sat in the boat with all the fishermen looking at my jigger, I distinctly remembered the front page story of a popular tabloid newspaper that I had read while waiting for a bus in Uganda. The story recounted how an entire market full of traders had chased down a man who had jiggers in his hands, then they had given him a beating and gouged his jiggers out as they held him down. There was even a photograph showing a mob crowding around a prostate man whose protruding feet were the only parts visible.

Aware of the delicate social situation, when one of the fishermen offered to help me remove the jigger, I felt compelled to accept his offer. He proceeded to break off a splinter of wood from the one of the wooden planks that constituted the seats of the boat. After inspecting his tool visually for a few seconds, he plunged it violently into the jigger-sack that was situated just under my little toe-nail. The while thing exploded in a mess of eggs and blood. I winced and grimaced as he used his tool to gouge out the residue of eggs mingling with my blood. Happily, the journey was short and I was able to reclaim my foot and quickly put my shoes and socks back on and then keep them firmly on for the rest of the trip. I had not revealed the fact that I had another jigger on the underside of my foot, set squarely in the middle of the sole, and I was keen to avoid any further gouging. As it turned out, when I showed it to Sophie at the guesthouse later, she was able to extract it delicately, without bursting the sack or causing me any pain at all – by gently puncturing the surrounding skin with a nail scissors and extracting the whole thing intact.

The island is today inhabited only by a few farmers and sheep, it is a UNESCO world heritage site, dense with ruins: mosques from the 13th century, the ashes of extensive settlements from the 15th. For several centuries it was the leading city state in the Swahili Indian Ocean trading culture until, in the 16th century, Kilwa and the autonomous Swahili states entered into precipitous decline. The reason for this sudden decline is clear – the arrival of Portuguese ships in the Indian Ocean. In 1498, when Vasco de Gama first rounded the Cape of Good Hope and entered the Indian Ocean, Western Europe culture was at something of a low point, in terms of cultural sophistication. After a thousand years of interminable dynastic warfare and religious massacres following the fall of the Roman empire, gruesome massacres and elaborate rituals of public torture had become an important element of the culture. Publicly displaying the deformed bodies of the victims of grotesque executions was a long-standing European tradition which had evolved into a high art by the late 15th century.

Ruines de Kilwa Kisiwani et de Songo Mnara - UNESCO World Heritage Centre

Vasco De Gama’s first actions in the Indian Ocean included drowning a thousand pilgrims, whom he found on a ship returning from the Hajj. He then captured several towns, mutilated their entire populations by chopping off their ears, noses and hands, then sent the severed parts as a gift to the local ruler with a recommendation to “eat this with your curry”. And thus was European culture introduced to the Indian Ocean.

Kilwa - World History Encyclopedia

The early Portuguese explorers were not seeking trading partners – they were seeking wealth by the easiest route possible and at first this meant simple piracy. From their point of view, all shipping on the Indian Ocean was in the hands of infidels and plundering it and killing the non-believers was quite consistent with God’s work. Military expeditions targeting the rich East African city states arrived quickly – in 1505 Kilwa Kiwisani was burnt to the ground by Portuguese raiders. By the end of the 16th century, all the Swahili city states had been similarly sacked and reduced to vassals with societies operating at a much lower economic level without any of the former international trade, which was reserved for the Portuguese bases further South. The Omani sultanate arose later in Zanzibar based on these foundations, but Kilwa never recovered and has remained a forgotten island covered in ruins since its sacking by the Portuguese in the 16th century.

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