First Published in Mango Airlines Magazine Juice Sep 2019 Issue.
It’s over 27 degrees Celsius and I’m wading in transparent ocean wearing strange-looking plastic shoes lent to me by the Seaweed Center’s Mustapha. He smiles, repeats Hakuna Matata ( No worries) and assures me these shoes are necessary for today’s seaweed farm excursion. Cooled only by a welcome breeze, I’m watching intently as Hadija and Mama Wanu secure bunches of seaweed to a rope secured to poles beneath the water’s surface. This seaweed farm, just 200 metres off Paje’s beachfront on Zanzibar’s East coast, is where the Seaweed Co. project finds its home and harvests seaweed to use in skincare products.
“I’ve tried planting them in a bucket of ocean water but after some research you’ll discover they need a current to survive,” says Manama with a huge smile revealing the whitest teeth. He’s been working here for seven years, but his excitement about the project leads me to believe it’s all fresh and new for him.“They grow very fast and after six weeks, they can be harvested.”
Back at the centre, I chat to Seaweed Co. Founder, Klaartje Sacade, while sipping my freshly-made juice of mango, avocado, seaweed and spices. After spending time working in London’s private sector, Klaartje took over the project in 2013 while it was on the verge of shutting down. “I fell in love with the concept- you have the seaweed women, and the idea of making something. I was born to Dutch parents in Zimbabwe and grew up in Mozambique so I have a natural affection for Africa. I have three kids, I wanted to bring them here and raise them here, so it just clicked and it feels right.”
Of the 20 000 seaweed farmers in Zanzibar, Seaweed Co. are the only ones making a product from it. Klaartje tells me most farmers earn next to nothing, selling the seaweed to middle men who then sell it to China and Europe. “There is no security or benefits- which we can offer our ladies as we sell a finished product which is proving popular. Taking good care of the people and the environment comes first as well as making a great product,” says Klaartje.
Back at Red Monkey lodge in Jambiani, I’m sitting on my balcony gazing through palm trees and out onto the powder-white sand and turquoise ocean beneath candle-flossed smudged skies. Music drifts over the deserted loungers as beachgoers leave their sun-worshipping posts to wash the day and sand off their bodies in preparation for an island night.
Given the gradual pace at which everything unfolds on the island, I figure there’s time for a quick swim before I meet with local chef and marine advocate, Mohammed Okala. But he appears out of nowhere and launches into his launch of new eco-tours. Founder of Jamabeco (Jambiani Marine and Beach Conservation) and host of Swahili cooking courses and tours, Mohammed Okala is exceptionally passionate about Zanzibar, its people and its natural resources.
He assures me his eco-tours will include dolphin watching instead of swimming with them. “I want to take visitors to quieter islands such as Uzi peninsula as I’m worried about the sandbanks and want the dolphins to be free. What we are doing is not fair. 20 boats out in the water turns into dolphin harassment which will drive them away. People in national parks don’t try to hug a lion. We have special animals for pets such as a dogs and cats. The wild animals give us happiness to watch them and not what we are currently doing, says a frowning Okala.
He shares that it hasn’t always been easy trying to protect the ocean’s resources. When he encouraged locals to allow octopus to grow before catching them, people would come to his house to complain. “Its very difficult, sometimes people are against what I’m doing; you need to be strong.”
A day later and I’m a world away relaxing in my open-air eco-bungalow on Chumbe Island a 45 minute boat ride away from the mainland. One of only two guests here and living in an earthy bungalow set with a compost toilet and solar panels sans doors or windows, this is the closest I’ve come to living out my ‘deserted on an island’ dream’. By day, the simple island girl in me is content napping sans windows, but by night the urban dweller within panics that a mosquito net is the only thing separating me from the untamed wilderness.
Snagging first prize at ITB Berlin’s Top 10 Sustainable Destination 2019 awards- Best of Africa category, Chumbe is the world’s first privately established Marine Protected Area (MPA) to self-fund its conservation efforts through eco-tourism with seven eco-bungalows. Launched by German National Sibylle Riedmiller in 1994, she continues to help projects around the globe advocate with local government and agencies. Newly-appointed Project Manager, Vikki Ott, shares, “This is a project to help with conservation education and to make sure there’s a resource that is kept for the benefit of local people, says Vikki.
So while eco-tourism funds the conservation and supports 45 staff members she explains that “it’s not necessarily about eco-tourism for us, but introducing people to the kind of work that can be done globally.” Like a proud parent of a newly-adopted child, Vikki smiles telling me how in the early 90’s, Sibylle was able to educate a few local fishermen on the importance of not fishing in their protected waters. To this day, some of them work for Chumbe as patrol rangers and call themselves environmentalists.
Around 11:30am we head out for a snorkeling trip with Head Ranger Omari Nyange Ame who was among the first five people to start with the project in 1992. Omari shares that most locals don’t know that coral is in fact an animal and not rock or a plant. I float over brain coral, schools of angel and parrot fish and Omari dives deeper to point out a camouflaged octopus. To date, Chumbe’s education project has educated 10 000 locals including local school kids brought on day trips to explore the forest and snorkel for the first time.
When it comes to global warming and conserving marine life, Chumbe’s resident marine biologist, Ulli Kloiber, says its best; “There’s always something you can do. Everyone tends to blame the government for not taking action, but where can YOU start? We are a tiny MPA, this sends the message that you can start small and it also has an impact. Start acting and start small.”
Book your stay in one of Chumbe’s eco-bungalows: chumbeisland.com
Visit the Seaweed Center: facebook.com/seaweedcozanzibar
Book your stay at Red Monkey Lodge: redmonkeylodge.com and sign up for Okala’s Cooking course.
Book one of Okala’s upcoming Eco -Tours: email Okala_6@hotmail.com
Support the great work of Jamabeco and Marine Cultures: marinecultures.org