Independent Appeal: Poverty on an island paradise

A world away from the tourist hot-spots on exotic Zanzibar, the forgotten poor of the mangrove swamps have found hope, thanks to VSO. Daniel Howden reports
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The Independent Online

Almost no one turns left leaving Zanzibar's airport. To the right, lies the paved road to the spice island's expensive hotels, to the beautiful Stone Town and the commercial centre beyond. The road less travelled is not paved. It bumps its way past rusted shacks, ruins and rubbish dumps, beyond the reach of electricity pylons or water pipes to Sada Juma's village.

A community of a few hundred fishermen and small farmers in a humid equatorial forest of tall palms and cassava fields, it is a three-mile walk from the nearest sea breeze and an equal distance to the closest place to charge a mobile phone. Altogether an unlikely setting for entrepreneurship. But for Sada and her group of two dozen women in Kisasasaka that is exactly what it is.

Fed up with a life of just getting by – which has been getting harder with each price rise in food, medicine and transport – she jumped at the chance to start a business. With the latest of her five children, Aziza, attached to a breast, Sada, 35, is talking about "understanding markets" and her plans to branch out from crab-farming into chicken-rearing.

All that had been needed was a brainwave. It was supplied by a British ecologist. He was volunteering for Voluntary Service Overseas a few hundred miles away in the mainland coastal city of Tanga when he saw fishermen fattening crabs for resale at premium prices. That activity, he thought, could be transferred to the subsistence communities living in Zanzibar's mangrove swamps, and make them some useful money.

It is just the kind of brainwave that is the speciality of the British charity VSO, one of the three charities being supported by The Independent's Christmas Appeal this year. VSO takes smart, skilled people and puts them in places where good ideas can change lives.

Sada and her Kisasasaka women's group buy or trap immature crabs and fatten them in homemade pens. They feed them the fish guts which is the waste product of their husbands' businesses. Young crabs cost as little as 20p and after six weeks, when they weigh up to two kilos, can be sold to the island's top hotels for more than £2.

That kind of profit has allowed important changes in Sada's life. "If my baby gets sick I don't have to wait for my husband to get back from the sea to take her to the clinic," she says. "I can get transport and buy medicine myself." In addition, it buys clothes, pens, school books and "self-respect".

It also helps to bridge the gap between the island's high-end tourism and the islanders' low-rent existence. The big hotels make money from the visitors who arrive in search of a taste of exotic east Africa. And the government gets its take through taxes. But local people – apart from a few shopkeepers, touts and taxi drivers – see little of the tourist money which is the island's mainstay.

Maurice Kwame, a retired financial consultant from neighbouring Kenya, who is volunteering for VSO, sees what has been done as a start. "I want to get at least five or six more of these schemes going before I leave," he says.

Zanzibar was once the island capital of a trading empire, a prize fought over by the great seafaring powers and the world's leading producer of cloves and spices. But the Muslim paradise island that gave birth to Swahili – and launched the Arab slave-trader Tippu Tip on the unsuspecting Congo basin – has fallen on harder times. Tourists still flock here, albeit in diminishing numbers, to see the shadows of that past but there are few other sources of income.

Until now, none of that tourist cash trickled down to Kisasasaka. "I am happy the tourists come," says Sada. "But it's a shame they get straight into the vans at the airport and go to the resorts to lie in the sun. They don't really see Zanzibar. There's more Swahili culture in my village than there is in those resorts."

It is not a culture that many tourists could easily buy into. Sada, like the rest of her village, lives in the ruins of the last help they got from the government. Identical concrete houses built under the post-independence government of Julius Nyerere. His ambition to house everyone did reach this far but the effort bankrupted the impoverished country. No one here is expecting more government help soon. Today, the houses are patched wrecks, with men sitting outside repairing nets and chatting in the sweltering heat. With no electricity, there is no way to store fish so what the men catch they must eat or sell straight away.

It is a long way in all senses from the crab pens to the dining tables of Africa House hotel or the Mwemba Ruins resort where the seafood ends up. The hardest part of that journey is made at least twice a day by Sada. It is the trek from the village past thickets of banana palms down to the swamp where the tide floods the mangrove forest. With Aziza bound to her back in a colourful cloth, Sada stops every now and again to pull a seed pod from one of the mangroves and place it upright in the mud. No mangroves would mean no shelter for the fragile ecosystem and ultimately no crabs. For years people have hacked away at them to make beaches or landings for boats but at long last they are getting some care and attention.

By now, Sada is sunk up to her knees in dark mud and the wooden crab pens are still nowhere in sight. She may be an ecologist and an entrepreneur but she is going to have a hard time selling this excursion to the tourists. But that she can even envision the notion is a tribute to how much she has grown in confidence, thanks to the project VSO has sponsored.

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