On The Road: A day in the life of Matemwe beach

By Sue Watt
Sunday 13 April 2014 05:54

It's 8.30am and I'm walking barefoot to work, on sand as soft as white pepper. My job today is to check hotels along Matemwe beach, but the real working day here on Zanzibar's shimmering east coast started just after dawn, when the tide went out to the sound of the muezzin's call for prayer.

As I walk, some 200 women are already scattered along this seemingly never-ending coastline busily harvesting seaweed, as women here have done for centuries. They sit in circles, fully clothed in shallow waters the tide has left behind, gently untangling and gathering their crop in this natural production line.

Wearing bright, wrap-around kangas to protect the modesty of their Muslim culture, they giggle, wave, gossip, smile shyly or simply sit in silence. Some wade elegantly out of the water, balancing bales of grassy seaweed on their heads to dry it on the fences at the shore's edge. It's a long walk – this is one of Zanzibar's most tidal beaches and the Indian Ocean slides away for miles, bequeathing vast expanses of sand and a calm, almost sleepy, azure sea.

As the tide returns, the seaweed gatherers seem to melt away unnoticed and noisy kids rush out from the village school; the beach is their playground now. They scamper around chasing each other, collect clams in tin buckets, badger me for sweets I don't have and play a baseball game that seems to have no rules. Then the beach becomes a mini-market when the men start selling fresh fish from their rickety bikes creaking through the sand. In the distance, fleets of traditional wooden fishing dhows set off for their evening catch, white sails billowing in high winds that accompany the imminent full moon.

In the early evening, our work all finished, my partner Will and I walk in single file along the tiny strip of sand that full tide allows, barely hearing each other above the gales. The palm trees look drunk swaying in the wind, their shadows dancing on the waves now crashing at our feet. Matemwe beach seems almost schizophrenic, wild and furious at full tide, gentle and gracious as the ocean recedes. Whatever its mood, whatever time of day, this beach belongs to locals, not tourists. I hope it stays that way.

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