Sand and sea

It is a three-day round trip by road to Bagamoyo: 18 hours from Nairobi to Bagamoyo, and 13 hours back home. The Kenya-Tanzania border at Namanga, nestled between a ring of muddy brown and green hills, is covered in vegetation. The air is chill and clean; fresh. Even the diesel rumble of the passenger buses that arrive at the border crossing does not break the rich silence of the place.

Just after Namanga, there are plains of dry grass and dust. Ashy sand, powder fine, coats the trees and the rocks in a lifeless grey. Swirls of dust hover just above the surface of the earth catching a lazy afternoon siesta.

And in the miles before Arusha, there are smooth shaven hills, so softly silhouetted that I lift my hand to try and cup the furry curves in my palm. A single line of trees patterns the hills into brocade, one line trudging up and the other skipping down. Bright green hedges border the yellow fields of maize.

And then there is Bagamoyo, my destination. An isolated stretch of beach, silent and beautiful.

The sunrise here has no brilliant pinks and reds, no sparkles and sudden illuminations; just a silver light that is streaked across the white turrets of the mosque, and grey fingers that infiltrate the dark husks of dhows left bobbing on the surface of the sea overnight. The skeletons of the beached dhows evoke a poignant sadness for these graceful creatures that can float on water but are now roughly dragged and stranded on the beach. A graveyard.

And without any fanfare, the sun rises with a pale flickering of light … and it is day. The beach is transformed into a sparkling crescent with a glittering sea, shiny sand and overhanging coconut trees with curved spines and golden leaves. I look up sensing movement. A kestrel is soaring on currents of hot air. Not a flicker of movement in its wings; it effortlessly swoops up and floats down, teasing me with its feathery tips. And as it swoops lower, a yellow halo appears on its wings, stretching from tip to tip, across the brown diagonal expanse of shoulder.

I am standing on the terrace staring out at the sea and at the grey shadow of land in the distance. Perhaps Zanzibar. The terrace is made up of a checkerboard of black and brown marble slabs. There are pools of water at the edges, tepid rainwater from the night before. I have a cup of strong tangawizi (ginger) coffee in my hand – sweet – in a Styrofoam cup. The sugar crystallizes at the bottom of the cup as it cools with the sea wind.

In seconds, the wind turns the sea choppy. The tide is high and the dhows are once again moving freely, their shackles removed. Those that are balanced by wooden poles on either side look like seagulls, wings out swept, pointed beaks thrust forward, eager to ride the waves. Two locals brave the angry mood of the sea and wade in 100 metres apart, a fishing net stretched between them, the wire dripping pellets of water onto the jagged peaks of the shallow sea. And then as quickly as the wind was firing bullets of water inland, it stops and the sun shyly ventures out from behind a grey cloud.

The house we are staying at is a pure white spacious compound with the mosque and its rounded terraces on the far end, and green inscriptions in Arabic on top of the buildings. Behind the mosque there is a line of trees with yellow-green leaves shaped like tear drops and young bushels of the bitter neem tree. In the afternoon, I wander down an uneven dust path, with flaky limestone, rusted water pipes and wooden doors on either side.

Closer to the town there is a basin of ruins: the old Customs house and the Customs Officer’s home and a shadowy pier. The crumbling stone pier is embedded with mussels and shells and the rotting dhows on the beach are lying on their sides.

The dilapidated Customs house has a disintegrating staircase with the first three steps missing and the rest rising smoothly all the way to the top; the ultimate frustration for a climber. Its limestone and coral courtyard is made of bricks etched with fan-like fossil patterns. An Atlantis; built from the stones of the sea, and slowly crumbling and returning to its watery home.

The house has huge keyhole arches: so imposing that the eye almost sees a shadow behind the wall, a family huddled around a lamp while the room shakes under the onslaught of a sea storm. Through the wooden shutters, which now lay on the sand like driftwood, a silver (day) moon hangs in the sky and swims in the sea.

March 8 2012


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