It’s hard to describe the riot of colour that bombards you from every direction in Zanzibar, an archipelago off the coast of Tanzania. It’s a former overseas holding of Oman, which is why it was a destination in my recent tour, The Frankincense Route.
Whether it’s the crazy boys diving into the ocean, tropical trees bursting with vibrant flowers and fruit, or the school kids running in the alleyways of Stone Town, this island exudes an energy and an intoxicating sense of joy.
On my first visit to Zanzibar a year ago, I began to notice rectangular pieces of cloth that were used in different ways. On a dhow (boat) cruise, it was used as a table-cloth, but mostly it was worn by women around their heads or as a wrap skirt. I thought I’d like to wear one as a scarf.
In the Darajani textile market I discovered a selection of the light cotton cloth and also found out its name; Kanga, which means guinea-fowl, a bird with elegant, loud plumage. Kanga originated on the coast of East Africa in the mid 19th century.
The cloth has bold design and bright colours with a border around it. It’s sold as one long piece but it’s actually two identical rectangles.
I met Moses in the Kanga shop.
He was buying Kanga for his wife as a surprise. He told me Kanga are a traditional gift in East Africa; husbands give them to wives, parents to their daughters, a woman may split a pair to give half to her best friend. Babies are wrapped or carried in them, like an African Baby Bjorn.
But there’s more to it than decoration or functionality.
Our guide explained that the custom of a man being permitted to have up to four wives, often creates an atmosphere of envy or disappointment among the women. He pointed to the bottom of the cloth where there was a phrase or jina in Swahili. Each Kanga comes printed with words from well-known proverbs, popular lyrics or poetry to personal statements.
So apart from its role as a piece of clothing, the Kanga telegraphs a woman’s feelings by its brief statement aimed at a competitor, a problem wife (or wives) or the husband.
Disturbingly, in 2006, the Kanga took centre stage during the rape trial of South African President Jacob Zuma. He testified that the woman he had sex with, known as Khwezi, was wearing a kanga at the time and he interpreted her dress as an invitation to seduce. Zuma's case was dismissed and Khwezi, who was seen as a pariah for reporting her rape, fled South Africa for a time. While in the Netherlands she wrote a poem - I am Kanga - part of which I’ve reproduced here.
I am Kanga
I wrap myself around the curvaceous bodies of women all over Africa
I am the perfect nightdress on those hot African nights
The ideal attire for household chores
I secure babies happily on their mother’s backs
Am the perfect gift for new bride and new mother alike
Armed with proverbs, I am vehicle for communication between women
I exist for the comfort and convenience of a woman
I bought quite a few Kanga during my trip including a large piece (without a saying) which I'll use as a table-cloth. I didn’t buy based on the messages as I don't read Swahili, but I was hoping to collect some clever quotations.
When I got home, I asked my Tanzanian friend to translate my newly-purchased Kanga for me. Here’s a selection of my Kanga messages:
Maso Maso Mwanangu Usimuone
Stop gazing at my child (This was a wedding Kanga, so intended as a gift from a father or mother?)
Mso Hili Ana Lile
You never stop picking on me
Wewe Kwangu Zilipendwa Chuki Za Nini
To me your days have past so why continue to hate?
Kanipenda Mwenyewe Laajabu Silioni
Nothing is surprising as [he] loved me first
Nibure Zenu Chuki Na Pata Yangu Riziki
Your hate is useless as my blessings continue to flow
It turns out, I had inadvertently picked designs with jealous messages.
In 1493 BC, the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut organised a major trade mission outfitting five ships to journey to the Land of Punt. Often referred to as ‘the land of the gods’ it’s believed to be southern Arabia, present-day Somalia or Eritrea. As part of the mission, thirty-one frankincense trees were brought to Egypt. It was the first time the trees were successfully transplanted to another country where they grew happily for centuries.
The land where frankincense trees have traditionally flourished and where they abound to this day is in Oman’s southern province, Dhofar. For millennia, this quiet corner of earth supplied the civilised world with a key luxury item.
Frankincense is a resin, harvested from the Boswellia Sacra tree. When the trunk is slashed or wounded, a white resin oozes from the cut to heal the wound.
Since high school, history has always been my passion. The difference now is that I look for history in the every day.
Frankincense was such a valued commodity, (the story of the gifts brought to Jesus by the ‘three wise men’ is an example of its reputation) that its country of origin came to be known as Arabia Felix (Blessed Arabia) and the trade in incense created a series of global trade routes by sea and caravan.
Considering the Roman Emperor Nero once burned an entire year’s harvest of frankincense at the funeral of his favourite mistress Poppaea, the frankincense industry has slowed to a trickle today. But the trees are still grown, maintained and flourish in Dhofar.
I recently took a group of travellers to Oman to see the main historical sites relating to the frankincense production and trade in ancient Arabia. We visited the archeological park of Sumhuram.
Established in the 3rd century BC, the port settlement - perched on a headland with its own natural harbour - existed for at least eight centuries. Apart from homes, kilns, temples, a burial complex and a mint, the city contained warehouses to store frankincense collected from inland regions, until the monsoon winds were favourable to carry the commodity to the markets of India.
In the frankincense alley of Muscat’s Muttrah Souk, I watched as a procession of families came to a halt in front of one stall.
I could see smoke rising from the clay burner in front of a mystical woman her as she mixed her potions. Later I met one of her patrons, Fouad, who explained that he was buying bakhor, a blend of ingredients including wood-chips, fragrant oils, sandalwood, cloves, sugar … and frankincense.
The bakhor-maker, Fatima, had learned her craft from her mother and grandmother who came from the south where the frankincense trees grow. She mixed the ingredients according to Fouad’s direction.
“More of this,” he’d say.
The bakhor’s aroma is released by the heat of the charcoal and this perfumes the entire home. At the stall next door there are pyramid-shaped stands which you can drape laundry over, so clothes too can be perfumed by the bakhor.
Omani men wear a tassle on the right side of their dishdasha (long, collarless dress) so they can keep their favourite scent close by. Whether you enter a hotel, a shop or even a car in Oman, the aroma of frankincense follows you.
After seeing wild frankincense trees at Wadi Dawkah, we watched clumps of dried resin being sorted and graded at Salalah’s Al Husn Souk.
Incense has been burned for millennia to freshen and ‘cleanse’ the environment. In the Omani home it’s as traditional as rose-water sprinklers, cardamon-scented coffee and dates.
One lovely custom from the 18th century, was that incense-burners would be carried through a home after the conclusion of the meal to signal it was time for guests to leave.
“I cannot live without this!” Exclaimed Fouad, the man I met at Muttrah Souk adding that he often swallows a tiny piece of frankincense if he’s feeling unwell.
As I turned to wave goodbye, Fouad was still inhaling bakhor, a look of deep satisfaction on his face.
(Image of frankincense resin "The Drip" courtesy Maxine Brodie)
The tour guide noticed that I applied cream to my psoriasis-affected fingers which were split and painful.
We were in southern Oman, travelling on the road to Yemen, an ancient caravan trade route still used to this day.
“You have a problem with your skin?” queried Quaid solemnly.
At the driving wheel, he was dressed in a turban, pristine Dishdasha and Ray Bans. As he glanced sideways, his expression softened. Within seconds, he was grinning.
“Do you want to try the local treatment?”
Having just told us a joke about desert camels being black because they don’t use sunscreen, I wasn't sure how to take his offer.
“It will hurt the first few times,” he said. “But it will fix any skin issue. And it’s free.”
"Is it a tonic?" I asked, naively.
"Sort of. You can even mix it in milk and drink it.”
He assured me he wasn’t joking. And when you’ve tried pretty much every cure for split fingers, you tend to be up for the next miracle potion.
The cure, according to Quaid, is to use the urine of a virgin camel aged around 4 years old, applied to the affected area twice a day for at least three days.
I was game to try it, although I preferred application to the consumption method. But as he added more detail, it transpired that the urine wasn't to be found in a small, clean bottle from a pharmacy or anything like that. You source it from a Bedouin farmer. I could see a problem continuing this treatment in the medium term, although as Quaid helpfully reminded me, we have camels in Australia too.
Thousands of camels roam the Southern Omani province of Dhofar. Despite appearances, they are not wild and have the right of way on highways.
Sometimes camels are passengers too.
Desert camels are either dark or light in colour, small with a small single hump (dromedaries rather than bactrian). They are farmed for milk, meat and their hides.
“It’s good for everyone to keep a few camels,” Quaid said. “Even in my family we have around ten or twenty camels.”
For his wedding recently, Quaid bought four camels for the buffet feast to feed 1,500 guests. It wasn't enough. The meat ran out at 12.30 pm, which, for an all day event, was not ideal. Men don’t need invitations to turn up to a wedding, so estimating guest numbers are tricky. There is a separate event for men and women. To attend a woman’s wedding you need an invitation. In the past, the families spent days preparing for a wedding feast, but in modern times there are caterers. All the groom has to do is to provide the meat.
Our discussion took place in the Najid Desert, on the highway towards Yemen and our destination, the fabled sands of the Empty Quarter. This unforgiving terrain drew the great explorers of the past from Bertram Thomas, Wilfred Thesiger (AKA Mubarak Bin London) to Freya Stark.
While the desert can conjur up images of romance, there is nothing romantic about travelling on a camel. My witty co-travellers pointed out that Nicole Kidman (playing the role of Gertrude Bell in the film 'Queen of the Desert') sat in front of the camel hump and appeared dignified and commanding, whereas I was instructed to sit behind the hump which was neither dignified nor commanding.
From two trips into the desert in the past ten days, my greatest fear was our 4WD slipping sideways down a dune. But our guide Quaid was right. The desert needs a kind of ’no surrender’ attitude.
“The secret of the desert is not to show fear.” he says
For travellers of the past, surrender meant certain death. Quaid has a point. Indecision combined with fine, ochre sand is a poor partnership.
But such thoughts were banished as a herd of camels came into view as we observed from the top of the dune. It was like being on the set of the remake of ’Lawrence of Arabia’, only the desert in front of us was not brown and oppressive. It was very green. Two cyclones in southern Oman last year saw parts of the Empty Quarter flooded. The desert hasn’t been this verdant in sixty years.
Later that day, we saw another herd of camels feeding between clumps of wild Frankincense trees. Southern Oman is one of the few places in the world where this special tree grows (more in another post). I wondered if I should approach the Bedouin farmer accompanying the camels about obtaining some medicinal camel urine. But Quaid had other ideas. At the foot of the Frankincense tree (which was not in a protected area, I hasten to add) someone who'd come before us had cut the bark and white sap was oozing onto the ground. the resin was still moist and pliant.
Quaid suggested I put a bit of the sticky resin on my split fingers.
“Maybe this will be simpler than the other cure. It’s like nature’s band-aid.”
I later discovered that camel urine (not necessarily from virgin camels) is widely believed to have healing powers. However scams have surfaced where unscrupulous vendors have used a urine source closer to home.
I still have split fingers. But they seem to work okay as I reminisce about those wonderful desert creatures that filled the imagination and delight of my fellow travellers on our Oman to Zanzibar adeventure. Now if I can just work out how to sit in front of the hump….
After our Sea Stones & Stories group left Ramallah on our quick visit to the Palestinian Territories, we entered Bethlehem from the Shepherd's Field where an angel was said to have announced the birth of Jesus.
Unlike many travellers to the Holy Land, our group wasn't part of a pilgrimage but some of us quickly became converts of a different kind. I've always enjoyed the graffiti art of the Palestinian territories, so seeing Banksy in Bethlehem seemed to be a good fit.
This was the first Banksy our group saw:
Banksy has had a decade-long connection with the West Bank city since he 'decorated' part of the Israeli security barrier. He's been in the news recently after an auction of his work where he made his famous 'Girl with a balloon' artwork self-destruct.
Destruction and renewal are themes we found in the artwork within his Walled Off Hotel, a boutique establishment directly across from Israel's concrete security barrier. The tiny exhibition inside the hotel was well-worth the visit.
(Walled Off Hotel, front view)(Concierge, on the left)
One of the highlights of the Sea, Stones & Stories tour was a day in the Palestinian Territories. For me, I had travelled extensively to the West Bank and Gaza as a correspondent in 2000, 2003-5, but so far, my tour group had only glimpsed Arab villages as the tour bus travelled from the Sea of Galilee to the Jordan Valley and through to Jerusalem on Israel’s sophisticated highway network.
(Below: me in Gaza, 2000)
First stop was the seat of the Palestinian government, the city of Ramallah. I was last here in 2004 reporting on the return of Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat’s body, carried in a Jordanian military helicopter following his death in Paris.
Today, at the site of Arafat’s former compound, you can visit his tomb. There’s also a museum with an evocative exhibition focusing on the story of how Palestinians ended up with the patchwork of territory they have today.
Until our visit, I don’t think the group fully grasped the complexities of ‘the situation’ today and I was keen for them to experience this. To get to Ramallah (approximately 10 kms from Jerusalem) we had to switch tour buses and drivers. Our regular Israeli tour guide wasn’t allowed to travel with us.
This daunting red sign is placed at the entry to Palestinian cities. The 'Area A' is a reference to territory under the administration of the Palestinian Authority in accordance with the Oslo peace accords.
The bus climbed the hill out of Jerusalem and eventually we reached Qalandia checkpoint, Israel’s fortified entry/exit point with the Palestinian Territories. Palestinians were passing through the checkpoint on foot, in cars and mini-buses to go to jobs, schools and universities either in Jerusalem or other West Bank cities like Bethlehem or Hebron.
In Israel, the government takes care of the roads. They are often lined with purple and pink bougainvillea. Palestinian roads are littered with plastic bags and bottles. The checkpoint and the West Bank security fence, as Israel calls it, presents an image of control, of occupation.
The bus pulled over and we waited for our Palestinian guide who had phoned to say he was running late. He’d tried to get a permit from the Israeli military enabling him to pass through Jerusalem in order to meet us, but the permit didn’t come through so he had travelled from Bethlehem (on the other side of Jerusalem) via Palestinian roads. He’d left his home at 6.30 am and it was nearly 8.50 am.
“I’ll be there in around ten minutes,” he promised.
True to his word, the Palestinian guide, Motasem Amro, a cheerful young Palestinian in his late twenties, hopped aboard our bus ten minutes later.
The first thing he did was to show me a photo on his phone.
“Know this guy?”he asked with a twinkle.
The photo showed him standing with former Australian PM Tony Abbott who visited the Middle-East in late 2016.
“I was told to give him a purely religious tour. I was not to talk to him about politics,” he said, laughing.
“But personally, I like to talk about the political situation,” he continued. “In fact, I believe it’s my mission.”
Our Australian group were already hooked, keen to see for themselves what life was like on the other side of the fence.
And so the Sea, Stones & Stories tour continues. I was looking forward to visiting Degania Bet, one of the earliest kibbutzim to be established in the land of Palestine, (now Israel) in 1920. Kibbutz means ‘gathering’ and each kibbutz was originally a socialist community of pioneers, acquiring land for farming or industry. There are currently 274 kibbutzes (or kibbutzim, as the are known), although in recent decades many have been privatised.
Very few retain the original communal way of life.
Degania Bet recently celebrated 98 years of communal living. It runs a large dairy and produces food including bananas and avocados as well as owning a small factory.
Our guide, Idan Ben Shalom describes himself as a ‘native patriot of this place’.
He’s a kibbutz member (Degania B has 210 members) and a film-maker. He doesn’t receive a salary and any money members make goes to the kibbutz and is shared equally among the members. No-one gets more than their neighboor. No-one is different or better than their neighbour.
Idan says all kibbutz members are looked after in their own homes until they die.
Until the age of three Idan stayed apart from his parents in a kindergarten. But separating children from their parents during childhood wasn’t a feature at this particular kibbutz.
I love these brilliant, idealised images of Degania Bet taken in the late 1930’s and 1940’s by Israeli-Hungarian photographer Zoltan Kluger. (Wikimedia Commons, from the National Photo Collection of Israel).
I enjoyed Degania Bet’s archive which is housed in the former home of Levi Eshkol, Israel’s Prime Minister from 1963-1969. He lived on a kibbutz like former Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defence Minister Moshe Dayan (who actually lived in the neighbouring kibbutz, Degania Alef).
Each year since the 1940’s, someone with excellent Hebrew hand-writing (the archivist) writes down the history of the kibbutz: who was born, who died, what milestones were achieved. The history is recorded in these large volumes.
It was great for our group to catch a quick glimpse of this lifestyle which sounds like an admirable antidote to 21st century life. This is the original sharing economy. I gather however, that below the surface it's not as idyllic as it seems.
Being a member of a community involves the need to conform and there are implications if you don't.