The Pemba Eco Lodge is a most charming place; the only one of its kind on the little island adjoining Pemba. Its style is minimalist & its lodges build in the old-fashioned high-roofed African hut style, elevated above the ground by about one meter. As might be expected from a high-end, eco-friendly hotel, alone on an isolated little island, one is bound to encounter the more interesting type of traveler. Thus we too encountered a wonderfully cultured Spanish gentleman who, as one of our company put it, was hunting ghosts.
In fact, the Spanish gentleman was a writer & documentary maker, much of whose interest seemed to be centered around the contact between the human realm & what the Arabs call alam al-ghayb (the world of the unseen). He shared many stories of strange encounters with African medicine-men & women, who communed with spirits. There was a particular charm in such conversation in the middle of the night, in the reception hut of a poorly-lit eco-friendly hotel situated alone on that part of the island. All seemed fine on the following morning except for one of the guests, who was visited by strange spirits which were pulling him by the shoulder until he managed to force himself to sleep - thus simultaneously causing their disappearance
The man in charge of the day-to-day operations of Pemba Lodge is Ali. A native of the nearest village, located on the adjoining island, through sheer will power & love of learning he worked his way up the educational ladder until he reached the level of higher education on Zanzibar & proficiency in English. His family's inability to provide regular financial support forced Ali to leave his studies and join the tourism industry. His determination & skill won the admiration of Nassor, the owner of Pemba Lodge, & in return Ali has been able to help his village by employing fellow villagers & thus extending the financial benefits of working with Nassor. Ali is also building the largest house in his village & commands impressive respect by all villagers, from children (who obeyed unquestionably when he scolded them for being inappropriate with us mzungus during the village tour) to elders whose almost blind trust in this successful son of their village is most touching.
And so began our little trip to Zanzibar, the mystery island once ruled by a wise and ruthless Arab sultan, famed for his grace and keeping a great harem with the most beautiful women, ranging from tall, high-cheekboned Abyssinians to slender, blue-eyed Circassians. The charm & grace of royal rule wasn’t fated to survive past the first half of the twentieth century. In the 1960s a dark storm descended on the charming island, which until the middle of the twentieth century was still the great center of Islamic civilization in that part of the Indian Ocean. Malign powers stirred emotions, laced with a blend of the communist dream of equality & vengeance fired by racial pride. In the 1960s a revolution erupted; its final result the expulsion of the last sultan & the old Arab ruling caste to boot. The Communist dreamland would be for Africans only. Once a sign of superiority, which everyone wished to claim, now Arab blood was looked on with disdain and only the staunchest Arabs remained on the island, in spite of many threats and occasional brutal beatings.
But then ... who could blame them, especially after reading the many ghastly accounts of the slave trade. True, those lucky ones who had survived the brutal march from inland Africa to the east coast & the even more brutal transportation by ship to Zanzibar, the island were, by all accounts, treated rather well by their new masters. Many (if not most) of these new slave-masters were part of the ruling Arab elite, which was thoroughly convinced of their superiority and the naturally servile status of the African. With so much baggage it was presumably not difficult to rile up people’s emotions & turn them against the haughty Arab elite.
The post-Communist, “racially purer,” society seemed less promising than the great accounts of Zanzibar during its heyday: a cosmopolitan society with a renowned Muslim scholarly class connected to & in regular contact with the great centers of Islamic learning all around the Indian Ocean; a proud aristocratic caste made up of Arabs, ancient Shirazi settlers & the offspring of generations of intermarriage between Africans, Arabs & Persians; ancient Indian merchants & traders, both Hindu & Muslim, who had inhabited that same island (& the whole eastern African coast) for generations; & of course the local Africans whose language Swahili had become the medium of communication between all these different groups, castes, ethnic & racial groupings.
Even though it seemed to fall short of the romantic descriptions of its past glory, we decided to try our luck & explore this beautiful island that had enchanted a whole array of foreign visitors, whether Europeans, Persians, or the great Omani sultan who, enthralled by the languid beauty of Zanzibar moved his throne from Oman to the island.
Our trip began in Stonetown was followed by a lengthy visit to the eastern shore of the island. It was not long before the ennui & constant dampness that seemed to envelop all – except the swarm of tireless European kite surfers & local “businessmen” patrolling the beach & offering everything from massages to dhow trips with local fishermen to Chinese made figurines of oversized African natives – began to take its effect. Neither of us managed to get much work done. The constant water shortages & overbearing cashier-waitress, whose school mistress attitude relentlessly tried to browbeat us into eating their terrible meals did not help.
Thus, one morning we decide to pick up & head north; trusting in the strength of kismet (lit. fate, fortune) we hoped for the best. As such things usually go, it was by sheer accident & inspired by a slightly wild fancy of exploring Zanzibar’s northern island Pemba that we were put in touch with a man named Nassor Salim Ali Maharouky. At Zanzbar’s northernmost tip we met a man named Paul, an Englishman & jack-of-all-trades: former military-man, policeman, fire-fighter, chef, world-traveler, now hotel manager on Zanzibar & diving instructor in the training. It was Paul who introduced us to Sidi Nassor, the man whose hotels he manages. Nassor, a successful & cosmopolitan Pemba businessman, descended from an old Omani family, owns the Mnarani Beach Cottages, located at the northernmost tip of Zanzibar, just beside the great light tower & the Pemba Eco Lodge, located on Shamiani, a tiny island at the southernmost tip of Pemba; known by the locals as ras ul-pemba (Arabic for head of Pemba).
The acquaintance turned into a tour of Nassor & Paul’s new “package”: a short stay at Mnarani (a luxury hotel) followed by a catamaran trip to Pemba lodge. As we did not stay very long at Mnarani, I feel unqualified to remark on much except for the remarkable quality of the dishes & the wonderfully designed rooms.
Sailing at seven in the morning from Zanzibar to Pemba was an enchanting experience, enriched endlessly by Nassor’s skipper Abdallah, a taciturn, local fisherman with a remarkable sixth sense for the Indian Ocean. According to Nassor, it took quite some time before he realized the breadth of Abdallah’s experience & knowledge of the sea; all due to Abdallah’s taciturn & humble nature. And here was embodied the key to understanding the Orient: true knowledge is never immediately volunteered & certainly not advertised. Its acquisition demands patience & a level of humility. As a rough rule one might say that true knowledge & verbosity do not mix. Rather, knowledge must be sought out, & in true Oriental fashion is found through a combination of perseverance & sheer luck or again, kismet.
- Official Description (provided by the hotel):
- Pemba Lodge, situated on the remote and beautiful Shamiani Island off Pemba, Zanzibar’s sister island.It is Pemba’s first true eco-lodge ... more less
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- Also Known As:
- Pemba Lodge Pemba Island, Tanzania