I arrived at Pemba, the peaceful port city of Mozambique at the same time that the sun was sliding beneath the western horizon.
It felt strange to be in this particular Pemba before visiting the other more famous (at least for East Africans) Pemba in Tanzania. But even stranger was Kimwani, one of the languages that is widely used in the town. It sounded like Swahili, but wasn’t quite Swahili. The words sounded familiar to my ears but strange to my mind. It was like seeing plantains for the first time – they look like bananas but are not really bananas.
Kimwani is spoken by the Mwani people in Pemba and the wider Cabo Delgado province in Mozambique. It is a fusion of kimakonde language and Swahili. Mwani people are said to be descendants of the Swahili-Arab traders from previous centuries.
Three friends and I had driven down to Pemba from Daresalaam in a Subaru Forrester whose mid-life crisis had given us some ulcer moments. Thankfully, we had eventually driven triumphantly on Unity Bridge, crossed Ruvuma River and entered Mozambique, the thirty-fifth largest country in the world.
The drive had been.. well, what’s the right word to use here. Eventful? Not quite. That doesn’t really capture it. Adventurous? Definitely, but that’s not the word am looking for. Exhilarating. That’s the right word.
It’s not by accident that rivers often form boundaries. Crossing a river is a very vivid way of departing one country and entering another one. Crossing Ruvuma River made me feel as the door of Mozambique had been literally opened for us to enter.
A few hours later, we arrived in the port town of Pemba and found it waiting for us with open arms. Many of the houses on the outskirts of Pemba were just like the palm-tree leaves thatched, mud-walled houses of the rural parts of coastal Kenya. I had the weird sensation of driving into my Msambweni farm in the South Coast of Kenya.
We turned right and drove into Avenida do Chai which took us all the way into the water front road of Avenida do Marginal. Within minutes, our weary car finally found rest in the serene parking of a small ocean front hotel whose white-washed walls had colorful murals painted on them. My beautiful friend Mulhat had settled on it after painstakingly and scientifically perusing Tripadvisor and other online travel review sites. She was one of those super organized people who plan everything to the last detail.
That night, I slept like my niece Ayanna, who sleeps for 12 straight hours without a whimper. After that, it was time for the ocean fiesta.
As soon as I waded into the warm, salty ocean waters at Murrébué beach, I stopped in my tracks. Something ahead of me caught my eye and took my breath away.
Just a few metres ahead, about a metre into the water, I could see the most amazing cowrie shells ever. They were all identical, spotting that smooth leopard skin shade that is common with cowries. Like most cowries, the shells mid-section had those rough edges that give it a toothy smile. I sat cross-legged in the water and scooped the three shells with my eager right hand.
‘Oh my God,’ I couldn’t help myself as I got a closer look. They were exactly identical and all had that dazzling feature that was eliciting my cry to God.
Right in the middle of their smile, on the lower section, two gaps were missing. It’s as if they had gap-tooth like my brother Hannington. But they looked more like Georgia May Jagger, the English model who also has gap-tooth. Lily Aldridge, another member of the gap-tooth club also came to mind. The 29 year old American model has a stunning smile because of her gap-tooth.
I slipped the three gap-toothed cowries into the deep pockets of my black shorts and sighed, deeply amazed at the wonders of God’s creation. I raised my head to the heavens so that my face could take in as much ocean breeze as possible. This breeze was like the softest of massages as it caressed the mushrooming beard on my face.
Murrébué Beach is less than 30 minutes from Pemba and it is as serene as the pre-dawn hour of 3AM, when cockerels are still sleeping. Even the Murrébué Beach waves seem hushed as they slam gently into the white sand.
The next morning, I got another beautiful, rude shock. True to my custom, I woke up at 4AM to spend some quality time with my Creator and enjoy His 4AM breeze. When I stepped out into the balcony, I stopped in my tracks, just as I had the previous day at Murrébué Beach. This time, it wasn’t the gap-toothed cowrie shells that took my breath away, but the sun – it was already out. Yap. The sun was already rising at that early hour. ¡Dios mío! Oh my God! I cried out again, this time in Spanish.
I had experienced early summer sunrises in Bonn, Germany and Imola, Italy but had no idea that even good old Africa had these early sunrises. Since my country Kenya is right on the equator, the sun shows up at the roughly the same time every morning, all year round.
I found myself waving and smiling at the rising sun. It felt like I had caught it doing something intimately beautiful, and that I was the only one there to witness it.
A few hours later as I was strolling along Avenida Eduardo Mondlane in Pemba town, I stopped in my tracks. Yet again.
Mungu wangu! This time, my cry to God was in Swahili.
Right in front of me, was a sight as beautiful as it was scary. My breath fled, but my legs couldn’t follow suit. Are those ghosts?! I asked myself silently, convinced that the day had finally come when two ghosts had been sent to prove to me that they existed.
From the neck downwards, the two women had lovely curvy features. In fact, their hips would have put Kim Kardashian to shame. But from the neck upwards, they looked like nothing that I had ever seen. Their faces were white like the milk that Mzee Ali the dairy farmer delivers to my door step every morning when I am in Lamu. It is whiter than white.
‘Do you like our facial treatment?’ one of the ladies asked in flawless English.
She must have seen the amazed fear-shock on my face. She proceeded to explain in very rapid English similar to my sister Liz’s, that the white facial treatment was known as musiro, and had been applied by women from her mwani community and other Mozambican communities for centuries.
Musiro is an age-old beauty facial that leaves a layer of white on the face, giving the impression of a mask. The white paste is created by grinding the Small-fruited olax tree’s bark.
This beauty mask was conceived and birthed by Bantu communities in the medieval era. Women from the mwani community that resides in the Pemba area wear it often. For them, facial therapy is not a confine of beauty salons.
Although we saw them many more times during our four days in Pemba, I couldn’t help staring on each occasion. The women had transitioned from ghosts to angels.
Indeed, Pemba proved to be full of ‘staring occasions’ that made me pause and marvel.
Alas, Pemba is truly an African ACE. It is a stunning member of Africa’s Coastal Escapade.