The end is the beginning
Kilindoni, the main town on Mafia Island, feels small. The airport is approximately a five-minute walk from the centre of town. There are no ATMs. The roads are the same white sand as the beach. And, perhaps most importantly, if you want to eat out in Mafia you need to order dinner a day ahead of time.
Mafia Island is located 160 kilometers south of Zanzibar, near the mouth of the Rufiji River. There are few tourists on the island, but some do come for diving and snorkelling – the reefs off Mafia are supposedly some of the richest in the world. Most tourists stay in a handful of upscale lodges, owned by foreigners and located on the east side of the island.
My friends and I arrived late on Friday afternoon and checked into Mama Lizu’s Guesthouse, a large maze of a house that was converted into a bar before the owners finally agreed that it should be a hotel. Located in the centre of town, Mama Lizu’s rooms go for $6 a night, a much better bargain than the beach lodges.
Only one restaurant, Hakuna Matata, was open on Friday evening. An empty open air patio with a handful of tables and two stray cats. No printed menus, but the waitress recited the choices available to us: wale na kuku (rice and chicken) or wale na samaki (rice and fish). These are the dishes of fast-food Tanzania, cooked hours or sometimes days ahead of time and available at nearly every roadside stall and corner restaurant.
A helpful bajaj driver told us that the lodges on the east side of the island were only a fifteen minute drive away and served very good food. Hoping for grilled seafood, we decided to walk. Fifteen minutes turned into an hour and finally we flagged down a bajaj heading in the opposite direction. “You are still 25 kilometres from the nearest lodge”, the driver said, and turned his bajaj around. We got in, and drove for forty-five minutes on the white sand island, as the sun set and the moon rose.
We were stopped by a guard at the gate to the Mafia Island Marine Park, who informed us that all of the lodges on the island are located inside a protected area. Admission is $20. A large grey sign proclaims: “no exceptions or waiver of fees for delayed departure”. JL, who grew up in Tanzania and speaks Swahili fluently, got out of the bajaj to negotiate with the guard, while the rest of us sat low in our seats and hoped that he would forget about us. Twenty minutes later, JL had convinced the guard to let us in for dinner and we were on our way.
Our driver got lost. The bajaj broke down. Twice. Flat tires both times. And then got stuck in a patch of mud. We got out and pushed.
At the first lodge we were told that there was only enough food for guests. “You should have ordered your dinner this morning”, the receptionist explained patiently, “otherwise we don’t buy enough food at the market.” The second lodge was dark and deserted, with no guests or owner. The third had no food left by the time we arrived.
We made it back to Hakuna Mutata by 9 pm. Reheated wale na samaki never tasted so good.