The dhow has been kept afloat. The voice of the muezzin echoes in the pale morning. Then, by an unspeakable enchantment, the beautiful Arabian sail unfolds under the stars. A long, long journey begins, to the mythical island of Zanzibar.

We are in Mocimboa da Praia, a peaceful village on the north coast of Mozambique. The decrepit-looking colonial buildings stand as the last witnesses of the history: 5 centuries of Portuguese colonization, followed by civil war between pro and anti-colonialists from 1975 to 1992. But for more than 2000 years, in the narrow alleyways leading to “Zalala” beach, people speak Swahili, Mwani, Macua, Makonde, a little bit of Portuguese.

Traditional dhows still connect Mocimboa to Zanzibar

A crowd is gathered; the fishermen just came back from their journey. An auction is improvised. Elegant Macua women proudly display the “musiro”, a beauty mask made of wood pulp, which was once used to send subtle messages: “I am married” or “My husband is at sea.”

Port of Mocimboa of Praia Mozambique
A crew of eight sailors is preparing to go out to sea. They are all Mwanis, a coastal ethnic group from northern Mozambique. They are between 20 and 40 years old and have formed a team for several years. In four days time, they will leave and deliver 30 tons of wood to the island of Zanzibar, 650 kilometres further north, in front of the Tanzanian coast.

A mythical route

This is not one but two dhows that go out to sea. Two huge pirate-looking vessels, including the “Mwawa Kumu” and four smaller boats. A caravan, which Henry de Monfreid would have been proud of. Boarding takes place away from the shore. I boarded by climbing over the rudder.

Right before dawn, the high tide frees us. Slowly, the caravan stretches as we move away from Mocimboa. It follows a route that has been engraved for over a thousand years in the furrows of the Indian Ocean.

Aboard-a-traditional-dhow

Tanzanian waters announce the beginning of a real challenge

On the third day, we arrived in the Tanzanian territory. A night stop has been planned a few hundred yards away from Mtwara. Fishermen quietly approached us with their daily catch. When the caravan resumed its course, winds and waves have become stronger, greatly increasing our speed, but danger too. We were constantly bailing out the water that sloshed aboard. Boiling water became a struggle. The burning coals were flying in all directions. When the winds got really too strong, Ismail gave the order to lower the sail, we anchored near an atoll. Sometimes the clouds would make any landmark invisible. Extensive knowledge of winds and a sense of direction acquired over centuries turned out to be essential.

Zanzibar-strait

First coast line on the horizon

On the tenth day, we finally penetrated Zanzibar strait. For 48 hours, the rain came to mingle with high winds. The men are exhausted, but do not release the tension. They know we are getting closer to our destination.

The silhouette of Zanzibar’s former Sultan’s palace appeared, a myth arose. It was 18:30; the voice of the muezzin welcomed us. It said that God is great and the sailors are brave. With the precision of an electronically controlled machine, we anchored in the Old Port and battled to find a space among the hundred dhows that were already present. They came from Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique. All are loaded with mysterious goods … and dreams.

Trade on water

After carrying out some repairs and receiving a well-deserved salary, Ismail and the whole caravan left. They were in charge, this time, of conveying several tons of sugar, further south along the Tanzanian coast. Fridges, televisions, stereos and bicycles were also part of the convoy. These are Mocimboas’ orders to help them round off the month’s income.

Photos & text: Stéphane de Rouville