Kilwa – Fishing For Compliments

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Kilwa – Fishing For Compliments

Kilwa in Swahili means ‘Place of Fish’ or can mean markets too –the collective name given to three different areas on the Tanzanian coast: Kilwa Kisiwani, Kilwa Kivinje and Kilwa Masoko. We explored UNESCO-listed ruins, enjoyed the beach,  ate seafood and chillaxed in our hammocks.


The drive to Kilwa all along the coast was relaxing. I crocheted, and we listened to our book while Butch got me to my destination in our trusty steed, the old Honey Badger. We were in a good mood and looking forward to our first real experience of Tanzania.

The countryside was lovely, green and lush. On our left, we saw colourful villages and ladies of all ages in bright traditional Muslim hijabs; on our right, we hugged the coast and could occasionally glimpse the cobalt ocean.





The Kilwa Masoko town, as it is now known, was the capital of the Kilwa district when the British constructed a deep-water port for their boats on the location in 1918. Tanganyika’s government designated Kilwa Masoko as the district headquarters after the country gained independence in 1961. The municipality transitioned from a ward to a township authority in 2008.


We decided to head straight to Kilwa Beach Lodge. All the reviews and recommendations pointed us in that direction.


Directions are not always that clear, and it took us a while to find our way out of the town of Kilwa Masoko and onto the dirt road to Kilwa Beach Lodge, just a few kilometres from the village and a few hundred yards from the fish market, and boatyard.



Baja, the manager of Kilwa Beach Lodge; Abatha, his lovely wife; Dennis and Dula, the executive chef, were there to meet and accompany us to our campsite right next to the beach. They moved rocks and shells to get us to our desired spot, and within a jiffy, we were seated in the restaurant, napkins tucked into our collars, ready for lunch. Dula whipped up a delicious prawn cocktail, the old-fashioned kind with a picquant thousand Island dressing, within a few minutes. Heaven on a plate.

Keeping things simple has become our way of life. We were soon in our bathers with our kikois wrapped around our waists, ready to explore.


Our first sunset was one for the books and every evening after that was a Kodac moment. Irresistable, and one to celebrate with another click and a clink. My sunrises aren't as bright nor brisk and special efforts had to be made to capture one of the magnificent sunrises. But we try.



Walks along the beach are obligatory. Each morning we’d grab our hats, sunglasses and a plastic bag for shells and set off to see what the tides had brought in and to inspect the fishermen’s catch.


On a few occasions we'd walk to the fish market, our nearest neighbours, to enjoy the bustle of the commercial activities of the fishermen and the serious women who man the stations while their men are on the high seas. 


The warm briny ocean and the sweet smell of coconut and herbal wood smoke and the aroma of garlic and ginger oozes from aluminium saucepans and woks, the steam infused with tantalising scents of curry, cardamom and cinnamon as ladies prepare the mid-morning meal for the fishermen. Blankets of wood smoke and the brackish fishy odour permeates concrete blocks and well-trodden sandy paths through the market.


Rice, cultivated all over Tanzania, is a staple and served with every meal, as are bananas in every form. The tiny, hot, golden flying saucer rice cakes fried over hot coals went home with us. I served ours with delicious local honey and the last of our cheddar cheese. They were a yummy treat.

The auctioneer’s cattle rattle in rapid Swahili goes something like this “zabuni ya shilingi moja, sasa mbili, sasa mbili, utanipa mbili?" And the crowds’ excited bids, taunts and teasing jeers become frenetic. We were too nervous to lift a finger, and remained rooted to the spot, keeping mum. Lots of fish would be laid out for buyers to inspect.


Occasionally an interesting fish,  like the Undumi or red snapper (weighing 1,5kg) would catch our eye, and Baja or Dula would come to our rescue and do the bidding on our behalf, and we’d walk home very chuffed with someone’s catch of the day to be prepared on our fire later.



We almost lost all our inhibitions being the only campers and often the only guests around. Stripping off my flip-flops, I would go about my day bare feet. That’s a new treat and a worthy one too! I couldn’t imagine doing it anywhere else except later in Zanzibar, but who was to know that?


That’s hakuna matata, which is a Swahili phrase meaning “no trouble” or “no worries” and “take it easy” (literally Hakuna: “there is no/there are no”; Matata: “worries”.) We embraced it immediately.

With our hammocks permanently fixed, swinging between two palm trees, we would read, nap, and think, always keeping out of a falling coconut’s trajectory. The only sounds would be the occasional Amethyst sunbird's song or lilac-breasted roller’s dry, raspy rattle. We would also start counting crows. 




Hermit crabs were by far our favourite creatures, and we’d follow them, fascinated by their antics and the weird treks they made, going way up from the water's edge up the  beach where they’d scavenge and occupy empty mollusc shells and bury themselves in the soft sand during the day or high tide.

While swinging in my green hammock, I had plenty of time to count and confirm they have ten legs and two claws. The right claw is a lot bigger, and interestingly Hermit Crabs are more closely related to squat lobsters than true crabs. I know they are often regarded as delicacies in some traditional cuisines, but, like the octopus, now that I know a little more about them and I’ve studied them in nature, my appetite for them has waned.

I would recommend the documentary “My Octopus Teacher” if you haven’t seen it yet.


On other days, when we felt energetic, we’d get onto our bikes and go for rides into the village, stopping at the market to purchase supplies or indulge in a sweet treat at one of the street vendor’s stalls.

The one we particularly fancied was sold by a sullen man who wasn’t keen on selling his delicious crispy Kah-kah, a holy filo cookie similar to Kilaj. His looked very similar to bowties, only much nicer.  After a face-off with Butch he'd reluctently wrap our order in torn off pages of his accounting book. Maybe he thought we'd get the message. We're thick-skinned and would return whenever we could.


It was Ramadan, and we could purchase delicious Sukkar Bara (similar to skuinskoek) from the roadside markets and at-home stalls. They became our favourite early morning treat with coffee while we travelled.



While perusing the stalls, I noticed the colourful, traditional robes and dresses ladies wore. My curiosity got the better of me, and soon to the applause and encouragement of everyone in the shop, I was draped in a hijab. I liked it and enjoyed the anonymity it afforded me.


In keeping with local traditions, I would respectfully cover my shoulders, head and legs. Tanzania is deeply conservative, so men and women would publicly cover their knees and shoulders. Traditionally, women only wear kitenga, skirts, but it’s acceptable for foreign women to wear jeans or trousers – as long as they aren’t too form-fitting. We don’t want to be mzungu who are tsk-tsked about! Children often call mzungu, mzungu when they see us and run away if they're not brave enough to wave!


Butch has acquired a cheerful blue shirt, made to order via WhatsApp,  and I have a gorgeous blue robe and scarf, which we keep for special occasions.


I regret not buying the sheer sunray pleated skirt Dula held up for me to consider. I shouldn've bit the bullet and splurged. It would’ve been perfect for my evening dinner dates with Butch in Zanzibar. The autumn colours, I have come to realise, suit me. You snooze, you lose. Dula was insistent, but I was adamant that I had very little space in my wardrobes.



Saturdays are traditionally our days for going out on a long cycle, which we did one morning early. It turned out to be a very long cycle. We went north along the coast, exploring coves, villages and the beach. We’d kept to the plan of keeping to the right whenever there was a fork in the road.

On the way home, we took a few wrong turns  (still keeping right!) and went on a wild goose chase through farms, green corn fields, banana  plantations and farm yards where only chickens were scratching and cluck-clucking in the soil for tidbits. The cooking fires had died down with only the occasional red ember igniting in the breeze, which sent the smoky ash up in puffy white clouds. We were hot and bothered and, at times, irritable, but...


That’s the joy of cycling. We might’ve lost our internal compass or map but knew we would find our way home, eventually—the moral of the story?


Sometimes we discover more while lost and experience places we’d never have dreamed of visiting. We would never have found those places. In Tanzania, it is also an excellent way to meet people who are always willing to help.

As Mark Twain said succinctly, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” The Innocents Abroad



Besides I wouldv'e missed this magnificent baobab tree, just sitting there for hundreds of years.




The libraries I found were libraries in name only. Unless, of course, a pirate video shop counts as a library?




Naturally, plain sailing is not our destination, and on one of our rides, Butch, while trying to take a shortcut,  got his front wheel stuck in loose sand, and flew over his handlebars. Unfortunately, the tumble did not leave him unscathed. He scraped his shin on a ragged-edged, sharp, rusty, old, iron drum.

He got up, dusted himself off and was adamant that he’d only scratched his leg. At first, there was no blood (a clean shave), but I noticed blood streaming down his leg when we stopped in the village. A quick look and I almost keeled over and had to sit on the nearest step.



Fortunately, we could purchase a black brushed nylon utility cloth from a shop to stem the blood and tourniquet the leg. We completed our circuit in search of a pharmacy to renew our first aid supplies before heading home to do the dressings.



At home, I inspected the leg, cleaned the cut as best I could and demanded that he go off to the Doctor for stitches pronto Tonto. 

He and Baja left in the bajaj with driver Bob Marley all hale and hearty. I breathed a sigh of relief. Unbeknownst to him, I knew how deep the cut was, to the bone. He needed another tetanus shot and stitches.

Three hours later, the three musketeers returned. Butch was stitched, bandaged and armed with a paper bag filled with medications. The young, charming Doctor cleaned the wound and agreed he needed a double layer of dissolving stitches to minimise scarring. In total, there were 12 stitches. He also got booster jabs of anti-Tetanus and antibiotics.

Butch was so impressed with the young man who did the procedure "without his assistant" he added.

Butch would return to the clinic twice for an inspection and to have his dressings changed and the wound cleaned.

On his last visit, the Doctor said he’d miss his favourite patient but wished him well and hoped the rest of his journey would be injury free.

The antibiotics did their job; fortunately, sadly Butch did suffer cellulitis, albeit mildly and had to go onto a repeat dose of anitbiotics.  This journey is a lesson in "why it's important to stay healthy and injury free." It turned out to be a long road to recovery. Butch did not let his leg stand in his way at all and we soon resumed our cycles of discovery.



We could not visit Kilwa without a historical tour of the Ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani and Ruins of Songo Mnara.


The remains of two great East African ports are on two small islands off the coast of Kilwa city. From the 13th to the 16th century, the merchants of Kilwa dealt in gold, silver, pearls, perfumes, Arabian crockery, Persian earthenware and Chinese porcelain; much of the trade in the Indian Ocean thus passed through their hands. The islands were ruled and administered by Arabian Sultans.


With executive Chef Dula in charge, we made our way to the market and tourism office, where we could make a reservation to go to Kilwa Kisiwani the following day.


After our arrangements, we accompanied Dula on his rounds, getting his supplies for the lodge. At the same time, while we waited for Bob Marley, he showed me all the desirable shops and stalls where I could browse and purchase a pretty cotton kanga (cloth worn around the waist, head or shoulders).


Once again, Bob Marley, driving his bright red bajaj, was there to pick us up early the following morning to make our way to the port, where we were met by our guide and the boat captain who would sail us across the bay to Kilwa Kisiwani.

After a timely wait to get the official paperwork and documents in order we made our way to the harbour, which is being enlarged by a Chinese company.


The boat, a reminder of one of the boats commonly used around the islands of Thailand, brought back happy memories of our explorations around Pipi island and the memories of the James Born (James Bond) boat we found so amusing when we visited the islands shortly after the destructive tsunami.


With the salty sea breeze in our hair, we put-puttered on the tranquil waters to the island along with canoes, dugouts and dhows who ply the seas.


Our very proper, pretty young student guide spoke good English and could give us a  reasonable synopsis of the island’s history and the villagers that occupy the land now.

Once we’d landed, our boat returned to the mainland, where the skipper ferried passengers to and fro from the island. We’d meet him later when we'd rendezvous at the mangrove swamps.


The rest of the morning was spent walking the island, enjoying the subtropical landscape with the ancient rubber trees and baobabs and discovering the old ruins and buildings our guide told us about.


At times we’d relax on a well-worn step and take it all in, sharing the space with the memory and ghosts of slaves, traders and sultans who lived and ruled there.


“Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara were Swahili trading cities, and their prosperity was based on control of Indian Ocean trade with Arabia, India and China, particularly between the 13th and 16th centuries, when gold and ivory from the hinterland was traded for silver, carnelians, perfumes, Persian faience and Chinese porcelain.


Kilwa Kisiwani minted its currency in the 11th to 14th centuries.


In the 16th century, the Portuguese established a fort on Kilwa Kisiwani, and the two islands’ decline began.


The remains of Kilwa Kisiwani cover much of the island, with many parts of the city still unexcavated. The ruins, built of coral and lime mortar, include the Great Mosque, constructed in the 11th century was roofed entirely with domes and vaults, some decorated with embedded Chinese porcelain.

The palace Husuni Kubwa was built between c1310 with its sizeable octagonal bathing pool; Husuni Ndogo, numerous mosques, the Gereza (prison) constructed on the ruins of the Portuguese fort and an entire urban complex with houses, public squares, burial grounds, etc.


At times our guide’s  command of English failed her, but we so enjoyed her soft-spoken enthusiasm that we didn’t mind.


Close to the slipway  was the boatbuilding yard.  Under the canopy of an umbrella tree onlookers, advisers, builders and friends gathered to watcch the proceedings. I'm sure they're still employing the very same methods that have stood the test of time. The chap we spoke to was filling the gaps hammering pieces of cloth, plastic and wood chips using a sharp chisel and hammer. His blows were starlingly accurate!


We were hot and sticky, and our brains were abuzz with all our newfound knowledge. It was time to head home. After a lengthy walk through the village and subsistence farms, we went to the mangrove swamp, where we met our boatman just as the tide turned and started coming in.

Integrating a World Heritage site and a  working community must have social, political and historic challenges. Poor cummunities battle to stay alive and conservation is not a priority unless there's an incentive, financial benefits and a lot of education I would imagine. 

The cool afternoon breeze licked our faces, and we relaxed, not saying much while we sailed back to the mainland and an ice cold Cola (Coke) at the café where Bob would meet us in his red tuk-tuk.

To my great surprise, I noticed Vincent’s big Triumph motorbike parked on the grounds of a guesthouse. I was sure it was him and hoped we would meet up.


After a week, we extended our stay to ten days simply because we couldn’t say goodbye to the wonderful staff, friendly strangers we'd met nor the perfect camping spot on the beach under the swaying coconut palms.


We were fit, enjoyed our cycles around town and the district, and would take a different turn every day. There was much to explore as Kilwa is situated on fingers of land surrounded by the ocean, bays, inlets and a few lakes.


Blimey, we saw Vincent marching along the main road one afternoon. We were all delighted to meet up, the first thing he did was throw a professional eye over Butch's leg, and then, on his recommendation, we went to his favourite café, where we indulged in a delicious fruit and berry slushy. Vincent is a vegetarian and knows where all the good eateries specialising in extraordinary and unusual dishes are.


We caught up and were enthralled by his adventures. I do suffer from FOMO and often imagine myself in other traveller’s boots. One can’t go everywhere, but one can dream.


I have left the best part of our stay for last. The people we met on this stay were the pinnacle of our experience and would set the bar for the rest of our trip.


Baja and Abatha regularly came around to check on us, staying for a chat and welcoming us to the restaurant, where we enjoyed many meals.

One evening Abatha fetched me to take me on a tour of the resort, showing me the various cottages and accommodation options. She always assured us that nothing was impossible or too tricky should we need assistance. The four leopard shells Abatha brought as a gift on our final day will be treasured forever.


Baja was the perfect host and friend. He spent many hours chatting with us, helping and assisting us wherever needed. He certainly went the extra mile for us numerous times, and we enjoyed his easy banter and infectious laugh. In my mind’s eye, I see him dressed in his Burmuda shorts and eye-catching, colourful traditional shirt. He was tall and handsome in stature and reminded me of the elegance of Nelson Mandela with the swing of a reggae star.


When I broke the glass top to our kitchen basin, Baja came to my rescue and found a carpenter who made a new, improved wooden lid. Now everything can tumble out of the spice cupboard, causing no damage.




I renamed Dula, and he was promoted and became The Executive Chef Dula. Dula prepared excellent meals for us. From tasty prawn cocktails to curried fish and grilled red snapper. No matter the time of day, he assured us we did not inconvenience him and that he would prepare scrumptious dishes for us. And he did.


Always using the freshest ingredients from the markets, his salads were crispy and the tomatoes plump. I enjoyed prawns perfectly prepared, glassy and firm on two occasions, as I like them. We’d been spoilt in Mozambique with beautiful fresh seafood, but Dula wasn’t outdone, and the crayfish tails were spot on! Dulas fish cakes, samoosas and crab cakes were the best. Delicious, meaty, perfectly seasoned and spiced, generous and made with care.


Butch was eager to prepare some of our fishy meals himself but found the sourcing of fish a tad trying, fortunately Dula stepped in and did the legwork or rather negotiations for him.  While Dulla signaled the fishermen in their boat we ordered charcoal and prepared the fire.

I do believe Dula realised we were very adventurous foodies eager to experiment . He suggested we accompany him to the evening food market to taste local food from local cooks.


We agreed immediately. 


It would be interesting to try new flavours and ingredients it would also be a thrill to spend time with the villagers at the market. Traditionally, people gather at the market at night, where friends and family gather to enjoy communal meals or a meal prepared by a cook around the fire instead of at home.


Traditional music could be heard while everyone related their day. Men sat around cooking fires discussing their bidness dealings, fishing, or farming while ladies cooked. Children had free reign and could run around safely amongst the adults. The atmosphere was sublime, cloaked in a comforting hazy blanket of woodsmoke, laughter and the singsong sounds of the rapidfire Swahili.

In the company of Dula, we never felt excluded or unwelcome; instead, we felt at home.


Butch and I opted to do a tasting of various stalls. We ordered single portions, which we shared and could move around the market, savouring multiple cooking styles, flavours and ingredients.


Our favourite dish was a beef shin slow-cooked in a tasty broth served with chapatti. For dessert, we had slices of fresh watermelon.


This meal was a highlight and one we would repeat throughout our trip. The delight breaking out on a cook or chef’s face when a stranger comes to their table and enjoys their simple country fare is one of such joy it is hard to resist.


On our last evening, Dula presented us with a freshly baked loaf of bread and his take on the delicious “bow ties” and, to top everything, six beautiful samoosas. We would picnic with flair en route to Dar es Salaam.


The most memorable evening was one where we invited our friends to join us for dinner. Our guests would determine the night for the celebration at their convenience.


Butch arranged with Dula, who agreed to purchase all the ingredients on our behalf, and he would prepare a traditional seafood meal fit for a King.


Butch and I would meet at the restaurant at sunset. While we enjoyed our sundowners swinging on the daybed overlooking the quietly lapping waters under swaying palm trees, the chefs would prepare our dinner.


Dennis set  a long table elegantly  and fussed and arranged our seating until he was satisfied.


From the quiet kitchen (yes, no pots or pans were banging), we could savour the delicious aromas of herbs and spices while the fish, calamari and crab were being prepared. Under the stars, we sipped our drinks while our tastebuds were tantalised.

Our table was groaning with a selection of the most exquisitely prepared local dishes, and once we were all seated, we tucked in. Silence prevailed while we enjoyed our courses, only broken by excited chatter when Dula prepared the next course.


The following day we agreed that experience was another indelible evening and one for the memory bank safely stored to be recounted later.



Our visit to Kilwa set the tone and raised the bar on our expectations in Tanzania. Every rumour is true. Tanzanians are interested in visitors. They care about people’s well-being. They’re kind, generous, exceptionally respectful, friendly, and reserved, yet forthcoming when we open up and ask questions. When a Tanzanian says "you're welcome" they mean it.


We both loved Kilwa, and I’d undoubtedly return if I could. All the staff at Kilwa Beach Resort are the jewesl in the crown. We departed with heavy hearts and waved and blew air kisses at “our family” until they were tiny dots.

Our tastebuds had been tittilated by the exciting new flavours we'd been introduced to in Kilwa which inspired us to stop all along our route to Dar es Salaam to buy tasty treats which we enjoyed with our morning coffee. Hakuna Matata to the diet.