Tanzania: Explore Africa from the saddle

Being greeted by Princess, an African elephant, feels like being checked out by the nozzle of an industrial vacuum cleaner. With her small eyes focused keenly on mine, she suctions my chest, then my legs, and makes a beeline for my hair. She’s a yard from me and there’s no fence. As she deftly takes out my hair grip, her minder Dirk says, “Just let her go at her pace, let her come to you. Don’t do anything sudden.” The end of her trunk is ridiculously agile, like a pair of human fingers. I realise the greeting is coming to an end when she lifts up her trunk and high fives me.

“I’m fascinated by how elephants and humans interact,” says Dirk. “We don’t ever ride the elephants; just communicating with them is an electric experience.”

Some people and animals are worth travelling great distances to meet. Princess, Dirk, Carlos Da Silva and his horses are among this select group. “We sell space,” says Carlos. “Emotional, physical and geographical space.” In fact the Chua Cho Farasi (School for Horses) offers horse treks, hiking, kayaking, mountain biking and elephant whispering – all set in a private game reserve in Tanzania, in the shadow of Kilimanjaro. And, unlike many high-end local safari options here, the people at Chua Cho Farasi are able and willing to adapt to your budget.

A fully catered tented camp in the bush, complete with flushing toilet is one option. A basic bedroom in an outhouse is another.

For the hardcore, there is cooking over an open fire, with a bedroll in a tent. There is also a scheme to offer accommodation for long-term stays on the farm, where you help out, or do your own research. Be warned, though: living conditions are basic. There’s solar power only between 9am and 6pm, and luxuries such as the internet are strictly limited – but it’s a very cheap, and unique, experience.

I stayed at Casablanca, Carlos’s farmhouse, which has two small outbuildings with single beds, mosquito nets and a table in them. With the oil-lamp flickering and the croak of frogs outside, it was an atmospheric place to spend a couple of nights.

Ndarakwai lodge, a couple of miles up the road, is distinctly posher. The tents on offer here are mini houses, complete with carpets, bedspreads and armchairs. With Carlos your food is a hearty goulash of half cabbages, potatoes and chunks of lamb. In Ndarakwai you can expect silver cutlery, bone china and delicate salads.

What’s most impressive about a stay here are the riding safaris, and for good reason. The level of horsemanship and guiding competence required here is exceptionally high. It’s a dangerous landscape out there: the animals are wild and the terrain is rough; it’s easy for a horse to stumble and break its leg. “It takes me about 15 minutes to work out the client’s level of riding by watching them on horseback, and we discuss what they might enjoy,” says Carlos.

Carlos watches me guide his seven-year-old one-time race horse through a river, at a walk. I’ve been riding since I was four, competent enough, apparently, to later manage a brisk gallop following zebra. There is something exhilarating – and mildly terrifying – about riding at dusk. This is the golden hour, when lions, buffalos and elephants come to the watering holes. As we ride along, I realise that my horse and the wildlife are checking each other out. Horses have much better hearing than us: they stop and listen; flared nostrils tell you there are animals nearby. Compared with travelling in a vehicle, it’s an intimate, graceful form of transport.

Horses also love running with zebras and gazelles; it is hard to resist the thrill of keeping up with a herd of these beautiful creatures. Then, as the light fades, we come across a freshly killed zebra, still with its flesh and hide intact. Carlos becomes very serious. “There are lions or cheetahs around. Let’s move. Are you OK to gallop for a bit?”

Carlos was once an elite Spanish horseman, then went to work for Greenpeace International (he was captured on film dangling by his ankles in chains to protest against Japanese whaling in the Mediterranean). These days he lives a quieter life, two hours from the nearest small shop, along a spine-jangling dirt road, on a game reserve lodged between Mount Meru and Mount Kilimanjaro in Northern Tanzania. On one side is the Selous game reserve, on the other the Serengeti.

His staff consists of four young men with troubled histories. For five years they’ve worked together, learning to shoe, groom and care for horses, as well as gaining safari-guiding skills. Ronaldo was once a child miner near the Congolese border. At 16 he left the mine and came to Arusha where he lived on the streets until he joined the Watoto Foundation, a Dutch charity that works with street children. With a glowing reference, he was later given a placement with Carlos.

After a three-and-a-half hour ride in the morning, and a two-hour ride in the afternoon, I’m more than a little saddle-sore, but I’ve seen more game than on many a week-long vehicle or walking safari. This is how riding should be: animals everywhere, stripped of pretension and pomp, a sense that East Africa is far more regal and ancient than a tourist brochure can ever convey.

Travel essentials

Riding there

* Chuo Cha Farasi ( ecotourism-africa.com/farasisafari.html) offers a range of riding options, from equestrian horse clinics for advanced riders to day-long rides in the Kilimanjaro Conservancy.

Staying there

* Carlos Da Silva’s farm, Casablanca, is part of the Kilimanjaro Conservancy, and within a private game reserve of Ndarakwai, which is 100km north west of Arusha, in an area called West Kili. If you want to book a place as a long-term volunteer or a shorter stay including safari horse riding, contact Carlos (00 255 784 994 181; info@ecotourism-africa.com). He is happy to host long-term volunteers, particularly those with skills in solar power, water management, carpentry, plumbing, building, web design, marketing, agriculture and gardening, equestrianism, zoology and biology.

* Alternatively, stay at the permanent luxury tented lodge, Ndarakwai (00 255 27 250 2713; ndarakwai.com), where doubles start at $297 (£200), full board.


Zanzibar: East Africa’s island outpost

Zanzibar, with its dreamy capital and dazzling coast, is the place to head for a few days on the beach after a safari. Thembi Mutch explores the archipelago.


Myself, I would like to study archaeology,” says the immigration official ruefully, casting an eye over my unopened suitcase. “Go through. I won’t look at your stuff. Enjoy Zanzibar. Welcome!”


In no other arrivals section of an airport in the world have I experienced such friendliness as in Zanzibar.


“The past is never dead, it’s not even past,” says the sign hanging above the Zanzibar National Archives. Never a truer word, in the case of Zanzibar; the place is heavy with history. It was the home of Tippu Tib – the 19th-century trader, slaver and clove plantation owner – and, legendarily, of Scheherazade. Rimbaud wandered the souk streets of Zanzibar’s capital, Stone Town, looking for inspiration. The explorers Livingstone, Speke and Burton all used Zanzibar as a springboard for their travels.
“Earth, sea and sky, all seem wrapped in a soft and sensuous repose,” wrote Burton. “We distinctly felt a heavy spicy perfume and the sensorium was not the less pleasantly affected after a hard briny diet of NE trade.”


These days, flights arrive daily from all over Europe. However, Stone Town is best viewed from the new Chinese speedboat from mainland Tanzania, 22 miles away. A two-hour ride from the dusty fury of Dar es Salaam, its skyline is dominated by the grand colonial architecture of The House of Wonders museum: the old British Customs and Immigration and, at four storeys high, the tallest building on the islands. Suddenly, you are in the land of bullock carts, sharks atop bicycles, and sugar-cane vendors squeezing out juice on mangles. It is a country where hustlers, beach boys and women with heavily kohl’d eyes peering from behind burkhas remind one that behind the ubiquitous visual beauty of the island (albeit marred by some of the more hideous new hotels) is a fusion of Arab, African, Indian, Shirazi and colonial.


Zanzibar simultaneously silences and thrives on its chequered past. It is many things, all quirky smoke and mirrors: not a single island, as many imagine, but an archipelago of dozens off the east coast of Africa; part of Tanzania, yet autonomous; a land constantly squabbled over by missionaries, abolitionists, unscrupulous traders, local leaders and invaders; a UNESCO World Heritage site yet a haphazardly growing tourist destination.


The architecture is an obvious draw. Huge, brass-studded, crafted mahogany doors in the capital – the exotic equivalent of Persian merchant bling – are evidence of the 17th- and 18th-century boom when Bohran Shi’a traders from Persia and the Arab states thrived on the trade in cloves, coconuts, slavery and piracy. These days, hoteliers, telecom companies, investors, wannabes, misfits and smart tourists alike are waking up to the potential of such bounty.

Zanzibar is not yet wholly established as a holiday spot. Despite the 87 new hotel licences issued for 2010, and the industry’s chaotic growth in the past 15 years (from two or three hotels in 1993 to 150 in 2005 and almost 300 now), most development has taken place around the 60-mile by 20-mile Zanzibar Island. It is still possible, though, to find genuine isolation in the remote outlying islands of Mafia and Pemba. Now is the time to go, to see it all before big hotels and resorts change the place drastically – which they will if, as expected, they follow the lead of the Maldives and the Seychelles.

Dhows, jihazis and ngalawas (all boats made from mango or mahogany wood), modelled on the same design as their ancient Indian and Arabian predecessors, bob in the surrounding waters. The sea is still Zanzibar’s main resource. Fishermen scooping up octopus, changu, tuna, dorado, kingfish and barracuda can be seen at Malindi, a 400-year-old fish market reminiscent of Shakespearean Britain, all yells and sewage. Near Khazini are the boat builders. Stripped to the waist, still working with hand-driven drills, chisels and rustic mallets, they practise the same techniques as their forefathers.

Frustratingly, though, it can be difficult to access decent background information about the history of Zanzibar. The bloody but fascinating revolution of 1964, for instance, led by a vision-fuelled drifter, John Okello, is covered by the guides of only one local travel company: Serene Tours. Yes, it was a horrific stain on history, with the Sultan overthrown and killed; but the reshuffling of the Arab, Indian and African hierarchies – the hand of the British Empire yet again, endlessly stratifying different races and according them different economic and voting privileges – gives many clues to the current political and social issues surrounding Zanzibar. For example, the elaborate kangas (pieces of printed material) and colourful kanzus (Arab dresses) worn by Zanzibar’s African women are a direct throwback to slavery. Previously, Africans were allowed to buy only “merikani” (white sailcloth, made from the kind of American cotton used for sails, hence the Swahilisation of the name). After the decline of the slave trade, then the revolution, wearing flamboyant clothes became a sign of both wealth and freedom. Indeed, in the 1940s, Zanzibar was known as “the metropolis of East Africa”.

Slavery and piracy are generally hushed over by those who live here, like a rheumatic crazy aunt living in the attic. One of the few people who does talk knowledgeably about these and other elements of Zanzibar’s cultural history is historian and guide Farid Hamid, the son of a respected iman on the island.

“We welcome tourists both for the revenue they generate and the interchange of ideas,” he says. “We do, however, need actively to preserve and maintain our culture – both the buildings and the musical and oral elements.”

Slavery, however, is not commodified here in the same way as it is in, say, Senegal or Ghana. Zanzibar has the uncomfortable honour of having actively ignored the abolition edict of 1873, despite Livingstone haranguing the British government and the Omani rulers, who profited enormously from Zanzibar’s geographic position and the isolation and inefficiency of the British Protectorate. The Mangapwani Slave Caves, the Anglican cathedral and the slave market of Stone Town saw huge numbers of slaves: captured both by local African leaders delivering enemies from battle, and by Arab traders.

Farid takes me on a tour. There isn’t much he doesn’t know about mgangas (witch doctors), shitanis (evil spirits) and the role of Scheherazade and Taraab (the local music). He is a trove of (sometimes hastily gabbled) knowledge. According to him, most of the mosques on the island (allegedly 57 in Stone Town alone) were built by women. With disarming, guileless enthusiasm he tells me about kidumbak and kongwes: the strictly all-women dances taught to young brides before marriage, and the mentors in all things sexual for these girls. As we pass Forodhani gardens’ food market at night – bristling with Zanzibaris flaunting and flirting – he tells me that for a short while, when ruled by the British, Zanzibar was the home of rather febrile British civil servants, all keen to leave their peculiar mark. They spent much time cataloguing people obsessively, “educating” local women by discouraging breastfeeding, and producing intricate, dull films about mosquitoes. The Anglo-Zanzibar war of 1896 – the shortest in history, lasting all of 38 minutes – was perhaps a continuation of this daft behaviour. Today the only reminders are the cannon sitting sedately outside the House of Wonders. Inside is a small exhibit about the role of dhows in Zanzibar history. Sadly, but not unexpect-edly, the fabled lift – the first in Africa! – no longer works.

There is, however, no dearth of information about the marine and biological life of Zanzibar Island, Pemba and Mafia. There are tracts of tropical forest such as Jozani on Zanzibar, with its red colobus monkeys, and three marine parks. The underwater ecosystem of the Indian Ocean is unique, and despite various issues (fish dynamiting, overfishing, damage by trawl nets and a chaotic sewage disposal system), the marine parks around Mafia and Pemba in particular are spectacular: genuine tropical finds. They are also well off the beaten track, with the result that only a handful of tourists visit each year.

For the effort of getting there, visitors are rewarded with local people who stop to practise English, or to offer you local tea, brewed with cinnamon, cloves and ginger. There are knowledgeable local guides and dive masters. And it is on these remote islands that you can really get away from it all. Most of the best white-sand beaches in the archipelago are on the east coast of Zanzibar Island (the west-coast beaches are gold rather than white) – but Manta Resort in Pemba, for instance, provides Bounty-ad beaches, butlers, delicious food and world-class diving.

On smaller Mafia, where Ann and Jean De Villiers of Chole Mjini Lodge run the Whale Shark Conservation Society, the abundant coral and huge diversity of fish, turtles, stingrays and manta rays testify to the success of its marine park – and to the determination of Australian Greg Edwards, who stopped dynamite fishing in the area.

Since the De Villiers began in 1993, they have built up a genuine eco-lodge project, supporting a feudally poor local community as well as offering tree-house guest rooms in 2,000-year-old baobabs. The beach is nothing special, but the lodge – its properties dotted among the ruins of remnants of German, British and Omani occupation – is a delight for birdwatchers, historians, marine ecologists, scuba divers and snorkellers. Indeed, it is perfect for anyone just wanting to be close to village life, away from the hassle of the Zanzibar mainland. The past is, indeed, never dead.

When to go 

June-October and January-February are best: the dry season. Avoid March-May: the rainy season. Zanzibar’s open-air Film Festival runs from July 10-18.

Staying there

In Stone Town, 236 Hurumzi (www.236hurumzi.com), from £81 per night or Beyt al Chai (www.stonetowninn.com), from £150. On Zanzibar’s north coast, Matemwe Beach (www.matemwebeach.com) has 15 lodges; £345 per night, all-inclusive. In a class of its own is Mnemba Island Lodge (www.mnemba.com); £1,425 all-inclusive. Off Mafia, paraffin-lit Chole Mjini Lodge (email 2chole@gmail.com) has seven tree-houses; from £170. On Pemba, Manta Resort (www.mantaresort.com) has 17 rooms; from £216 .

What to read 

Zanzibar (Bradt, £14.99).

Time difference 

GMT +3.

Tourist office


theartsdesk at the Busara Festival: Africa’s long song of defiance

Zanzibar’s annual music festival offers an uplifting platform to Africa’s disaffected voices

The hotel reverberates with the sounds of women: a half-open door reveals Sudanese women covered in henna, singing while doing each other’s hair. Da’Affallah, the leader of the Sudanese group Camirata (pictured below) and director of The Music and Arts Academy in Khartoum laughs: “We never ever stop singing!” he says. “Music in Sudan is absolutely everywhere, and has been for many, many centuries. Music is life in Sudan, from birth to death. When the woman makes tea or coffee in the morning she has a special song [he starts singing]. She has a song and she grinds out the pestle in time as she grinds coffee. Then we have special “albaramka” for tea, this is a group song, using our voices.” It sounds like Mongolian throat singing. “If we have problems in the community, we bring together everyone to solve the problem, we consult the elders, we talk, we sing, we talk more!”

In his elegant embroidered long tunic and Islamic ‘kufia’ (skull cap) Da’Affallah is emphatic that it is not only the content of the music that is important, it is the ritual of performing it that is vital. “In the West you are obsessed with the problems of Sudan. In fact it’s like at the market: one stall is having a problem, that doesn’t mean the whole market is destroyed! In our group we have people from the North, The Nuba, and the South. The fact we sing together is showing people there is a huge amount more to Sudan than just war, Darfur, and death. A musician must be the leader of the community. We are the social critic. The real musician does not go out to nightclubs, but he leads the community to the right way. This means peace, unity, understanding, communication. We must reflect the reality. This chance to play to international audiences is a real chance for us.”

Although museums such as ILAM at Rhodes University, South Africa, have been assiduous in their efforts to chronicle oral music and its role in Africa, there are huge gaps. Says Freddy Massamba, drumming out the point on the floor: “Franklin Boukaka, an artist in Congo who is locally very well known, is unknown in Europe or the rest of Africa. He sang in the Sixties. His song was a revolutionary classic: ‘Some people who eat only meat, compared to those who only can afford vegetables.’ He was saying: ‘Me, I would love to eat meat, it’s a luxury!’ He was asking us to look at the basic differences between us as people – some of us can only eat vegetables and can’t afford meat. Meat is also a reference to rights, to justice, to freedom. Because of this song he was murdered, back in the Sixties.” Manu Chao re-released this song in the Eighties, but it’s still relatively unknown. In the markets of East Africa you can still see the stark contrast, between those who can afford to buy meat and those who stick to maize, spinach and beans.
The tradition of using similes, metaphors or allusions to address problems is as old as the earth. Says Hanitra, the Madagascan singer/songwriter (pictured right), “You can’t say anything directly. We specialise in being indirect, we sing in riddles. For example, when I sing about flowers not being able to bloom, I am referring to the Malagasy citizens, how we are not being allowed to flourish.” She elaborates: “I have a song, ‘No Freedom Here’. I am talking about my personal freedom, liberty for all – of life, of existence,  but I am singing in English! This is for the international market. We have demonstrations, but the Malagasy people don’t really say what they want to say, because there’s no structures for change.” Ironically the current president of Madagascar, Raojolena, is a DJ.

Where music has been committed to vinyl, things get a little easier. Bands such as the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band were very popular in Zimbabwe in the Seventies. The singers were working miners, practicing when their shifts had finished. Like Thomas Mapfumo and Lucky Dube, also from Zimbabwe, they borrowed sentiments and beats from their heroes Peter Tosh and Bob Marley, whose “Get Up Stand Up” was a massive pre-independence hit.

Academics Mark Pedelty and Herman Wasserman go so far as to describe these musicians as “the new journalists” in Zimbabwe, where the non-government media is spectacularly weak and the public sphere a vague concept. Yet the markets of Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Kenya rarely stock their records: instead, small corrugated iron lean-tos where pirated CDs or cheap copies are sold are rammed with cassettes.

Rapping Mozambique’s Praises and Faults





MAPUTO, May 27 2013 (IPS) – Mozambique is proud home to not one, but two female rappers who are both qualified lawyers. Yveth “Vauvita” Matunza is striking. She is tall, wearing shoes with enormous stilettos. She has on full make up and a smart, tailored dress suit. She is doing her masters part time while working full time at the Mozambican Human Rights League offices – and rapping on her off time.

Mozambique’s constitution, which is in the process of being revised, is exemplary in many things. It recognises that all citizens have the right to an education, that men and women are equal in all spheres of life, and that all people have the right to freedom of expression and of the press.

But for democracy to be robust, it needs artists and critics, as the late, prominent female musician Lidia Sthembile Udenga Mate, from the all-female band Likute, told IPS in an interview in March, just before her death. “The artists, the musicians are the most important voices in society. We mock, we hold a mirror, we criticise, we are honest, we celebrate… our role is vital,” she had said.

In 2010 the vibrant Mozambican rapper Azagaia directly named corrupt politicians during the bread riots that shook the country after prices of bread soared. He was harassed and arrested for one night before being released. But his case did not go unnoticed by the international media.

There are others, for example, who in their music also name the people involved in corrupt land deals. Like Matunza, it seems they are part of a new breed of savvy young Mozambicans who are openly “globalised”, who are not afraid, and who use social media and publicity, negative or not, to get people to pay attention to the issues galvanising this southern African country.

Matunza says she was obsessed with music as a kid.  “And later issues of justice dominated. I was never even aware that there was a conflict between working as a lawyer in the day, and an MC and rapper at weekends. I am 100 percent Mozambican and proud – critical of our failures, proud of our successes, and I know I can reach the public.

“I rap about things that affect us, men who don’t stick around to look after their kids, human rights abuses and our leaders… I am indirect, I talk in riddles, my concerts are a complete sell out, and, yes, I am famous.”

At only 28 she is focused and sure. Her father, who was a miner in South Africa, brought home the music of Madonna and South African female singers Brenda Fassie and Yvonne Chaka Chaka, which influenced her. “There’s huge domestic violence here – our culture is one of submission for women. I speak from personal experience. I come from a violent family, a violent community.

“What people do and teach and show, is that women must obey their husbands … the number of domestic abuse cases are increasing since September 2009, despite a new act (being passed in) parliament,” she says. In 2009 parliament passed the act on domestic violence, which became operational in March 2010.

She says rap is important to changing attitudes and bringing understanding to the issue. The enthusiasm in Maputo is palpable. Paulo Chibanga, a music producer and musician who performed in bands, including the South African 340 mill, and Tumi and the Volume, has returned to Mozambique after 15 years in South Africa.

He is working with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Social Welfare to raise money, through music performances, for nursery schools in the Mozambican province of Gaza. A war baby, born in 1979 – the country’s civil war began in 1977 and ended in 1992 – Chibanga feels his generation is relatively un-encumbered.

“We are connected to our pasts without being dragged back … we have no resentments, we know our heroes, our culture. We are free, we are positive,” he tells IPS.

But, like Matunza and Mate, Chibanga is politicised, clear and determined to work to an African agenda.

“I think the Western world affects Africa drastically, we are forced to listened to Western music. In Mozambique we don’t have our own record labels, or the option to record. I am more interested in exporting Mozambican culture and musicians, through Bushfire (Swaziland’s pan-African and international music festival) and the AZGO music festival here in Mozambique,” Chibanga says.

Chude Mondlane is the daughter of the revolutionary president of the Front for Liberation of Mozambique or FRELIMO, Eduardo Mondlane. She is a musician, a performer and a big personality. Visibly radiant, she laughs and plays her music on a laptop in the five-star Polana hotel, oblivious to the turned heads.

She has also returned to Mozambique after years of international travel and playing with music greats such as Marcus Miller, Roberta Flack and South African pianist and composer, Abdullah Ibrahim. “Here there’s so much opportunity to play all kinds of music, a vortex that has opened up…it’s all happening – the worst of the worst, the best of the best. It’s all mixed up. Creatively, anything is possible.” She is, however, critical of the lack of funding for arts and culture, and the growing dependency on donors and foreign aid.

“We present this face to the donors … We need to be clear about which bits of tradition we want to keep, and which to jettison. Some of our traditions, like female submission, or women being second-class, are actually awful and we need to say this. We can’t only say what donors want.”

Maybe we can all learn from smaller islands?

Brian Nicholson runs the islands’ mandolin, ukulele and guitar shop. Photo: Thembi Mutch.

Europe’s periphories are meant to be in a state of collapse – but not so the Shetland Isles, where Thembi Mutch found a land of open skies, howling storms, historic traditions, and an active, growing community of notable individuals …

“You grow up with no trees, with these incredible horizons, a sense of possibility, this ridiculous sense of freedom, a huge imagination.”

Put down your iphone, blackberry, or ipad. Turn off the speakers. Look at a real person. Make eye contact.

Stop for a moment to imagine what preoccupies them. Even better, throw away superficial diversions. Talk to them. Listen more.

Or, in Shetland dialect, “Da giean haand is aye gittin. Der owre cosh ta be lang freends.” Translation: “The giving hand is a receiving hand, long friendships have room to breathe.”

Ever since Plato, we’ve questioned what makes good communities. What makes us get on with each other? William Golding and George Orwell were not the first to wrestle with the conundrum of isolated communities (think Lord of the FliesAnimal Farm) and how self-rule works in practice.

Like ITV’s Mary Portas, they shone a populist light on the thorny issue – can we rule ourselves? Can we be trusted to our own devices?

Are some of us, perhaps, missing the point?

Thinking that the answers lie in increasing our number of twitter contributions, facebook and whassup contracts, or ‘viral networks’ we’re missing the real money shot by miles, because being sociable involves real time, and real connection with actual bodies.

The Scottish Referendum goes to the heart of this debate. Are we ‘big enough’ to not only include, but to learn from people who have mastered living together in imaginative, creative ways, for a very long time?

Sadly, the English press is disconcertingly obsessed with the financial implications of devolution, what will happen to RBS? To BP?

Worse, we – I write from Jewish, Scottish and Irish ancestry, living in England – brandish threats about being banned from the pound, or the BBC. Being hamstrung by commercialism, nationalism, technology, consumerism, and economics, we are missing the point.

Big skies, open horizons

Ruth Brownlea is an artist living in Shetland, whose paintings of moody seascapes and evocations of Shetland’s unique light, sell internationally. She relocated there from Edinburgh, and recognises that Shetland is rather special:

“It does feel like the edge of the world, we’re closer to all of it: the earth, the sea, the elements … but then there’s also smaller class sizes for our children, over 30 functioning family centres, and a very strong sense of each other. No-one is unknown.” 

Ironically she’s dependent on Facebook for combatting the harsh winter months, and for her commercial profile. Nevertheless, she says “It takes a lot to live here, perhaps because we know we’re in it together, we’re family, we stick together more”. 

These are islanders who’ve been buffeted by weather. Who’ve had to survive with, and via, the sea. Roseanne Watt is a 20 year-old poet who thinks being a child in Shetland is unparalleled:

“The thing is you grow up with no trees, with these incredible horizons, a sense of possibility, this ridiculous sense of freedom, a huge imagination. Crime rates are incredibly low, the main dangers are environmental: go for a walk in a storm is a bad idea.”

Net immigration – and it’s seen as a benefit

Shetland’s list of ‘successes’ is indeed impressive: lowest unemployment rates in Europe, highest standard of living, and Arts funding and state provision in Shetland is the highest per capita.

Mental health and suicide rates are very low, and the few hard drug users on the island are known by name. A whole generation of university educated Shetlanders are returning from UK and Scotland back to Shetland.

Net immigration into Shetland continues, and the University of Highlands and Islands, with its Viking Studies, Nordic Studies and Island Studies graduate courses continue to attract people from literally all over the world.

The Viking heritage

Shetland will get renewed attention this month because of the largest international exhibition ever of Viking Culture opens at the British Museum.

Silke Reeploeg – who co-ordinates a Viking module for the University – says there’s much to be learnt about being international, global minded in the modern management of societies, from these capricious sea-farers:

“The Viking activity was to supplement the Norse household, as farms were getting smaller and smaller through the tenure laws down the generations, some people ended up with low inheritances and tiny farms, so they built a boat and went ‘aViking’ at least once a year. Some settled, and some came back … 

“There’s a big controversy about whether they settle peacefully with the indigenous communities in a friendly or less friendly way. The point remains however they were flexible, resilient, and took the ‘best bits’ of a society – like crafts and art – and were never actually defeated.”

No-one is suggesting that raids or appropriation of land is the way forward with the Scottish referendum. But despite the violent beginnings, paradoxically this history has been the foundation for a modern society that is very good at inclusive peaceful co-existence.

A living community

The numerous imaginative, inter-disciplinary and wacky Shetland community projects are testimony to this: there’s a £4 million modernist (and eco-friendly) guest house cum research station that was built employing astronomers, from recycled boat timbers and old wine bottles.

It houses a telescope, bee monitoring data, and is home to the international scientific community, (who watch butterflies and moths too) as well as holiday makers.

There’s the £14 million arts centre (Mareel) that is a bold architectural statement, and combines a state of the art concert hall with speakers on the port recounting oral histories of fishermen, and rooms for a single mother’s meeting group, and local filmmakers.

There are small scale ecology projects like the trout ladder to help the fish get upstream in flooded rivers, or the memorial forest – no gravestones, just trees.

And the UK’s largest national environmental day ‘Da Voarr Redd Up’ (The big clean up) takes place in Sheltand. Everyone, even nursery school kids, collect rubbish from the beaches (last year over a ton and a half was collected in a day).

The RSPB runs specific projects for the under 12’s, and the Scalloway Primary school kids audited their canteen and waste practices. As the Shetland saying goes, “Dunnae chuck bruck”, or “Don’t throw away rubbish.”

Guerilla knitting

The habitants’ commitment to Shetland may rest on its small size (there are only 23,000 of them,) and its reliance on ecology, archaeology and wildlife for tourist revenues. But perhaps though, the greatest achievements, can’t be numerically quantified, the ‘soft indicators’.

Like the scaffolding in the main street of Lerwick that has mysteriously been ‘knit-bombed’ (covered in Shetland design knitting). Or the pocket-sized Shetland ponies that have had winter blankets thoughtfully knitted for them.

Or Cathy Coull’s courses in textiles, which now attract people from all over the world who want to learn about sustainable weaving, carding, embroidery and dying. Who are fascinated by the supply chains between sheep (on a windy peat-bog hillside) and consumer – in a Parisian boutique.

Before I get carried away with this Polyanna tale of blissful consensus, a caveat note of reality: there are still massive disagreements on Shetland. And ballooning egos, local council meetings can be dominated by the same people who wear too many hats, and are big fishes in small tanks.

A democracy of true individuals

Right at this moment the Shetland Islanders are wrangling hard over wind farms. But perhaps the very fact that the community can contain such robust differences, is its strength?

Democracy and good decision making are underpinned by social relationships, the resilience to handle differences of opinion, and the ability to think creatively – how we relate to our own friends, communities … how we listen, how we observe, and what we do with that information.

Shetland islanders are very good at listening. The lively and populous activities of the story telling and oral history groups, and the healthy music scene are all testimony to this skill. The profusion of poets and painters who live on the island (more per capita than any UK region) is because it’s a very inspiring, democratic place.

Language rooted in soil, rock and sea

The Shetland dialect is an amalgam of Norse, Danish, Lowland Scots and English, each element reflecting a period in the islands’ history dominated by those respective nations.

One of the most obvious reminders of the Norse / Danish influences are place-names that describe in detail key features of the land. Some tell of where to find different food – from seals and seabirds to wild berries, fish and shellfish.

Others explain how the landscape was used for herding, grazing and crops – for example the many ‘punds’, or enclosures, and ‘bools’, or sheltered spots. Or identify different kinds of terrain, from ‘heogs’ (rocky hilltops) to ‘houbs’ (sheltered, shallow bays).

So, since the days when few islanders could read and only the very rich had maps (and those very inaccurate), everyone had to carry several thousand place-names in his or her head, a mental gazetteer that enabled them to take part in a subsistence economy.

Songs for all seasons

The Music too, actively plays a role in edifying the political democratic culture. Brian Nicholson is a session musician, music teacher, and owns the islands vibrant wonderful mandolin, ukulele and guitar shop.

He thinks the music and economy are completely interlinked: when people come in numbers to the Shetlands, the demand for musicans goes up, whether it’s soldiers in the second world war, the whalers, or the herring industry workers. He says:

“I grew up on Yell island, which is North of here. We didn’t get electricity till 1968, we didn’t have TV or anything. So we sang. With paraffin lamps. Oil lamps, gas lamps, some people had generators, but there was a lot of sitting around with the fiddle and the guitar, or listening to the radio. I grew up with music. 

“After we got the power, slowly this diminished, TV came in and there was less time to play music. For years after it came, in a power cut, we would revert back to doing what we did before, playing music.”

Maybe we in England can learn from this? Being part of Scotland is not just an economic issue, it’s about valuing culture, creativity, and social relationships.



Big wealth gap and corruption scar Mozambique

In Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, international hotels are booked to 95% capacity during the week. Photograph: Carlos Litulo for the Guardian Carlos Litulo/Guardian


Parts of the capital reflect the lives of the super-rich, corruption is a big concern, and 55% of people live below the poverty line


Thembi Mutch for IPS, part of the Guardian development network

Saturday 15 June 2013 08.00 BST

Last modified on Friday 20 June 2014 04.20 BST


Lined up along the streets of central Maputo, Mozambique’s capital, are expensive, European-style bars and restaurants with sophisticated names like Cafe Continental, Nautilus, 1908 and Mundos.


And the residential houses and flats in the capital of this southern African nation are a flabbergasting and bewildering array of 1960s modernist and art deco icons, mixed with new-money skyscrapers.


Further away in the new, Chinese-built airport in Maputo, which was completed in February, aftershave lotions sell for $230, and bottles of Dom Pérignon cost $320.


That is three months’ salary for the average worker, who lives on 3,000 metacals ($100) a month.


Faustus Cavelelo is a tuk tuk driver who has worked as a private bodyguard for international investors and as a bouncer. He is now saving to support his young family. “The big investors need bodyguards because yes, they are so rich and they will get robbed. But for the rest of us, it’s completely safe. For me, it’s hard to make money – people are jealous, and selfish, and don’t help each other. I am determined to improve myself. I work 10-hour days, every day, and work out twice a day, just to deal with the stress, the uncertainty.”


No figures exist on the wealth disparity here. Mozambique is a jumble of statistical contradictions. It has one of the highest real GDP growth rates in the world, at 7.5%. Yet it ranks 185th out of 187 countries on the 2013 UN Human Development Index by the UN Development Programme. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, with more than 55% of its 23.9 million people officially living below the poverty line.


In central Maputo the latest Toyota Pradas, Hiluxs and Land Rovers drive down avenues named Julius Nyerere, Ho Chi Minh and Kim Il Sung. These former socialist leaders might be turning in their graves at the wealth disparities to be found here.


But who are these new super-rich? They are government ministers; they are friends and relatives of the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (Frelimo), the ruling party; they are people working with and for the UN; and a handful are oil and gas investors and associated traders.


The international hotels in Maputo are booked to 95% capacity during the week with businesspeople converging here from across the globe: Australia, the US, United Arab Emirates, Norway, Brazil and China. The majority are here for the country’s oil and natural gas – in 2011 Mozambique discovered offshore gas fields.


“It certainly is boom time for the Mozambican economy,” Markus Weimer, a senior analyst at Control Risks, an independent global risk consultancy based in London and Maputo, tells IPS. “The country is performing strongly in a gloomy global context, and GDP growth rates are predicted to be high [above 7%] for the coming years. The question is whether strong GDP growth can satisfy the raised expectations of a large part of Mozambique’s young and growing population.”


Feling Capella, a journalist and poet, echoes these sentiments. “There is a growing divide here: between old and young, between rich and poor. We are the new generation, born in the war. We are educated, we want jobs, but we can’t get them. We live in areas where the roads are awful and there is no public lighting, no sewage system,” he tells IPS.


The Mozambican civil war began in 1977 and ended in 1992. But corruption has become a major issue in the country.


Sebastien Marlier, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit who tracks developments in Mozambique, was quoted in the Economist as saying: “Corruption has become a major concern in Mozambique. A small elite associated with the ruling party and with strong business interests dominates the economy.”


The director of the Mozambique Human Rights League and the national winner of the Secretary’s International Women of Courage Award for 2010, Dr Alice Mabota, is candid about corruption. “People are very angry about corruption,” she tells IPS. “They want the right decisions taken by the right people. Frelimo knows they have a problem. I hope the next generation is able to address these problems. Please, I implore our citizens, go ahead, don’t wait for another person to make change, be that person yourself.”


But something else that is so obviously missing in Maputo are the middle classes. Dentists and doctors here do not own the newest cars and their sunglasses are not international brands such as Gucci or Prada. Analysts say Mozambique is a glaring example that the “trickle down” effect of development capitalism does not work.


Natalie Tenzer Silva runs Dana Tours, the country’s biggest tour company. She thinks the big divide between the country’s rich and poor is “unhealthy”. “We need to cater for the middle market, for mid-range tourists, and we do this by investing in hotels, airports and cheaper travel. At the moment, the big hurdle is the cost of travelling inside Mozambique – it’s so huge, but there’s so much here. Extraordinary beaches, countryside, game parks and a thriving cultural scene.


“We can cater for the existing south and east African market … and stimulate growth in the country, and create a new, mobile, middle class,” she tells IPS.


Weimer agrees. “One factor for the large wealth divide is the high level of poverty on the one hand, as well as a rapidly emerging business class on the other,” he says. “The speed of developments is important as it means that many opportunities bypass ‘normal’ citizens. Another factor is that the business environment is particularly difficult for entrepreneurs and SMEs (small and medium enterprises).”