Most of the Swahili words I knew before arriving in Zanzibar were from The Lion King. Simba. Rafiki. Hakuna matata. But there is another word that’s quickly becoming much more relevant as I begin my life on the island. Polepole.
Polepole means ‘slowly’ and there couldn’t be a more apt word for an achievement-driven westerner arriving in this chilled out country. I heard polepole dozens of times in my first week. Waiting for the bus to arrive. Waiting for the shop assistant to return. Waiting for the torrential rain to subside. Polepole isn’t just a word here. It’s a way of life.
I had planned so much of how my arrival would unfold. Touch down with the sun shining. Explore the ancient city of Stone Town. Rent an exotic old apartment steeped in history yet perfect for modern living. Get fit and set up my business. But all of this was planned thousands of miles away in Australia, before I knew how Zanzibar breathed and before I’d learnt polepole.
The overcast sky we descended from should have been a sign. The Airbnb I had booked for the first two weeks was vermin infested and the toilet had been the victim of a lifetime of poor aim. The apartments I looked at renting were either out of my price range or had recently been renovated and featured aluminium windows, air conditioning and nauseating bright green paint. On my first day I heard hellish stories about journalists being chased out by a local filmmaker who was trying to protect his turf. I hadn’t been here a week and I was already questioning my one-way ticket that had looked so damn good when I’d posted it on Facebook a few weeks earlier.
But wasn’t this what I was here for? One of the reasons I was leaving Australia was that life there was so easy. I knew the culture. I spoke the language. I had my mates and could find work. I needed a new challenge in life and, not ready for a mortgage or kid, opted for an ancient city where I could wake up and wander the alleyways down to the ocean for a morning swim. I wanted a foreign culture. I craved a new language. I loved the challenge of creating my dream job in Zanzibar, a word that brought an instant smile to my face. I needed to get out of my comfort zone and see where it took me. But I also didn’t want any mice poo on my bed.
After just two days of looking at apartments, I was unreasonably dejected. Luckily I had some mates visiting and they dragged me to the coast to put things into perspective.
There I started to slow down to Africa time. The days primarily consisted of sleeping, swimming, flying kites and cooking. There was lots of beer drinking and talking. Our daily chores amounted to buying more bananas, getting some vegies for dinner and trying to nab a fresh fish from one of the local fisherman who might or might not walk along the beach selling his catch. There were no open and closing times. There were promises of getting our change in a few days, when the shop owner had smaller notes and coins. And there were people smiling everywhere. Wandering the sleepy village streets showed me the local’s approach to life and made me realise that maybe my western driven ambition and dreams for Zanzibar needed to be put aside momentarily as I undertook a more valuable journey – one of personal discovery.
Africa’s going to teach me something. To slow down. To take time. To absorb and understand. And everything that Africa will teach me will be rooted in in one word: polepole.
Back in Stone Town I found better and better apartments, moving into a humble two bedroom flat with lazy fans, barred windows and mosquito mesh instead of glass. I’ve started doing yoga and have just signed up to a month of intensive Swahili classes. It’s time to jump into Zanzibar. Well, jump polepole. And even though things will probably be hakuna matata, there’s only so long I can get by with my Lion King Swahili.
Anyway, time for class.
Hasta la vista.