Gay tête-à-tête in Zanzibar

Name: Richard Ammon

Suraka was a 23 year-old Tanzanian receptionist at the one of the most stylish bungalows in a beach resort in Kendwa village on the west coast of Zanzibar; a place where Freddie Mercury was born. With a ready smile and a soft masculine bearing he received us.

Like many other employees he was laid back, something that I can pinpoint to be one of the quality of Zanzibarians. During my stay I would notice that between arrivals he would sit on a cushioned wooden couch across the reception desk, leg up, barefooted, in well-fitted black jeans and the business t-shirt. On the back is their logo: no bikini, no party.

After checking us in and showing us to our modern and stylish room near the beach along azure water of the Indian Ocean, and after a few settling-in questions and answers, everything was ours to enjoy.

While in Zanzibar, I was very interested to at least dig my feet ankle-deep in the azure water of the experiences of the gay men in the island. In my head I wanted to know how they navigate through the mazes and corridor of this beautiful island with this identity on their backs.

So I did the unthinkable; I call it so because it was ballsy and it could have ended badly. This is what I did. A couple of days after being in the resort I approached Suraka and asked him if he knew of any homosexuals in Zanzibar. His reaction was calm as he pondered for a moment. He said he didn’t know anyone directly but he was aware that there were some homosexuals in Stone Town. He believed that there were some who worked in the various resorts along the Zanzibar’s coast.

I seized the opportunity and asked him a series of questions. Here is the conversation I had with him, un-edited in his command of English.

Richard: What is your opinion of these people?
Suraka: I don’t know why they want to do that. It’s not a good way to be for them, I think.

Richard: If a friend of yours said he were gay would you still be friends with him?
Suraka: I don’t think so. It is strange for them that way. I don’t know why they act to be that way. Maybe the parents did not advise them in a good way. Maybe they are confused and do not have normal friends with girls.

Richard: Would the family reject the gay person?
Suraka: Maybe, or maybe they say nothing or make them be married. I don’t know.

Richard: Do you have a strong bad feeling about gay people?
Suraka: Not strong but yes a feeling, more like feeling sorry for them; they are not right and maybe they need advice to correct their way. But if they are famous and everybody knows then it doesn’t matter. It’s okay and people accept that.

Richard: There are gay people here?
Suraka: Yes, I think so in the tourist areas there are such people who look for sex, for man or woman. We know this and it happens in the tourist sections, like in Mombasa (Kenya). But not so in the small villages away from here. There, it is not good, not allowed to be that way. Local people don’t understand this and will not accept it.

After a pause, Suraka seemed puzzled. He was puzzled either because of his inability to explain better the issue in his country due to his lack of knowledge about homosexuality at least in my view, or a complete opposite; his ability to explain his views to someone like me on such a taboo topic as realistic as he could.

Either way, it was this puzzlement that led him to utter this statement.“I will put my head down and think about this and give you a better opinion later.” Sadly, I didn’t continue the conversation with Suraka as we didn’t meet during my stay in the island.

Looking back, I am not sure if he had ever been asked about homosexuality. My gut feeling tells me that it was his first time. But what surprised me was that he could talk about this topic to the best of his knowledge, especially taking into account that this topic is taboo and anyone probing into it might attract unwanted attention with dire consequences. This is a place where homosexuality is not really addressed in a “don’t ask don’t tell” type of situation.

Although during my one-week time in Zanzibar I didn’t personally experience any behavior that appeared to be gay cruising, I had a very good time. Apart from being extremely refreshed, I left with this experience, which was still very insightful.

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