The Stone Worker
I was on one of my early morning walks through the older parts of Stone Town in Zanzibar taking in the sights as I strolled, camera in hand, along the narrow lanes watching the kids on their way to school and a small number of the older folk starting to go about their daily business.
Zanzibar is a tropical island off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa and the days can be very hot and humid. When the monsoon wind blows it brings torrential rain storms adding to the steamy humidity when the sun emerges from the storm clouds. Being an island the weather is quite changeable and brief coastal showers are common all year round. So naturally people here like to start their days early before the heat sets in, hence the activity I found at this early hour of the day as I ambled amongst the narrow lanes stopping to admire the carved wooden doors and take photos as the scene changed around every corner.
The schools here start at seven am and, I believe, finish before lunch time. People will generally take a break during the middle hours of the day when the heat and humidity induce that glorious languid torpor which necessitates a siesta, preferably taken lying down in a spot where the breeze is cooling, the shadows are deep and water fountains shimmer in dappled light. But the curio shops remain open for crazy tourists and they are often used as a cool refuge from the noon day sun. The more successful Shops have one or two fans which are very pleasant to stand in front of.
The oldest parts of Stone Town are several centuries old and the narrow lanes and alleys are lined by contiguous buildings two or three stories high, many of which are a motley colour where the lime-wash plaster has worn away to expose the grey, yellow and white coral stone used in their construction. The whole island rests on a bed of coral and the quarries where the stone is collected to maintain the old buildings are dotted all over the island. Stone Town is on the World Heritage List and the local government has mandated that coral stone must be used for all building in the listed area of the old town (Stone Town) “which is roughly circular and about a mile in diameter.
The walls of the buildings are about a foot thick and the openings for the doors and windows are usually quite narrow or protected by wooden shutters so that the interiors are quite dark and stay cool through the day. The lanes are far too narrow for cars or donkey carts so bicycles and the odd motor bike are the only vehicles you will see. Most people walk and it is fascinating to watch the comings and goings as they stop for a morning coffee, open their shop, fetch and carry and the children file through the door of the local school, chattering all the while.
Through the partially open doors of some of the old dwellings I can see a small part of the floor, the remainder of the interiors being totally obscured in darkness. In a few places, in a corner of the floor, I see small cooking fires being used to prepare breakfast. Hands creep out of the deep shadows to place pieces of wood on the small cooking fires. The sharply angled shadows seemed to sever parts of limbs, leaving brown hands and feet in sharp relief in the narrow shafts of sunlight which penetrate the doorways.
On turning a corner I enter a lane in which some of the buildings have been demolished or simply fallen in place. Remnants of the walls remain showing the small size of the rooms. I can see into the coral rock, the lines, patterns, and tracery of the living organisms which long ago grew this jagged rock which is transformed into smooth walls, literally by the hand of man.
In one of the little ruined courtyards thus formed I came across this man, a stone worker, who was organising lumps of coral rock into piles by size. His work is hard, his body is hard. His sweat runs in rivulets down across his chest, down across his ribs and drops onto the stone he is moving into place within the confines of the room he is rebuilding.
It seemed to me that his body is a living product of his life's work as much as the inanimate structures he builds from the once animate rock. Each muscle, tendon, sinew, each vein and the bone lines are defined in relief under his dark brown skin.
His face immediately crinkles up into a broad smile as he sees me with my camera. I can't help smiling back at him. His eyes light up and he strikes a pose with his thumb to one side. I gesture with my camera, asking his permission to take his photo. He nods and I take a few shots. He refuses the money I offer him in thanks and we nod heads as we part and I continue my walk gladdened by this encounter.
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