I woke up at nine feeling like I’d spent the previous night being battered over the head with blunt instrument to the news that Brexit was actually happening and wasn’t just a joke that had got out of hand. To top it all off, ten hours on the chapa was obviously a bit much for my immune system which was punishing me with a horrible tonsillitisy cold – great timing (will a chest infection with complications of Farage-syndrome qualify for airlifting to the hospital?).
After breakfast, I joined forces with an Irish couple who were staying at my hotel and headed off for a long and meandering tour of the town during which Raul, our guide, revealed in no uncertain terms his distaste for bullying policemen, the lazy Doctor who only sees patients who need airlifting to Pemba because he gets to go in the chopper, and the corrupt bureaucrats who ‘don’t even know when Ibo gained Independence, only how many beers are in the fridge’. He narrated the history of the island in a charmingly personal manner, moving from house to house, and famous inhabitant to famous inhabitant, recounting the rises and falls in their fortunes.
The town is a sprawling ruin of some grandeur, inhabited only by ghosts and the few unfortunates who happened to be left behind when the money evaporated – which, now I come to think of it, sounds rather a lot like dear old Britain in a few years time…
It is Ramadan so the hush was even more sepulchral as we wandered past buildings in various states of dilapidation, many of which had been totally invaded by undergrowth and the frothy magenta sprays of bougainvillea. We disturbed a flock of fruit bats at roost who streamed out of the hole in the roof of one old government building.
The overgrown cemetery connected to the long-forgotten catholic church – apparently, its congregation has diminished to only ten lonely souls – is testament to the extraordinary diversity of European peoples (that’s not to mention all the Omanis, Gujaratis, Chinese etc.) the island has been home to over the years. Graves inscribed in French, Portuguese, English and Dutch are barely visible through the tangle of weeds and there was even a small mango tree growing from one. The ground is obviously nice and fertile.
A little way out of town, along a dust track which runs along the beach, we came to the old, star-shaped fort where the famous silver smiths produce their beautiful jewellery. It is quite something to see them work and create such complex pieces using tools which are rudimentary to say the least.
After passing a house encrusted with cowrie shells, we came to the home of Joao Baptista, Ibo’s answer to Barack Obama (he was the first black man to be employed by the colonial government), where we found the octogenarian tourist attraction sat on his porch in a rocking chair. He beamed toothlessly at us and shook our hands firmly before shuffling back inside.
We wandered back through the sleepy town, followed by a gaggle of inquisitive children who shrieked “Muzungo” (white person) every time we turn round to grin at them. One of the bolder ones gave my hair a tug. Women in bright hijabs with their faces crusted with white misiro paste (a traditional face mask made from a special type of wood) waved shyly at us from shady verandas.
My first full day on this enchanting isle was spent as a tourist wandering around and gawking at ‘the sights’. The main impression I came away with as a warm dusk fell over the island, the sound of the azan echoing through the quiet streets, is that Ibo is an extraordinary place of haunting beauty, where traditional Kimwani life – weaving baskets, drying fish, dancing and song, is played out in the blossoming ruins of an extinct Indian ocean trading empire. It is an island of pleasant and surprising contrasts and I couldn’t wait to experience more of it.