The Island Called Death

(Today I decided to syndicate Tim Lang’s blog post on our trip last December- the one where we produced the film, Walking in Shadow, because he’s the only one on our team who wrote about our experiences and he’s pretty funny)

DSC_6086 - Version 2.jpgIt was December, 4th. We were leaving on a Kenya Airways flight for another video project. Unfortunately, with a scheduling mishap and the lack of advanced notification, we missed every Christmas party and children’s music concert which were scheduled the week we were gone. When I say we missed every Christmas party, I mean that to the utmost extent because we were going to an island where the no one, except foreigners, celebrated Christmas.

There was a local soccer team sitting behind us, who probably never showered, and one of them took off their shoe and stuck their foot in between the side of the airplane and Ted’s chair. For some reason the people sitting in front of us smelled of old dairy product. The mixture of scent which occurred in our general vicinity could only be given the image of a bucket of cheese, aged in a boy’s high school locker room, then found at the end of the year by an unfortunate custodian. Needless to say, it was a much longer flight in nature than duration. When the plane started to descend, I could still only see water through the window. Then a green mountain came into view, it sloped gracefully into the warm water of the Indian Ocean surrounding it. I saw the airport building fly past the window, and then the other end of the mountain plunging into the water. The ocean filled the window view again and I noticed that we didn’t seem to be slowing down very quickly. I looked past the passengers on the other side only to see the ocean view in that window too. We heard the brakes engage and then felt them engage as we squeaked to a halt. As the plane turned around to taxi back to the airport, I watched the landscape rotate. The end of the runway was in plain view with the rest of the ocean behind a patch of grass and a simple concrete barrier with lot of yellow lines and “caution” signs. We wondered if the pilot may have been cutting it close or if it was standard procedure to almost slam into the end of the runway and sink in the Indian Ocean.

As we emerged from the airplane, the humid heat and intense sun hit us like a wave. The air conditioned bus that took us to immigration was like a cold breeze on a summer day, which considering we were in the Southern hemisphere, it was. We had no trouble with lost luggage since there were only two airport buildings* and it would be a challenge to forget which one the incoming luggage goes. Outside was a lot of local ladies with yellow paint all over their faces sitting beneath a canopy tent. They were supposed to be a greeting party for tourists, but they just sat in the shade instead. We met up with one of the missionaries, whom I have named “John” for his protection, and piled ourselves and equipment into a tiny French designed taxi. We drove the the other end of the small island and ran with all the luggage to catch the ferry which took us to the main island.

The name of the island in the local language literally translates into “The Island of Death”. The local people of the island are all Muslim. Their religion is Islam, but there is also a lot of animism and spirit superstition, which easily blends with traditional muslim beliefs into what is called Folk Islam.


Mens' religious ceremony

They will barter with spirits by performing animal sacrifices on the beach, or buying charms to protect them from curses, which is kind of like paying a con man to stop taking your money. Another interesting part of the culture on the island is that the women own their own houses and can get a divorce whenever they want. The local men can also have multiple wives because they are following the rules of Islam, which means that if a women divorces her husband, he will just leave and go to the house of another one of his wives. Due to the ease and lack of commitment in marriage, there are many divorces on the island. The government on the island is French. The government pours a lot of money into the island to try and make it an attractive tourist area, which includes an abundant quantity of social welfare money to keep the local people from being impoverished. Many people on the island don’t feel the need to work because they can live a moderately comfortable life on only French welfare.

DSC_4885.jpgOne day, we went to film the daily lives of the people with one of the other missionaries. I will call him “Bob” After filming a group of fishermen coming in after their morning catch, we walked to the market and filmed them bargain and sell the fish, then around the town until lunch. We ate with a friend of Bob’s, who is a fisherman. His house was a rusty shack built straight on the beach, we sat outside and waited as his two wives cleaned and cooked the fish he caught.When they placed the bowl on the floor**,

I was expecting generally bland, but filling, food as I had eaten in Kenya, but as I took my first bite it was filled with a collision of flavor and a pleasant texture.


Andy on a dugout outrigger canoe

The next day, the same fisherman took Andy out on his dug-out canoe to film him fishing for the video.Ted and I watched as Andy became a small silhouette in front of a growing overcast of dark clouds. The ocean began to look rougher, and the clouds looked darker. We saw the fisherman frantically rowing toward shore, racing the storm that was closing in on the small vessel. They reached the shore, and we pulled the boat up the beach and took cover under a large baobab tree just as the storm hit the shoreline in full force. During a lull, we ran with the equipment to the cover of the man’s house. As we waited for the storm to pass, one of the man’s wives brought in a bowl full of green mush and rice, which she promptly set on the floor in front of us.

We looked at each other and then back at the bowl. It looked a bit like the food that I was thinking, “ah, here is the unappetizing green mush that we have been expecting. Those fish yesterday must have been a fluke.” We dived in despite the preconceptions. I was pleasantly surprised as the green mush happened to be laced with shaved pieces of fresh coconut from the island. The mush was also really more of a purée and it complimented the rice.

“Well rice, you certainly make me a filling little dish!”

“Au contraire my green friend! You are the star of this meal!”

Actually I would have stopped eating them if they talked, but they were quite complementary. I discovered over the weekend that people living on islands who are surrounded by exotic fruits and don’t have a lot to do usually figure out how to make interesting and delicious foods. We ate an abundant amount of fresh tropical fruits*** that we had never heard of before, and enjoyed the local specialty hot sauce that makes any meal into a burning inferno of goodness. The unexpected affluence on the island constantly surprised us when seemingly poor hosts would bring out ice cold Cokes from some hidden mini-fridge in the kitchen. The cold drinks were especially appreciated considering the island was so hot that Andy, Ted, and I would already be sweating through our shirts before breakfast was even served.


Andy filming interview at mosque

On Friday, a man named “Baba N” invited us to film a mosque during prayers. We had scouted the location and talked to the Imam**** before coming, but when we arrived, we learned that one man inside did not want us to film. As Baba N said, “It only takes a little bit of gasoline to ruin a whole bag of rice.”

The next day, we walked around a different town and asked around to see if any of the mosques would let us film. After another failed attempt, one mosque gave us permission to film. They only wanted us to take our shoes off and wash the dirt off our feet before we entered. We obliged and then I stepped over the threshold. It was the first time I had ever been in a mosque.

DSC_5243.jpgThey began the Salaat, or Muslim prayer, and I pressed the record button on the camera. While standing in a line they began the motions. They silently muttered the same words. The Imam would make a wail-like sound, then they would change their position. They repeated the process until they were done. The men in the mosque invited us back the next day to film during Eid, the Muslim holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan. When we returned, the mosque had men and boys all dressed up wearing Kofi (prayer caps), DSC_6164.jpgrobes, and headscarves. The room was filled with men of all ages. As they prepared to begin by getting in rows, one of the mosque leaders gave us some loaner Kofi to wear. Ted was eating up every second of it by taking pictures, and then cracked a joke about how he now had a complete case of photographic evidence that I had converted to Islam. The men began the prayers, doing it the same way they always do it, five times a day, 365 days a year. There were old men with callouses on their foreheads from kneeling with their heads on the carpet so many times. It is a source of pride for them, they see it as their proof to Allah that they have been a good Muslim and have prayed each day.

When I stood in the back of the room for one shot, I heard the women of the mosque behind a sheet that was fastened to keep them secluded since they were forbidden to participate in the main room.

After the prayer cycles were finished, the Imam read from the Qu’ran, although most of the people in the room couldn’t understand Arabic. A few older men stayed afterwards to recite the names of Allah. They put a finger on each of their prayer beads so that they would not forget one of the names. We returned to one of the missionaries’ houses to eat lunch after shooting the men at the mosque, which sounds really bad out of context of a camera.

DSC_5697.jpgThroughout the week, we returned to a very photogenic town, with a large minaret at it’s center. The town was built on a hill that dropped straight into the ocean, so it was a maze of narrow streets and stairways. The roofs were all flat, with construction beams coming out of them so that the people living there could always build another story if they received enough money. We asked one family if we could set up on their roof and take a time lapse of the sun setting behind the mosque, they agreed, and even let us return a few times to try and catch the most dramatic sunset.

DSC_5260.jpgIn the video we produced from the trip we used a theme of feet. Feet are considered dirty and and despicable in Islam because the influence of middle eastern cultures. The detest of feet dates back to before the 1st century, and continues today in places, such as Africa, where people still walk through sewage and dirt in sandals or bare feet. When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples like a slave, it had considerably more cultural value, than what most westerners can identify with these days.

After he sharpened his panga (machete), we went with the farmer named “Baba Z” to his shamba (farm). On the way, an old man stopped us, and started talking to Bob in the local language. I wasn’t paying much attention until suddenly Bob started laughing, and then he turned to me and said that the old man thinks I look young and he wants to know if I am going to marry a local girl because he has a daughter. Then the rest of us started laughing. I don’t remember if I actually said it, or if I was just thinking it but, “Tell him sorry, but I don’t own any cows.”, definitely crossed my mind. Men offering their daughters in marriage actually happened a few times that week. I guess I must have looked qualified and available. After discussing more dowry options, the old man gave up and we were on our way.

DSC_5791.jpgWe walked across a beach, then turned off onto an inland path. The scarcely tread path wove into the heavy tropical foliage. The sun glinted through the trees creating a green glow as we followed Baba Z deeper into the jungle. The environment looked like the setting from a pirate movie where they land on an island to search for buried treasure. Lemurs jumped through the trees above us and made snorting sounds. We walked around yellow spider webs with huge “Pee-in-your-eye” spiders waiting for an unsuspecting insect to catch. We stopped to film DSC_5923.jpgone while Baba Z was clearing weeds around his banana trees. Bob even threw it a cricket which it caught with lightening speed and tore off its legs, then started wrapping it up for consumption later. Speaking of food, we ate an abundant amount of fruit during the excursion. By the end of the trip I had probably ate at least 4 or 5 exotic kinds of fruit that I had never even heard of before. We had many that I had eaten before too; such as mango, pineapple, and coconut, but never as fresh. It was the most fresh fruit that one could possible eat, because Baba Z literally cut it off the tree or stalk and then handed it to us. He climbed up a coconut tree using footholds he had cut with his panga. To open the coconuts he cut off the external covering, then cut a small chunk out of the hard shell and let us drink the coconut water inside. When it was empty, he cut it in half and carved the meat out for us to eat.
After a few large pieces, I had enough coconut, so I saved a piece for the lemurs on the way back. We found where the largest family of them was located in the trees above, and Bob started making lemur noises to attract them while I waved the meat around in my hand. DSC_5802.jpgThe only reason I was actually standing under the tree waving a piece of coconut and attempting to make snort like grunting sounds at a family of “arboreal primates” was because we were notified that a few have been known to act like New York City pigeons and eat right in front of humans. Unfortunately, these mammals were too wild. They responded to Bob’s grunting with a round of snorts that echoed through the trees overhead. I put the piece of coconut on top of a thick cut off bamboo trunk, then moved back to see if they would take the bait. Bob doubled his efforts of mimicking their sounds which only seemed to rile them up more. I was looking up into the trees where the lemurs where jumping around, when I saw something fall from above. My lightening quick reflexes kicked in and turned away at the last second. Something gooey and wet hit my shoulders. I looked at Andy who had been filming the whole event.

“Andy, did I just get just get urinated on?” I asked.
He checked my back.
“No Tim. That looks pretty solid!” He replied, then wiped if off with a stick and a leaf.
Everyone started laughing.
“Tim, the good news is that you are officially part of a minority group. How many people in the world have been pooped on by lemurs?” Ted joked.
“Yeah, maybe I can apply for affirmative action. I can see it now, ‘Minority Rights for Lemur Dung Attack Victims’. I think it is quite catchy.” I agreed. Then we walked all the way back to town. Back at the house, I changed my clothes and took a cold shower*****.
At the end of the week, saying good bye to the missionary families was hardest for the kids. John’s boys had plenty of fun wrestling around with Andy and I during the week. Bob’s girls had asked me what turned out to be the question of the week, “are you married yet?”, and his youngest girl gave me an embarrassing gift before I left when she found out I wasn’t yet. Bob’s youngest, a 2 year old boy, will be remembered by our team for his unique and unbeatable greeting. Picture a little munchkin running up to you with nothing on but a t-shirt with his eyes as large as possible saying in a high pitched squeal, “Hiiiiiiiiii! wa’doin?”

Before we got on the ferry to take us to the airport, we looked around for souvenirs. Most of the available items were actually imported from Kenya, which made us laugh considering most of the tourists coming to the island would have no idea and buy them at 10 times the cost of what we can buy them for down the street from our houses. I decided that most of what I was bringing away from the trip was the memories and experiences from the different culture. So I settled for a small wood carving of a small brown animal, tail upturned, known as a lemur. I can be very sentimental at times.

Soon enough we were in an air conditioned airplane watching the small green island disappear into the surrounding blue landscape. A rich man and his wife were sitting next to me for the first leg of the trip. I think they must have been used to first class, or at least that is how they acted, especially when Ted leaned his chair slightly back and they began to complain between the two of them. I just laughed to myself because they were taking up all of personal room by sitting cowboy style and commandeering the arm rests. After 2 minutes into the flight, I put myself to sleep to escape their constant complaining. I woke up before we landed on a different island for refueling. There was a note on my lap that read, “wake up!”, I looked to the seats in front of me where I was greeted by the grinning faces of Ted and Andy. On the way back to Nairobi, the Kenyan Airways flight attendant came down the row and asked me if I wanted fish or beef. I was excited about returning to Kenya, so I responded in my most animated and spunk filled Kiswalhili I could muster, “Nyama Choma!” Which resulted in Ted saying, “Nice!”, from the seat in front of me, and caught the attendant smiling for the rest of the flight back. It made me feel better to brighten her day, especially since I was headed back to celebrate my first Christmas away from my biological family.

*The two buildings were called “departures” and “arrivals”.
**It is part of the culture to eat and cook out of dishes on the floor.
***The fruits we ate on the trip included: Custard apple fruit, jack fruit, papaya, mango (ripe and unripe), banana (fresh and fried both green and sweet), litchi, bread fruit, pineapple, lemon (a local kind that tasted like candy), and orange.
****An Imam is the leader of a mosque
*****They didn’t actually have any hot water because no one wants to have a heater since the island is so hot.

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