The Cool Waves of Coconut FM

September 3, 2013 - Zanzibar, Tanzania

It is impossible to believe that we stepped off the ferry and onto this island just over one week ago. I feel so comfortable here that I might well have graced this island in previous lifetimes. Already, I'm giving directions to tourists, on a first-name basis with the convenience store clerks in our neighborhood, and can participate so flawlessly in the Kiswahili salutatory call-and-response that several people have asked with surprise, "You're speaking the Kiswahili?" No, you just happened to use the three phrases I know, I would reply, if only I actually did speak Kiswahili. Instead, I respond, "Kidogo sana"... Very little.

More likely than my theory of previous lives spent in Zanzibar, it's possible that the reason I feel so at ease here is that Zanzibar reminds me so strongly of my first love, South India. Bite-sized bananas, glass-bottled Cokes,Waiting for the game to start unquenchable soccer fervor, men pissing by the side of the road, paint peeling off old boats and buildings, comically awful English spelling (“penate buton” for peanut butter has been my favorite so far), the smell of sewage and burning trash, unpaid advertisements for Facebook and Nike hand-painted on the backs of overcrowded mini-buses... Like in India, we travel mostly by foot on rough dirt paths, stepping over used condoms and piles of poop, sometimes attracting children along the way like fillings to a magnet--the modern-day Pied Pipers. It's not any one of these things that transport me mentally back to Tamil Nadu, or even the amalgamation of them all, but the feeling I get when I'm here. It's the feeling of being far away from the familiar, but strangely right at home. And the feeling, too, that this place is too immensely beautiful to look away from, but often challenging to meet in the eye. Megan has been patient with me as I continue to start every third sentence with "This reminds me of the time in India when..."

Film still: soccer at sunsetMegan wakes up at the crack of dawn to run through Zanzibar Town. While I'm still wrapping a pillow around my ears to drown out the schoolchildren, feral cats, and call to prayer for a few precious moments of extra sleep, she's hitting the dirt roads and coming home with the best ideas for our documentary.  Last Thursday, she ran past a radio station and came back with a scheme: what if we go to the radio station and pitch the women's soccer story and their upcoming tournament on the mainland, the Copa Coca-Cola Tournament? I was skeptical that they'd be willing to interview the players on the air, but we were already shooting near the radio station later that morning, so I hesitantly agreed to accompany her to the aptly-titled island station, Coconut FM.

Being a Westerner carries a certain amount of clout on this island, but being a Kiswahili-speaking Westerner, especially one as friendly and open as Megan, opens doors that would be behind lock and bolt for anyone else. I've seen Megan track down grilled corn out of season, bargain a statue down to a quarter of the asking price, and convince dignified government officials to give us interviews after initially refusing outright. Coconut FM was no exception. Two minutes into Megan's conversation with Jackson, a spry DJ wearing a t-shirt that made my very uncomfortable ("Mr. Right" with an arrow pointing up, and "Mr. All Night" with an arrow pointing down), he was trying to convince Megan not to flake out on appearing on the sports segment the very next day. She needed no convincing. The conversation ended with a robust series of handshakes with everyone in the studio, and a marriage proposal from Jackson: "Do you want a Tanzanian husband?" "Married," Megan replied. "And her?" he asked, pointing to me. "Married also."

I was still somewhat incredulous that the radio show would actually happen--plans in Africa are postponed, changed, or cancelled almost by default. I've come to find that if a plan is arranged, the plan is the only thing you can count on not happening. I was ready to bet big money that if the radio show happened at all, it would be days, maybe weeks, before we'd hear ourselves on the air. Imagine my surprise when we arrived at soccer practice that afternoon to find Mr. Uncomfortable T-Shirt and his Riziki gets interviewed by Coconut FMcolleague, voice recorders in hand, interviewing the big-wigs on the women's soccer team.  And this, without us even informing the radio crew when and where the practices took place! They interviewed Riziki (the team captain), Megan (my film partner extraordinaire), and a man in a white robe and matching taqiyah (prayer cap) whose role on the team I've never ascertained. The Coconut FM duo promised us that the show would air at 8 p.m., and vanished as quickly as they appeared.

That evening at precisely 8:07 p.m., I was filming with Megan and three soccer girls at the open market, when we be belatedly realized the show had probably already started to air. While Megan rushed from stall to stall trying to find a radio for us to listen to the show, I remembered that my Nokia brick--a $20 Zanzibar special--had an FM radio. (Frankly, between the built-in radio, built-in flashlight, and Snake, I hope to never go back to my American cell again.) I scanned the Kiswahili radio stations until I caught the only EnglishListening to the radio show on Coconut FM words "Copa Coca-Cola Tournament" at which point I passed my neon pink headphones to one of the soccer girls. I contentedly watched the girls take turns with the headphones, grinning ear-to-ear as they listened to their team captain hit the cool waves of Coconut FM... Or as the smooth DJ cooed repeatedly on air, "Co-co-naut Efff Emmmmm."

Megan hits the cool waves of Coconut FMThe next morning, as promised, Megan and star player Didah were in the radio station, live on the air. Megan introduced herself as Kidege, her Zanzibari nickname which translates to "little bird," and conquered the worst part of a stomach flu to give the interview in Kiswahili. Whether the radio station is immensely popular or if people in this soccer-crazed country tune in especially for the sports segment, we'll never know for sure, but it seemed that everyone in Zanzibar was listening to the radio that morning. Now, wherever we go on the island, people approach us, asking, "Are you Kidege? We heard you on the radio!" I feel like I'm traveling with a rock star.


Pictures

Megan hits the cool waves of Coconut FM
Riziki gets interviewed by Coconut FM
Waiting for the game to start
Listening to the radio show on Coconut FM
 
 

4 Comments

kidge:
September 4, 2013
Thanks for putting this week into words!
Dad:
September 4, 2013
At home in any land. What a wonderful adventure.

Kisimati!

Love ya,

Dad
Rick Thomas:
September 4, 2013
Thanks for the update. Enjoyed the pictures!

Uncle Rick
September 17, 2013
Awesome! It's great to read how things are going. I'm totally jealous :)
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