Swahili time

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Adam Rowden shares his experience in the village of Pingwe, in Zanzibar, and how a mutual love of football can override cultural differences and bring people together

My girlfriend and I had been backpacking across Africa for three months, and during that time we stayed in a small beach bungalow in the village of Pingwe, on the Tanzanian island of Unguja, more commonly known as Zanzibar. The village was full of life. The sandy ground sprouted sporadic patches of green shrubbery and looming palm trees. There were chickens and goats roaming freely, and little children were running all around, each one stopping to wave as we passed by. One day, while I went for a walk, I came across a football pitch. I was hoping to find one, so I couldn’t believe my luck that it was a stone’s throw from where we were staying! I was determined to play here at some point.

The next day, I made my way back to the pitch, and this time, as I turned the corner, the pitch was full of local men. Some had footballs and were kicking them around. The atmosphere was relaxed, how it normally is before a friendly game back home in the UK. As I approached, one of the men asked me if I wanted to play and introduced me to some of the guys. Before I knew it, I was in the middle of an 11-a-side game, trying my best to remember everyone’s names. I felt that me being there added a sense of excitement to the game, and I was later informed that tourists never turned up to play football.

The match itself was competitive but it was all in good spirit. Plenty of people crowded around to watch while enjoying the afternoon’s sunshine. I struggled at first to play in the heat, but as time passed I’d found my rhythm. The whole experience was a joy and this was my evening’s entertainment every day for the next three weeks. Each time the sun would set and call a stop to our game, I would thank everyone and wish them a good night (‘Lala salama’). I had been lucky enough to play in Uganda and Rwanda during my travels, so I was ecstatic to be playing yet again in a new country. It was great to be accepted as part of the group. I spoke very little Swahili – and yet here I was, every evening, hanging out with 30 men doing what we all loved.

At the end of the first week, I was asked if I wanted to play for their village team. I was elated. I had always wanted to play for a local team. I was told that the village we were playing in was an hour’s drive away and that we were to meet at nine. To be certain, I asked if we were meeting at nine in the morning, but they, in fact, meant the afternoon. I was confused, but assumed it was merely the language barrier so did not give it another thought. However, as the morning rolled around, no one was to be seen. I arrived back at our bungalow and asked Ameir, a friend we had made on the island, what was meant by nine in the afternoon. He laughed and told me that it was ‘Swahili Time’, where 3pm – nine hours after the sun has risen – is known as ‘nine in the afternoon’!

When we finally arrived at the village later that day we made our way straight to the pitch. There were hundreds of people gathered around to watch, which was a hotly contested affair and not as friendly as the games back in Pingwe. We won the match 3-2, and while I was simply happy to have survived playing in the heat, my teammates were overjoyed that we had won. Each time we passed through a village on our way back to Pingwe, the whole van would shout and scream, banging on the windows to make as much noise as possible. I think everyone in Zanzibar knew that we had won that day.

My girlfriend and I were lucky enough to experience plenty of what Zanzibar had to offer. We ate delicious sea food, relaxed on beautiful beaches, spent time in the magnificent Stone Town of Zanzibar City, and met other backpackers. But the highlight of my time on the island was playing football with the local men every evening. Football allows you to cross language barriers and enables different cultures to mix with ease. Across the continent, I made the effort to join in local games, and in doing so, I was able to spend time with so many interesting and entertaining people, who were incredibly friendly and always welcoming.

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