Bagamoyo: Throw down your heart

Throw down your heart is the literal meaning of Bagamoyo in Swahili. Moyo means heart and baga is something like throw it down. Bagamoyo is located on the shores of the Indian Ocean about 70km north of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and famous for its rich history, beachside atmosphere and contemporary arts college.

Fishermen during work

Legend has it, that this was the last glimpse of the African soil slaves would get before being abducted and shipped across the Indian ocean to the Americas, Egypt or some other shores by Swahili slave traders in the 19th century. The name is reflecting the desperation and despair of the ‘broken hearted’ captives. The other side of the slave trade, the Caravan porters, praised the town as “Bwagamoyo”-“to throw off melancholy”, with the feeling that they had reached the end of their long arduous journey from the interior.

5am Women bring in their nets

Bagamoyo was also the starting point for many of the first European “discoverers”, Livingstone, Burton, Stanley and Speke passed here in their quest to solve the mystery of the Nile or other adventures. They departed from the Old Port Kaole, which is advertised today as beautiful ruins where Subsaharan Africa and Islam were meeting.  Intrigued by this story I set off on a sunny morning to encounter the ruins. A 2 hour walk along the beach ended in the thicket of a mangrove forrest. The entire undertaking peaked in a little signboard stating “Kaole Old Port – This ancient port there is no stairs or even a building like what you see in modern descent ports, but for natural vegetation of Mangroves.” – no kidding.

Despite initial disappointment, I can understand what the old explorers must have felt looking for something and rarely reaching their goal. Their journey also didn’t always end as intended.

The most famous of all – Livingstone – has a special relationship with Bagamoyo. His dead body was returned dried out from the sun and missing the heart that had already been buried in Zambia on February 15th, 1874. Rumour has it, that the piece of wood, that carried his remains is now the door of the local museum.

Narrow Street in Old Town

Back in the 19th century the lucrative business opportunities in this coastal town follwing the slave boom attracted Arab and Indian merchants, who settled and with them Bagamoyo became a bustling economic outpost and trading center for ivory, copra, ebony and other natural resources. This in turn attracted the German Kolonialgesellschaft, that made the town their commercial center and administrative capital of German East Africa. This ‘glory’ lasted for about 10 years, until the Germans decided to move the capital to Dar es Salaam as Bagamoyo’s shallow waters were not practical for the incoming large ships.

Bagamoyo also had its share of tumult and conflict. In 1889 it witnessed the Bushiri-Rebellion, which was instigated when the German introduced registration of land and property. Never before had such a registration been demanded from the natives and they feared the Germans wanted to take their land away .

A twist of history has it, that land disputes and resettlement are precisely the reason that brought me to this place more than 120 years later.

A big investor wishes to ‘develop’ the town through a large scale agricultural project with the hope of transforming it once again into an economic hub.

However, Bagamoyo is still withstanding those capitalist dreams and clings to its tranquillity.

Today

Bagamoyo is characterized by its sleepy atmosphere and dominated by a big art school that results in young, pretty, dreadlocked musicians, that meander the beaches during dawn and sing into the waves. Tourists are only rarely seen on the little art market, mostly the artists are among themselves working their wood and tinkering bracelets.

Runners on the beach at dawn

I have been living in Bagamoyo for the past 10 months and came to appreciate its laid-back atmosphere, the fish market, the sign at the entrance of town that invites me to the ‘International Conference of Bagamoyo in September 2002’. I don’t mind anymore, that it took me 4 month to find a shop, that sells old chocolate and skim milk, I learned to accept the fact, that there is no cheese, no raisins, no yogurt and no night life.

Bagamoyo, I did not necessarily throw my heart at you, but I will always appreciate you as a pleasant companion in those past months.

Sunset over the North Side of Town

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5 comments
    • Most definitely, but it is changing quickly so hurry up!

  1. Berit said:

    It is disputed whether Livingstone ever entered Bagamoyo, except after his death when his body was carried there to be shipped home to England.

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