‘Just a whiff of corruption’

Yesterday I had a meeting with the acting director and project coordinator of Zanzibar’s Urban Services project. Director Mohammed Juma’s current task at hand: designing Zanzibar’s first official landfill and waste management site in a quarry in Kibele. Hundreds of unofficial town dumps litter the island, usually a result of a haphazard chain of events where after one person decides a certain nook of their neighborhood is well suited to harboring their heap of open trash, others follow suit.

Zanzibar, for all of it’s surreal beauty, is also an urban island at the end of the day, ill-equipped to handle a rapidly growing population and their trash, amongst other issues. The smell of wet trash, even in Stone Town, is the first scent that greets me when I walk out of our hotel’s giant oak Zanzibari door every morning for a day of reporting.

So, I arrived at Director Juma’s office on Thursday in Stone Town with grand plans for a smelly expedition to the Kibele Landfill. At the end of our interview, after learning about the plan to resettle twenty something Zanzibari’s living within the boundaries of the official landfill, I suggested we make our way to the landfill. Director Juma quietly responded that the trip was an imposition – too big of an ask – and that he wouldn’t be able to take me. He rubbed his eyes and forehead as if my request had caused him physical pain. I left the interview disappointed and frustrated. I had canceled other reporting plans to accommodate our field trip.

On an island where the semi-autonomous government’s grip on information has been described to me by sources as “Soviet-esque” – for example, you’re not even allowed to take photos of the former president’s home and the surrounding neighborhood -– it was all too droll (and vindicating) when I later discovered through a source that actually, the landfill had caught on fire earlier in the day.

“Dear Jackie. I have just been on the phone with the Kibele Site engineer. He says the dump caught fire and the ambient air quality and smoky conditions are not favorable for visitors. They are working to contain it. I recommend that we drop the visit,” my source texted.

It’s unclear why Director Juma could not directly explain that he could not take me to the dump because it was on fire. But as a first-time reporter in Africa, the perhaps naïve realization crystallized: that answers and explanations for even the simplest questions on this island take three to six sources. This enlightening moment came paired with the revelation that after a week of reporting on paradise, this is also a place where government corruption simmers underneath so much of daily life. But that’s a story for later.

A day later, the landfill is still on fire.

– Jackie Alemany