Foto & Docu: A garden in the ocean – Seaweed Center Paje

The fruits of the gardens are hid in the shallow turquoise saltwater of high tide. The fields of seaweed are covered by the protective wadeable waters at one of Zanzibar´s most beautiful beaches under the african skies. During low tide, groups of Zanzibar´s women clad in blue Kangas wade through the dried up ocean to their fields of seaweed lying within the coral coloured tidal flat of the Indian ocean.

Seegras-Farm des Seaweed-Center Paje, Sansibar

I meet some of the women maintaining the seaweed farm at the Seaweed Center in the village of Paje. Cheerfully, Aisha is meeting me at the reception. She happily shares information on the Seaweed Center. The  project provides a sustainable job to a few women and even some man. Whilst talking, she massages my hands with a fragrant scrub. A pleasant respite for my suntanned skin! Afterwards, she proudly guides me around the cosmetics manufactory and allows me to peek behind the curtains of the soap-kitchen. Here are soaps, body ointments and scrubs made by hand. And she guides me through the cooling chamber – the first air-conditioned place I´ve been to after three weeks of the islands burning heat! Thereby Aisha tells me about the history of seaweed farming in Zanzibar as well as the products made from seaweed.

Once thought of as an anchor of economic security, the seaweed was first cultivated in Zanzibar in the 80´s. More than 20.000 people are living off the farming. At first, the concept of drying the green gold and exporting it for the Asian food and cosmetics industries works out well. When the gardens of the islands sea were leaving a larger profit, entire families were working on seaweed farms. But the initially successful economic „aid work projects“ are now forced into the dictatorship of traders paying dumping wages. As it is so often, the physically exhausting work is mostly performed by women. Even the projects at the Seaweed Center are mainly run by women. Due to the price-fixing in international trade, it is difficult to increase the wages of local producers and their families. But  that would be necessary given the increased cost of living on the island. Therefore the Seaweed Center of Paje is trying to implement new methods in order to generate a greater income for the employers and villagers.

Charmingly, Aisha gesticulates with her hands, which are artistically painted with henna tattoos. It is a traditional decoration of the Arabic-African island culture as Orient and Africa converge on this island. She explains that the women´s self-sustainable organization is part of the project‘s philosophy. The results are instantly recognizable. The woman radiate a different kind of self-confidence and a greater ‘chattiness‘ compared to the lethargy of the surrounding heat-stricken villages.

The centre was initiated and founded by the Swedish Rylander Foundation, whose ‘social entrepreneurs‘ developed a sustainable concept to guarantee the employees a wage independent of the trade market.

On an unusually misty day, I am taken to the dried up low-tide by two young and proud women. They track leads alongside the village‘s beach. For many tourists coming here for a guided tour, walking through a village is a novelty. Only a few visitors go away from the beaten tourist-tracks like the extraordinary beaches or the islands national park. The poor-looking huts trees covered with roofs of corrugated iron seem too meager and run down. But who dares wins. In the village one is quickly surrounded by the laughter of playing kids, or you can learn the Bao-game, one of Africa´s favourite board-games in one of the local bars.

As we arrive by the sea, a small group of women is planting some seaweed in the mudflat. The ladies are plunging spiky pickets into the smooth sand. Small bunches of grass are tied to the pickets with nylon cord. Once in a while a kiter hurts himself streaking the pickets at Zanzibar´s most popular beach. The seaweed is growing in ideal conditions in the lukewarm waters in the mudflat. Everyone knows about the agriculture of seaweed is right from the cradle. The extraordinary features at the Seaweed Center are the additional possibilities offered to the employees.  It is part of the apprenticeship to be taught in different languages. Mohamed just gave me a perfect introduction across the fields of seaweed in English. And now he is standing next to me talking to a French group. Italian would work, too. Here, languages hold the key to the world.

The education boosts the self-confidence of the otherwise rather shy and reserved Zanzibari. The ‘sisters‘ working on the plantation farms shoo away any photographer who dares to take romanticized photos of them working hard.  It is a matter not many tourists seem to think about. The women are taught about the great value of their work and the project. To take a photo, one has to book a guided tour or else leave without a photo. And the guided tour is well worth it. Afterwards, you know everything about the cultivation and positive side effects of seaweed products.

After the detour across the oceans gardens we return to manufactory at the Seaweed-Center. I am offered a delicious seaweed smoothie and when Aisha reveals that it is my birthday the group spontaneously join in to sing a Zanzibari ,Happy Birthday‘ – „Cutta cakey to you“ meaning ,cut the cake‘. It is a frolicking atmosphere in this soap kitchen. Here I meet some of the women again I saw at the plantation earlier in the morning. They are village women of all generations, with and without their families, single parents or married. First and foremost, there is Miriam, the product manager. Miriam explains, how the dried seaweed is processed while the others are making soap with delicious oils and spices. Soon, they would like to start selling their different sorts of fragrant soaps, scrubs and body ointments based on seaweed and coconut oils to hotels. In preparation for their commercial endeavour, they are currently developing a new product design. They all convey to be professionals. One can easily recognize the women´s pride on their work and their products. To all intents and purposes, the seaweed centre in Paje is much more  than an ordinary seaweed farm. In all respects it is an inconspicuous, self-governed project of developmental aid,  providing the means of self-sustainability.  Therefore, it is a little economic and social miracle in one of the poorest and most beautiful African islands.