PublishedMon, 5 Jul 2021, 09:00
- European partygoers continue to flock to the Tanzanian archipelago, which has no Covid-19 restrictions despite growing concerns on the mainland over a potent new variant.
Zanzibar has become an unlikely destination for European-run parties in the pandemic despite Tanzania having no test-and-trace system, no vaccine rollout plan and a new variant at large.
Chartered flights from Eastern Europe began to land in Unguja, the largest and most populous island in the Tanzanian archipelago, in October 2020 and have continued throughout the pandemic. In December, the Zurich promoter MusiqTrip teamed up with Ibiza Sonica Radio to livestream events from one of the island's remote sandbanks. MusiqTrip returned in March 2021, this time in partnership with Ibiza superclub Amnesia, to hold a series of day parties, with Dirty Doering, Ricardo Villalobos and Mar-T among the guests. At these events, masks, social distancing and proof of vaccination (and/or a recent negative test result) weren't required.
The Romania-based collective Sunrise also set its sights on Unguja, hosting a one-off edition of its popular minimal house and techno festival Sunwaves in June 2021. The lineup included Villalobos, Marco Carola and Black Coffee, and tickets cost US$214, more than double the country's average monthly income per capita. Resident Advisor reached out to Sunrise but they declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Tanzania is still reeling from the latest wave of Covid-19 deaths. The East African country was one of the last nations in Africa to green light a Covid-19 vaccination program, and currently hosts what scientists are calling the most genetically diverse variant of the virus. The new strain, which is thought to have originated in Tanzania, was discovered in three travellers who flew from Tanzania to Angola in February 2021.
In mid-June 2021, Tanzania asked to join the COVAX global vaccine sharing program and is now waiting to receive its first vaccination batch. The country continues to lag behind its neighbours on nearly every Covid-19-prevention measure.
"If vaccinations were moving at the same speed all over the world then I wouldn't be so reserved about holding all these events," Zanzibar local Zuweina Farah told RA. "But at the moment that's not the case."
It's impossible to know how widespread this new variant actually is in Tanzania, due to the Covid-19 denial that defined the country's response to the pandemic in its early stages. In April 2020, the late president John Magufuli banned the publication of official data on active cases. By June, he had declared the country free of Covid-19 altogether.
Around the same time, Unguja reopened for tourism and travellers were allowed to enter without quarantine. While the government stopped publishing Covid-19 data, Tanzanian citizens kept note.
"December was crazy," Farah said. "We had concerts every other week. And then after three, four weeks, that's when we saw the effects."
"We lost a lot of people," concurred Kathleen Bomani, an artist based between Tanzania and Germany. "At the height of these raves Zanzibar was struggling."
Videos of passengers arriving at the local airport riled Zanzibaris who circulated the footage on social media and private messaging groups. "One of the things that us locals were very annoyed about was the fact that people were just coming in and there was no public test," Farah explained. A hygiene audit of the airport in January revealed footage of packed, maskless crowds in a building with few distancing measures. The terminal was awarded the lowest possible rating.
"Early January, February was so bad," Bomani told RA. "It was funerals left, right and centre. I lost a cousin, he was 29, at the end of January due to Covid-19."
Only funeral announcements on local radio have allowed the population to keep track of deaths. "Usually those announcements take about ten to 15 minutes, and even then the names are repeated three times," Farah explained. But by March, the announcements had increased to 40 minutes. "Towards the end they wouldn't even tell you where the funeral was," she said.
Several Tanzanian politicians and businessmen, including the country's chief secretary John Kijazi, died during this period. Then, on March 17th, 2021, Magufuli became the latest fatality. Officials said the president, who was 61, died from heart complications, but many, including exiled opposition leader Tundu Lissu, believe it was Covid-19. All the while, tourists and DJs continued to flock to Tanzania's favourite island.
Sabira and Manuela, who are from France and Canada respectively, relocated to Zanzibar in 2020. They host the party series Lost Tribe Zanzibar, which launched in January 2021.
"We hadn't been to Zanzibar before but when we arrived, the white sands, the beaches and the vibe and the people is why we stayed," Sabira told RA. The pair, who have held five Lost Tribe Zanzibar events so far, explained the concept behind the parties.
"We really want to keep this mixed culture of an African vibe and a European vibe," Sabira explained. "We really want to have something that is unique." When asked about the entry fee, both admitted that their tickets priced most locals out of their parties. The solution has been to offer entry in exchange for work. "We invite people and in exchange, maybe they work one hour at the bar," Manuela said. "We want their vibe also."
As for safety protocols, Sabira and Manuela said they always have a first-aid kit on site and limit each party's capacity to 120 people. There was no mention of masks, temperature checks or proof of vaccination. The pair were instead keen to emphasise the importance of partying for people's mental health. "It's really important to respect other people's lives regarding Covid-19," Manuela explained, "and it's also a long, long pandemic."
But the pandemic is still rife and the Tanzanian government has only recently begun taking steps toward a Covid-19 policy. In April, the new president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, formed a Covid-19 committee and on May 4th she changed the country's entry requirements, making tests mandatory for incoming travellers. Towards the end of May, the committee advised the government to begin publishing accurate data on the virus and confirmed that Tanzania has been hit by "two major waves" since the pandemic began. It's fearful of a third.
So is it safe to rave in Zanzibar? Bomani is increasingly conflicted. "The question is: how do we all do better in a situation like this? I don't know, it's tough."
Photo credit: Humphrey Muleba