Monday, 23 January 2012


Posing on the Pongwe whale
Just over a week ago (on Sunday 15th January) I went to stay at Pongwe on the east coast of Zanzibar (Unguja island) for the second time in three months. The tide wasn't in until the late afternoon, and not long after I'd had a quick swim -- or rather a float in the shallows -- I was told that there was a dolphin in the water just along from the beach bar that I'd repaired to. I grabbed my camera and walked down to the beach where a number of villagers had already gathered. The consensus of opinion was that the dead animal being drawn towards the shore was a small whale; when it had first been spotted in the bay local fishermen thought that it was a floating log. I began taking photographs of it from a distance as a group of youths posed with it for the cameras on their mobile phones. When it was close to the shore a number of children waded into to take a closer look, and they were only momentarily repelled when it was cut open and the stench of its guts filled the air (putting the pong into Pongwe, as one friend has suggested). A young man on the beach told me that its blubber would be used to caulk their boats. As the light faded so did the usefulness of my relatively simple camera, and I asked a Russian tourist if I could later have copies of his superior shots, including close-ups of the whale's dismemberment.

Spectators on the beach at Pongwe
The next day there was nothing of the whale left on the beach. Its identification as a small whale (nyangumi mdogo) was confirmed by hotel staff: it definitely wasn't a dolphin (pomboo), but was more like a nyamrani. The only examples of this name I can find define it as a kind of shark, in one case the much-feared Tiger Shark, Galeocerdo cuvier. My Unguja dialect-speaking better half recognises nyamrani as a colloquial term used to describe an unmarried man, leaving it open whether the analogy being made is with a shark or a small (and by implication immature) whale. The creature that we actually saw in the bay at Pongwe was most likely a Short-finned Pilot Whale, Globicephala macrorhynchus, a pan-tropical cetacean that is usually seen travelling in pods. It's a member of the family Delphinidae, the oceanic dolphins, and in that respect it's initial description as a dolphin wasn't that far out.

Whale vertebra from Matemwe at Santa Maria Coral Park
Pakenham's checklist of The Mammals of Zanzibar and Pemba Islands (1984) includes an old black and white photograph (facing page 60) of a mass stranding in Zanzibar harbour; and although "Pax" himself seems to have been unsure of their identification, these look quite like the Pongwe specimen. On the beach I was told that the last beaching of a small whale in Pongwe bay had occurred two or three years ago. The hotel bar is decorated with vertebrae from a much larger whale, stranded at Matemwe in 1994 or thereabouts, and purchased much later by the hotel's owner. In the natural history section of the Zanzibar Museum there's a photograph of a 61 foot whale washed up at Chake Chake in Pemba in 1932. Following a similar stranding at Mkumbuu in the early 1990s fisherman came from far and wide to take home pieces of the large whale, which in this case was described as a chongowe -- another name that is variously identified in the literature (this incident is described in Popobawa narratives, cf. Walsh 2009: 27).

Watching the whale's disembowelling
The Pongwe whale wasn't considered edible because it had died perhaps two or three days before it was found. But, as already noted, it would provide oil for caulking boats, known as sifa, a term apparently deriving from the Portuguese term for similar preparations (cifa, cf. Johnson 1939: 429, where the Swahili product is described as shark oil). Our barman, a man from Uroa, also suggested that its blubber might be used medicinally, whale fat being a favourite in local concoctions used to treat pumu, asthma. On Pemba my research assistant Jamila wrote that people thought that whale fat was a good medicine for mishipa, blood vessels and other internal organs and the pain associated with them; for example just two or three drops might be stirred into porridge and given to someone as a cure for the pain caused by a hernia. I should have taken the time to find out exactly what had happened to the blubber and other parts of the Pongwe whale, if they hadn't just been left to wash back out to see. But my thoughts were with other research, and I didn't pursue these questions any further. I did, however, get the much better photos and video clips that my Russian friend, Yaroslav Alexandrov, had taken, and some of his images are shown at the end of this post.

Many thanks to Helle Goldman and through her, Kit Kovacs, at the Norwegian Polar Institute for help with the identification of the Pongwe whale; to Juma Ali Salehe and others at Santa Maria Coral Park for their good company and local knowledge; and to Yaroslav Alexandrov for his generosity in sharing his excellent photographs and video clips, which I've edited and downsized for posting on this blog.


Johnson, Frederick (ed.) 1939. A Standard Swahili-English Dictionary. London: Oxford University Press.

Pakenham, R. H. W. 1984. The Mammals of Zanzibar and Pemba Islands. Harpenden: privately printed.

Richmond, Matthew D. (ed.) 2002. A Field Guide to the Seashores of Eastern Africa and the Western Indian Ocean Islands (2nd edition). Sida/SAREC -- UDSM.

Walsh, Martin 2009. The politicisation of Popobawa: changing explanations of a collective panic in Zanzibar. Journal of Humanities (Dodoma) 1 (1): 23-33.

The pilot whale in Pongwe bay (photo by Yarolsav Alexandrov)
Men and women inspecting the dead pilot whale (photo by Yaroslav Alexandrov)
Cutting the whale open (photo by Yarolsav Alexandrov)
The whale's intestines spilling into the sea (photo by Yaroslav Alexandrov)

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