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Sailing by Stars


Finally, Shabir gets to Diani, Kenya, at the same cottage, this time alone. He pays for a boat ride. Soon he is with a group of tourists on a 25-foot jahazi, a large wooden boat, for a day trip. They array themselves along a continuous bench, arms clutching the gunwale. Locals from the Digo tribe are the sailors of this fat, slow-moving craft. It is August, and must go south against the rough and blustery south kusini wind. Against such gusts, the sails have to spend the entire day tacking just to get to Chale, a nearby island. Time is short, so the engine must kick in. The sailors swing and swing at the starting-cord. Horrid metallic shrieks, interrupted by anxious fiddling with knobs. For a while, Shabir stares longingly at the sail, pivotable around the boom. Ready to face shifty winds, but wrapped lifelessly now. Shabir wryly announces to a tourist sitting next to him "On the coast, maintenance is a vow made only when something breaks down. Why do I always forget?" For Shabir, as for many driven by forces unknown, hope regularly quells experience, and excitement silences self-reckoning.

Suddenly, the engine starts thud-whacking, the propellor throb-swishing, and the crew return to their stations. The boat begins to edge the reef. Soon they are in the deep lapis swells of the Indian Ocean, facing the strong, balmy wind, savouring cooling spray, swaying in quiet exultation, watching flocks of hungry seabirds that follow them under blue skies strewn with clouds in great pillow-piles.

"Can you please tell us the names of the boats that you use?" Shabir asks one of the sailors in Swahili, with an eye to impressing the tourists.

The sailor, a skinny, large-eyed Digo, readily obliges. Much to the consternation of some of the tourists, dhow here refers to their smallest canoe, a dugout mango trunk, while canoes with outriggers are ngalawa. The biggest boats like the one they are on, are jahazi.

"Can this jahazi get to Zanzibar?" Shabir asks.

"Yes," says the sailor confidently with his hand on the tiller, his eyes on the bow. "How long does it usually take?"
"One day and a night if we start from Shimoni."
"How do you navigate at night?"

"We use the stars," says the black, wiry sailor with bulging eyes. He turns to Shabir, adding with a smile, "stars are much better than your technology," nodding his hook-nose at Shabir's GPS gadget, as he gets bearings with smug ostentation. "There was this European man who went to Zanzibar on his big motorboat using fancy navigation technology. We accompanied him. It was at night. He disappeared from sight, got lost and had to return to Diani. We got to Zanzibar with no trouble. We navigated with the stars."

The Indian Ocean rouses thoughts in Shabir, the engineer who is now reviving his youthful yen for story and science. He wonders at the skills of these men. Their gazes up into the dark give confidence to the tillers who plough waters under dim stars. Skills without charts. How come?

Eyes avidly on stars so far away, stars whose photons took millions of years to arrive. Some photons were from stars that died light-years ago, still providing light to guide wary-eyed sailors. Dead stars whose burst made all life possible. In the immense death-crush of their explosion, stars could fuse heavy elements out of hydrogen, helium and lithium, elements that gave forth land, water and then life. Life that over billions of years, generated eyes that now gaze back to the stars, seeking guidance in the darkness.

The man at the tiller breaks into Shabir's reverie: "Which way is India?"

Shabir turns back to his gadget, resuming the quiet contest between wisdom and technology. He points northeast. "It is about 8,000 kilometres that way." With genuine curiosity, Shabir asks "How long would it take this boat to get there?"

“I don’t know. This jahazi is too small to go that far into the ocean. The water is rough and dangerous."

He stares at the horizon. For centuries, bigger versions of such boats rode the trade winds, plying the edges of the Indian Ocean, taking mangrove poles, slaves and spices, bringing goods, people, ceramics, faith and poetic traditions. Then, Vasco da Gama sailed up, bearing grants of monopoly, written in a fervour of faith, backed by giant guns. Today, how much the massive steamship has changed things, thudding powerfully, piled with containers, indifferently leaving these smaller jahazis to hug the coast of Kenya. Jahazis that carry humbler cargo, with no electronics, directed by eyes that scout the stars, fearless of the night.

The trip ends late that day as the passengers, wind-sated and giddy, clamber into a rubber dinghy. They lurch over breaking waves back onto the sand. Sodden and wistful, Shabir looks back at the boat just in time to catch the sun's setting radiance glistening on the busy heads of the sailors. The sunlight gilds the sails trapped around the mast by the halyardh. Far beyond, the rays lend a sepia glow to the mighty billows of monsoon clouds that, in turn, tinge the entire beach with their dying warmth.

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