How to endear yourself to local spies

Conflict In Context - Field Notes
Baboo cafe, a pretty spot.
Baboo cafe, a pretty spot.

While researching Inside the Zanzibar Attack story for Daily Beast I spent a lot of time in Stone Town at Baboo cafe, near the scene of the attack, where two men on a Vespa threw acid at two 18-year old British girls. The cafe, decorated with Zanzibar beds, pillows, and safari camp chairs, was filled mostly with backpackers and a noticeable amount of Tanzanians who didn’t seem to pop in for a leisurely coffee or bite to eat.

While interviewing the waitress two Nyerere-era wazee (elderly men) dressed in loosely fitted suits sat on a bench to my right glancing over at me every few minutes.

A group of sharply-dressed young men with store-bought Oxford shirts and pressed trousers materialized and practically sat  at my feet. They didn’t order anything and made no effort to conceal that they were eavesdropping on my interview with the waitress.

I knew perfectly well who they were and what they were doing. I lived in Tanzania for eleven years and it is arguably one of the most oppressed countries on the continent, largely a hangover from decades of Socialism.

Most Tanzanians, especially those working in the government are conspiracy-minded, secretive and deeply suspicious of outsiders.

When the waitress left me on my own I began taking notes of our conversation. The presence of these young men grew annoying since they’d clearly listening in on my conversation with the waitress.  One pointed his camera at me to take a photo. I returned the gesture.

Finally, I greeted them gruffly “mambo sema”. More or less translates “what you have to say?”.  What I really meant was what do you want.

“Habari zenu?” I asked surprised I continued in Swahili.


“We are here to visit my sister,” one deeply black-skinned man said pointing to the waitress. These men were not from Zanzibar. They looked like mainland Tanzanians. This man, clearly the leader of the pack, had cocky menace about him. The others grinned at me.

“Are you visiting from outside Zanzibar? I asked.

“We work for the government,” the leader said.

“Ah, so you’re spies,” I said smiling.

They laughed heartily, nervously.

“You are a spy,” they said to me.

“Ha, no. I’m a journalist,” I said. “I can’t be a very good spy, because I am not concealing my intent here as you seem to be.”

More nervous laughter.

“What do you guys do with the government? ”

They weren’t quite sure whether to answer.

“We procure imports at the Zanzibar port.” They went on to explain that most of the imports were Chinese products, mostly phones, radios and such.

“Oh, so you import taka taka (garbage); stuff that breaks after three days,” I said.

They  laughed and shook their heads.  We all agreed that China extracts much precious natural resources from Africa while loading container ships packed with cheap electronic goods to take back to Africa, particularly impoverished countries like Tanzania.

After some more banter, they stood to leave and we shook hands. Seems they decided I was okay.

When confronted with hostile government spies, be sure to disarm them by chatting in Swahili and remember to indulge in some China-bashing, the country a common enemy to many.

I asked the waitress if that man I was talking to was her brother.

“Is that what he said?”

Spies among us.
Spies among us.

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