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Swahili Version of Mafia Island Website

Introduction to Mafia Island

Mafia Island, Tanzania, lies off the mouth of the Rufiji River in Southern Tanzania. It is one of the least developed parts of an undeveloped country, yet it has been, and continues to be, part of important historical processes. Although its spectacular marine life is becoming increasingly well known, especially since the setting up of the Mafia Island Marine Park, little other information is widely available. Using search engines on the worldwide web tends to bring up mainly sites which represent the island as a tourist paradise: some of them also give inaccurate or misleading information.

Mafia's infrastructure is poor: it has electricity only in the district capital and in Utende, the main tourist area. There are few houses which have running water. Travel to the island is either by small aircraft from Dar es Salaam, at a cost which is beyond the reach of most islanders, or by sailing boat to Kisiju, the nearest point on the mainland, and thence by lorry or bus to Dar es Salaam. This journey can be both lengthy, precarious and uncomfortable but it is the one which most islanders are forced to use. The few roads on the island are in poor condition and there is a paucity of vehicles, which means local people rely primarily on bicycles or walking. Each village now has a primary school, the first secondary school was established in 1994, and since then another half dozen have been opened. The Island has a small hospital in the District Capital Kilindoni, and this has been refurbished in recent years.

The vast majority of Mafia's population is extremely poor. The major cash crop, coconuts, has a declining price on both world and local markets (see Economy). The island, like much of the rest of coastal Tanzania, has suffered from drought for the last three years. While fishing has become increasingly important over the last couple of decades, it is restricted in the south of the island within the boundaries of the Marine Park (see Ecology page).

Mafia has no newspapers, bookshops or libraries, and people are primarily dependent upon radio for information about the world beyond the East Coast of Africa. However, modern telecommunications are beginning to be available. A few years ago, the first satellite dishes appeared in a few public places, enabling TV reception. Very recently a mobile telecommunication network has been introduced, although its cost is far beyond the reach of most islanders except a handful of government servants. But in 2004, the first two internet cafes, utilising satellite technology were set up, one in the district capital Kilindoni, and the other in one of the hotels in Utende. This, the beginning of what will probably be an expanding process, opens up new possibilities for at least some local residents not only to communicate by email, but also to use the web as a source of information. It is appropriate that whatever information can be found about their own island should be available to them.

It is my hope that this website will be used by a number of different categories of people:

  • Mafians, especially secondary school students, who want to find out more about their island
  • Government servants engaged in policy and planning for the development of the District
  • Tanzanians who want to know more about a little-known part of their country
  • Aid agencies carrying out projects in the area
  • Local and foreign scholars doing research on Mafia or cognate areas

I would welcome suggestions for additional links to add to this web-site to make it more useful. Future plans include more text in Kiswahili, and a message board enabling discussion about Mafia and the most appropriate way for it to develop. Please email me on p.caplan@gold.ac.uk.

Personal note

I first saw Mafia Island in 1962 as I sailed past it on a small Italian tramp steamer on my way from Kilwa Kisiwani to Mombasa. Three years later, I returned to carry out my first research there for my Ph.D. I have been returning ever since, with the last visit in the summer of 2004. (Please see a list of my publications (PDF - 90K) on the island).

During my visit in 2002, I was asked by a number of people to write something for Mafians and Tanzanians. My original plan was to co-author a book about Mafia with my friend, adopted brother and helper Mikidadi Juma Kichange. Sadly, Mikidadi died unexpectedly shortly after my visit. During my visit in 2004, I decided that a website would be something of use to people on Mafia and discussed it with a number of people there. They were enthusiastic about the idea. I am currently working on a historical biography of Mikidadi Juma.

I am grateful to the Nuffield Foundation, which has supported much of my research, for agreeing to support this website, to Goldsmiths College for hosting it, and to Dan Watson for his work on the site.

Pat Caplan April 2011