The Indian Ocean Islands – Mafia

1st March 2013

Mafia is an archipelago of islands at the mouth of the Rufiji river delta, composed of Mafia Island, Jibondo, Juani and Chole. Their position as the most southerly islands on the Tanzanian coast has made them strategically covetable throughout the long game of historical wrangling for rule, but visitors today find essentially rural farming and fishing communities whose day to day lives continue in much the same pattern as has been traditional for millennia. Mafia Island and the surrounding archipelago have a great deal to offer as an unspoilt, little-visited alternative to other Indian Ocean locations around Zanzibar and along the coast, although options for accommodation and sea-faring navigation are all relatively expensive. Budget travellers will find it harder, unless they are fully prepared with self-sufficient camping equipment. The archipelago provides excellent opportunities for diving and snorkelling, and for discovering deserted beaches and offshore islands fantastically imbued with rich/great natural and historic interest. The deeper channels around the islands are also renowned for world-class deep sea fishing, and home to at least two greatly endangered species; the docile dugong (manatee or sea cow) is still thought to find refuge cruising the seagrass between Mafia and the Rufiji River Delta, and the small islands around the archipelago remain a popular breeding ground for giant and green turtles. These islands are an idyllic natural haven for birds and wildlife, with over 120 different species of birds sighted and recorded, (including five types of sunbird), and the whole area is best explored from the comfort of the deck of a traditional sailing dhow.

Mafia Island – History

Debate continues as to whether the wide Rufiji Delta is the actual site for the lost metropolis of Rhapta, the trading town mentioned in the 1st century guide to the Indian Ocean Trade Routes, The Periplus of the Erythaean Sea, and backed up by subsequent writings of the classical geographer, Ptolemy. Rhapta was said to be ‘beside and to the east of a cape with a river’, and about 30 miles from an island called Menouthias, described as ‘a low-lying island covered with trees in which there are rivers’. Scholars believe that Menouthias may have been Pemba or Zanzibar, and yet there remains a possibility that it might have been situated around Mafia, with Kilwa as the port of Rhapta. But remains of this now legendary port and island have never been found, and if the old civilisation was once situated near the archipelago of Mafia Island it now lies well buried beneath the silting ebb and flow of the huge Rufiji River Delta. But there is history enough to be found on the islands today, with real stories and legends and an ever-increasing mass of evidence to verify their historic past.

Similar to Zanzibar, the first thousand years AD of Mafia history remain mysterious, although it is likely that the islands were settled by iron-working Bantu farmers from the mainland. Towards the end of the first millennium these were joined by the first settlers who set sail on the north-east monsoon winds from the Arabian Gulf, and they are thought to have called the islands ‘Morfieyeh’, an Arabic word meaning group, or archipelago. Legends tell how Mafia was settled by one of the sons of Ali bin al-Hasan the Sultan of Kilwa, who bought his territory from the ruling chief for a length of cloth in around 975AD. His son Bashat was posted up to Mafia to govern the wider realms of the sultanate, and perhaps he was responsible for establishing the earliest civilisations here, such as the stone towns of Ras Kisimani on Mafia Island, or Kua on Juani Island.

The early Arab settlers were especially attracted by the safety of the islands, Zanzibar, Pemba, Mafia and Kilwa. These were large enough to be self supporting, far enough away from the mainland to exceed the possibilities of the local dug-out canoes and thus safe enough to contain slaves, wives and concubines who had no hope of swimming home. These were also easier to convert to the faith of Islam, and while the entire African continent was too great to hope to persuade, the few islanders were satisfactorily impressed and cowed by the grand new mosques erected in their midst. The settlers continued to return to the mainland to trade, and brought with them a good deal of exotica, including glassware and pottery from Persia, porcelain and painted plates from Tang dynasty China, and ornaments and phials and brass lamps from across the Arabian Gulf. For all of these they exchanged gold, ivory and slaves, and also leopard skins, rhinoceros horn, and highly prized ambergris, excreted from the stomachs of the many sperm whales that then cruised the Indian Ocean, and desired for its aphrodisiac properties and for ‘fixing’ perfumes and scents.

Many of these ancient possessions stayed buried beneath the ruins of the old Arab settlements, and locals around the Mafia Archipelago have discovered gold inlaid china, pottery and coins from as early as the 9th century in their fields, although the majority of shards date from the later 12th to 14th centuries, when the settlement at Mafia was at its height.

But such a rise in fortunes was doomed to fall. Vasco da Gama historically sailed his Portuguese fleet around the Cape of Good Hope, rounded Mozambique and on April 4 1498, sighted Mafia to starboard on his northbound course. But it wasn’t until 1505 that the first Viceroy returned to the islands to depose Arab rule, and marked his maps with the islands of ‘Monfiyah’, misinterpreting the Arabic ‘Morfiyah’. During the 16th and 17th centuries Mafia was subjected to the joust for power between the Omani and Portuguese, until the Oman trounced them in Mombassa in 1698 and the Sultan of Oman took outright control of the coast, from Lamu to Kilwa. But despite their constant pestering for taxation and payments, the Portuguese did not bring about the fate of the Mafia civilisations as much as the people themselves.

The settlements of Kisimani and Kua developed an unfortunate enmity between them that was their final downfall. It is said that it began when the people of Kisimani, who were called the WaDibri but were also Sacklava people from Madegascar, invited the townsfolk of Kua to join them in the celebration of the launch of a huge new ship that they had built. The people of Kua arrived and gathered around the boat, when suddenly the Kisimani locals snatched some of their children and laid them on the sand, then launched the ship over their bodies. The townpeople of Kua returned distressed and found no time better to wreak their revenge than seven or eight years later at the wedding of the king’s daughter. This time, they invited the people of Kisimani to celebrate, and as the guests arrived they were ushered in to a specially prepared underground room. Gradually all but one of the hosts slipped away, leaving just one old man entertaining. And so well did he do so that no one noticed as the door was bricked up…and it is said that their bodies remain there to this very day.

So the story continues that it was as a result of these foul deeds the town of Kisimani was sunk beneath the waves, and many years later the people of Kua suffered further vengeance from an army of Sacklava cannibals from Madegascar, who returned in a fleet of 80 canoes in 1829 to sack the town. Those who did not escape were killed, eaten or kept as slaves. The Sultan of Zanzibar heard of the destruction of this then major settlement and sent a regiment of his personal Baluchi troops to the island to restore order, but although they captured the offending pirates and brought them back to Mafia as slaves, the town of Kua was never rebuilt. Instead, Sultan Said established a new settlement on Chole Island, which had previously been home to slaves alone, and there are those living around Kitoni near Kisimani on the west coast said to be descendants of his original Pakistani regiment. It may be interesting to note that Chole was also the name of one of the numerous daughters of Sultan Sayyid Said, greatly favoured by her father and described by her sister Salme, ‘There was, indeed, no one to equal her in our whole house, as there was, indeed, no one to equal her in our whole family, and the fame of her beauty spread far and wide.’ It may have been at this time that the island got its name, or she hers.

The Omani Arabs developed an unusually orderly settlement at Chole, which appealed greatly to the German occupants when they were awarded Mafia under the treaty of 1890, swapped with the British for territory between Lake Nyasa and Tanganyika. Germany paid Sultan Syyed Ali ben Saad of Oman DM 4 million for Mafia and part of the mainland coast, and the German flag was raised over the island. The first German resident arrived in 1892 with a number of Sudanese troops, and began construction of what later developed into a grand ensemble of buildings on Chole Island. The original double storey boma and a thick-walled gaol can both still be seen, although now twined with roots and rubble. But the colonial town at Chole became less important around 1913, when the administrative capital was moved to its present site at Kilindoni on the Mafia channel, and the route of the coastal steamship service.

In January 1915, British troops took Mafia as a strategic base for the air and sea assault on the German cruiser Konigsberg, which had hidden in the Rufiji River Delta for repairs. The British searched all night and day to find the ship, and then finally it was spotted from an aeroplane and put out of further action, although the Germans salvaged the guns. The British continued to rule under martial law until late 1922, when Mafia finally became the territory of Tanganyika.

Mafia Island today

Today, each of the four main islands are inhabited with farming and fishing villages and homesteads, where smallholder farmers grow a variety of crops including rice, cassava, pineapple, paw paw and beans, and most households tend to have cashew, coconut and mango trees. This area of the coast is richly surrounded with various coral reefs and marine life, and diving these waters is rewarding for divers of all abilities. The high diversity of these reefs and extensive work to document and preserve them by organisations such as Frontier and the WWF brought about a much needed government protection order, and after many years in the making, the creation of the Mafia Island Marine Park – Tanzania’s first marine park.

Mafia Island – What to see

The town of Kilindoni provides a colourful introduction to Mafia today, and although the Germans made it their centre for administration and harbour in 1913 there is little sign of their inhabitancy today. The town is essentially a small, bustling fish, fruit and vegetable market, with a gently enjoyable swahili colour. Anyone requiring supplies should certainly try and find them here. The bank and post office are both on the airport road, with the bank open between 8.30am and 3pm Monday to Friday and until 12.30pm on Saturdays. Items such as fishing line, hooks and sinkers can be found in the market, as can all kinds of food supplies, kangas, etc. A local café behind the market serves simple dishes of fish, rice and ugali, and sodas are available from the Peace and Love shop and the Market General Supply Store.

About half an hours’ drive south of Kilindoni brings you to Kisimani on the the south-westerly peninsula. This is the site of probably the earliest settlement on Mafia, that was flourishing by the mid 11th to 14th centuries, during which time there was a great palace here. It is said that after the completion of the palace orders were given for the amputation of the hands of the chief builder, a slave, so that he could never recreate his work elsewhere. There is no longer very much to see here, although the journey may be worthwhile to find wide and beautiful palm-fringed beaches. Kisimani means ‘Place of the Well’ in Swahili, and part of the original old well can still be made out on the beach. But while these ruins have suffered the greatest demise at peril of the seas which continue to crumble their cliffside foundations, many of the early pot pieces and coins have been found here, exposed by the action of the waves.

There is a tiny island just west of Ras Kisimani called Bwejuu, a small coral outcrop surrounded by sandy beaches.

Mafia Island – Birdwatching

Mafia Island provides an excellently relaxed and unspoilt spot for birdwatching, with over 120 species recorded on the lists assiduously kept by Kinasi Lodge. Some of the best areas for birdwatching are the woodlands and forests that run along the Kua Channel, and the northern reaches of Mafia Island. A wide variety of bird species can also be spotted from the comfort of the balconies and gardens of the hotels around Chole Bay, and on the offshore islands.

Mafia Island – Wildlife

The islands are inhabited by a great diversity of wildlife, with hippos residing in a pool at the centre of the island and sykes and vervet monkeys, galagos bushbabies, blue duiker, genet cats and wild pigs in the forests and bush. There are also plenty of Pteropus Giant Fruit Bats, a colony of which can be seen roosting on Chole Island.

Mafia Island – Diving

The numerous reefs that make up the Mafia Island Marine Park provide a range of possibilities for excellent diving to suit all abilities. The archipelago has richly varied and sheltered reefs in the Chole Bay that provide good opportunities for learners and beginners, with more advanced diving and drift diving through Kinasi Pass, where the current is stronger, and then more advanced possibilities in the outer channels. Most of the best diving here is at depths less than 30m, within which there is a stunning diversity of marine life, including over 50 genera of corals and 400 species of fish identified so far. Local dives around Chole Bay reveal excellent examples of giant table corals and huge blue-tipped staghorn corals, and the coral outcrops or ‘bommies’, behind the Kinasi and Chole walls provide superbly colourful photo opportunities and fine snorkelling at low tide.

Kinasi Lodge arranges all forms of adventure dives, including night dives, wall dives, reef and drift dives, the last of which carries through Kinasi Pass and often leads through shoals of Barracuda. On a spring tide the current can be very strong and fast, allowing for only 20 to 35 minutes to cover a distance of a couple of kilometres. These drifts don’t have to be deep, but divers should be experienced, and those with less experience should time their dive for a more gentle current. The Kinasi Wall and Chole Wall are also popular, varying in depth between 8 and 21 metres. These have and excellent variation of corals, with shoaling and reef fish and turtles commonly sighted, and are always full of interest.

The Pinnacle is a 12m spire of coral rock close to the rock island in the Kinasi Pass, and provides an unusual dive site in the channel for its mixture of pelagic and reef fish. Old regulars often encountered here are a very large moray eel in his rock home on the western side of the stack, and an equally sizeable potato cod, named Charlie.

Outside the bay there are fine deep dives at Dindini North Wall and Forbes Bay, where larger fish such as shark, tuna and mid-sized groupers and shoals of red-toothed triggerfish are found, and there is a chance to encounter uncommon species of butterflyfish, including Meyers, Black Pyramid and the Longnose. The boat ride to these sites is exciting enough in itself, and provides seasonal opportunities to trawl for gamefish on the way. Kinasi Lodge can arrange excursion dives for a full day trip or including overnight camping, and they keep ‘The Guide to Diving Mafia Island: An Unexplored Paradise’, put together by FRONTIER during their years of research here, in their reference library.

The Mafia Archipelago has opportunities for some of the finest and most diverse diving and snorkelling along this coastline, with the absolute best conditions between December and March. Anyone keen to take specialist adventure dives or beginners courses are advised to book their requirements in advance, and thus ensure that the tide, moon and instructor are all prepared for your arrival!

Mafia Island – Fishing

The waters around Mafia are famed for their fishing potential, with world-records for big game fish caught here, with the main season running from August to March. For those interested in partaking in the size-driven sport the best season is between July and November, as this is when the northeast monsoon brings in the greatest variety of fish, with, kingfish, barracuda and tuna among the favourite big catches. A 57kg yellowfin tuna holds at least one record, and rather wonderfully a 34.2kg dorado caught here in 1950 by mystery spinner Sir Arthur Conan Doyle still holds the record for all of Africa. The best fishing for billfish, sailfish and marlin, is between December and March. Fly-fishing in the saltwater creeks and light and heavy tackle fishing in the reef and channels is good at any time of year, and all fishermen who do successfully fight a big fish on their line can be assured of great popularity with other guests when they supply supper. Kinasi Lodge is a member of the International Game Fishing Association and provides weighing facilities and rods and tackle, although serious fishermen might prefer to bring their own. Kinasi also hold a Mafia Channel Fishing Tournament each New Year.