Photo: Wikimedia Commons

His eyebrows are raised at the center in a perpetual arc of surprise.

A cap typical of observant Muslim men in Zanzibar perches over his round, childlike face, but he resides squarely in middle age. He wears a blue t-shirt and blue jeans, and in his arms he holds a little girl dressed in powder blue satin.

She is not his daughter.

Throughout the bus journey from Nungwi to Stone Town, each time a child arrives at the back of the open-air bus, the man immediately reaches down to lift it on board. Sometimes he returns it to the parent, sometimes he holds it on his lap.

The children are unfazed, far more concerned with staring at me through kohl-rimmed eyes. He is normal; I am not.

At one point, the man holds two children on his lap. He is a joker—comical expressions etched on his face. He loves children, he says. It becomes a joke: the women around him laugh each time he jealously pulls a child into the bus and onto his lap. No one thinks it odd, and no one at all questions his motives, as would surely happen in the U.S.

He loves children, he says, and it is his great luck that there are so many aboard today.

Maybe he has no family of his own. Maybe he is unable to have children. I don’t know, nor would I ask; nor could I understand the answer had I wanted to.

Watching the man before me—the joker in the blue shirt and blue jeans, little doll baby dressed in blue satin on his lap—I can’t help but smile along with the other women.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This is one of the things I love about Zanzibar, and places like it: When it comes to minding children, everyone helps everyone. Neighbor helps neighbor; kin help kin; strangers help strangers.

When a mother and her child approach a bus (more of an open-air, low-back truck), ten pairs of hands instantly reach to lift the child into the vehicle and hold it steady.

You won’t see that in the U.S. or most of Europe (although, to be fair, getting on the bus in the U.S. is not quite the same ordeal). There, if a man went to hold a child he didn’t know, he would probably be screamed off the bus.

I love the trust and community underlying the scene before me.

That said, my appreciation is hardly romantic. This is one context… Where is that community when it comes to the “every man for himself” mentality of Nungwi businesses? I want to know. Where is that trust and support when business owners attempt to navigate the cloudy waters of the tourism industry, stepping on one another to keep from drowning? I don’t see it.

Still, the man with the round, surprised face makes me smile today. I consider—not for the first time—that I will really miss this place.