Finding South Asia on the Swahili Coast

East Africa and South Asia have been linked for centuries — this connection finds a delicious apex in Swahili food.

Dur e Aziz Amna

October 23, 2019

Finding South Asia on the Swahili Coast
Grilled fish, rice, chapati, and kachumbari. (Dur e Aziz Amna)

We are sailing on the Indian Ocean in the shadow of the equator. Our captain, Jawad, is a young Kenyan who came recommended by several travel bloggers. He’s funny, they said. So good looking, they said. He has just served us a lunch of fish he caught this morning, alongside a salad he prepared on board. Now, he pulls the sails down on his dhow, so we can coast past mangroves slowly submerging in the rising tide. Jawad and his crew sit near the rudder, from where the smell of marijuana floats now and then to the front. He tells us he’ll play some music and borrows portable speakers from the other couple on board, intricately tattooed artists from Jersey City. The afternoon air fills with Reshma.

“Bichre abhi to hum bas kal parson Jeeyungi main kaise is haal mein barson”

(It has only been days since you left How shall I live through this for years?)

I am shaken out of my post-lunch stupor. Reshma, late night muse to Pakistani truck drivers, on the Kenyan coast? I look back to see Jawad and his crew, all Swahili speakers, in a trance, nodding their heads as the folk singer, beloved in the subcontinent, speaks balefully of the loss of love. They sing along the way I sing "Despacito" or read Arabic — with familiarity but without linguistic comprehension. Every time Reshma rises in crescendo, they clap. “This is my favorite song,” Jawad tells me. Then he asks me to play more Pakistani music. I pick an easy crowd-pleaser — "Mast Qalandar" — and it drives Jawad to a frenzy. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s voice flirts with the salty air, and I promise myself that I’ll visit these brown coasts again. You couldn’t pull this off by the Eiffel Tower.