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"She assured me it would please my husband - the island women adorn themselves thus for their wedding night, and for other festive occasions when they want to look their best."
- Christina Jordan

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Kenya

Kenya's forgotten island
by Christina Jordan, Uganda
Mar 21, 2000

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Kenya

Picco-dots on my toenails are all that are left of Bushura's artistry now. "I have a story for you!" was the line she used, in her sing-song voice, to lure me in. As a writer it was a bait I couldn't resist, but I soon realized that a story of words was not what she had in mind. She wanted to show off her skill, to experiment with a new medium by painting my palms and forearms.

Black lace gloves in Swahili style, on my light skin. She assured me it would please my husband-- the island women adorn themselves thus for their wedding night, and for other festive occasions when they want to look their best. We settled on my right ankle, a compromise between my desire to take part in this exotic body painting ritual and my inner fear of what the end result might be. Bushura fetched a small twig to paint with from the walkway outside, while another woman mixed the picco dye in an empty half-shell.

For nearly three weeks I wore my Swahili tattoo, discretely showing it off like a secret I longed for everyone to know. Delicate flowers and paisley swirls draped the top of my foot, in a sensual curve from my ankle to the arch on the other side. Teardrops, with their tiny splashes, adorned my toes and nails. I had underestimated Bushura's talent. It was stunning, bold beauty. Yet it was also fragile, fading imperceptibly with each passing day. It became a symbol for me, in many ways, of Bushura's island home.

When we told our friends in Kampala we were going to tiny Wasini Island off the southern coast of Kenya, a few eyebrows were raised -- Where's that? What can you do there? Where will you stay? Is it safe for the children? In fact we knew nothing, except what we'd learned from one alluring paragraph in the Lonely Planet guide to East Africa:

"Well wooded and unspoiled," it read, "Wasini is the perfect place to relax and experience a Swahili culture virtually untouched by the 20th century and tourism." We'd been working hard and needed a break -- relaxation and culture off the beaten path sounded like just the ticket.

After a plane ride to Mombassa, a drive down the coast and a night on the mainland with Wasini in view across the channel, we crossed to the island in a dhow, one of the old Arab-style wooden sailboats used to transport people and goods along the Kenyan /Tanzanian coast. Ours didn't have a sail, but the engine managed to get us across before the leaky bottom got any of us too wet.

In the end we got wet anyway, of course. Although life on the island is completely dependent on boat transport (to bring in water from the mainland, among other things) there is no dock, and there's a very shallow approach to the place. Our boat anchored about 50 yards from shore, and we had to walk through the knee-deep water to reach the stairs, climbing up a steep cliff to the island itself.

As we ascended the stairs, built next to an enormous ancient baobab tree whose above-ground roots are a central meeting point for villagers awaiting the arrival or departure of boats, we were greeted by Mr. Masood. Jambo! Karib u! ("Hello! Welcome!") Our four-year-old called him "That man who smiles when he talks."

Masood is the owner of the island's only hotel, who promised-- before we uttered a single word -- "If you are looking for peace, you will find it on Wasini!" He was right. For the next 5 glorious days, we lived a true 'hakuna matata' life in this slow and easy old fishing village, whose rhythm was dictated solely by the wind and the tides.

Wasini is like stepping back in time..

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