Mohammed Okala lives in the village of Jambiani in South-East Zanzibar.
Mohammed Okala lives in the village of Jambiani in South-East Zanzibar. He is over 6 feet tall, which was helpful when we arrived at the port in Stone Town and could spot his grinning face above the mass of taxi drivers crowding at the gates. Okala's day job is in tourism, but we soon discovered that his abiding passion is to promote coastal conservation in Jambiani, his village in South-East Zanzibar.
We spent three weeks on Zanzibar, mostly in Jambiani. Okala was our 'fixer'. If we wanted to snorkel on the reef, he and his brothers would rig the elegant lantern sail of their Dhow and skim us across the lagoon. Exotic meals were prepared by Okala and his sisters, entertaining us at their home with coconut crusted fish.
He found us a homestay in Stone Town, took us to visit a private spice farm, arranged a village tour, massage, henna tattoos, even sturdy bicycles to try our legs on the beaches. He was great with the kids, teaching them about marine life. Okala was more like a friend than a tourism operator, and we would highly recommend him to anyone wishing to experience Zanzibar away from resorts and backpackers.
Okala gives an impromptu lesson in lobster biology
Tourism, however, is only a part of Okala's life. Okala founded JAMABECO (Jambiani Marine And Beach Conservation). Jambiani, like much of the coast of Zanzibar, has a long beach on a relatively shallow and calm ocean lagoon. The lagoon is sheltered by a coral reef two kilometres out to sea. The reef and the lagoon are home to an amazing diversity of beautiful marine life including stonefish, lionfish, starfish and rays, octopus, eels and nudibranchs. Fishing in the lagoon has traditionally provided the staple diet for villages such as Jambiani. The lagoon and reef also provide a spectacular place for snorkelling and diving.
Dhows are at the heart of the local fishing economy
An increase in the coastal population, however, has created serious stress in the lagoon. Overfishing threatens some species, and the consumption of predators, such as octopus, upsets the ecological balance and threatens the coral, which is eaten by starfish who become too numerous without predation.
Okala monitors these changes. He has become a fully qualified diver and works with Marine Cultures and other NGOs to monitor marine life including coral. He is trying to persuade the authorities to create a 'no fishing zone' to protect stocks and attract tourism. He is also involved in the work of Marine Cultures to encourage sustainable lagoon aquaculture including growing sponges and clams to relieve the economic pressure that threatens fish stocks.
Okala takes his conservation message into schools and community meetings. He campaigns for an end to the killing of green turtles, and persuades beach home owners to use vegetation and not build walls which cause beach erosion.
Okala has become a qualified diver to advance conservation and sustainable industries
Waste is a major problem in Zanzibar, as the government do not provide refuse removal outside the main centres. Okala organises dhow races and children's parties, where he talks about fish stocks, pollution and waste management. He then leads the children along the beach, picking up litter and setting up rubbish bins.
Okala also organises a soccer tournament called the Climate Change Cup. To take part, children must bring a bag of plastic rubbish. There are prizes for those who bring the most. He also holds events to celebrate Earth Day and the International Day of Climate Action.
Okala Mohammed is remarkable: an ordinary man, a fisherman and friend to tourists, living in a simple town in East Africa, taking the global message of conservation to his community and working to safeguard a precious environment
Children play soccer among the palm trees of Jambiani
Author: Atma Shetty
Published Date: 18 Feb 2011
Location: East Africa | Tanzania
Themes: natural world, travel