A good example is Mr Juma, an octopus fisherman living in the Mafi’a archipelago, a group of coral islands slung across the Indian Ocean about 100 miles south of Zanzibar.

A wiry figure, I would guess in his mid-forties, Mr Juma supplements a meagre income by taking the occasional tourist out in his wooden pirogue.

His hand-painted sign Traditional Fishing Trips had caught my eye at Kinasi Lodge where I was staying on Mafi’a (from the Arabic morfiyeh meaning group). Excellent, I decided. A little local colour will be perfect for photography.

“Mr.Juma will collect you at 10 o’clock,” said Kinasi’s receptionist so returning to my bungalow, I prepared for the day ahead.

Unwilling to risk both cameras on the water, I decided to limit myself to one and conscious that Mafi’a is a conservative Muslim society, I selected an extra-large T-shirt to wear over my bikini.

At precisely 9.45 next morning, a lateen sail appeared on the horizon and borne across the bay on a light breeze, a traditional ngalawa pulled up on the beach.

Wearing a faded blue baseball cap, ragged shirt and brown trousers rolled up to his knees, Mr Juma jumped out and said “Jambo and how much are you going to pay me?” all in a single breath.

“2000 shillings,” I said, taken aback.

He shook his head. “5000 shillings.”

“2000 shillings, or no trip,” I said overcoming my embarrassment at having to bargain for my day out on the water.

Okay, okay,” he grunted and taking my camera-bag, he strung it on a mangrove pole laid between the gunwales.

Stepping delicately in, I turned to wave at no one in particular, a puff of wind caught the sail and we set off.

Recorded in Ptolemy’s Geography written nearly 2,000 years ago, the ngalawa is still used for inshore fishing on Indian Ocean islands. About 12 feet long, ours had two planks  fore and aft, where we faced each other with my camera-bag swinging in between us.

Gripping the tiller with his big toe, Mr.Juma extracted a plastic packet from his shirt pocket and unwrapping it carefully, he removed one of three cigarettes. Scraping a match along the side, he lit up and sat back as we skimmed across the lagoon, sending flying fish skipping across the surface.

After travelling half a mile or so, Mr.Juma narrowed his eyes and peered over the side. Satisfied he had found the spot, he then lined us up with a distant coconut palm, sucked a final drag of tobacco and spat out the butt.

Crawling past where I crouched on the narrow plank, he heaved a coral stone anchor overboard. Was Mama going in he wanted to know?

Ndio,” I uttered my only word of Swahili. “Pictures first, then maybe…” but my sentence trailed off as Mr.Juma had removed his trousers and wearing only faded red underpants sat busily cleaning his mask.

The sight of  fishermen in scanty wearing apparel is not unfamiliar in Africa, but Mr. Juma was something else. To say he had a big lunch-box is putting it mildly: Mr.Juma was the size of a Zanzibar chest!

Legs splayed he adjusted his equipment: a stick for pulling the octopus out of its hole and a wire for spearing it through the head.

Confronting such a spectacle, I lowered my eyes and applied more sun-block and on looking up, I discovered Mr.Juma had disappeared.

The narrow ngalawa was mighty uncomfortable, but by hooking an arm around the mast, I felt able to operate my camera without falling overboard.

An azure sky dotted with cotton wool clouds made it ideal weather for photography. A fish eagle floated in the hot air currents and a dhow heading for mainland Tanzania, tacked back and forth on the horizon.

As the day grew hotter, I scrutinised the boat. Hewn from muninga wood and with a mangrove mast, it floated high and steady in the water. If you do go in, I told myself, it is unlikely you will get up again without a hand.

At this moment Mr. Juma popped up with an octopus struggling on his spear. Pausing to turn it inside out, he banged it on the gunwale and it slid into the boat.

Soon a second victim was chucked in. Then another.  And another. And after an hour of sitting up to my ankles in octopuses, I was dying to go for a swim.

Taking a break from traditional fishing, Mr. Juma hauled himself up in wet underpants now even more revealing than ever. I was paying him 2000 shillings, wasn’t I coming in, he wanted to know?

 “N’dio,” I replied, tying up my hair and pulling on my dive mask.

 Nice mask,” Mr. Juma gestured. Bet it cost a lot.” And he somersaulted over the side.

Dropping into the lagoon, I marvelled at the underwater life. Blue parrotfish drifted around a pink stag-horn coral and a school of silver jack rose and fell in the outgoing tide.

Soon out of breath, I swam up to the surface, but Mr. Juma paid no heed. With a wife and five children to feed, spearing octopus was a necessary chore and swimming strongly, he skimmed over the coral poking his stick into every nook and cranny.

I tried to keep up but he was much too fast and on raising my head, I saw I was practically out in the open ocean and fearful of a lurking shark, I took off, swimming for my life.

But it was just as I’d suspected. On reaching the ngalawa, I could not haul myself up and hanging from the crosspiece, I expected to lose a foot at any moment.

Finally after what seemed an eternity, Mr.Juma swam up with a string-bag full of octopuses trailing sepia ink.

“You’ve hardly been in,” he spluttered in a mixture of Swahili and English. “Do you really want to get out?”

Yes, I did! Ten years ago, it would have been easy, I muttered as Mr. Juma, Y-fronts taut with the effort, hauled me back on board.

“Has Mama, had it?” he asked.

Safely back on land, but haunted by the spectacle of Mr.Juma’s underwear, I set off for the market where traders helped me search for a swimming costume through a mountain of imported second-hand clothes.

The problem was that I could not make them understand they were not for my husband, but a fisherman at Kinasi, I heard myself shout.

And when one youth, bolder than the others, held up a pair of Y-fronts to my waist, I discarded the idea and instead bought a fishing line in Coastal Traders,the island store.

I did not encounter Mr. Juma again, but I left 300 yards of 30lb breaking strain and ten 6/0 hooks for him at Kinasi.

I felt this would be more useful than a decent pair of shorts and the chance of other middle-aged women tourists going octopus fishing seemed unlikely.

About Travels with My Hat

Australian photojournalist and author. Used London as a base for nearly forty years while freelancing in the Middle East, Arabian peninsular, Africa and South Asia. Have written and illustrated more than a dozen books and travel guides. Operates a well regarded religious images stock photo library: Live in Leura in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney.
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