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Tucked away within plain sight of Dar es Salaam is a small town refreshingly off of the tourist circuit – Bagamoyo. It’s beautiful, historic, sprawling, and completely unpretentious. Paved roads here quickly turn into bumpy dirt paths with potholes so deep you could get lost inside of them. History creeps in at the most unexpected places. And the mangroves and dhows beckon you out to the coast.

In Stone Town the buildings threaten to crumble to pieces around you, worn down by the weight of the oil paintings adorning their walls. Bagamoyo is home to one of the largest collections of artists in Tanzania, meaning that a tourist with enough time to venture this way is rewarded with color, woodcarvings, and endless conversations with artisans ready to sell their wares.

At the old fish market, dhows fresh from Zanzibar line the shore where mangroves have been cut back, and yellow containers of cooking oil float into the beach to be counted and taxed by the customs office.  Sunset during Ramadan means dinnertime. Huge orange fires topped with flat, oil-filled bowls line the street. The tables quickly fill with small, curled, fried fish. Their black eyes stare at you as if they are daring you to eat them.

Colonialism is still in the air here. Arab ruins, German buildings and Catholic churches fight for prominence with carved wooden doors and cell phone towers. Soccer fields are never empty after 3pm.

Everything seems to go at its own pace. Somehow one day turns into a week and it still seems as if there is more to discover. Small corner restaurants become the place to be with someone always ready to share a beer or suggest a plate of the goat and banana stew.

Perhaps it is the long mud verandas, some adorned with sewing machines and dress samples, or the colors of floral mattresses stacked 20 high, but it seems as if life in Bagamoyo has its own richness and an energy quite different from the big city only 60 kilometers away. Something unique, something distinctly “Tanzanian” seems to be hidden away behind this façade of a sleepy fishing town.

A lazy afternoon in the costal Tanzanian town of Bagamoyo unexpectedly turned into a religious experience like none other I have had before. Biking along on the outskirts of town we came across the old Catholic church (apparently the first in Eastern Africa and a springboard for the anti-slavery movement). Curious, we parked and ventured inside through one of the slightly ajar side doors. Inside we found:

A young man playing Celine Dion on an electric organ with a beat box background
A bright green-turquoise, yellow, and white color scheme
A nativity set tucked on a shelf under the stairs so that Joseph teetered right at eye level, threatening to jump off the shelf at any second
Two dusty cupboards with random pieces of old textiles
Innumerable benches that were only 6” in depth and with hollow backs so that if you slouched you would fall completely through to the floor behind
A brightly colored painting over the alter – clearly master artisans were not deemed necessary to call in – it seemed as if scaffolding had been set up and the town’s children were given paintbrushes and free reign
A dozen stained glass windows designed so that the center third could have built in wooden shutters
Algea coated bowls of holy water at each door

Check out the following photos for a visual: