Saturday, November 10, 2012

Learning the Ngalawa, Learning the Sea

Ngalawa and Dhow builder Mponda with a one person Ngalawa, note the low tide.
Ive begun to learn the Ngalawa. A traditional double outrigger sailing canoe made from a solid tree for the hull, the Ngalawa is a beautiful sight coasting across the reef. Fundi (Swahili for master) Mponda is truly an incredible artist and teacher. For the past week we have been working intensely on a model Ngalawa, of just one Zirah (the elbow to middle finger traditional measurement), or roughly a half meter. After building this model, and a smaller model on my own, I will know the process of building the Ngalawa and be able to work on the larger ones.

Cutting the bow with an adze

After finding our wood (usually Mango brought from Pemba, the northern Zanzibari island) digging out the hull can begin, shaping it very thinly with an adze and a block plane.

The array of tools used for building the model and large Ngalawa alike

Once we have built the hull of the model Ngalawa an intricate rigging system for sail and outrigger must be built, which will be the focus of the next post.

Last week I went sailing on a Dhow with my friend Yotta, the captain, and his crew of four. We sailed out 50 miles into the ocean and dropped our nets as the sun was setting. Sleeping under old pieces of sail until the moon rose, where we could see to pull the nets and fish back into the boat. Sailing together by night back to Nungwi we made it just as the sun was rising again. with a fresh pot of ugali, or corn flower, to eat with a tuna we had caught.
Yotta deciding where to drop the net.
 I had never slept on a boat, without a motor, in the open ocean. This was true wilderness. No boat, no signs of other humans, except for the wooden dhow right under our feet, rocking in the waves. I have always grown up on rivers, and it hit me, the ocean is a entirely different environment.

I have a lot to learn about the Ngalawa, the way of the ocean, and Zanzibar culture before I will freely sail my own Ngalawa and catch the delicious fish of the Zanzibar reefs. Day by day, however, I become more rooted, more embedded, more intrigued, but most importantly I learn how little I know and how much there is to know.
A beached Ngalawa after putting the Merengo (outriggers) on to the hull.


  1. Fantastic story Will and beautiful photos of Zanzibar. Can't wait to hear about them in person. Good luck! Rick

  2. How would you compare the mood of the sea to the river? Rivers have a sense of destination and flow. The sea is refreshingly open; destinations lie anywhere on the horizon. Is it a pleasing change at this point in your journey?
    I second the spectacular photos comment!

  3. Is the Outrigger more difficult to balance? What type of fish do the Ngalawa find in their sea?