Eating Octopus In Zanzibar

Zanzibar's disappearing octopuses show what happens when sustenance and sustainability collide

On the semiautonomous islands of Zanzibar, slurping on a bowl of tangy octopus coconut curry may lead to a moment of harmless teasing. "You want the octopus, eh?" a waiter might ask with an eyebrow raised. Because here, among this group of islands on the coast of Tanzania in East Africa, the 600-million-year old mollusk is known as a natural aphrodisiac that bears the medicinal badge of boosting blood flow, curing impotence in men and increasing a nursing mother's milk.

"It's been scientifically proven that the octopus has healing powers," confirms Azziza Mnyinbi, an elder who lives in the small fishing village of Mtende in southern Unguja, Zanzibar's largest island. "But we've always known. We value octopus not just for food but also as medicine," she continues.

Whether boiled, fried, grilled or steamed, locals praise the cephalopod as one of Zanzibar's most delicious delicacies. But in recent years, Zanzibar's tourism boom and population increase has led to overfishing, threatening the livelihoods of local octopus hunters and depleting the resources of the surrounding sea. As conservationists fight to preserve and protect the Swahili coastline, visitors may have to wait while temporary fishing bans give the encompassing coral reef some much-needed relief.

Yet, it shouldn't be difficult to find a bowl of mchuzi wa pweza wa nazi (Swahili for "octopus coconut curry"), a symbol of Swahili culture itself that elicits the enduring relationship between the Indian Ocean and its centuries-old spice trade along the Swahili coast. Simmering in its own juices, tender bits of fresh octopus stewed with potatoes, tomatoes and onions in a ginger-infused coconut sauce make the deceptively simple dish a classic. But to truly appreciate the dish, you must recognize that by the time an octopus lands in a bowl, the slippery sea beast has ascended a complex value chain of tireless individuals, and it all begins with the octopus hunters. 

Photo: Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein

Octopus hunting is a competitive and sometimes dangerous task. Known as "masters of disguise," octopuses hide inside dark stone homes under the sea. Their intelligence and flexibility often elude novice hunters, releasing a dark-black ink that camouflages the sea against predators of all kinds. From spearfishing to deep-sea diving and illegal dynamite-blasting techniques, fishermen have gone to great lengths to capture the valuable octopus, which can sell at the market from anywhere between six and 12,000 Tanzanian shillings (three to six U.S. dollars) per kilo.

Mtende fisherman Yusuf Abeid Haji explains, "You really need to know exactly where to look for the octopus. [They] have sharp teeth that can bite until you bleed. [Their] legs are really strong and grab onto your arm before you can snap its head, forcing you to wrestle with it. It's best to go with another [fisherman]. You might need to fight."

At age 32, Haji is a chairperson for the Mtende Fishing Committee and works closely with Mwambao Coastal Community Network, a nongovernmental organization that works with fishing communities to agree upon "no-take zones" for a period of at least three months, promising larger yields, weights and sizes that lead to increased profits. "It's the sea or the forest for us," Haji says. "Closing a portion of the sea has been difficult for us, especially during that period of waiting, but we've seen its value, and it helps us meet our daily needs."

 Photo: Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein

At a recent "sea-opening," after a nearly three-month closure in Mtende, hundreds of people trekked and cycled to Mtende's breathtaking shores with hand-shaved wooden spears, buckets and plastic bags in tow. Mtende resident Kazija Makame, a well-respected fisherwoman in her mid-30s, went to the opening with her mother, who first taught her to catch octopus as a young woman. Though women don't typically dive or swim in deep waters, Makame and her mother waded into the sea at low tide under a blazing sun, confident in their skill. After nearly three hours at sea, Makame caught only one octopus, but, gesturing to her wet plastic bag, at least "it was a big one." 

All together, opening day netted more than 280 kilograms of octopus, leaving most hunters and buyers satisfied.  

Aliy Abduraheem Aliy, Mwambao Coastal Community Network's facilitator who introduces himself as "Octopus Aliy," believes "octopus is the best place to begin" in terms of convincing Zanzibaris to care about its coastal resource conservation. 

"Everyone here knows the value of the octopus," Aliy says, but not everyone knows yet how overfishing can lead to detrimental damage that ultimately threatens long-term sustainability. "I would like to see the value of octopus increase," he explains, "and encourage hotels to buy directly from Zanzibar's fishing communities. We could keep fishing the way we always have, but we know better. Zanzibar is the sea," Aliy insists. "Waiting is a win-win for everyone."