While Zanzibar has become a popular tourist resort, Mafia Island lying only 160 km south, remains virtually unknown. Previously poor communications with the mainland and being much lesser known than Zanzibar have kept Mafia ‘original’, although a steady trickle of visitors are unanimous in singing its praise. Mafia is one of the safest places in the Indian Ocean and there are no hustlers to spoil a holiday.
The Mafia Archipelago is scattered over the Indian Ocean 21 km off the Rufiji River Delta in central Tanzania. The largest of a score of islands, atolls and tidal sandbars, Mafia itself is approximately 50 km long by 15km across, and is surrounded by a barrier reef teeming with marine life. Almost half the coastline of Mafia, some 822km², has been gazetted a marine park by the Government. To date over 50 genera of corals, more than 460 species of fish and five different species of turtles have been recorded in the waters around Chole Bay.
Natural vegetation on Mafia ranges from tidal mangrove thickets and scrubby coastal moorlands to palm-wooden grassland and lowland rainforest. Magnificent baobabs are prominent along with the native Albizia. Patches of coastal high forest remain in localities all over Mafia; one of the most picturesque, the Chunguruma Forest, is a dense tree canopy interlaced with palms, lianes and epiphytes and has an abundant floor covering of ferns.
A series of reed-lined lakes in central Mafia are probably the remnants of an old lagoon which was cut off from the ocean thousands of years ago. Here live a number of small hippo which may have crossed from the mainland or were washed to the island by floods of the Rufiji River system. They have been on Mafia many years, since Dr Baumann records their presence in 1895.
Other island fauna includes a colony of flying foxes, several species of bushbabies, a type of pygmy shrew and a monitor lizard known as kenge. Monkeys and squirrels are common.
An official bird list kept by Kinasi Lodge records sightings of more than 120 different species, including five different types of sunbird, living in and around the hotel gardens. There are also thought to be at least five endemic species of butterfly on the island.
While Mafia makes an ideal holiday for people interested in nature and outdoor activities, its big attraction for many visitors is that it remains locked in a time warp of the early 20th Century.
The population of the archipelago is approximately 40,000 living in 24 villages scattered throughout the main island, Jibondo, Juani and Chole islands. The people live in rustic fishing communities and farming villages. The majority are Muslim but there are many Christians. Traditional religion also manifests itself in ritual dances linked to the lunar cycle.