While in Zanzibar in July this year for the screening of her documentary film, “Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots,” at the Zanzibar International Film Festival, Sag Harbor resident Kenny Mann wrote and produced a short documentary film about the building of a kind of boat known as “mtepe” (m-teh-peh), which plied the East African coast for centuries but was last seen in 1935. No nails were used in the construction of the mtepe. Instead, planks were held together by wooden plugs and cross-stitches of rope. The distinguishing feature of such boats was their very long, arching prow, which is said to symbolize or resemble the head of a camel.
A typical boat would have been about 100 feet long, 24 feet wide and over nine feet deep, and is estimated at 18 tons. Professor Abdul Shariff of the Zanzibar Museum of Antiquities, an expert on the mtepe, had researched its history and raised funds to have a half-sized model mtepe built for the museum. A boat-builder named Muhammed Bwana was located on the island of Lamu in northern Kenya. He had learned the craft from his grandfather and was brought to Zanzibar with his family to build the model boat entirely from memory, without plans or drawings. The mtepe was named “Shungwaya” after a mythical kingdom along the coast between Kenya and Somalia. After eight months, the boat was completed and launched in December, 2003. The entire process was filmed by volunteers, and it is this footage that Mann used to create the 13-minute film, “The Mtepe Shungwaya Sails Again: A Tribute to the Boat-Builders of Lamu.”
This short film will be screened at the San Diego Maritime Museum on October 2 as part of a fund-raising festival for the non-profit Kaskazi Environmental Alliance (KEA) of San Jose.
An earlier film of Ms. Mann’s, “The Swahili Beat – A Brief History of the East African Coast” as told through the music and dance of coastal people – will be screened at the Ocean Institute at Dana Point, California as part of the fund-raising event. The full 4-day program of events may be viewed at http://www.keainc.org. For more information on Ms. Mann, visit rafikiproductions.com.