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The first thing we need to say about the Mafia Archipelago is probably an answer to the inevitable question: no, the name doesn’t have anything to do with a Sicilian secret criminal society!
It’s currently not certain where the origins of the suggestive title came from – theories range from origins in Arabic (“morfiyeh” meaning “group”…perhaps describing the group of small islands), or named after the Arab tribe of “Ma’afir”. Perhaps less likely is a corruption on the Swahili “mahali pa afya”, translated as “a healthy place to live”.
Nevertheless, these small islands are anything but the centre of an international criminal syndicate!
The Mafia Islands are situated about 20km off the mainland. They’re made up of about 15 small sandstone and coral rag islands – none higher than 80 metres above sea level, and the majority around the 1 square kilometre mark. The central island is known as “Mafia”, and is about 750 km². Many of the islands are thought to be uninhabited, and there are about 45,000 residents dotted over the main and secondary island (Juani). There are only two towns with electricity, the “capital” of Kilindoni and Utende. Chole Bay is the main area of tourism, and recently several very upmarket lodges have opened up – offering world-class snorkelling and diving.
Despite the emphasis on upmarket accommodation, luxury holidays and excluded retreats, Mafia does have good provision for the budget-wary traveller, and is ideal for backpackers trying to avoid mainstream destinations – Zanzibar draws the vast, vast majority of guests and only a trickle make it to this remote paradise.
Economically, the Mafia Islands have traditionally relied upon coconut exports…harvesting the resource by hand and shipping it to Dar es Salaam, although the island is primarily self-sustaining (the farming and fishing industry provide rice, sweet potato, pumpkin, maize, okra, bananas and various other fruits). Activities in the Indian Ocean are the main source of visitor attraction, although there are very interesting ruins and towns dating back to the 13th century. Check out Kua with its seven mosques and palace in ruins, a 15 acre forgotten city.
The Mafia Islands, whilst small, quiet and private, are perfect for setting away a week and exploring under your own power, and it’s well worth picking up the various guidebooks available on the net for further details if you’re planning on visiting. For the diving enthusiast, the ocean will bear more than enough entertainment, and if you’re a backpacker looking for independence, the archipelago has a lot to offer and provided there’s some willingness to hop on a bicycle and explore, it won’t disappoint! People of this disposition might want to look at Selous Game Reserve, Lake Manyara or Kenya’s Northern Frontier.