I’ve just checked into a hotel in Morogoro, Tanzania, after a 12-hour journey by plane and 4 hours on the road.
As I pick up my key, my bloodshot eyes catch a sign at reception: zumba class, today at 5 pm. What I REALLY need right now is a hot shower and a comfy bed, but I decide to go and stretch my muscles a bit.
I follow the sign into a large empty hall at the far end of the hotel grounds. When my eyes adjust to the semi-darkness, I notice that the hall isn’t empty after all – 15 or so women are sitting in the corner, chatting in what I think may be rapid Arabic. All of them are dressed in long black gowns and fully veiled, some with a full face cover.
I think I must have walked into a women’s community group rather than a zumba class, but the sign was pointing precisely into this room… I walk up to the group, feeling very self-conscious in my super tight stretchy leggins and an impossibly tight lycra top in fluorescent yellow.
Are you waiting for the zumba class? – I ask shyly.
Yes! – one rather large woman gets up and gives me a wide smile, followed by an energetic high five. All of a sudden 15 women in burkhas are high-fiving me and shouting out their names.
Suddenly the hall explodes with sounds from the Broadway musical ‘Grease’ and all the women jump up and remove their headscarves and black gowns in unison, revealing tight outfits in flashy colours and Nike trainers very much like mine.
Before I know it, we form three neat rows and break into a dance – a combination that involves shaking of shoulders, hips and bellies, as well as a concluding slap on our bums.
For the next hour we dance, sing, laugh and high-five one another. When the time is up, my zumba companions pull on their baggy black gowns, fix their hijabs and walk out the hall with a slow, majestic gait.