by Tim Dawe
There’s an allure about Zanzibar. Is it the Afro-Islamic history and fusion of African, Western and Arabic culture; the wealth and power of exotic trade; the food and taarab music; “spice island” mystique, or is it just the sound of its syllabic name? I’ve waited decades to arrive here, yet it’s actually an 18-minute flight from Tanzania’s biggest city Dar es Salaam; “ladies and gentlemen please fasten your seatbelts for take-off” … a boxed juice … “we are about to land in Zanzibar”.
I’m here to explore Stone Town, that tiny, triangular piece of history jutting out into the Indian Ocean. It’s a long way (in both senses) from the luxury resorts that line palm-dotted white beaches along the island’s east coast. I have a traditional room at Zenji Hotel (after Zanzibar’s original name) on the edge of medina-like Stone Town. It’s a little too close to the port but provides great street theatre. Initially confronted by touts, called papasi or “ticks”, I’m slowly seduced by friendly smiles and greetings, unexpected views and angles and tropical sea breezes. After a while it all washes over and I chill out with others on the bountiful benches that are central to Zanzibari culture.
Zanzibar is more than an island; it’s an archipelago with some islands large like Pemba, small like Bawe, and even sandbanks covering coral reefs. Coastal and inland villages dot this fertile island. It offers agriculture, dense rain forest, glorious beaches and great dive sites. Stone Town is bordered on two sides by ocean and on the third by Creek Road. Before the revolution that ousted the Arabs and Asians, the swampy ground east of the creek was for Africans. Now the capital fans out in a sea of rusted corrugated iron as Zanzibar Town.
In Stone Town the way to go is on foot. My first step is via a shortcut to the waterfront, the former elite domain of Omani sultans and Indian merchants. The undeniable standout building is Beit al-Ajaib, a former palace and now the major museum known as the House of Wonders because it was the first to have electric light. It could be the film set from the Addams Family. Unfortunately access is denied indefinitely after a large chunk of the second storey broke off recently making it unsafe. Bookending the House of Wonders is Mercury, a beach bar commemorating Queen singer and Zanzibari, Freddy Mercury, and the historic Old Fort. Other grand buildings include the Old Dispensary, renovated by the Aga Khan, and the Palace Museum look worse for wear. The Hotel Mizingana Sea Front is in tip-top condition as a result of its conversion to a hotel, perhaps the best way to save these buildings from crumbling.
Serena and Tembo House are upmarket beachside hotels situated near the Old Fort, where the triangular land bends. Both open to rows of serviced sunlounges, beach boat repairers and footballers, a sea of long, low fishing boats and larger dhows (some netting tourists’ shillings), and islands to the horizon. As the sun mellows I return to the Forodhani Gardens in front of the House of Wonders, once the exclusive enclave of the Sultan. It’s an institution, especially at sunset and at dusk when food stalls fire up. Daredevil boys leap 6m into clear waters for their own entertainment. Wafts from kebab barbeques meet the salty air. Recently landscaped after becoming democratised, it’s a green and leafy focal point for both residents and tourists to promenade or sit on ever-present benches and take the air. I try a recommended Zanzibari pizza. It’s…unexpected; I doubt I’ll eat another.
Zanzibar is what it is – different – because of its history. And the historic influences can be viewed through its trade in spices, ivory and slaves. Zanzibar was known to the ancient Greeks and, of course, coastal Africans. Later Arabs, Indians and Persians traded and many stayed. Islam was established here in the ninth century, and embedded long before the European explorers. Portugal colonised Zanzibar as a military post for two centuries before being ousted by the Sultanate of Oman in 1698.
The Omani Sultan developed Zanzibar’s arable land with spice plantations, conveniently closer to European markets, and increased trade in ivory and slaves. He even moved his capital here. Generations of sultans ruled from 1700 until 1890 when Britain became the protectorate nominating rulers and ending slavery. A usurper sultan fled when the British fired on the House of Wonders for forty minutes – the “shortest war in history”. With “the winds of change” in Africa, and an independent Tanganyika, Zanzibar became a short-lived constitutional monarchy (sultanate) in 1963. A month later saw a bloody revolution oust the last sultan and all the Arabs and Indians, to become a revolutionary republic until, inevitably, joining mainland Tanganyika in 1964 as a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania.
A spice tour with hotel guests provides an opportunity to tour outside Stone Town and to discover the origins of my kitchen spice rack. But the historic walking tour (for one) opens up the past and present and encourages me to dive into these labyrinthine alleyways, which I do every day, often at differing times to capture their life beat. Each time I enter I walk a different way, find something different or interesting, pop up near sand, sea or boats – and get lost. But Stone Town is so small there’s no problem in losing your way. Either a smiling resident will help or you’ll come out at the beach or the Creek Road border.
A few steps from my hotel there’s calm and quiet. It’s mainly residential here, with wide, clean and surprisingly sunlit alleyways tying into a knot of open space. And exemplifying the mix there’s also the oldest mosque near a modern high-rise hotel. Arabian architecture predominates with overhanging wooden lattice balconies – a woman’s secret place – and a sprinkling of ornate studded Zanzibari doors. They are a cultural emblem originating from the days of inserting metal spikes to thwart elephants from breaking and entering. They can be read as either Arab or Asian by their shape, carving and top panel.
Hurumzi Street opens out to more commercial activities of shops and hotels but there, stuck in a corner, is the bulk of the St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, its spire a guide to seafarers. Most buildings have a flat-top roof to serve breakfast or just catch the breeze and I am invited to view the wonderful panorama from Mara Mara Hotel. A mosque’s minuet and the cathedral’s steeple emerge as slender shoots from a bed of rusted corrugated iron. Beyond, dhows ply the sparkling blue waters.
A visit to Darajani market on Creek Road answers my question about the dearth of food shops. This hundred-year-old, high wooden structure is huge, selling every conceivable foodstuff. It’s not for the squeamish as close-quarter, unrefrigerated butchering abounds but it is fascinating. Through a window I see the bobbing heads of an unusually quiet and orderly circle of people. It’s the daily fish auction, a most important economic activity.
The massive Old Fort, built by Omani Arabs in 1700 from the rubble of a destroyed convent, is now the culture centre with an amphitheatre for outdoor productions. North of Stone Town lies the ruins of Mtoni Palace that provides a magical backdrop for evening performances. Past the Old Fort, Kenyatta Road becomes more touristic. Souvenir shops sell fabrics and carvings and enthusiastic “ticks” abound. Now I’m acclimatised, these young men smilingly recognise me as a lost cause to their trade. Just near here is Baboo Café, set on prime real estate high above the beach with million dollar views. It’s really a tiny kitchen and three outdoor tables that to me epitomises Zanzibar: a quiet shady nook, island breezes, good coffee and the freshest seafood served with a genuine smile. I keep coming back.
It looks so laid back and idyllic but it hides a hard life for Baboo’s Fatima and my new “tick” mates. Workers outside tourism find it harder. Many are fishermen facing declining catches, some collecting seaweed. Beyond Stone Town much agriculture is subsistence farming. Others had it much, much tougher. I’m taken to the Anglican Cathedral that literally hides a multitude of sins. It is built over the site of the old slave market. A special underground tour provides a most moving highlight of my walking tour.
Slaves have always been traded as a “commodity”. Africans along the east coast were easy pickings for raiding Arabs but by the late 18th century Zanzibar had become the convenient trading post for all East Africa. During the 19th century about 50,000 slaves were sold in Zanzibar each year (1,000 people a week!) – yet an estimated 80,000 died getting here. With British influence, and particularly the zeal of David Livingstone, slave-trading was slowed from 1822 and finally prohibited in 1876.
Standing in this dim light of the underground holding pen it is hard to imagine the unspeakable torment of these manacled men, women and children crammed on stone ledges in putrid conditions. Outside is Clara Somas’ below-ground statue installation that powerfully hits home. Retreating to the grandeur of the cathedral I see the exact spot of the post where commercial bids were made for a human life, and also hear the story of Dr Livingstone. Before his death Livingstone announced he wanted to be buried in Africa “where his heart was”. In the end the world-famous Englishman had to be buried in Westminster Abbey but before that they buried his heart in Africa under a tree. And they fashioned a wooden cross from that tree for this altar in front of me.