In the summer of 2017, I made my first trip to East Africa, to Tanzania, to be more precise. The trip was motivated by Richard Grant’s crazy travel stories in East Africa that I read while traveling in South America (also for the first time) two years before. This post focuses on the aspects that I personally found remarkable during my short stay in the culturally and historically rich island of Zanzibar, off the coast of mainland Tanzania. As opposed to popular belief, Zanzibar is properly an archipelago with its main island of Unguja often being referred to as Zanzibar. Hence, I also use Zanzibar to mean Unguja throughout this post, unless otherwise specified.
The archipelago is a semi-autonomous region of The United Republic of Tanzania with a majority Muslim population (as opposed to the mainland, where Christianity is the main religion). It is worth noting that “Tanzania” is a portmanteau between Tanganyika and Zanzibar when the “united republic” was formed in 1964 after a bloody revolution. Zanzibar has a long and rich history and used to be a thriving trading hub for spices (mostly cloves), slaves and ivories, and whose culture mixes and blends influences from the Arab world, the Indian subcontinent and continental Africa.
Today, the island is seen distant from its glorious (and dark) past as an important and prosperous trading hub. It, however, remains a popular tourist destination for those who seek a perfect African beach holiday, far away from all the troubles in the mainland. Indeed, tourism is the economic lifeblood of the island now, and has busily turned Zanzibar into a modern and sanitized version of itself.
Stone Town is the old historic part of what is now called Zanzibar City – the capital of the archipelago. The old town itself is small enough that it can be easily covered on foot in a few hours. The newer part, which is simply called “the other side” in Swahili, is much larger and is of little interest to most tourists. Stone Town features a maze-like network of small alleys criss-crossing over historic buildings, many of which are in near crumbling conditions. Because of its rich history, Stone Town witnessed historic events that had shaped Zanzibar as it is today, such as being the prosperous capital of the slave-trading Sultanate of Oman (17-19th century) and being the battleground of the “shortest war in history”, when the British Empire took over Zanzibar from the Omanis in 1896 and effectively abolished slavery.
Several important figures in history passed through Stone Town in one way or another. David Livingstone lived there in 1866 and used it as a launch pad for his expeditions into the African interior. It is also the birthplace of Queen’s Freddie Mercury (1946-1991) and home of Tippu Tip (1832-1905) – a wealthy Arab slave and ivory trader (more on that later).
Additionally, one of the truly outstanding features of Stone Town is its unique culture and architecture, where African elements blend and swirl with Arabia, India and the mythical Shirazi culture from Persia. Swahili culture is thus the direct result of such an eclectic mix.
Traditional Arabic architecture values modesty and simplicity in a building’s exterior. But in Zanzibar, where the Omani Arabs made fantastic fortunes in the 19th century from trading slaves, ivories and spices, the need to flaunt their wealth was so strong that it became manifested in their doors. Walking around the labyrinthine alleys of Stone Town, it is hard not to notice the striking features of the doors here: No matter how humble a house is, its main door must be wood carved with elaborate patterns, as if it functioned to ward off bad spirits. Remarkably, the brass spikes often seen on these doors are a stylistic innovation borrowed from India, where they originally designed to fend off war elephants.
Another outstanding feature of the architecture here is the number of colonial buildings that further blend Victorian and Swahili architecture together to create even more interesting mixes. The House of Wonders is such an archetype. Originally built by the Omani Sultan as an official reception hall, it was badly damaged by the British in the “shortest war”. They then rebuilt it with elegant Victorian architecture, featuring uniquely high ceilings and wide external verandas. The place also has a huge main door intentionally designed so that an elephant could have passed through.
The building is called the “House of Wonders” because it was the first building in Zanzibar to have electricity, and the first in East Africa to have an elevator. At the time of its construction, it was also the largest and tallest building in Stone Town. The place now functions as a museum in unfortunately crumbling conditions. When I visited, the “museum” was closed indefinitely because one of the ceilings had apparently collapsed.
Another fine example of the blended Victorian architecture here is the Old Dispensary, whose exterior is exuberantly decorated with patterns borrowed from the Indian subcontinent. It is indeed one of the most finely decorated buildings in Stone Town and a symbol of the multi-cultural architecture and heritage of the city. Constructed by a wealthy Muslim Indian merchant to be used as a charitable hospital for the poor, the building now resembles a commercial complex that houses a small museum, numerous (souvenir) shops, bars and restaurants catered to tourist services.
A Dark History of Slavery
There is a modern tendency to think of slavery as something that European colonizers invented for their plantations in the New World. However, human bondage is as ancient as prostitution and has been practiced all over the world since the antiquity. African tribes were slaving on each other long before the first Europeans arrived, and 90% of the slaves who were shipped to the Americas were originally gathered by African slavers and often purchased from African chiefs who were selling their own people. In East Africa, the Arabs had been taking and buying slaves from the coastal tribes for 2,000 years. In the 18th and 19th century, the trade was taken over and expanded by the Omani Arabs headquartered in Zanzibar to establish the lucrative Indian Ocean slave trade network.
The captured slaves were shipped to date plantations in Oman, spice plantations in Zanzibar (particularly Pemba), and households all over the Middle East. The trade became so profitable that Oman moved its capital to Stone Town and built the magnificent Sultan’s Palace. A trip to Zanzibar would miss out so much of world history lesson if one doesn’t visit the Old Slave Market that has now turned into a museum to slavery, where the gruesome conditions that the captured slaves underwent are depicted and retold in details. The atmosphere was both somber and solemn, which made me appreciate the tremendous value of personal freedom. However, elsewhere, in other corner of Africa, slavery is still very much present. When the British abolished slavery in Zanzibar, they built a magnificent Anglican Cathedral at the Old Slave Market as a symbol of triumph over slavery.
The Zanzibari slavers kept the most nubile captives for the harems, and the children of these unions were free and had full rights, and often went on to become slavers themselves. One of them is Tippu Tip, one of the wealthiest and most influential slave and ivory traders in Zanzibar. Born into a mixed Afro-Arab parentage, Tippu Tip built himself a trading empire that translated into vast clove plantations in Zanzibar. His trade network extended far into the interior such that he funded several expeditions deep into the Congo to raid on villages and capture slaves and ivories. Align with his trading and “empire building” interests, Tippu Tip met and helped several famous Western explorers of the African continent, including David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley.
His influence on the island’s politics and history was lasting and indelible. Nevertheless, when I visited what was supposed to be Tippu Tip’s mansion, all what was left was a ornately carved wood doorway, and next to it a simple bronze plaque proclaimed it to be the House of Tippu Tip, “a notorious slave trader, plantation owner and governor”, while the rest was left in ruin and decay.
Leaving history behind, Zanzibar is a fantastic beach holiday destination with an exotic African flavor. The best place to take a cheap local means of transportation to the many white sandy beaches of Zanzibar is from the Darajani Market, located at the border between the old town and “the other side” of Zanzibar City. Such a local means of transportation is called the dala-dala. Picture a vehicle like a minivan with low roof and plank seating along the sides, all painted up with pink roses and sky blue bubbles. It is built to seat a maximum of 13 people, but there can be 19 squeezed inside (with probably animals, goods, and baggages). Somehow, this crush of humanity would manage to wriggle, shuffle, bend and squeeze in order to absorb and transport all the passengers through the pothole-ridden dirt roads of Zanzibar.
So I took one of those cramped dala-dalas on a bumpy two-hour ride to the other side of the island, facing the vast Indian Ocean. My destination was a small town called Paje. Paje used to be a sleepy fishing and seaweed-farming village that has been slowly transformed into a laid-back budget beach town for backpackers. Just like anywhere else in Zanzibar, tourism has slowly become the main source of income for the local economy. In Paje, it is the backpackers traveling on a shoestring, who try to avoid the fancy, developed beach resorts in the north of the island, that are catered for.
Paje features endless stretches of stunning white sandy beaches, which in low tides, would extend for miles into the crystal clear, turquoise water of the Indian Ocean. In such shallow waters and good wind conditions, the most popular activity here seems to be kitesurfing. On the other hand, those beautiful beaches would have been a perfect tropical paradise had it not been for throngs of red-robed Maasais from the mainland with knives and clubs on the belts, elongated earlobes, and white plastic sunglasses trying to aggressively sell souvenirs, beads and all kinds of junks to lazing tourists.
It is not uncommon to catch sights of the locals as they, too, enjoy the beautiful beaches in their own backyards, or harvest seaweeds in the low tides. Much of the seaweed here would go into making traditional soaps or organic cosmetic products, which further supports the local economy. Another spectacular thing to do in Paje is to watch the sun rise up from the immense ocean early in the morning.
From my limited interactions with the locals through a few words in my Swahili phrasebook, they’d like to take life slowly and enjoy the moments as they go by, in spite of the rapid changes that (mass) tourism might bring and all the hardships in life that are still around. I’ve learned to adopt my two most favorite Swahili adages: pole-pole (“take it easy”) and hakuna matata (“no worries, be happy”).
Zanzibari cuisine, like an integrated part of its culture, mixes diverse sources of influence. It features a generous use of different kinds of spices – Zanzibar is called the Spice Islands after all, and a sense of “heartiness” typical of African cooking. The best place to sample the delicious street food in Zanzibar is undoubtedly the Forodhani Gardens, which is a beautiful public park right in front of the House of Wonders. The park transforms into a vibrant street food market after sunset, and becomes crowded with locals and tourists alike. It is where various kinds of salted grilled seafood sticks are sold, among others. A lot of those grilled seafood sticks are fresh catch of the day, but some of them aren’t as fresh – a good sense of judgment and level of bargaining skill would probably help a lot here. Perhaps, I didn’t have one of them (or both), so I tried everything and found it out myself.
Among those interesting, exotic food, the one that stands out the most is probably the Zanzibar pizza, which is a culinary testimony to the eclectic mixes of the culture here. It certainly has a Indian influence which resembles the roti prata found throughout Southeast Asia. Watch the embedded video below to see what it really is. In short, it is definitely my favorite and certainly a must-try Zanzibari food.
A very staple food in East African cuisine is ugali, which is basically maize flour cooked in boiling water to a thick consistency, which is also ubiquitous in Zanzibar. It is often eaten with various kinds of spicy stew, cooked beans and plantains. Ugali is a very typical African dish, which can be found everywhere throughout the continent in various forms. I personally found it very filling and starchy, and could hardly finish the whole “thing”. A simple African lunch of ugali and other stuff in a budget roadside “restaurant” can cost less than 1 USD.
Finally, the drink that I just couldn’t get enough of is the bungo juice. Bungo is a truly exotic fruit, indigenous to Zanzibar, which has a taste somewhere between a mango, an orange and a passion fruit. It is sweet and flavorful and keeps me refreshed and energized all day under the fierce tropical sun.
Looking back to my African beach holiday in Zanzibar, it was filled with unforgettable nostalgic feelings as I aimlessly strolled through the maze-like alleys in old Stone Town, admiring its fine, crumbling architecture, breathing in the scents of exotic spices, and savoring humbly delightful food that mixed African elements with influences from the Near East. The atmosphere provokes and immerses all of one’s senses in a timeless, magical universe. Indeed, the air in Stone Town is full of history that further blends with the African magical belief system to make one’s experiences in this enchanted island a magical realism. I have since yearned to come back to the place where I felt the timeless present.