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Spice island

December 13, 2009

Zanzibar, from the Arabic ‘Zinj el Barr’ means ‘Land of the Black People’, yet Zanzibaris reject any notion of being ‘African’, a description that is considered insulting here, like it is in other African places we’ve been from Madagascar to Ethiopia. The islands, while part of Tanzania, are semi-autonomous and Zanzabaris certainly don’t call themselves Tanzanians. But they rely on their mainland neighbour for essentials including fuel and electricity. There is currently a blackout across the island, which has been in place for the past week and which, if there is a repeat of this time last year, may continue for a month. It means the island is completely dark after sundown, water cannot be pumped so there are shortages, fans don’t turn, and I am suspicious of eating anything that requires refrigeration in this stifling heat. It’s nothing we haven’t experienced elsewhere in the developing world, but it is a far more expensive version of it – even ‘budget’ accommodation is twice what it is elsewhere! There are generators in many places across the island, and honeymooners staying in Zanzibar’s luxury resorts and beautifully restored Swahili palaces will presumably not even have noticed the power outages.

We’re staying in the Anglican mission accommodation next to the cathedral in this almost entirely Muslim island. It’s a beautiful old place in Stone Town with ample verandas around a cool inner courtyard in the Swahili architectural style. It was built here in 1870 by the Universities Mission to Central Africa, and the cathedral was the first Anglican one built in East Africa. It was a political statement, of course – the mission and cathedral were built on the site of the old slave market (we’re sleeping above some of the remaining holding cells).

This exotic spice island with its twisting alleyways, white sand beaches, high-walled coral-stone houses and fantastically carved, opulent wooden doors has perhaps hosted more human misery than anywhere else in Africa. At times, 50,000 slaves were processed annually through the markets here.

Zanzibar (Unguja in Swahili), is the eastern gateway to the continent and the historic passage to its dark heart. Arab traders were established here as early as the 1st century, according to Greek writers, and by the 8th century Persians had built prosperous settlements on the island. But it was during the 12th to 15th centuries that Zanzibar really came into its own, becoming a powerful city state on the back of booming trade between Arabia, Persia, India and Asia. Merchants arrived with spices, glass, textiles and jewels, and left with gold, ivory, exotic animals and human slaves.

The Portuguese interrupted this golden age, temporarily, until they were driven out by Omani Arabs in the 16th century. It was the Omani sultans who made the glorious architecture that stands today in Zanzibar; and it was they who intensified the East African slave trade to horrific new levels. Islam forbids the enslavement of Muslims but apparently gives carte blanche to enslavement of people of other creeds. By the 1860s, the trade in humans, who were captured from their villages in the continent’s interior had reached wildly profitable levels, helping decorate the palaces and mosques of the island, and ensuring a successful new cotton industry in the United States and elsewhere. The effect on African development is still palpable. In 1973, the British ended the East African slave trade when it signed a treaty with the Arabs.

Today, Zanzibar trades on its historic glamour and is the country’s second most visited tourist destination after Serengeti. The uneasy relationship with the mainland continues, though, with the two main political parties fighting over control of the island under the spectre of past colonialism. Conflict between the parties, since the 1960s, has frequently led to violence and bloodshed, and there are Zanzibari refugees who have fled the violence, living as far away as Somalia. Nearly 200 Zanzibaris apparently feel safer in Mogadishu than in the honeymoon island of Zanzibar!

For me, it’s a strange place: less charming than Lamu (no zonkeys, for a start), more touts and hassle than Harar – its two closest cousins. But Stone Town has frangipani in full bloom, kids that gather for informal acrobatic displays on the beach at sunset, and fantastic fried octopus is sold on the street. Plus, it’s the first place we’ve been able to get a half decent cup of coffee since leaving Ethiopia, so we’ll stay a few more days.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Andrew Cooper permalink
    December 13, 2009 12:38 pm

    I’ve just come across this wonderful blog. I’m a frequent visitor to Tanzania but usually to work in Dar es Salaam: I have only seen glimpses of the rest of the country.

    I visited Zanzibar for the first time back in March. If you have time perhaps you could drop in to see if the Red Colobus monkeys are still playing their log game: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-kJieKRCsL4

    • Gaia permalink*
      December 15, 2009 2:02 pm

      Hi Andrew, what great monkeys! We didn’t see them sadly, I ended up having one too many horrid experiences in Stone Town (nasty touts), so we’ve taken refuge near Dar instead. Any other recommendations are very welcome!

  2. December 16, 2009 12:39 pm

    Very sorry to hear about your experiences with the touts – I found the only way to deal with them was to blank them completely. You shouldn’t have the same problems in Dar, which I’ve always found a fascinating place.

    Re. recommendations, I’d strongly recommend a trip to Bagamoyo is you’re still in the area. The road north is very good these days and it’s a beautiful place. Look out for the Kaole ruins, the old German buildings around the town and the small exhibit about slavery in a room at the large convent. I visited the small German cemetery which was very poignant: a beautiful spot near the beach with the graves of young Germans who’d been struck down by nasty diseases far from home.

    You might also like to take a ride across the harbour on the Kigamboni ferry – wait until the big one arrives, though, there are various warnings on the web about the safety of the smaller one which always looks as though it’s about to sink!

    If you have time to go further afield the Selous reserve to the south west of Dar is well worth a visit but accommodation there is expensive. It’s very unlike the Serengeti and Tanzania’s other reserves – lots of forest and lush vegetation. Sadly there are reports that poaching is on the rise again there and elsewhere in Tanzania.

    Enjoy the rest of your stay – bye for now!

    PS: there are some photos I took in the city centre back in August here: http://bit.ly/daratdusk

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