Zanzibar, Tanzania

  • Date
  • 10 August 2000

Stone Town: The crumbling ancient area of slender streets, alleys and stone homes is thronged with buzzing scooters, old bicycles, playing children, Muslim men and women (90 percent of Zanzibar’s population) walking to and from prayer and half-clothed tourists scouting for another great take-home trinket. One narrow road with too much history to ever digest in a lifetime leads to another even more fascinating route begging for me to stop, inhale, notice, listen and discover more of life here.

Along the Arab-influenced, alley-like lanes of stone and sand are hundreds of tiny shops selling tourist wares (t-shirts, fabrics, woodcarvings, books and beaded jewelry) and handmade leather shoes. Owners of food stores line the doorsteps with freshly-made bread, oranges, limes, bananas and eggs hoping to entice customers. Several times a sweet voice from on high directed my attention above to find a woman talking, shouting or giggling from a second or third floor window to a young man on the street below.

Unsoiled, crisp laundry hangs stiffly above ground on rope strung from window to window. The laundry does not move as the tall, decaying stone buildings block most breezes off the Indian Ocean. Instead the discolored structures create a haven of shade in the middle of the horribly hot winter afternoons. Massive chiseled wooden doors – that could stand as works of art in the best museums – grace entryways. As in Mauritania, Morocco and Western Sahara, the door is as much a status symbol as a Rolls Royce is in the west. Tall, metal antennas, scores of Internet cafés and large, circular satellite dishes seem completely alien in Stone Town.

Men nap in rare empty spaces along the streets and Muslim women gracefully progress covered in black sheaths and headscarves, with hands and feet often covered with henna. Children wearing no shoes play with pieces of sugar cane, marbles or bottle caps. They greet us, “ “Jambo, Jambo” (hello in Swahili) or “Hello, Hello”. An angelic little girl wearing an ill-fitting white dress with yellow trim sat on a doorstep eating corn. She didn’t mind being photographed unlike another two young girls who rapidly ran inside crying when Jim stopped to pull out his camera.

Graffiti signs written with red paint demand separation of Zanzibar from mainland Tanzania. Zanzibar’s population (less than one million) comprises less than five percent of Tanzania’s total people, yet Zanzibar holds more than 20 percent of seats in Parliament on the mainland. Mainlanders cannot own Zanzibar property, but Zanzibar citizens may own land on the mainland. The Island has not paid for electricity supplied by the mainland in 30 years, but still Zanzibar wants independence. Locals want the upcoming election to be fair and free, as massive voter fraud occurred on Zanzibar Island in 1995.

While exploring Stone Town on foot, I felt awed by the enormity of the visible history, which the people here will never allow to be erased or replaced. Perhaps both mainland Tanzania and Zanzibar Island would be more suitable as neighbors than kinsmen.