Zanzibar. Just the name itself sounds like a fantastically lush, exotic, fantasy island. Too exotic for a mere London office worker like me to visit. Too remote. Too expensive. Still, when I decided to go on a diving holiday back in October 2016, I thought there was no harm in looking at the flights. I was pretty shocked to see a decent return flight with Kenya Airways for £370. The next flights up were similar prices, but with terribly long layovers – then the prices doubled. I spent about a week deciding whether I could really go to Zanzibar. I mean really? Me in ZAN-ZI-BAAR! When I next checked the flights had gone up by £50, and so I just thought ‘do it.’ And I did.
Fast forward 5 months and I arrived at Zanzibar International feeling dazed and overtired which ultimately flipped into being wired and restless. I probably should have prioritised sleep over watching three movies on the plane to Nairobi. I was happy transiting through Nairobi airport, passing the time in Java, as I fell in love with Kenya the first time I visited. I then had a mini flight to the island which included a short layover in Kilimanjaro. I fell asleep whilst we were on the tarmac at Kilimanjaro airport and woke up to this view:
I’d unnecessarily sorted out my visa in London so was through immigration incredibly quickly. Jumped in a pre-booked taxi and arrived at the Zenji Hotel at the top north end of Stone Town. Greeted by incredibly friendly staff, the room was ready for me early and I had a quick lie down on my gorgeous wooden princess four poster bed.
Zanzibar itself isn’t just the one island that I was staying on, but actually comprises of over 50 islands, with three main larger ones; Unguja, (the most popular, where I was) Pemba to the North, and Mafia to the South, which is the best place to see whale sharks. Zanzibar is also a semi autonomous region with its own President and Government. Since being back I read it is known as the ‘African Hong Kong’ but didn’t hear that there, nor feel it’s quite the same.
The name Tanzania actually comprises of the old area , Tanganyika of what is mainland Tanzania (approximately) and Zanzibar, and Azania (the Greek name for the eastern coast of Africa – I’m not sure how true this last ‘fact’ is though.). Tanganyika gained independence from the British in 1961, and Zanzibar overthrew the Arab Dynasty in 1963. The two were joined 1964.
The main language is Kiswahili but I don’t think I encountered anyone who didn’t understand basic English though I did not venture away from tourist areas. I did manage to remember a few random words & phrases from my time in Kenya, which seemed more appreciated than I expected.
I’d pre-booked a historical walking tour through Amo Zanzibar Tours which was slightly pricier than most, but I was swayed by reviews complimenting the in-depth historical knowledge of the guides. After some fresh mint soda and vegetable samosas at the hotel my guide picked me up and we started our walk through Stone Town, named so because of the large number of coral ‘stone’ buildings. The area itself if now a UNESCO World Heritage site and consists of a network of small, narrow, curvy streets with crumbling architecture inspired by Europeans (British, Portuguese) Persians, Arabs and Indian.
I kept being reassured it was okay to take photos, but the conflict I had was between wanting to take photos of everything, whilst also just looking and taking it all in, plus trying to properly listen to my guide! The temperature was around 30*C all day, with a few warm tropical, short downpours which cleared the air a little, and in-between the rains, we were blessed with beautiful blue skies.
Though Tanzania has a secular government Zanzibar is predominately Muslim (I was quoted 99%) and it’s very apparent. You are requested to dress conservatively which I did try to; longer shorts, scarf around the shoulders – but typically in these situations when I’m actually out and about I think perhaps I could have put on a little more, or had a little more length. Still, not once did I feel uncomfortably looked upon, and Stone Town appeared to me a fairly laid back friendly town, with many men and women just hanging out together.
My guide explained the history of occupation until 1963 (mainly Portugal, Oman & Britain) ended with a socialist revolution. For the next two decades aid was received from both sides of the Cold War, and China. I’d noticed the soviet style flats on my way from the airport and thought they looked a little out of place, but put it down to my fuzzy head! My guide explained that much of the infrastructure was built by money from the Soviet countries, so when they started to decrease aid it led to real problems in Zanzibar. My guide said he felt the issue was that they tried to move straight from being run by colonial powers with limited education & healthcare for locals to one that supposedly offers free healthcare, education and actively promotes social equality without actually having the infrastructure and skills in place in order to deliver these promises, or to allow them to develop.
We took a walk through Darjani market and took in the colours and smells of the huge variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and of course spices. I always find walking through the fish and seafood markets interesting. There was a huge amount of Octopus, and quite a few sharks, which always makes me a little sad. As a vegan it’s not a surprise to anyone I’m not down with mass fishing and the dilapidation of the ‘stocks’ in the oceans, but when it comes down to this base level of fishermen going out, selling their catch at a daily auction to their community it makes sense to me, even though I would never partake in it.
Next stop was the Old Slave Market and Anglican Church that was built on the site of thewhipping post in 1873, when a treaty was signed between Sultan Bargash and the British to abolish the selling of slaves. Slavery existed in East Africa long before the Europeans arrived though expanded hugely alongside the increase in trade of ivory and spices in the 18th Century. Zanzibar was one of the worlds last operating slave markets, run by Arab traders after the British abolished slave trading in 1807. Slavery (the owning of slaves) in the British Empire was not abolished until 1833, and it was only then that they actively freed slaves in the colonies and started patrolling the waters to intercept illegal slave ships. Tippu Tip (1832 – 1905) was the most notorious slave trader, who was a Muscat Arab born in Zanizbar. We walked past his dilapidated house later, which like many historical sites was supposedly being renovated but looked like nothing had been done for a long time.
The treaty in 1873 only meant that purchasing slaves was illegal, and there was a reluctance to grant freedom for fear of alienating the Omani’s and also due to the dependence on their labour working the plantations and farms. Slaves were supposedly able to buy their freedom but in reality most could not afford this. In 1897 Sultan declared ALL slavery illegal, but still concubines weren’t considered ‘slaves’ until 1909.
Many of the slaves were brought to Zanzibar and sold on for use in the islands (and hence the production of cloves,sugar, and other spices boomed) as well as by Merchants from the Arabic Gulf, India and nearby islands of Mauritius and Reunion. My guide went into great detail of all the key figures involved in making the slave trade happen, including the tribes that were known for selling slaves to the foreigners – either by kidnapping them or by razing villages due to tribal wars, or selling prisoners, prisoners of war, and so on. Most of the slaves came from the inner African countries such as Malawi, Congo, Sudan, and Zambia.
We went into the slave chambers where men, women & children were held (for not more than three days) before they were taken to auction, the latter two in a seperate chamber. There was also a great exhibition that opened in May 2016 with the help/funding of the EU, (which I very strongly support!) I was also pleasantly surprised that they included a section on the present day global problem of modern slavery.
We walked for just under four hours, and though we only covered a small area we didn’t go back on ourselves, but just continued winding our way through the small streets. I said to my guide he seemed to know everything, and everyone. He responded that he knew almost everything and everyone, but not quite. By the end of the tour I still think I was right
The main points of interest, other than just taking in the whole area were the Palace Museum, House of Wonders (which had the world’s third ever elevator, the first two being in New York), Old Dispensary, Old Customs House, Old Fort and Old Hamamni Baths. Many of these buildings became uninhabited post 1964. Some have been restored, some are in the process of restoration, and others are just left as is. Stone town is littered with towering fruit trees; golden mangoes, pomegranates, coconuts and more. All looking aesthetically magnificent against the different types of architecture and the coral or white coloured & wooden buildings.
I was especially interested by the story of Princess Sayyida Salme which was told to me whilst in her room in the Sultan’s Palace. She eloped with a German Merchant in 1866 which caused quite a stir. I haven’t yet read her autobiography: Emily Ruete, (1888): Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanizibar.
We also walked past Freddie Mercury’s birth place. He is supposedly celebrated, yet homosexuality has been illegal in Tanzania since 1899. Had it not been my first day I would have probed into this a little bit.
Whilst walking the streets of Stone Town you frequently come across huge wooden doors with beautifully intricate designs and littered with brass studs. The shape and design generally fits into three categories depending on who made them; Arabs, Indians or the local Swahili population. Within that each door has other unique characteristics and symbols depicting who lived there as well as the occupation, wealth & obviously religion of the families.
I went for dinner at Foraodhani Gardens which transforms every evening into a lively, vibrant outdoor eating area where you can pick various meats and seafoods to be barb-queued whilst you sit out with the locals by the sea under the stars. The other main option was the Zanzibar pizza which looked like a cross between a pizza and a pancake and looked absolutely gorgeous in that decadent, carby cheese melty way. Of course unable to eat any of these things I went for a falafel, sesame flat bread and bbq’d cassava with chilli sauce and tamarind. With a desert of fresh mango. I was a happy lady.
I was actually on my way to an Indian restaurant that I knew served vegan food and thought I’d ‘just look’ at what was on offer. Then I agreed to ‘just look’ at one man’s food, for ‘maybe tomorrow’ and that’s how I ended up with my dinner plate sat on the wall above the beach looking at the starts chatting to a local guy. The opener unsurprisingly was whether I had a boyfriend and why not. After rolling my eyes and explaining I didn’t feel like discussing my love life and what I think about my ex’s, or whether I want kids when I’m just chilling, eating some food on a warm evening under the stars, he seemed to get it, and we just talked and laughed.
I got pretty lost on the way and people genuinely wanted to help me. It usually takes a day or so to work out what sort of hospitality to expect – where the advice is free, or if something is expected in return. This was definitely not the latter. The whole day I had people talking to me, but I never felt frustrated, threatened or remotely harassed, even despite my overtired, fuzzy head. Just friendly people, often wanting me to see their food or their goods, but happy enough when I said I wasn’t interested and often still engaging in conversation.
I went back to my princess bed that night utterly exhausted, and unbelievably happy and grateful to be in Zanzibar.