[First published in Japan’s Kansai Scene magazine, unknown month, 2000.]
A small island off the coast of Tanzania in central-eastern Africa, Zanzibar has a colourful history as a stop-off along the slave and spice trades of past centuries. Kansai Scene writer Brett Hetherington attempts to see how modern day realities have met the past.
Arriving at Zanzibar, a.k.a. ‘Unguja‘ is somewhat of a relief. A couple of nights in the mainland capiatal of Dar es Salaam, a large, bustling city with persistent malaria-carrying mosquito and plenty of un-lit streets had not been particualrly rewarding.
Zanzibar is generally reached by a one and a half hour ferry ride from Dar es Salaam, though some travellers get there by landing at Zanzibar’s small airport on flights from places like Uganda or Kenya.
Dar es Salaam itself gained widespread notice internationally when a terrorist bomb (linked to Al Qaeda) went off outside the U.S. embassy there in 1998. [Author note: this was just two weeks after my partner Paula and I had stayed there.] It killed and injured a large number of local people, making for a tragically ironic twist on the city’s name, meaning “place of peace” in Arabic.
Zanzibar has an atmosphere that is a great deal more welcolming with it’s mix of people, beaches and jungles. One of the best reasons for making the trip is to see the old walled-in section of the island called Stone Town.
It’s narrow, winding alleys are sometimes less than a few metres wide. This maze of cobbled lanes is lined with inviting shops and stalls, but these are secondary to the delights of getting thoroughly lost among their twists, turns and dead ends.
After a while of wandering and taking in as much possible, the unique details of Stone Town become apparent. Most notable is the extraordinary beauty and crafting of its ancient doors.
It seems that no two of these solid doors in Stone Town are identical. With every three or four steps you take, they seem to beckon you to push them open.
And there are people just as individual and interesting living behind these doors. They are a testament to the island’s present face as well as to the history of generations who have gone before.
Zanzibar has a mix of continental African, Indian and Arab cultures quite unlike most other places in this part of the world. Omar, a fifteen-year-old boy we meet along the way, tells us that Swahili is the official language here, but that English is also taught in school.
There is one new up-market eatery called “Blues” along the harbour beach. It seems to be a harbinger of Zanzibar’s creeping commercialization. Two Kenyan Masai stand nighttime guard outside this South African family owned restaurant.
Aside from it being the only place on the island for a good espresso coffee, it has provoked resentment from some local shopkeepers that I speak to. They express their dislike of “outside” labour being used there.
Come sundown, many of Zanzibar’s residents and tourists prefer to amble along the rows of less expensive makeshift food-sellers near the waterfront. A few minutes walk from here are the hotels with their beer gardens and restaurants overlooking the sea.
Nearby, games of barefoot soccer are being played on the sand, and the sounds of reggae music wafts over with the smell of cooking fish.
THE TRIP INLAND
To get to the best beaches, which are on the furthest tip of the island, we found a car to be the quickest and safest way. Scooter and motorcycle riders may find that the frequent and deep potholes in the dirt roads slow them down.
No matter what your transport is, a decent map is advisable, though it is not a guarantee against taking wrong turns on the poorly signposted roads.
Before you get too far out of town, chances are that you’ll be stopped by the police. In our case, he broached the subject of a bribe in a way that was so subtle and vague that it makes the average Japanese company manager seem like a pushy New York taxi driver by comparison.
Another policeman who stops us on the way back to Stone Town is a great deal more direct. He labels us “bad, very bad” for not reporting to the police station where we’d originally left town earlier in the day! Of course, putting a couple of U.S. dollars in his hand means that he can overlook our error.
It is fascinating though to end up mistakenly making your way slowly through the thick jungle and tiny, ragged villages that dot the Zanzibar landscape away from the coast.
Small children occasionally ran alongside our passing rent-a-car shouting “Jambo” (hello), yelling for money or pretending to throw things at us, laughing. Many of the kids also scurry away in fear when we point our camera at them.
From the unpaved road it is easy to get a glimpse into the daily lives of the families here. Mothers with babies at their breast stand in the doorways of the straw or mud-walled huts while colourfully dressed women bent with their backs at right angles, pick and plant in the ground.
Close by, there is the occasional cow grazing in the long grass, inevitably with a huge lump in its spine. There is also the odd tethered goat with the standard expression of bovine boredom.
The land near these areas often opens out onto large fields. Once, we are lucky enough to witness the enormous baobab tree standing solitary, sourcing its nutrients from deep under the earth beyond the twisted reach of harsh summers.
Finally, the beaches come into sight and they are well worth the effort of bumping and swerving over the crater-pocked roads that lead there.
Zanzibar has some of the best diving spots in Africa and many travelers spend just a night or two in Stone Town before heading to the open-air shelters on the cliffs that peer down to the sea below.
The waters are clear and warm, and the long stretches of sand are still relatively quiet and unspoiled, but perhaps for not much longer.
While there, we attempt to get out from the shore on an organized trip to swim with dolphins. The weather turns way too rough but this doesn’t stop our guides from trying to talk us onto their small boats. Eventually, we organize a partial refund.
Being taken advantage of isn’t the only challenge to visitors to Zanzibar. I suffered from a dose of amoebic dysentery which is fairly normal this part of the planet. I was able to get some effective drugs from an English-speaking doctor with an Indian background.
Malaria can also be contracted in Zanzibar, so beginning a course of anti-malarial medicine a few weeks before going and finding a bed with a mosquito net are worthwhile precautions.
According to local superstition there are even more dangerous creatures than amoebas and mosquitoes from time to time in Zanzibar.
A wave of panic and fear swept over the island for a few weeks in the mid 1990’s. It was widely believed that a vampire had gotten into the population, but that he was only able to attack people after dark while you were asleep inside your house. This led to thousands of locals taking mattresses outside and sleeping in the streets night after night, until the “evil one” had moved on.
Zanzibar is a truly unique place in this strange world.