Zanzibar is a semi autonomous island nation off the coast of Tanzania. This beautiful Islamic island is the birth place of two extremely successful things – Swahili and Freddie Mercury.
Stone Town, Zanzibar’s port town was built by Portuguese colonisers, then added to by Arab slave traders, then added to further by the British. This has created such an amazing mix of architecture and culture, leaving Stone Town looking and feeling totally unique. The architecture is similar to other Portuguese colonies, but its fair to say that the Arabs had, and still have, the most influence here, bringing their food, religion, clothing and music.
Wandering the streets of Stone Town is truly an experience. I kept trying to compare it to other places. ‘I feel like I’m in Greece, or Turkey, or Barcelona’, I kept saying. But the reality is, it just can’t be compared. In any case, it certainly doesn’t feel like East Africa!
Zanzibar is only semi autonomous, despite a long fight with Tanzania over this. “We Zanzabari have no nationality, so I suppose I must say I’m Tanzanian”, one local bitterly told us. However, they have had their own presidents for some time. Their first president lead a massacre of Arabs on the island. The remainder fled, with their women being married off to African locals. They did later return, but having slavery and a massacre in their past makes for some ongoing tensions. That president was later assassinated.
We were really lucky to meet a local man, who offered for us to stay a couple of nights in his family home. This placed us firmly in a residential neighbourhood and able to do what we love most, listen to locals talk. Our new friend is Christian. I assume that being a Christian on a small island where the population is 98% Muslim can be pretty lonely. I suppose this goes some way towards explaining why he was so willing to open his home to us.
Over the course of those couple of days, we had great conversations and heard all the local gossip, such as the story of the Italian doctor who had be been sent home for being too hands on with his female patients. Here also we heard stories of Gaddafi’s misbehaviour in East Africa. During recent times he had an affair with a Zanzabari president’s wife. The president found out, divorced his wife by text message (perfectly legal under Sharia law) and she went to live in Libya. I briefly wonder what became of her when Gaddafi was overthrown.
Inevitably, when speaking to locals in this region of the world, the topic somehow turns to witch doctors. It has occurred to me that this is somehow the great African equaliser. Granted I have only been to 4 African countries so far (Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania), but everyone I have spoken to in depth had brought up this topic. And every one of them, regardless of class, education level or level of fervent religiousness believes in the dark powers of these witch doctors. Colonisers changed the way that Africans dress, live, speak and do business, but never the way that they think. The spiritual heart of Africa is untouchable.
Of course, witch doctors are feared for a reason. Flavour of the month in Zanzibar right now is Albino. Bring the witch doctor the hand of an Albino and you shall have wealth. Some even ask for skin, so Albinos in rural communities must contend with the risk of flaying. The woman telling us this story raised her palm to us and showed us that the lines on her palm join to make an ‘M’. She’s glad that a previous craze is over, where the witch doctors were seeking hands with this marking.
Wandering around Stone Town it was worrying to see a handful of tourists either not understanding or choosing to ignore the modest nature of this island. Foreign women wearing short skirts and strapless tops held hands with boyfriends and one couple even had a bit of a make out session in a cafe. I wondered if they had heard about the acid attack on two British girls last year. A local rumour is still circulating about why they were targeted. The rumour goes that in the town they are working, they were behaving badly during Ramadan – playing loud music, joking around and holding hands during this very serious time. Someone told them off. They went on Twitter and made fun of this person, thus insulting Islam. The attack was revenge.
When we weren’t gossiping with the neighbours we were just walking the well paved streets, bargaining for souvenirs (quite difficult when a man holding a basket with chickens’ heads poking out of it keeps trying to talk to you) and checking out where Freddie Mercury was born. It’s so difficult to believe that this outrageously flamboyant artist came from this conservative little island!
World Cup fever has gripped Zanzibar. Its odd to see people crowding around TVs in the street, watching with not a drink in sight. A local film festival was on also, so we caught a bit of a film and almost bumped into some people we’re told are local celebrities. Finally, there were local Taarab performers singing Zanzibar’s national music. This music hasn’t made it off the island. I’m sorry to say that I can see why, but to each their own!
I loved Stone Town. Its one of those amazing places where you don’t have to do anything to fully experience it. It’s definitely worth a stop on the way to your beach resort, but please remember to act respectfully.