Passing Through Stone Town Zanzibar
By Michael Molyneux
As we all begin to get pangs of wanderlust again, is there anywhere that conjures up the magic and mystery of exotic travel more than Zanzibar?
The spice-scented, quintessential Indian Ocean idyll – turquoise-hued shallow waters lapping miles of palm-fringed white-sand beaches – does not disappoint.
For centuries, traders and travelers have eulogized about Zanzibar’s intoxicating aroma of spices, its beautiful beaches and the bustle of its Moorish capital, Stone Town.
Halo Around Unguja
There’s a strange halo around Unguja, the main island in the Zanzibar archipelago: a stretch of pristine 5-star beaches that disavows the extreme poverty that exists throughout the rest of the island.
Originally part of the Omani empire, Zanzibar fell under Tanzanian rule after its independence in 1964, following the bloody Zanzibar Revolution in which thousands of Arabs and Indians were killed.
For centuries prior to the revolution, the sale of slaves and ivory made it one of the principal trading outposts in eastern Africa, and a melting pot of cultures and vested interests.
In 1896, Zanzibar took part in the shortest recorded war in history, when the local Sultanate surrendered to Britain after 38 minutes of naval bombardment.
Now home to just a million people, Zanzibar’s small rural townships comprised of permanently unfinished breeze-block buildings with corrugated iron roofs.
In the crowded marketplaces no one spends more than a dollar a day, and thousands of people sit on dusty street corners with nothing much to do or say, nothing to wait for.
Poverty, tropical languor, and hunger pervade everything – the air itself seemingly heavy with it.
Yet the work goes on in earnest. No one is so lethargic they don’t feel hunger.
They sit in weathered doorways gesturing into borrowed cell phones, trying to sell armfuls of last week’s cassava, yesterday’s kingfish, small piles of dusty peppers, sitting on old threadbare sofas or piles of coconut husks or squatted on old upturned truck tires.
The women carry cooing bundles, rubbing one red clay foot against the other, one stone, one word, against another, for hours on end, picking their teeth with a blade of grass, bundling firewood.
Everywhere you look there are people repairing old motorcycles, blank eyes passing over everything as though it were one thing, anything to make the time pass easier, though really there’s no notion of it.
Election Posters Everywhere
Last year’s sun-faded election posters are plastered everywhere. Hussein Mwinyi, a local physician, won 75% of the vote.
He has already started opening the country up to foreign investment, beginning this year with the construction of a USD230 million port in North Unguja. Yet the rural poverty here is as ubiquitous, to an outsider, as it is incidental to the locals themselves.
Girls with dirty feet and bright scarves smiles full of light, carry their baby sisters on an outstretched hip, carry machetes, limes, a piece of paper, the rim of a wheel, walking the long worn dirt-road home from school – clothes more holes than rags.
Outside the towns: miles of lush sun-drenched plantations, dry scrubland, crop-fields, little huts, rags drying on a line. A few emaciated cattle wander around. Chickens and babies and goats scratching around in the dusty leaves.
Enough Food for a Day
Each family has a patch of earth, a small plantation, enough food for the day. Rural Africa. Where humankind took its first upright steps.
You can taste the sweet putrid smell of nature’s incessant labors, decaying, blossoming. And the people – the sour sweat smell – are as much a product of the terrain as it is of them.
Piety, hunger, civil order define the region more than the beaches and sunsets you see in the brochure.
The defining image for me remains the heavyset Muslim men, half asleep, sitting on dusty steps in little embroidered Taqiyah caps and long white djellabahs, sharing the age-old ritual of sipping coffee, and a few words, just after dawn, after the adhan, before the clamor of the day’s trade begins.
Past the edge of town, the corrugated iron roofs give way to thatched-cane huts, as more of the land is occupied by farms and modest homesteads, wattle and daub structures in the shade of dense vegetation.
Under palm-woven roofs large families sit yawning, waiting for nothing, watching the buses go by. Dust all around.Vast plantations.The interminably heavy air. Dense vegetation and dust and time and hunger. For miles and hours. Nothing else but dust and time and hunger.
Everything in God’s Hands
From a distance, the rubble-and-stick houses look unkempt and sorrowful. But you can see they’re diligently swept, that everyone is happy, that everything is in order, and in God’s hands. Children carrying smaller children.
Parents taking care of their parents. The inscrutable hierarchy of age, followed obediently from cradle to grave.
And maybe the money will come in tomorrow and Insha’Allah everything will be glorious.
Of course, it won’t, but that’s okay too. They just wait, as time doesn’t seem to matter. And indeed it doesn’t.
As my friend in England said: if only sitting quietly was what people did when they had nothing to do or say.
In the towns, a white outsider is immediately surrounded by the hawkers, bombarded with a thousand offers for taxis, massages, hashish, headscarves.
Looking is free, skewered octopus, ugali, beer, cashews, good price my friend, snorkeling trips, saffron, fridge magnets, biscuits – the usual endless haberdashery of touristic wares.
A conciliatory smile, an angry rebuke, feigned ignorance, polite humour – the response is irrelevant, as long as the sun is shining they will keep coming back.
They are neither hostile nor friendly, they simply want to eat, to get through to another meal, another day of life.
One of the highlights for tourists in Zanzibar is Nungwi beach, at the northern tip of the island. The long stretch of powdery white-sand beaches boasts crystal-clear waters.
Though still relatively undeveloped, it’s not inexpensive and gets crowded during the high season.
A short distance south, on the west coast, is Kendwa Beach. Though it doesn’t quite rival those of Thailand, there are Full Moon Parties there each month, where the crowds spill out onto the beach, drinking and dancing until dawn.
Back in Stone Town, Forodhani Park is the best place to pass a pleasant evening on the waterfront. The kerosene stoves are lit around 5 pm and the place starts to swell not long after sunset.
It’s the best value food you’ll find on the island: crab claws, calamari steaks, sugar cane juice, skewered shrimp, octopus, chicken masala – each no more than a few dollars, and the twilight atmosphere provides the perfect setting for a romantic evening stroll.
The best way to get around Zanzibar is the shared bus, known locally as the dala dala. It costs TSH 2000 ($0.85) per person for the 2-hour journey from Stone Town to the Nungwi.
It stops on the roadside every few kilometers to pick up and drop people off. And there is no schedule, the bus departs when full.
For shorter journeys, you can take a motorbike taxi, known as a boda boda. Again, the standard price is around TSH 2000 ($0.85) per person.
Moorish and More
Blending Moorish, Middle Eastern, Indian, and African traditions and architectures, it’s possible to spend days winding through Stone Town’s labyrinthine alleys.
The narrow shaded streets typical of old Arab towns are punctuated here and there with towering white coral-stone boutique hotels, such as Upendo House.
There people go to the dangle their feet in the small infinity pool while watching the sun set with a cocktail, a cool breeze and an overpriced steak.
Nearby is the newly opened Cafe Africano, a chic little rustic open-air coffee bar run by Abdul, who’s very welcoming and informative, and speaks with an intriguing cockney-Swahili accent.
Just across the street, you’ll find the Zenji Food Lover’s Joint, which serves fresh soup, a good ugali, and various local dishes, all at low prices.
Besides snorkeling, spice tours are the island’s most popular tourist activity, with short excursions offered by numerous companies.
They take you out to a spice farm, where your guide will show you how things like cinnamon, jack fruit and kukurma are grown, and let you sample them.
The sleepy atmosphere of Zanzibar is perhaps its most prominent feature – the slow sandal-dragging shuffle of the locals.
They are masters at conserving energy, indifferently rubbing their eyes, bellies, hands, moving through the blazing sunlight from one patch of shade to the next.
The streets there seem to be piled on top of one another and all somehow lead to the port.
For the locals, life is endless toil yet, despite the poverty, people live generously and joyously, and crime is negligible.
A languid attitude is a form of acceptance: there’s a sense that everything will work out okay in its own time and, even if it doesn’t, someone else will take care of it anyway.
Alongside the day-to-day poverty, the slave trade has left a permeant scar on the African psyche.
Ryszard Kapuscinski referred to it as an inferiority complex since, as slaves, Africans were made to feel subhuman, a separate species.
And Zanzibar – Stone Town in particular – was a stronghold for this grim trade.The port saw over 50,000 slaves a year chained, dehumanized and shipped off around the world.
By around the 8th century, the Swahili people had begun trading over the Indian Ocean and, as a result, were influenced by Arabic, Persian, Indian, and Chinese cultures.
Perhaps the most significant and long-lasting change came in the form of religion.
The traditional Bantu beliefs and practices were superseded by Islamic ones and, later, Christianity was also added to the mix.
Islam is now the predominant religion in Zanzibar, but the indigenous population retains distinctly African physiological features.
What’s more, Islam doesn’t seem to be deeply embedded in people’s way of thinking somehow: they wear religious attire and bear Muslim names, but it all seems incidental to them, a borrowed appearance.
Before the Arabs
Before the Arabs and Christians arrived, peoples’ beliefs were more closely tied to the land itself, and their mythology was oral, ancestral, and spiritual.
People prayed, for example, to the land itself during a drought. God was associated with the sun and referred to as the oldest of all ancestors, rather than as a creator.
In most Bantu mythologies the universe is eternal and has no beginning.
That said, for the original Bantu people, God was intimately bound up with the world: animals were sometimes referred to as “His people.”
In some of the myths about God moving away from humankind (up onto a mountain, up as smoke from a fire) it is shown that His discontent had to do with humans’ habit of manipulating and corrupting the natural world.
Angamizo La Majini loosely translates as ‘Destruction of the Spirits’.
But it was the picture on the box that caught my eye: a frightening slightly comical picture of a demon with crazed yellow eyes, pointed beard, thick fiery hair, and little white horns.
In both the Quran and traditional Bantu mythology there is a rich and extraordinarily detailed history relating to malignant spirits: how they possess, torment, and “bother” the human body, how each particular “genie” manifests itself, and how healers should identify and treat them.
One of the men sitting by the stall, watching me with a wry smile, told me the ointment was used by practitioners to exorcise evil spirits from the victim’s body or house. On the back of the box, it was also described as a cure for epilepsy and strained marital relations.
A few drops should be applied to the victim’s doorpost to banish evil spirits from the house, or on the body to vanquish them from within. I asked if he really believed such spirits existed – yes – and if he’d ever witnessed them – no.
But he believed in them all the same because it was “written in our book”.
I asked him if he thought we should believe all the things written in all the books.
He chuckled, then looked me in the eye and said rather seriously: “you should always be prepared because the eyes do not understand everything.”
Sunday morning in Stone Town’s port-side Forodhani park.A rich girl from Dubai, dressed in plain clothes, and a Masai seller wearing traditional garments sat chatting on a stone bench.
They both spoke in broken English, giggling, curiously asking about each other’s cultures, without any pretense, or awareness of everyone’s passing stares. It was a delight to listen.
After an hour, the shade of the baobab tree had moved away, but I couldn’t leave, not before they did, I had to see what would transpire, the parting exchange.
After some time, he pulled a blue and white beaded necklace out of his pocket and fastened it around her neck, and they held hands.
She said he was crazy and giggled like someone in love, promising to write to him when she got back home. Neither of them wanted to leave. I couldn’t either.
A warm breeze blew in from the south — so soft I closed my eyes, or perhaps because it was Sunday. The tall palm trees fanned the sky and the couple embraced before resuming their giddy talk.
Finally, they stood up to leave, walking in the shade of a line of trees, out into the narrow streets, stopping outside a small hotel to talk a while before going inside, disappearing into the cool shade of what must have been the most beautiful unspeakably tender embrace on earth.
By the shore, I watched the billowing sails of a wooden dhow boat drift across the sunset. I could hear a mother and her daughter singing, washing their clothes in the shallows.
A simple song, sung in unison and with such detached tenderness and simple beauty that it reminded me we are, none of us, separate beings.
Suddenly I felt more alone than ever.
That night I found myself half-drunk on a deserted strip of shore. The immense African night, bright with stars. I’m convinced there’s no greater feeling than smoking by the sea after dusk a warm wind coming in, beside a woman who loves you, surrounded by the ocean’s sound, falling asleep in her arms, having found the closest most delicious thing in life together.
The next day back at the hotel, a Scarborough Fair saxophone instrumental topped off a lackluster morning.
A Russian girl sat at the next table was making inane chitchat to anyone who’d listen, laughing at her own jokes without noticing no one else was. She laughed so hard her eyes flexed like a madman’s and I stopped wondering why she was there alone.
There are no masks or social distancing anywhere in Zanzibar. The vast majority of people don’t believe Covid exists. It’s just something politicians talk about. There was a small story about it in the newspaper, at the bottom of page 6.
Absolute chaos at Zanzibar airport. It’s essentially one large airless room where it’s still 1975.
A few dozen men in felt berets stood around guessing how to act, how to approach the next influx of humanity. They all looked around at each other, trying to gauge from the others’ reactions if they were doing it right.
Michael Molyneux is an English teacher from the UK. He lives in the Lecrin Valley, in the south of Spain, but currently works in Doha, Qatar, teaching aviation English to trainee pilots. His book, Letters From a Young Poet, is available at www.LFAYP.weebly.com