The Road to Zanzibar
Bob, Bing and Dorothy Lamour shipped out a long time ago – but
Zanzibar remains a magical place. The name refers to a small group of
islands off the coast of Tanzania in east Africa, and also to the main town of
the largest island - Unjuga. It’s both a tropical paradise and a treasure house
of lost arts and cultures.
If you can, stay in Stone Town. It’s the heart of old Zanzibar town and one of
the most richly exotic places in the world. Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian
coastal city from which the Zanzibar ferry departs, is pretty exotic itself –
but not a patch on the island town. You could wander around Stone Town for
days. There are souks, mosques, hawkers, minarets, and tiny alleyways:
everything you could wish for in an experience both oriental and African.
Zanzibar rose to eminence in the eighteenth century. British and
French power was on the rise in India and Africa, and merchant ships plied
trade routes across the Indian Ocean to link the two. Zanzibar was ideally
placed to be an African entrepôt. The sultans, all Arabs by descent, also
established trade routes between the Swahili interior of Africa and the Arabian
Peninsula. They all came together on Zanzibar. It was also, sadly, the main
trading center for east African slaves. Although most of these unfortunate
people wound up in Arab lands many were taken to the Americas. Not all
Afro-Caribbeans are of west African heritage.
Today, the island’s Anglican cathedral stands on the site of the former slave
market. The high altar marks the place where the slaves on sale were whipped.
This wasn’t a punishment – it was an exhibition of how tough they were. If a
slave cried out during the torture he was deemed ‘soft’ and unlikely to be
sold. These poor people had a great incentive to keep as quiet as they could:
un-sellable slaves were thrown into the sea.
Zanzibar’s upper-class inhabitants – mostly migrant Arabs – grew
even wealthier on the import and export duties they levied and built rich
houses for themselves. Many of these buildings are now hotels, though many of
them are in a state of external disrepair. This isn’t the result of careless
maintenance or an inhospitable climate. It’s because the local rock is
ultimately based on coral, and erodes very easily. A huge program of
restoration is underway to prevent Stone Town crumbling to dust.
If you want to find out more about the history of Zanzibar, visit the Sultan’s
palace. Right on the waterfront, it houses a museum dedicated to the island’s
history. The palace is pretty much a museum piece in itself. Back in the
mid-nineteenth century the locals named it ‘The House of Wonders’ because it
had electricity, running water and even a lift! The palace also played a key
role in what is officially recognized as the shortest war in history. This took
place on August 27, 1896, between 9am and 9.45am. A brand-new Sultan decided to
align his nation with the German imperial powers rather than the British. The
Brits, annoyed, shelled the palace from warships until he changed his mind.
Zanzibar’s a lot more peaceful these days. Eating out in Stone Town can be a
great pleasure. Like the rest of Tanzania it’s predominantly a Muslim
community, although a very liberal one – nearly all hotels have bars serving
alcohol. There are plenty of high class eateries, but if you want a truly
authentic Zanzibarean experience try eating at Sambusa Two Table in Stone Town.
It is tiny – there are only sixteen seats – but the food is superb. Al fresco
eating is also a big part of local culture: excellent barbecued food can be
bought every evening from stalls in the Jamituri-Forodhani Gardens area. There
are other wonderful cafés in this neighborhood. The local cuisine is heavily
seafood-based – try such delicacies as barracuda steaks. It can also be very
spicy, reflecting Unjuga’s long local tradition as a spice trading centre. You
can even take a spice tour of the island, learning about all the different and
exotic flavorings that were traded there.
Zanzibar has some of the best beaches in the world. The most popular are on the
northern tip of Unjuga Island. These, however, have become rather packed with
impoverished US and European backpackers in recent years. If you’re willing to
pay a little more for peace and quiet, head over to the eastern side of the
Zanzibar’s a great place, and very welcoming. A vacation there
will highlight everything that’s good about both east African and Arabic
cultures. The road to Zanzibar may be a long one, but
getting there is worth it!