Zanzibar, a beautiful and important country in the history of our world, is an autonomous part of the Tanzanian mainland off the coast of East Africa. Popularly known as the spice island, Zanzibar is also famous as the birthplace of Queen front-man Farrokh Bulsara, better known to you and I, as Freddie Mercury. Be sure to visit his home or the Mercury’s restaurant the next time you’re in Stone Town – for when traveling to Zanzibar – expect an amalgamation of history, adventure, wilderness and luxury!
This is part one of a two part series on Zanzibar – the Spice Island.
Below: Boat ride to Dreamer’s Island – where you can have a meal, take a dive, swim and relax on a floating island
Zanzibar’s first settlers were Bantu speaking Africans, but the Arabs, especially Omani, have had a great influence here. For instance, Islam is the dominant religion and most of the local women dress conservatively. Bui bui (black veils from head to toe) or Khangas (brightly patterned cloths, one for a skirt and another for a head and shoulder cover) are worn by women young and old.
Side note: Whilst on holiday, I guess covering up isn’t entirely necessary (I wore skirts and pants down to the knee and sleeveless tops), but covering up could save you from the occasional comment from a passer-by. Being a fashion junkie, I felt quite uncomfortable wearing such conservative clothes in the Zanzibar heat, but in a bid to remain mindful I really stretched the boundaries of balance in dress!
Anyway, Zanzibar as a state had its own flag at the time it gained its independence in 1963 from Britain, but the flag ceased to exist after the revolution that ended the Sultanate rule. The sultanate era is detailed with intriguing stories of the Oman rulers and their families. Princess Salme (there’s a hotel named after her in Stone Town) was of particular interest. In the 1850’s this radical daughter of Sultan Sayyid Said taught herself to write by secretly copying verses from the Quran onto a camel shoulder bone and later scandalously eloped with a German trader.
When the last Sultan was overthrown in 1964, Zanzibar hastily entered into an agreement with the Tanzanian Union and ever since, has continued to struggle for greater autonomy and a new identity.
Swahili Style Decor & Architecture
For centuries, merchants traded on the island and along the Indian ocean (one of the world’s oldest and largest free trade zones) – each of them leaving their mark. As a result, Zanzibar has one of the richest and most diverse cultures in East Africa, encompassing influences from the Arab, European and Indian worlds. The island’s wealth was largely founded on the spice trade, and to date, the trade of spices such as cardamom and cloves is still largely controlled by the government.
Local Spice Tour – my fingers turned scarlet squishing the seeds of the Achiote or “lipstick tree”; the luscious colourant is used in cosmetics, food, and paints.
Zanzibar was also at the forefront of slave trade during its peak in the 19th century, but after slavery was abolished in 1897, the profitable business went literally underground. Many slaves were kept hidden in caves before they were auctioned and sent out to Bagamoyo – the most important entrepôt into Zanzibar at the time.
Once auctioned, the strongest/fittest would begin their journey on foot (kilometers away), inward to Bagamoyo. In fact, Bagamoyo is said to have been given its name by the slaves – which in Swahili – loosely translates to “calm your heart. Lay it to rest”. In other words, for those who survived the journey to Bagamoyo on foot, the worst was over. All they had to do now was await the next ship to their final destination, ready to serve their new masters (mostly Omani and the Middle Eastern).
Stone Town is the perfect place to spend a couple of days exploring. There are lots of guided walks around the city with wonderfully eccentric and enterprising Zanzabarians who speak good English, have excellent knowledge of the island and can share with you some local gossip.
Old Dispensary in Stone Town
Old Fort in Stone Town
Forodhani night market in Stone Town has a really good vibe and you can watch the sun setting on the turquoise waters, enjoy a sugarcane juice, some exotic fruits and the local cuisine cooked in lots of spice and coconut.
Forodhani Night Market
Stone Town is really the heart of Zanzibar. In a way, it’s the enchanting capital of Zanzibar, and its trade center. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage thanks to its labyrinth-like alleyways blending Persian, Middle-Eastern, Indian, and African traditions, art, architecture, and cuisine. The wealth created through trade led to the construction of palaces, mosques, and fine houses. Stone Town is the place to immerse in culture, meet other tourists and travelers, mingle with locals, and above all, enjoy street-food at its best. In an open air market overlooking the ocean, there is a meeting point, and where the happening usually is. The Forodhani Gardens.
View from a rooftop house in Stone Town
To me, one of the greatest gifts of travel is the perspective it affords me when I contemplate concepts such as integrity, patience and time. In other words, the things that have different meanings in different countries. Like for instance, over 50 million people in eastern and central Africa speak Swahili and all Swahili speakers share a unique way of expressing time. Whilst they do use standard clocks, that’s not actually how they tell time. Swahili time is read the opposite way to be more precise. This means 12 is 6 and 3 is 9 and so on.
Because they are at the equator, there’s not much variation in the length of the day, so sunrise/sunset are roughly at the same time all year. Seven a.m. is one hour after sunrise, so they call it one in the morning. Six p.m is 12 hours after sunrise, so they call it 12 in the evening, and that’s just how the clock system works. Confusing if you’re unfamiliar with this!
Travel affords me the ability to peek into the lives of others for a short while and then tell stories of ordinary existence. Whenever I travel, I feel and absorb my surroundings. Whether it be over a long coffee with someone I love, or simply by observing and documenting silent memories I create. The kind that I know will serve me later, by allowing me to see the present place I’m in, with new eyes and extra colors. As such, my memories of Zanzibar linger, like the island’s soft breezes, of days wiled away meandering the streets stopping to haggle, practicing new forms of expression in Swahili. Sipping on Chai, watching the setting sun bleed into the Indian Ocean.
From the crumbling mystique and rich Islamic culture of Stone Town, to the tropical beaches, Zanzibar is truly a place to slip into a calmer state of existence <3
Continue to part 2.