Stone Town, Slaves, Spices, Snorkelling and Shopping
We abandon our camping way of life for three days of comfort on Unguja. It’s the main island of Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous series of islands off the mainland coast of Tanzania and East Africa in the Indian Ocean.
We begin the colourful journey from the camping ground on the mainland to the hotel on the island by cramming ourselves and our gear in two miniature three-wheeler tuk tuks for the trip back to the harbour ferry. There we join the surging mass of humanity crowding onto the boat as walking passengers for the 10 minute crossing. The din of voices and motors, the pungent body smells, the vibrant colours of the women’s attire – all threaten to overwhelm one’s senses, but I actually do enjoy it. A taxi takes us from downtown Dar es Salaam to the Zanzibar ferry. I am relieved, in the light of some recent ferry disasters, to see that ‘Kilimanjaro 3’ is a fine looking modern tourist ferry, which should cope well with the two hour trip across the reasonably smooth water.
The island presents a very different Africa, with the Arab and Moslem influence unmistakable. Although Zanzibar is today mostly inhabited by ethnic Swahili of Bantu origin, with some Arabs and Indians, more than 99 percent of the population are Muslim. I look forward to our tour later in the afternoon around Stone Town. It’s the old historic centre of the city, now a World Heritage Site. We are met at the ferry terminal by Tim, who is to be our Zanzibar guide, and we head for our three-star hotel, Mtoni Marine, four kilometres from Stone Town. It proves to be a very pleasant and comfortable place. The swimming pool is splendid and we enjoy a wonderful dip between lunch and the tour, the first of a number of swims.
Our visit to Stone Town is a walking tour, so we have the opportunity to get up close and personal to the sights, sounds and smells. Tim walks us through the meat and fish markets. Plenty of beef, goat, sheep, but no pork. The strong smell of fish fills our nostrils – and attracts the buzz of flies, but we are fascinated by the variety of shapes and sizes of fish including the numerous squid. The black eyes of the vendors follow me as I inspect their wares, aware that our worlds are so very different. I wonder if they mind this daily intrusion into their everyday activities.
With the teacher’s permission, Tim invites us into a nearby primary school and says we can take photos of the children in their blue and white uniforms, but most of the girls, their hair scarved in white, duck down under their desks to avoid being caught on camera. I glance around the walls and note the absence of colourful stimulation, a taken-for-granted item in any New Zealand school.
In the narrow back streets Tim points out several of the 50 mosques around the town and shows us the difference in the beautiful doors that issue straight on to the street – the Arabic doors have square tops and the Indian ones are rounded. We walk through the Old Fort, now a centre for craft stalls, and past the house of Princess Salme, daughter of a sultan, famous for eloping with a German merchant. More on her story later.
We arrive at the harbour front and the huge National Museum, closed for renovations. There’s a fascinating story around every corner. We see the house that used to be the British embassy. David Livingstone’s servants brought his body, salted and dried in the sun, here before it was returned to England for burial in Westminster Abbey. Freddie Murphy of Queen fame was born nearby. We see the beautiful interior of one of the sultan’s palaces with its Arabic décor, now an up-market hotel.
It’s all so interesting, but perhaps the most remarkable, and certainly the most sobering monuments are the remainders of the former slave markets. The slave trade in Africa goes back many hundreds of years, but in more recent times, after several centuries of Portuguese influence, Zanzibar fell under the control of the Sultanate of Oman in the late 1600s. Arab traders continued the lucrative slave trade, leading expeditions into the interior to acquire villagers; they were often used to caravan ivory to the coast, and then sold in the slave markets for good profits. By the mid-19th century, thousands of slaves passed annually through the port.
Control of Zanzibar eventually came into the hands of the British Empire, part of the political impetus being the movement for the abolition of the slave trade, against which David Livingstone was a prime force. In 1873 the British forced the Sultan to abolish the trade in his territories, resulting in the closing of markets and the protection of liberated slaves; in 1890 Zanzibar became a protectorate of Britain, gaining its independent in 1963. Subsequently it merged with its mainland neighbour to become Tanzania and though the archipelago remains a semi-autonomous region, its recent politics have been marked by tensions and violence between rival groups.
We sit in one of the restored slave holding cells, where up to 50 men or 75 women and children were kept on arrival at the port. Our party of five seems to fill half the narrow low-ceilinged room. How could that many people possibly fit in here, I wonder. I am reminded of my visit to Auschwitz several years earlier, and the horror of man’s cruelty to his fellows. Too dreadful to contemplate. St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral has since been built in the slave market grounds. We are shown a wooden cross inside, apparently fashioned from a tree under which David Livingstone’s heart was buried. Nearby is a poignant memorial to the slaves – a sculpture of five figures standing in a pit, manacled together around the neck.
The memory of the dark past of Stone Town lingers as we end our walk at Africa House in a much more pleasant setting, joining Eddie on the terrace overlooking the harbour. We watch the sunset and enjoy a dinner of prawns and avocado fried in bread crumbs, a delicious end to a day filled with such a range of experiences and impressions.
The archipelago is sometimes referred to as the Spice Islands, for one of the main industries besides raffia and tourism is spice production, particularly cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and black pepper. So a visit next day to a demonstration spice farm is part of the expected tourist undertaking on Zanzibar. We are introduced to numerous spice plants, including turmeric, cardamom, ginger and star fruit. A young man entertains us by scaling a towering coconut palm with great ease to provide us with a drink of coconut milk and the visit ends with a sampling of some of their beautiful fresh fruit.
On the third day we take a dhow to Changui or Prison Island and snorkel in the clear turquoise waters below the island cliffs, viewing the coral and small fish. Later we land on the island and wander through the old prison, built in 1893 but apparently never used for that purpose; instead it housed cholera and yellow fever victims. Today the island’s most well-known inhabitants are tortoises, originally brought from the Seychelles Islands, given refuge and allowed to multiply. Most of them have their age painted on their backs and the eldest appears to be 155 years. Goodness, that means it was born in 1859! If only it could tell us about its world then.
On our final morning Martin and I sneak a visit to the large rambling ruins of the Mtoni Palace, next door to the hotel. Earlier I referred to Princess Salme, daughter of a sultan, famous for eloping with the German merchant, Rudolph Heinrich Ruete. She was the youngest of the 36 children of Sayyid Said bin Sultan Al-Busaid, Sultan of Zanzibar and Oman, and spent her early years in the palace. While living in Stone Town in 1866 she became acquainted with her German neighbor. When she found she was pregnant to him, she fled on a British ship to Aden where she married him and the two relocated to Hamburg. She later wrote ‘Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar’, telling of her adventures.
We wander into the ruins. The first guard we meet allows us to continue when we say we are staying at the hotel. Most of the roof has disappeared, but tall walls surround spacious rooms, issuing from one to another through high Arabic arched doors. Smaller rooms contain steps and bathing pools for washing. Just as we are enjoying our visit to the past, another guard interrupts us to say we should have purchased a ticket. But by then we have seen as much of the site as we need to, and we retreat to the hotel, happy with our tour.
Our Zanzibar visit is rounded off with a bit more retail therapy at the Memories shop where every price is stipulated and you know what you are going to pay from the beginning. Not so on the street. As it begins to rain, a young vendor waves in front of us a highly coloured piece of fabric bearing African motifs. A scarf, a table cloth, a beach wrap – so many possible uses! He wants 28,000 Tanzanian shillings. We offer 10,000 and then feign complete lack of interest, walking into Memories to undertake some straight forward shopping. He is still there when we exit and he comes down to 20,000.
“No,” I say, “12,000 is as high as I will go.” We walk away, knowing that is what Judy paid the previous day. He really wants this sale and calls out 15,000. We keep on walking.
“Okay, 12,000,” he says, and the deal is done. We are learning how to trade in Africa.
As we arrive at the ferry building for the return to Dar es Salaam, the rain intensifies, thundering down on the tin roof and drowning out our conversation. I look at the rough surface of the sea, take a travel pill and sleep for the two hour ferry journey.