Will the real Zanzibar please stand up?

Middle Eastern country? Colonial ghost? Or island retreat? The archipelago of Zanzibar — with its chaotic capital, Stone Town — is Africa at its most enigmatic.

Published 23 Nov 2016, 08:00 GMT, Updated 19 Jul 2021, 13:09 BST
Pausing for thought in Stone Town

Pausing for thought in Stone Town

Photograph by GETTY IMAGES

It's not so much the number of cars that's causing the jam as the width of the road we're all trying to access. Road? Perhaps 'alley' is a more apt term. Because at this point — where Shangani Street meanders close to the waterfront — the sheer narrowness of Stone Town is thrillingly apparent. Each side of our taxi is within wing-mirror-scraping distance of the buildings on either side. Acclaimed by UNESCO since 2000 as a 'fine example of the coastal trading towns of East Africa', it's a labyrinth whose structures — crumbly of wall, tight of doorway and, due to its World Heritage listing, distinctly immovable — are dreamily in thrall to the past, but utterly ill-suited to the movement of 21st-century traffic.

So here we are, a colossal tub of clotted cream in a blocked artery, our exhaust fumes curdling the tropical air. My driver spreads his hands in an expression that's less exasperation, more acknowledgement of a regular occurrence. "Welcome to Zanzibar," he shrugs. 

The delay is not without consolations — for it gives me the chance to absorb my surroundings. Away to the left, a half-glimpsed beach promises sandy days and the rattle-whisper of palm trees. On the right, a hair salon advertises its services via the image of a woman having her tresses braided. Behind, a mosquito whine of low-oomph engines foreshadows the approach of a trio of mopeds, weaving and forcing their way through the impasse — kings of the highway now that everybody else is becalmed. Directly ahead, the bumper of a minibus wears a faded Manchester City sticker, and I find myself wondering how long it's been glued to the rear of this petrol-powered workhorse. As I try to decide, the afternoon sun bangs its fist, and the mini fan stuck to the dashboard struggles with it all, whirring, wheezing, sighing.

Much of urban Africa is here, in other words. But then, I ask myself, am I in Africa at all? It's not as daft a question as it sounds. Officially, yes, I'm in Tanzania — the fresh blot of bureaucratic ink in my passport says as much. And where I sit, I'm just a two-hour boat ride from the country's main city Dar es Salaam, which broods 45 miles to the south, on the mainland. But just as the English Channel has always been a physical and ideological canyon between Britain and the rest of Europe (as recent events have shown), so the Zanzibar Channel — a mere 16 miles wide in its thinnest moment — has long kept Zanzibar separate from the African continent. Indeed, it's only been part of an African country since 1964, when insurgency overthrew the colonial powers that had ruled for half a millennium, and welded it to the newly forged Tanganyika (soon retitled Tanzania).

Prior to that, it'd been coveted — as early as the seventh century — by Persian, Arab and Indian sailors. It was claimed by Portugal almost as soon as Vasco da Gama had rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1497, before it was snatched by Oman in 1698 — becoming a trophy so treasured that the Sultan of this Arabian state shifted his capital from Muscat to Stone Town in 1832. Britain had its say too, naturally, adopting Zanzibar as a protectorate in 1890, but leaving Oman in nominal charge — until, 52 years ago, in a revolution as brutal as those in Cuba or Russia, a rush of nationalism grabbed it for the modern Africa.

Even now, it's semi-autonomous, with its own president and House of Representatives. Askance. Distant. An Indian Ocean crossroads. A junction box between worlds. Perhaps the traffic jam is making this case, for as the congestion starts to ease, it becomes clear that the catalyst was the arrival of the ferry from Dar es Salaam — travellers clinging to what, for most islanders, is the only affordable way to cross the chasm (you can also fly) between mainland and satellite.

They disgorge at the docks, into taxis and onto bikes, and into a destination that's largely misunderstood by the outside world — which regards Zanzibar as a single honeymoon haven of an island. In actuality, it's an archipelago of 47 scattered shards — including three big outcrops: Pemba, Mafia and Latham, and the prime land-block Unguja (better known as Zanzibar), on whose west coast Stone Town lies. But then, as a stew of historic influences, is it any surprise that Zanzibar's identity is blurred? Is it Tanzanian? Is it Middle Eastern? Is it a colonial ghost? Is it all these things?

Maybe so. When I finally slip into the back lanes and arrive at the Zanzibar Palace Hotel, I'm caught up in a split personality. The name suggests a grand five-star, yet this quiet refuge feels more like an intimate Marrakech riad. A fountain murmurs in the lobby, elegantly Arabic in style — ornate tiles coating rounded torso, a copper bowl on top pierced in 12 places, water trickling through the holes and down to a pool in the floor, the sound constant and soothing. And when I climb four flights to a top-floor room where the window peers across corrugated roofs to the flurry of the port, I pass glass lanterns, hanging in a rainbow of colours, which seem to dream of deserts and dust, of some Casablanca courtyard. But when the bell goes for dinner, I'm sub-Saharan again. The menu of Swahili dishes propels me from nguru masala (spiced kingfish) and ugali (a smush of maize, akin to mashed potato) to katles (fried mincemeat and potato patties) and maharage ya nazi (butter beans in a gloopy coconut sauce). The waitress smiles at my polite English attempts to devour this feast with an unwieldy wooden spoon, and suggests I eat using my hands.

Split personality

"I thought, 'why not?'" says the hotel's jovial Dutch owner, Frans Fiegge, explaining the happy impulse that led to him running a retreat so far from home. He came to Unguja in 2006 to help oversee the construction of a luxury resort in the south of the island, but by 2008 found himself drawn to the clutter and chaos of Stone Town, where this townhouse on Jamatini Road presented a tempting opportunity for renovation. "By this time, I knew the ins and outs of life here," Frans adds. "Suddenly, that's eight years ago — and here I am."

Frans is emblematic of a place where myriad strands of people and population are entwined. "The version of Swahili spoken here is a royal soup," says Anjam Hassan, an affable guide of Omani descent who'll show me around his home town. "There's a little Portuguese in there, a dash of English, some Arabic, some Indian, some Bantu. Mesa [Portuguese for 'table'] is a word in Zanzibari Swahili. So is 'fridge'. It's a jigsaw."

This cultural cross-pollination is visible in the key landmarks. Beit el-Sahel, out on the waterfront drag of Mizingani Road, was built in the 1890s as the Sultan's residence — and recalls this era as a museum, its fabric and furnishings having survived the cold shoulder given to Zanzibar's Omani heritage in the three decades after the revolution. The adjacent Beit-al-Ajaib ('House of Wonders') plays a similar card, as a delicate white-walled palace — hewn in 1883 for Sultan Barghash — that's flirted with destruction. It was struck in the Anglo-Zanzibar War of August 27, 1896 — a 38-minute British bombardment of the town in a row over the sultanate's succession that's considered the world's shortest ever conflict. Next door, the Arab Fort is a sturdier affair, founded by the incoming Omanis in 1698, at the expense of a 16th-century Portuguese church, as a gesture of regime change. A short walk south, the Anglican Cathedral issues a statement of its own, set penitently on the site of the town's former slave market. The adjacent sculpture of five chained figures, stooped in a pit, is powerful. Work on the church began in 1873 — the year the (relatively) progressive Barghash closed this trading floor for human flesh.

But it's in its intricacies rather than its icons that Stone Town reveals its soul. Darajani Market is the busy offspring of Africa and Arabia — swarthy men hacking at the corpses of tuna, barracuda and dorado on slippery slabs, amid a tumult of transaction; craftsmen hand-stitching leather sandals in the workshops tucked into the shaded alleys behind. On Mkunazini Street, a crowd has gathered outside a shop where the morning's papers have been fixed to the wall — information disseminated without recourse to smartphones or wi-fi. And at Jaws Corner, in the heart of the maze, another mass of locals is seated on benches at the intersection of four passageways. It takes its name from a mural of said deadly fish on the side of one house — the hint being that, here, mouths tend to be open. "Townsfolk come here to talk, to drink a coffee," Anjam says, handing me a paper cup full of a dark brew. As we linger to sip the hot, bitter liquid, eight people greet him. "Most of the big issues in Zanzibar are discussed here," he adds. "If you want news, come here."

It seems a scene unaltered by time's march, even as the angry pecking of drills and the dust of restoration work being carried out on weary properties — inescapable in the centre — shouts loudly of change afoot. And yet, when I return to the area after sunset, the absence of much in the way of street lights leaves the darkness between the buildings so thick that I fear I'll lose my way.

I trip, eventually, into my target, The Swahili House, another fine townhouse hotel — and survey my context from the rooftop bar. Stone Town is all but swallowed by night, rare patches of illumination giving notice of an unshuttered window; boats in the port showing themselves in the way their lanterns bob with the tide.

Out of Africa

It's difficult to say where Arabia starts to peter out and Africa takes control. Perhaps it's five miles north of Stone Town, where Beit el Mtoni swings between eras. Built in 1828, as Sultan Seyyid Said prepared to shift his capital 2,450 miles south west to Zanzibar, it's the oldest palace in the archipelago. It also sounded a crucial note of its history as the birthplace of one of Unguja's most feted figures. Princess Sayyida Salme came to life in 1844 as the youngest of Said's 36 children, but gained notoriety in 1866 when she fell for a German merchant, Heinrich Ruete — and, pregnant, fled with him to Hamburg. In her 1886 autobiography, Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar, she — now known as Emily Ruete — described her first home as an idyll where 'the little river Mtoni… runs through the whole palace into numerous fountains, and flows directly behind the palace walls into the splendid and animated inlet which severs the island from the African continent.' Alas, it's now a wreck. A fire in 1914 did irreversible damage, and the revolution compounded the problem, with Africa intruding on Arabia when the new socialist government used the complex as a cement warehouse. But traces of its majesty remain. The sultan's bathhouse and steam room still exist, although the roof is fractured, and bats the only residents.

These echoes continue. Three miles east in the village of Kidichi, another bathhouse — also constructed by Sultan Said, this time in 1850 as a gesture of love to his Persian wife, Scheherazade — is in (somewhat) better condition; its domed ceiling still intact, even if the stained glass that once painted its walls in many colours is gone. Opposite, Mou Spice Farm is a reminder of the fertility that made Zanzibar such a prize for Middle Eastern traders; its vanilla pods and cinnamon trees issuing a rich aroma in the afternoon warmth.

Beyond and to the east, Arabia finally vanishes — into that African flatness that finds itself in scrubby fields, squat farmsteads and goats in the road. On through Kizimbani and Kiwengwa, until this Africa fades too, and Zanzibar becomes the romantic Avalon of a million holiday brochures — a colossal Meliá resort hugging the shoreline, the smaller but no less luxurious Tulia Zanzibar Unique Beach Resort eyeing the Indian Ocean from a lovely spot on the beach just north of Pongwe. With only 16 rooms and a tiny spa, it's compact, comfortable in its own skin, almost seeming to belie the fact that it only opened last December. But then, all Unguja's holiday resorts are relatively new. The aftershocks of 1964's upheaval kept Zanzibar in a frozen state, of sorts, until the early 1990s — but the decision to abandon one-party politics in 1992 marked a change in attitude. Tourism was encouraged, even if it had to come from a standing start. In 1995, 56,000 holidaymakers travelled to the islands. That figure is forecast to crest 450,000 by the end of this decade.

This surge is visible in the phalanx of resorts on Unguja's central east coast, but it shows its ethical side a little further north. Not that Matemwe Retreat — outside Matemwe village — overtly wrings its hands at Africa's worries. It's a chic clifftop affair; its 17 rooms and suites opulent in their giant bathrooms and wide verandas. But it dates to the first flushes of seafront breaks in Zanzibar — set up in 1989, as a clutch of just four bungalows, by two Swedish sisters. Water was fetched by hand until 1995; lighting was by kerosene lamps until 1997. It retains some of this spirit — 75% of employees hail from the village, and it has an admirable policy of promoting from within, to keep staff turnover low.

So it is that on a blazing morning I meet Ibrahim Sherumi. He's manning the watersports centre — a shack on the cusp of the sand. The retreating tide has exposed a shelf of coral, and we stride towards it, Ibrahim picking a route through the many spiky sea urchins that threaten to pierce a careless foot. As we go, we talk of his journey to this juncture — how he was born in Mwanza, Tanzania's second city, on the bank of Lake Victoria; how he landed on Zanzibar in 2005 hoping to find work; how he arrived at Matemwe Retreat in 2010, unable to write, speak English or swim. Now — as I'll later see — he takes Europeans snorkelling, diving to pluck shells from the seabed with the liquid grace of an orca. He halts as we reach the reef, as if realising the scope of his achievement. And suddenly, in his exuberant grin and his tale, Zanzibar is again what it's always been — a place of people in motion, finding their groove on the ocean's edge.


Getting there & around
Qatar Airways flies daily to Zanzibar via Doha from Manchester, Edinburgh, Heathrow and Birmingham.
Stone Town is best explored on foot. Travel around Unguja by road is possible. Hire cars are available (Kibabu Cars has an airport office) but you'll need an International Driving Permit, as well as a standard licence. Taxis and dala dala minibuses are plentiful in Unguja. Most depart from Darajani Bus Station, opposite the market on Benjamin Mkapa Road.

When to go
Zanzibar generally maintains a year-round daytime temperature of 28-32C. March-May is the main rainy season while June-October is dry.

More information
(Bradt Travel Guides), by Chris and Susan McIntyre. RRP: £15.99.

How to do it
Expert Africa
offers 10 days in Unguja, with two nights in Stone Town at the Zanzibar Palace Hotel (B&B), three at Tulia Zanzibar Unique Beach Resort (half-board), and three at Matemwe Retreat (full-board).
From £2,832 per person, including international flights from Heathrow and all Zanzibar transfers.

Follow @LeadbeaterChris

Published in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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