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Zanzibar: Nafurahi Kukuona Stone Town

I’m easily confused. I have no sense of direction. I couldn’t find my way out of a paper bag on a good day. Had I been on my own, I’d still be walking around the old part of Zanzibar City known as Stone Town (Mji Mkongwe in Swahili, which means old town). The maze of narrow streets and the sameness of the shops made it all difficult to navigate. But occasionally, I recognised where I was. Those rare moments of recognition built on each other to the point where I almost felt at home.

We were staying in the fabulous Zanzi Resort, about 20 km outside the city on the western coast of the island. The 30-45 minute drive into town soon wore thin. The roads were only partly paved; potholes had to be navigated with care. Once in town, the heat was oppressive and the crowds relentless. We made three trips: one full day in which we also fitted in a visit to Prison Island and the slave market; one half-day when we simply wandered, and a Sunday morning for mass and a transfer to Safari Blue.

I’m a great fan of old towns. I like my city centres. I like wandering aimlessly, poking my nose into shops and galleries and getting a feel for the place. But I don’t do well with heat or hassle and in Stone Town, I had both. It reminded me a little of the souk in Marrakesh with its cacophonous sales pitch that never lets up. We stumbled across a few shops that were fronts for upskilling programmes for women – and those we spent time in. The rest we tried to avoid.

Artist at work in Stone Town Zanzibar

Bottom line though is that we didn’t have enough time to do the city justice. Were I to go again, I’d spend more time checking out the doors. I know, I have a fascination with the strangest of things and doors are one of them. Stone Town rivals Morocco and South Africa for its doors. Zanzibari doors are famous. There’s a walking tour of Stone Town whereby you can hit the good ones. We simply hadn’t the time on the day we braved the heat to wander. But we did see the only real Indian door in town.

Explanatory note on the Gujarati doors in Stone Town Zanzibar

Gujarati doors in Stone Town Zanzibar

Indian door in Stone Town Zanibar

You can tell the Indian one because the brass knobs are pointed rather than round, designed to stop charging elephants I believe. That said, it would take a spatial miracle to get an elephant up one of those streets, let alone have it take a running start at a charge. And from what I’ve read since, Zanzibari doors are of two kinds, Arab and Indian. The Indian ones are the ones with the brass, whether round or pointed. I really would like to go back for a proper mosey one day.

We happened upon Jaws corner twice, on two different days. Mark Wiens has a lovely blog post about it. This communal space is where men go to hang out and drink coffee. The first time, there were only a smattering, all on their phones. The second time though, something was going on. It seemed to be an induction or initiation of some sort but in a sea of men, I wasn’t about to put my hand up and ask.

Jaws Corner Zanzibar

We ventured inside the Old Fort built in the late 1600s by the Sultanate of Oman to protect the island from those who fancied taking it for themselves. In what was a rare victory for non-Europeans during the colonial days, the Portuguese failed in their attempt to retake the island in the early 1700s. Nearly two centuries later, the British would win out – they wanted the island to put a stop to the slave trade. The Fort went from being a prison, a barracks, and a storage depot under British rule to being a cultural centre post-1964 when Zanzibar achieved its independence. It’s a stunning building; I’d love to see Leonard Cohen play the amphitheatre inside.

Old Fort, Stone Town, Zanzibar

Amphitheatre inside the Old Fort, Stone Town, Zanzibar

Another imposing building, and the tallest one in Stone Town, is the House of Wonders, aka the Palace of Wonders and Beit-al-Ajaib. When I heard its name, I expected it to have derived from the exhibits (it currently houses the Museum of History and Culture of Zanzibar and the Swahili Coast). I was wrong. It was so named because it was the first building to have electricity and running water and the first in East Africa to have an elevator. Imagine a time when these were considered wonders and you’ll begin to realise how much we take for granted. Back in 1883, Sultan Barghash had his eye on the future. I heard some talk about there being a clash of sorts between the Sultan and Bishop Edward Steere when he was building the Anglican Church. The plans had it taller than the Beit-al-Ajaib, which didn’t go down well with the Sultan. Steere held out and the Sultan agreed to donate the clock tower for the church if Steere would take it down a brick or two. It’s currently closed for renovation so we didn’t get to see inside but I’ve read that there is a huge Swahili sailing boat and an old car that belonged Zanzibar’s first president in the courtyard.

House of Wonders Stone Town Zanzibar

While in Zanzibar, I really wanted to get mass in Swahili. I was intrigued by the notion of mass going on for hours. I wanted to hear the singing and see the colourful costumes that pass for Sunday Best in this part of the world. But I was thwarted. Sunday was Safari Blue. I had to make do with the Bishop saying mass in English in the Cathedral for a smattering of Goans, Anglos, and Christian locals. Still, I got my three wishes.
Another building I’d read about was the Old Dispensary down by the port. It’s a beautiful building, built in the 1800s by Tharia Topan, a merchant from India. Topan was a financial advisor to the Sultan and banker for the infamous slave trader Tipper Tip. The building is a curious mix of the different architectural influences seen in the city:
The Dispensary is one of the most finely decorated buildings of Stone Town and a symbol of the multi-cultural architecture and heritage of the city. Its wooden carved balconies, with stained glass decorations, are of Indian influence; the main structure is built with traditional Zanzibari coral rag and limestone, but covered with stucco adornments of European neo-classical taste.
Stone Town has a population of about 18 000 spread over 80 hectares. It also has more than 50 mosques. Not are all grand in the architectural sense. Some are barely identifiable as mosques, save for the traffic of people in and out at certain times of the day. According to the UNHCR, Zanzibar is overwhelmingly Muslim. 
Zanzibar is 98 percent Muslim. Between 80 and 90 percent of the Muslim population is Sunni. The remainder consists of several Shia subgroups, mostly of Asian descent. The Christian population is mostly composed of Roman Catholics, Protestants (including Pentecostals and Seventh-day Adventists), members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Other active religious groups include Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and Baha’is.
We drove by a floating mosque, Malindi Mosque, one of the oldest on the island, dating back to the fifteenth century. Had we had time, I’d have liked to see more, particularly the cemeteries.
 Malindi Mosque Zanzibar
The city has its share of posh hotels. Africa House, the old English Club, with its Sunset Bar, is the place to watch the sunset. I’d gone hoping to see the old library but it’s long since gone. The Dhow Palace with its swimming pool in the lobby and stunning mirrors is a fascinating place to walk through. No one bats an eyelid if you simply wander in and out and use the conveniences – a very pleasant change from the patrons-only rule in other parts of the world. In Zanzibar, Hakuna Matata (no problem) is the creed by which people live.
At times, I found myself comparing it to the Cuba city of Cienfuegos in its heyday. We went by the old Mbeweni hotel, reputedly the first hotel in Zanzibar to have an elevator. Back in the day, some 40 years ago, this was the place where all business visitors and ex-pats hung out. Today, the empty pool area is dotted with tables and chairs and a massive sound system. I saw an accident waiting to happen, but others see it as a prime nightclub location. Each to their own.
We heard mutterings of a new hotel going up by the airport – a Golden Tulip. Apparently, it’s going to fully cater to travellers – as you check out of your room, you can check-in for your flight. This will really help those who stay on the north side of the island, have an 11 am checkout time and a flight that doesn’t leave till 3 am. I’m a tad sceptical myself – I can’t see immigration going for it.
We missed a lot in Stone Town – too much perhaps – but we did what we could with the time that we had. We were there on the eve of the 56th anniversary of the Zanzibar revolution. Buildings were wrapped up in island colours and everyone seemed to be excited. The fireworks at midnight could be seen from our resort, but I was sound asleep.

The Zanzibar Revolution occurred in 1964 and led to the overthrow of the Sultan of Zanzibar and his mainly Arab government by local African revolutionaries. Zanzibar was an ethnically diverse state consisting of a number of islands off the east coast of Tanganyika which had been granted independence by Britain in 1963. In a series of parliamentary elections preceding independence, the Arab minority succeeded in retaining the hold on power it had inherited from Zanzibar’s former existence as an overseas territory of Oman. Frustrated by under-representation in Parliament despite winning 54% of the vote in the July 1963 election, the mainly African Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP) allied itself with the left-wing Umma Party, and early in the morning of 12 January 1964 ASP member John Okello mobilised around 600–800 revolutionaries on the main island of Unguja (Zanzibar Island). Having overrun the country’s police force and appropriated their weaponry, the insurgents proceeded to Zanzibar Town where they overthrew the Sultan and his government. Reprisals against Arab and South Asian civilians on the island followed; the resulting death toll is disputed, with estimates ranging from several hundred to 20,000. The moderate ASP leader Abeid Karume became the country’s new president and head of state, and positions of power were granted to Umma party members.

The new government’s apparent communist ties concerned Western governments. As Zanzibar lay within the British sphere of influence, the British government drew up a number of intervention plans. However, the feared communist government never materialised, and because British and United States citizens were successfully evacuated, these plans were not put into effect. Meanwhile, the Communist Bloc powers of East Germany and the Soviet Union, along with the anti-Soviet People’s Republic of China, established friendly relations with the new government by recognising the country and sending advisors. Karume succeeded in negotiating a merger of Zanzibar with Tanganyika to form the new nation of Tanzania, an act judged by contemporary media to be an attempt to prevent communist subversion of Zanzibar. The revolution ended 200 years of Arab dominance in Zanzibar, and is commemorated on the island each year with anniversary celebrations and a public holiday.

Today, perhaps the most telling evidence of communism can be seen in the Michenzani flats. They’re like the Panel buildings in Budapest, Bratislava, Belgrade and other former communist countries. They’re in the other part of Zanzibar City, Ng’ambo, a place tourists just drive by, intent on their final destination – the UNESCO World Heritage site of Stone Town. Interestingly, Ng’ambo is Swahili for ‘the other side’.
Michenzani flats. Zanzibar city
Were I to do the trip over, I’d stay another couple of days, and spend at least one night and two full days in Stone Town before heading to the peace and calm of Zanzi Resort. Hindsight eh?
Oh – I nearly forgot Farrokh Bulsara. Better known as Freddie Mercury, this Zanzibari son has his own museum. Everything says it’s the house where he and his family lived before heading to England but I have it on good authority that’s not quite true. His cousin lived there. Freddie and his family lived in a less accessible/attractive house nearby. I think it’s the one on the left in the second photo, but I wouldn’t swear to it.
Freddie Mercury Museum Stone Town Zanzibar
Freddie Mercury's house Stone Town Zanzibar

 

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