The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not reflect those of VSO

Sunday, April 24, 2011


"Geographers in Afric maps,
With savage pictures filled their gaps,
And o'er unhabitable downs,
Placed elephants for want of towns" (Jonathan Swift)

How evocative is the word Zanzibar? Redolent of the slave trade, spices, dhows and Islam in black Africa. Growing up I also thought it was the source of marzipan. Add to that Farok Bulsara, better known by the name Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen. He spent his first nine years on the island which now promotes many imagined aspects of his early life. This is where he ran along the beach kicking up sand and probably started thinking about the lyrics for Bohemian Rhapsody. It's really clutching at straws tourism in a country that forbids Freddie's well-known homosexuality.
Rundown beachfront building in Stone Town
But, let's not be churlish - Mercury's restaurant next to the Stone Town beach is a lovely spot to hang out and watch the extravagant sunsets and superb athleticism on display. There is a casual, totally unaffected naturalness about the way the young men perform their evening rituals. We watched astonished, for example, as one guy somersaulted backwards down the beach and continued into the water until he was well out of his depth. Meanwhile further along the beach a Zanzibarian Rasta, just as the guidebook said, weaved his dreadlocked charm from an obscure yoga position, on yet another adventure seeking European girl.
Stone Town street scene

It is surprising to discover just how run down Stone Town has become. It is the cultural and historical heart of Zanzibar which the travel books describe as resembling the medinas of North Africa and the Arabian peninsula. This is true but the Rough Guide goes over the top. "The waterfront is Stone Town's showpiece, a glorious strip of monumental yet delicate architecture through which the 19th century sultanate expressed its wealth and power". Mine is the 2006 edition so perhaps a lot of the decline has occurred since then because, sadly, the seafront is now mostly an array of derelict buildings and broken down scaffolding.
185 year old tortoise on Prison Island off Stone Town

Zanzibaris are angry because they see little return to the island's development from their contribution to the Tanzanian treasury. Income generated from large numbers of tourists is not doing much for the upkeep of roads and buildings. Rubbish lies in piles in ancient alleyways. 80% of Zanzibaris appear to want independence from Tanzania but that is not on the Tanzanian agenda especially with oil reserves discovered off the coast of Zanzibar. The Tanzanian government has asked Zanzibaris what kind of change they would like within the United Republic of Tanzania which was formed in 1964 from Tanganyika and Zanzibar (including Pemba) with the latter getting its own devolved government and president. But, defence and taxation remain with the central government in Dar es Salaam.
Stone Town sea front with fishing boats and Dar ferry in background
Many Zanzibaris are now saying that if they can't have independence then they would like to create another tier of government, viz, a Tanganyikan government to look after mainland interests. The Tanzanian government would then be a federal one which would have to address Tanganyikan and Zanzibari concerns equally. It was odd to hear that old stamp collecting word of yesteryear 'Tanganyika' being used so liberally by Zanzibaris when referring to the mainland. Coming from Australia where the debate on reducing tiers of government is constant due to cost and bureaucratic doubling, I tentatively suggested that another level of government for Tanzania might not be the most efficient way of deploying the country's wealth.
Roof top scene in Stone Town

Our taxi driver's beef was with the fact that Tanzanian civil law overrode Zanzibari Muslim law. His sister, a Muslim, was living with her boyfriend out of wedlock and he, as the elder brother, couldn't do anything to stop them. He felt a fool although as a moderate Muslim used to driving for tourists he could (sort of) understand independent decision making. It was really his traditional family who were laying on the pressure for him to intervene.
Days gone by

Julius Nyerere, the father of modern Tanzania, believed in an African form of socialism known as ujamaa (familyhood or togetherness) which focussed on self-reliance rather than the interests of the western powers determining the country's path to development. His refusal to accept conditional loans from the IMF in exchange for their 'structural adjustment' packages, which required cuts to health and education, made him a hero to socially aware young western students like me. Modern day Tanzania may have accepted capitalism's dirty hands but it has steadfastly refused to back down on the issue of land ownership. The state owns it all. People lease the land from the government and purchase the right to use it from individuals. In many places, especially around the Zanzibar coast, who has the right to use the land is determined by the ownership of trees. Where we went to stay by the beach all the trees had a large letter S inscribed on them belonging to a Suleiman Nyange. Fortunate indeed are those who own trees along the east coast of Zanzibar because there is a rash of bungalow development catering to the international tourist market.
Woman harvesting seaweed on east coast of Zanzibar

We were lucky to be there during the off-season so beach hawker numbers were down but those that remained were possibly even more persistent. The omnipresent 'jambo' (hello) and 'karibu' (welcome) can become a bit of an assault. Here is what our establishment had to say about the beach competition to their upmarket boutique. "We shun the ink-stained shoddy carvings of giraffes, the spiced, stuffed coconuts and the 'antiques' made in India and Dubai". Ouch! They argued that they gave a percentage of their sales to a local cooperative and that they employed staff from the local village but I couldn't find anyone working there who wasn't from Stone Town usually via Pemba. Ah, the contradictions of tourism about which I feel increasing difficulty as the gums recede and my breasts expand.

1 comment:

  1. Not I--not anyone else, can travel that road for you, You must travel it for yourself. Cheap flights to Zanzibar