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An Expert insight to Zanzibar

When I step off a plane I can always tell if I am on a tropical Island. It’s the smell: the aroma of salt mixed with seaweed and sand suspended in the heavy humid air. It is a wonderfully intoxicating perfume that makes the heart beat quicker while, at the same time, relaxing the mind and body in preparation for several hard days of doing very little. Plenty of time for sloth and indolence, doing as many of the ‘esses’ as possible: sun, sea sand, sunbathing, swimming, sailing, snorkelling and scuba diving.

We are on Zanzibar, off the east coast of Tanzania for a few days of rest, relaxation and recuperation after the exertions of Kilimanjaro exertions. Zanzibar is rich in history being one of Africa’s great trading centres and has been for centuries a crossroads of culture, a melting pot of influences where Africa, India and Arabia meet. It was a powerful city-state, supplying slaves, gold, ivory, wood and spices to places as distant as Asia, while importing spices, glassware and textiles. Along the trade routes came Islam and the Arabic architecture that still dominates the archipelago today. In fact, trade became so profitable that the Sultan of Oman relocated his court here from the Persian Gulf. The result of all this mixing of peoples is very evident in the faces of the locals with a myriad of features, skin colour, and religion.

The village of Matemwe is so small anyone could be forgiven for not noticing it at all. It’s a collection of small single room, white walled houses, made from limestone and crushed sea shell, topped with regimented corrugated iron roofs that look out of place on the uneven, handmade walls. Between the little houses runs a potholed, white sandy road that is the preferred playground of scraggy chicken. The boundary of the town is marked by a line of coconut palms that in turn define the breadth of the beach. The beach itself is glorious. Fine, soft, brilliant white sand stretches away into the distance. A turquoise sea gently laps the shore whilst a white crested, deep blue Indian Ocean crashes onto a fringing reef. Kids play along the water’s edge, men mend nets or tend their boats, and the sun beats down a pleasant warmth. It seems like Paradise. Outside the reef, across the different blues of the waters lay the forested island of Mnemba.

At low tide, the locals gather in numbers to wade between the shore and the reef in search of octopus, crustaceans and small fish. As the tide fills the foreshore, boats begin to appear. Fishing boats punted along by one or two hunters, people waist deep in the water casting fishing nets, whilst, further out, sailing boats of all sizes slid across the azure sea. These sailing boats all have triangular sails that fly in a rickety mast/boom arrangement that is extremely effective at propelling the boats along at an impressively quick rate of knots. In contrast, the dive boats lumber along, laden with heavy equipment and divers of very mixed ability. These boats have to wait for half tide before they can make the dash over the reef and into deeper water to reach the dive sites.

Stone Town is the very soul of Zanzibar. It is the old ancient settlement and the centre of trade. It is full of labyrinthine alleyways and odd architecture. A walk through its cobbled streets will encounter a different experience at every twist and turn: women clad in bui bui (a black cover-all worn by Islamic women outside the home), shops and stalls selling (and smelling) of spices, children playing, elderly men dressed in kanzu (a white full length robe) and, sometimes, wearing a kofia (an embroidered cap). Ancient Persia mixes with old Oman and India’s Goan coast. It’s a unique little biosphere. The Darajani Market sells every kind of produce, some alive but mostly dead. Without refrigeration, at least everything is reasonably fresh. Disappointingly, there are a number of shark on sale that attract little interest, their fins having been removed to cater for the demand from China.

The fruit, veg and spice markets are less organised, a space on the floor or pavement will do, a rickety wooden stall perched against a wall is sufficient, anywhere that has a bit of space available for a scale pretty much is perfect.

Away from the markets, the rich mélange of architecture becomes apparent. Arabic style houses with their recessed inner courtyards rub shoulders with Indian influenced buildings boasting ornate balconies and latticework. Doors are a feature that makes the locals proud. Three hundred year old solid wooden structures, intricately carved, compete one against another to proclaim the richest and most influential occupants.

But the strongest emotions are generated by the remnants of the slave trade. Some of the underground cells where the slaves were held prior to the weekly auction are still intact. They are tiny areas with little ventilation and no sanitation, where up to 50 of them were chained together in horrendously cramped conditions.  The site of the whipping post, to which the slave was chained for sale, is now covered by the Anglican Cathedral. But the spot is marked on the red marble floor just in front of the altar. The famous Dr. Livingstone was very influential in the termination of the trade, working tirelessly with every authority he could locate in an effort to get it banned. By all accounts, around 50,000 slaves were sold in Zanzibar’s market every year. This is a stunning number given that there would be a high mortality rate in capturing and transporting slaves to Zanzibar for sale, the number suggests that, at least a quarter of a million people were needed to meet the demand every 5 years. East Africa and lands as far away as the Congo and Malawi would have been emptied of people.

Our final act of tourism was to visit the house of Zanzibar’s most famous person, Freddie Mercury, the deceased lead singer of Queen. He was born in 1946 in Stone Town to Parsee parents. In those days he was called Faroukh Bulsara and, with a name like that, it’s not difficult to understand why he wanted to change it.

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