I have always had a love affair with Africa. Its cultural diversity and richness, its nature, its people… everything I have experienced on my trips to the continent was pure authenticity to my eyes. Thus, it’s not a surprise that I jump on a plane to any African country each time I have an opportunity. And, since I cannot travel without my camera, I always bring back lots of photographs to complement the many memories that flood my mind.
Perhaps no location in Africa has been more interesting to me than Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous archipelago located about 20 miles off the coast of both Tanzania and Kenya, although it is formally a part of Tanzania. It consists of many small islands and two main ones: Unguja (often referred as Zanzibar) and Pemba. Over the centuries, it was considered a base for traders traveling between Africa, the Arabian peninsula and India and as a result, people of many different origins have settled there.
I had the chance to travel to Zanzibar last summer to document the work of Art in Tanzania, an NGO which is active in both Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania. The organizations’ main focuses are in education, social work, health, and arts.
Of course, saying that Zanzibar’s white sand beaches are beautiful is an understatement. But over time, Zanzibar has also become a beautiful cultural crossroads and its main city, Stone Town, is a living testimony of the island’s history.
Stone Town is the old part of Zanzibar City, the island’s main hub. The name comes from the use of coral stone as the main construction material, which gives buildings a distinctive reddish warm color. As the former capital of the Zanzibar sultanate, it is a city of huge historical importance in East Africa, thanks to a unique mixture of Swahili, Arab, Persian, Indian and European influences. Due to its heritage and uniqueness, the whole town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
Buildings in Stone Town often have three or four stories, and the streets are very narrow. As a result, many streets stay in the shade throughout the day. Also, there is just no room for cars to make their way in there, so people just stroll on foot or by bicycle. Traditional houses have large verandas located at different levels, even on their rooftops, that are protected by carved wooden balustrades and corrugated sheet roofs. Having your breakfast and morning coffee while admiring the city from one of these verandas is a must!
With no cars in the streets, everything is different. The pace of life, the sounds, the smells. The lack of motor vehicles makes it easy to immerse in the atmosphere of Stone Town and imagine what was life a few centuries ago. You can hear the sounds of people chatting while seated on houses pedestals and the voices of merchants talking to potential customers. You can smell the aromas of food, coffee, and spices being cooked in houses or even in the streets. Getting lost in the streets of Stone Town is a unique experience.
One of the most well-known features of Stone Town buildings are the decorated wooden doors. Connoisseurs can distinguish two main types of doors: those of Arab style are rectangular with a carving that is often Islamic in content while those of Indian style have rounded tops. Most of Stone Town’s buildings are very old and quite a lot of them are, unfortunately, in a deteriorating condition. Coral stone is indeed very friable and centuries of tropical climate and salt water have eroded the walls. Fortunately, some major restoration projects are currently being undertaken.
Stone Town is located on Zanzibar’s west coast, which is just perfect to admire beautiful African sunsets all year round. At the end of the days, both locals and tourists gather in the pubs and restaurant of Shangani – Stone Town’s seafront area – to sip a couple of sundowners cocktails or beers while watching the sun set over the Indian Ocean.
The Forodhani Gardens are located next to Shangani Street, along the main seawalk, just in front of the House of Wonders and the Old Fort, the town’s most famous historical buildings. There is a popular street food market that set up there every night, where both locals and tourists gather to have dinner.
The hardest part about having dinner at Foroghani Gardens is actually choosing between all the Zanzibari specialties: grilled seafood, samosas, sweet potatoes… and, of course, the famous Zanzibar pizza: a kind of chapati filled with ground meat, egg, onions, cream cheese and cooked on a grill. Hussein was my cook the night I arrived in Zanzibar and casually ended up at the gardens. He made me tasty grilled octopus and shrimps with an incredible sugar cane juice to drink with the tasty delicacies.
Over the course of history, Zanzibar was famous worldwide for its spices and, unfortunately, its slaves. It was East Africa’s main slave-trading port. It is estimated that not less than 50,000 slaves were sold through the slave market of Zanzibar each year in the 19th century, and probably as many died each year before even reaching the island. Slavery on Zanzibar was abolished by sultan Barghash bin Said, the second Sultan of Zanzibar, in 1876. Nowadays, what remains of the slave market hosts a museum on the history of slavery as well as a monument to the slaves.
The suburbs of Zanzibar City are a set of villages overlapping into each other. Fuoni, although it’s located only three miles to the southeast of Stone Town, is full of unpaved roads and the atmosphere feels much more rural than in town. Most houses are made of concrete blocks and corrugated sheet roofs. Fish and water vendors troll the streets by bicycles, ringing a bell to warn people that they are nearby. From time to time, you will see an overcrowded daladala (a minibus share taxi) cross the village.
In villages, most houses are tiny and people tend to do a lot of household activities outside, like this beautiful woman who was doing her laundry while her daughter was taking care of her small brother. Thus, the streets are full of activity and energy at pretty much every hour of the day.
For the residents of the suburbs and villages, going to the grocery store can take a while. Fortunately, there is (almost) always a small shop like this one around the corner, where you can find drinks, biscuits, bread, candies and even (sometimes) SIM cards. The thing is, you never know when it’s actually open.
A typical rural scene in Zanzibar. No need for fences there: chickens and cows will cross the streets freely as lots of families own their own animals for food purposes.
A great way to discover Zanzibar’s rural regions is to volunteer with one of the NGO’s that are active there. I had the chance to document the work of Art in Tanzania and visit several schools that they support. Since public transports are somewhat inconsistent, there are many small, proximity schools all around the island, like Yussuf Nursery School which houses about a hundred children from ages four to nine.
Most classrooms are very basic in rural schools. The luckiest pupils have wooden benches and chairs while the other sit on the ground during the class. But that surely doesn’t prevent classrooms to be welcoming, nor teachers to provide dynamic lessons to the children!
Break times are always very active as children play, sing and dance together and, quite often with the teachers as well. Visitors are more than welcome to take part in the activities and it won’t take long until a child grabs your hand and makes you join whatever is going on.
This is Babu. Babu means “grandfather” in Swahili. He’s the sweetest man. He is the caretaker at Art in Tanzania’s volunteer house in Fuoni. He is the kind of man who doesn’t speak much but has a benevolent gaze and a face that tells many stories. Babu always wears a Bargashia, Zanzibar’s variant of the Kofia, the traditional hat worn by men in East Africa, especially by Swahili-speaking people.
Zanzibar is, of course, also famous for its gorgeous white sand beaches and water activities. There are some famous villages around the east coast where most of the tourists gather, like Jambiani, or the much quieter village of Matemwe, where this photo was taken. Aside from tourism, the villages’ economy is mostly based on fishing and you will see fishermen going to the ocean on their dhows, the traditional sailing boats of East Africa.
Along with fishing, seaweed farming is the other economic pillar of the east coast’s villages, and it is mostly carried out by women. You will often see them bicycle on the beach to move from their village to the seaweed cultures, a much more convenient transportation method than using the inland’s roads and paths.
The Rock. One of the most iconic views of Zanzibar. It is a restaurant that was built on a rock not too far from the shore of Pingwe on the east coast. Although you can get to the rock on foot at low tide, you’ll need a boat if you want to reach your table at high tide!