The name alone is the stuff of dreams, like Timbuktu that we almost visited in Mali; and Veena’s description had left me hoping for an exceptional visit. Indeed, the Stone Town, as they call the capital (to distinguish it from the part of the city on the «other side» of a bay, poorer, whose buildings were once of dried mud and now of concrete and corrugated iron) contains a souk of old buildings one enters through magnificient carved wood doors. (Some photos, but I remind you that Veena had already taken pictures of Zanzibar in her first trip there.) But some of those old buildings have suffered from being converted into social housings after the revolution; and even if touristic development was late enough so people had a clue about consequences and could avoid the worst traps of uncontrolled development, it is clear that the tourist influx is already taxing the island’s capacity, both on the ecological and cultural side.

But before going on with our experience, I should give some historical context. Zanzibar always was an important port for commerce on the Indian Ocean, which was, much like the Mediterranean, at the centre of much cultural exchange and population mixing. Commerce was bound to the rhythms of the Monsoon, bringing the boats eastwards one season and westwards six months later; in between, high winds or no winds made travel impossible. The traders, first Persians (around year 1000) and later Arabs or Indians, had to settle for six months in the opposite country, and would often establish house and family there, hence partly the abundant ethnic mixing. Were being exchanged, coming from inner Africa, gold, ivory, precious woods… and already slaves. The Portuguese, following Vasco de Gama’s explorations, happily pillaged the coast, so much as to kill the trades that made it rich in the first place; until the Sultan of Oman chased them in the first half of seventeenth century and chose to move his capital to Zanzibar, constructing a fort that can still be visited, and that was at the origin of what would become Stone Town.

At that time, the slave trade had become one of the most important sources of riches in Indian Ocean trade; imported in great quantities by the Arabs (throughout the Middle East), and later by the Europeans in their oriental colonies. This history of this oriental slave trade is much less known, but at least as important as the triangular commerce with the Americas. (On the site of the old slave market in Zanzibar, there is a notice explaining the triangular slave trade, which goes to show how much less well documented the oriental slave trade is, at least in English…) The oriental slave trade also contributed to the population mixing, this time in the Arab world, where the children of the african slave-wives were considered legitimate, unlike those of European slave masters.

The Europeans, despite using slaves themselves, pushed for the abolition of slavery, starting with the famous Dr. Livingstone (I presume…) missionary and explorer. The Omanis, of course, resisted this push for abolition, that they judged both hypocritical (given the use of slaves in European colonies) and also driven less by humanitarian motives than by the intention to break one of the economic pillars of their empires; and probably were they right on this account as well, even if the intentions of someone like Livingstone seem quite above reproach. But the European powers, especially England, put continuous pressure on Zanzibar to end the slave trade, as the latter was one of the main commercial centers of that trade, and hence quite rich (one of the very few African states to have an embassy in Europe…), and we can suspect that the political motivations behind this pressure could indeed have been less noble.

The other source of Zanzibari wealth was the spice trade; the Sultan Seyyid Said, feeling that the writing was on the walls for the slave trade, imported a number of clove trees, which also contributed to his wealth, so much as to allow his successor to break ties with Oman. It is the pinnacle of Zanzibari power; the next Sultan, Bargash, saw his fortune wane as, first, a cholera epidemics decimated the population, followed by a cyclone that destroyed his fleet as well as most of the clove plantations; soon after he had lost his fleet, the British fleet could impose the abolition of the slave trade… At the same time, the Germans were taking over Tanganyika, which until then was also part of the old Omani empire, or at least its sphere of influence. Bargash could only witness the end of his empire, leaving behind magnificent constructions, and died bitter as Zanzibar became a British protectorate, and the following Sultans lost all real political power, even if they still owned the island’s resources (including cloves) for awhile.

When the British granted independence to Zanzibar (1963, two years after Tanganyika), the parliament was still dominated by the Omanis, following a series of rigged election; the African majority of Zanzibar (led by an Ugandan) revolts the following year, and most Arabs and Indians (who, though without political powers, were however big landowners thanks to commerce) are either driven away or massacred. Following this revolt, the economy of the island is in tatters, and the new president of Zanzibar has to accept the offer of union from Julius Nyerere, from which is born modern Tanzania (TANganyika+ZANzibar.)

Let me glide over recent history; the cultural and religious tolerance that characterizes Tanzania as a whole is slowly seeping to Zanzibar, after further persecution of the remaining Indians in the 60′s. I have already mentioned the importance of tourism in the new liberal economy, characterized by prices given in US$. You may have heard about the accusations of corruption during this last election. It is not absolutely clear that this election was rigged, mind you; but if not, it would be a first in Tanzania’s short history of multipartism. The party in power, ex-socialist, systematically sets aside the CUF, which favours comparatively more political independence for Zanzibar from the mainland, and also seemingly greater islamisation of internal politics, though the public discourse of CUF centers more around social issues.

So… How does it feel like on the ground? I’m not so sure. Clearly, Zanzibar is more rich culturally than Dar (I am not speaking for the whole of Tanzania, much too diverse.) The old «House of Wonders», an elegant building, of hybrid architecture, with then-modern amenities built by Sultan Bargash, is now a mostly excellent museum, with among other things a reconstitution of an older style of dhow (Indian ocean boats) whose wooden beams are sewn rather than nailed, which allowed it to better resist collisions with corals, and according to legend, to avoid losing all its nails to some mythical marine magnet. There was also an old Aladdin lamp, said to be complete with genie; and many traces of the time when Zanzibar was a commercial hub of the maritime trade, for example a Chinese bowl which was as remarkable for its size as its quality.

In the evening, at a restaurant named after Freddy Mercury (of Queen fame, yes, he was a Zanzibari!) we finally heard a concert of taarab, a form of Zanzibari music which mostly reminds one of classical Arabic music, but with some echoes… not so much of Africa specifically, but of a bit of everywhere. (Not to mention recent fusions with rap and Jazz! But the concert we heard was more classical.) We came back quite enchanted. You’ll hear the CDs when we come back. Meanwhile: description and samples

The following day, Christmas eve, after visiting the old slave market (converted to an Anglican cathedral, with superb embossed copper iconography behind the altar; but they kept some of the old slave holding cells, where one is torn between claustrophobia and stark horror.) We then did some shopping: as in any touristic location, one finds a bit of everything, Indian clothes, Arabic jewellery, spices from everywhere…. I guess what is typically Zanzibari is properly the mixture itself. But we’re especially happy with our musical buys, the most representative. But I also needed new lighter pants, my old jeans (seriously worn down by now) being a tad on the heavy side for Tanzanian summer! Oh, yes, summer is here. Veena is suffering more than I do, when the heat becomes stifling; at home it’s still fine, as our apartment has wonderful cross-ventilation, but the hotel we stumbled on in Stone Town was quite ordinary, and did not have the same degree of wind, and I myself had some moments of weather-induced stupor. (While you’re freezing, from what I hear…) That said, lack of sleep did not help: We were quite happy to note that our hotel was far enough from neighbouring mosques, but we had yet to find out that, as sonorous as they might be, the muezzins are at least not as persistent as common roosters. There was obviously some kind of henhouse thereabouts, and for those who never experienced it, the myth that the cock crows at sunrise omits to add that it also does so a fair amount of time beforehand and even longer afterwards. Darn the silly beast!

We splurged a bit for the Christmas dinner at the Sweet Eazy, one of the better restaurants in Stone Town, where they had promised us an orchestra with «African music»; but if we did indeed eat well, musically it was a minor disaster, as they were playing American pop standards, though some had indeed been translated into Swahili. Darn. We knew the Mercury was offering an evening of Christmas Carols, and were not so keen; it felt slightly disconnected in a Muslim island… Well, there are one or two churches in Stone Town, and we almost went to hear mass in Swahili. We ended up finding a local, open-air bar, populated almost exclusively with Africans, where the DJ was giving solid reggae fare, and we finally could dance. Yes, despite the importance of Islam (and also Christianity, except in Zanzibar) we find a fair number of rastafarians in Tanzania… Go figure. Then, they happen to be the people most interested in speaking to wazungu tourists…

Another word on cooking: They sell us the spice island, the originality of this cuisine that combines the best elements of the Arabic, Indian and African cuisines… Beans! (No, not even spiced beans.) I must have got too used, by now, to the complex and pungent flavours of Indian cooking, not to mention Arabic cooking, but as far as I am concerned, many of the African cuisines (excepting of course North Africa, and Ethiopia, and to a lesser extent ex-Zaire, where they at least know how to use chilies) are desperately bland, and Zanzibar is unfortunately not that much of an exception. The fish and seafood are fresh and tasty, no doubt; but as for the tamarind coconut curry sauce… Well, I do see the coconut paste, but where is the tamarind? Yes, there are cloves and cardamom in the spiced rice, but the spice mix is quite approximate and does not approach a good biryani. The cloves tea, it must be said, was not bad at all. There are absolutely charming conical copper coffee makers, where the street vendors would traditionally brew and sell Arabic coffee, but which I have only seen used as ornaments. (I could get decent espresso, Zanzibar is amply touristic enough for that… But how exotic is that? I finally could drink a good Arabic coffee… in a funky, eco-friendly hotel owned by Palestinians!) To add insult to injury, the service is often times abnormally slow. Yes, I know I am in Africa, but even in Dar I do not have to wait 40 mins. for a salad! To sum it up, as a gastronomical destination, we’ve both seen better. OK, I’m complaining again, but as you know I am spoilt; and the flavours could have been composed more subtly, but they were not totally absent. We ran into a Canadian on mission in Zambia, she told us that the food there was absolutely tasteless. The horror….

So… Day after, to the beach! We went to Jambiani, on the east coast, of which we had been told that it was not the best bathing beach, but that we could make wonderful walks at low tide. Indeed, the slope is most gentle, and at high tide we could walk over 200m into the sea without the water ever getting much above the knees. But we discovered it was a very bad idea. Thank heavens the water was clear, by the way; so that between the (very plentiful) seaweed I could spy in time why this was indeed not a bathing beach. Flash-back: At the age of six, travelling through Africa (Karl was doing a series on Africa, that had him shoot six months on site, and Geneviève and I accompanied him for slightly less) a wave had me lose foot, and I only found it again on a colony of black sea urchins. It took my mother a good twelve days to remove the needles embedded in my feet (using a syringe needle, yes we tried thousands of other ways before that one) (and of course, during that time, she also had to carry me! Anyways…) So, I recognized with some terror that my old sea urchin friends had come to greet me in numbers amidst the seaweed. I am still surprised (and grateful to my lucky star) that I did not trample them anew.

The hotels have set up sand corridors between the seaweed to walk safely until the boats, whence one can snorkel in higher seas. Once the finally told us about them (a bit late, incidentally….), those corridors allowed us to walk further on in the sea. We decided to pass on the boat trip; We had only one day at the sea, and did not want to do too much. Later, we indeed had a charming walk at low tide, and some chance meetings with other travellers allowed us to have a nice time that evening. The voyage back was painless; except that the 13:30 ferry was full (impossible to reserve more than 24h ahead, grrrr.) and we had to take the 16h ferry, of which Veena had a scary tale to report on her first trip (strong sea, over 80% of the boat was sick…) But we ended up having an exceptionally quiet sea. (We learnt later that there is a season as well as a time for bad trips.)

What do I make of it all? The architecture is superb, but we feel it has suffered; and the Stone Town, with the exception of the Omani fort, is after all of fairly recent make. An older mosque also seems amazing, from what little we could see; but it is surrounded by modern buildings that hide the outside, and of course the inside is forbidden to non-muslims. Even the souk is a mere 150 years old, which explains why those beautiful wooden doors are still standing. The population is indeed mixed, and once was cosmopolitan; but they turned inwards when their fortunes waned, and the revolution did not help. So tourists are welcomed, but one feels some reserve. The feeling of reserve is not unique to Zanzibar, mind you; we are still waiting to make Tanzanian friends (well, except one but he grew up in Sweden, that doesn’t count!) (To be honest, I did not yet take time to work on my Swahili myself.) We feel some more affinity to Zanzibari culture, which has the advantage of having inherited more directly from the richness of Arabic culture, and to have been less neutralized by modernity than Dar is; but that makes it in no way more accessible.

Our stay there was lovely, I would not want to denigrate; yes, Zanzibar is worth seeing. But… the centre at least of Stone Town is quite touristy. When we go back, it will be a real beach holiday (including some diving, it’s been ages, but that will wait for me to make some money again) and otherwise we will try to avail of some of the cultural tourism options to meet people in the villages. It is still somewhat artificial, but it should be better. There are some around the beach we had selected (partly for that reason) but we did not have the time or energy this time; and indeed the hotels, though infinitely more opulent than the surrounding village, did not seem completely disconnected from it. There is some hope. But the identity of tourist (i.e. revenue source…) is quite the social handicap.

Again, I am ill placed to complain about prices; as a resident, the ferry cost me only TSh 10500 (around US$9), vs. US$35 for ordinary tourists. That’s not much; the difference should be more welcome for safaris, whose fees are supposed to jump in January due to increased park fees. However, that residency permit, beyond a paltry US$120 (paid by CUSO), cost me at least fifteen visits to the various immigration departments (I did not keep an accurate count, but that should be the ballpark, without exaggeration.) Not that the process is so painful in and of itself, but it is almost impossible to obtain accurate information as to the documents required, where to obtain the forms, which form applies in my case, how much I will have to pay, where, when and how ($US, of course, each bill of which I had to write the number on the registry!), how long each step should take, and so on and so forth. One of the reasons why it is so difficult to have answers to these questions is that the civil servants are rather unavailable; count many hours spent in front of an empty wicket. Impossible, when they are there, to get any estimate about waiting times other than “soon” if it is the same day, and otherwise estimates are worthless. Veena did not have so much trouble, partly because CUSO had prepared her arrival better, and partly because the last steps had been given to the HakiElimu driver, who as a Tanzanian could more easily get the full story. As Haki is being singularly unpopular with the government right now, they deemed it safer for me to do it on my own, which ended up being a peerless occasion to practice the paramita of patience. (Paramita: Buddhist virtues.)

That said…. I finally send an (almost) complete theory chapter to my director, and I’m waiting for detailed comments. So to all those who were asking me where I’m at: Finally halfway! But that unfortunately means quite behind deadlines. I am not unhappy with what has been written so far (63000 words and counting, I hope to reach 2^64 by year’s end ;-) , and my director has granted me yetsreday the grace of an extension to go on. I intend to write the second half much faster, the foundation having been laid out. But that also means I will not set up internet at home for another few months.

Speaking of setting up: The curtains are finally up (Yay!) Electricity has been more stable lately, but we were told such an anomaly was sure to end soon. I thus bought a spare battery for my dear laptop, which is holding out in the heat.

This was your correspondant from downtown Dar es Salaam, and exceptionally surrounding areas. Stay tuned for another episode, and happy new year until then!


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