Chilling out in Zanzibar

Wednesday 5 to Sunday 9 October

The warm humid weather was quite a change from the dusty safaris of the game parks. We had also returned to sea level and as the days progressed my aching fingers were relieved. I am not use to living at 1000m to 2500m above sea level.

Zanzibar is a tropical island and the city of Stone Town gets its name from the stone buildings.  These buildings are constructed using Somali techniques with intertidal coral, cement and mahogany timber. In the humid air the stone blocks turn black giving the town a rather unkempt look.

As in any tropical city, people here move slowly and sit a lot, especially the men.

I was surprised to find the culture here was predominantly Muslim. I had to choose what I wore each day more carefully, to remain modest.

Zanzibar has been occupied by many different rulers. In the 15th century the Portuguese were ruling the island.

The Oman sultans overthrew the Portuguese and moved their palaces to Zanzibar at the very end of the 17th century, particularly to manage the slave trade. They also saw the potential of growing crops, especially cloves which were commanding a good price in Europe and India.

Slaves were brought into Zanzibar from the mainland, to be auctioned at the Slave Market. The beautiful young people might have been purchased by the upper class to add to their harem and eunuchs. The strong were purchased to work the many farms that were established on the island.

Others were purchased to be sent to work in other Arabian, European and sub-continent countries.

Slave were typically kidnapped from villages between the coast and Lake Victoria and walked to the coastal towns for transportartion to various slave market hubs, the biggest being Zanzibar.

The walk to the markets could takes days or a year and these slaves were shackled together for the duration. A weak or sick slave was tossed aside on the trail and left to die. The attrition rate was high.

Once they reached the coast, weak slaves were discarded to avoid paying the import tax per head onto the island of Zanzibar.

And so the sultans and merchants who traded slaves became wealthy.

In the mid 19th century a few notable people, particularly English, started to argue that slave trading was inhumane and should be outlawed. Amongst them was Dr Livingston and Bishop Edward Steere. They finally persuaded the British parliament to pass laws banning the trade. The British government then worked with the sultans to implement the ban.

In 1876 the trade was outlawed but continued overtly for another 20 years.

Bishop Steere built an Anglican Cathedral on the site of the slave market and today there are chambers on show where slaves were ‘stored’ until the auction and a memorial to them. Of course the slave trade still exists today and is a sad indictment of how we mistreat poorer nations such as children picking cotton in Uzbekistan and indentured labour in clothing factories in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.

Banning slavery had other implications. Many slaves were kept on at the farms as indentured labourers because there was nowhere else for them to go. The former slaves had no skills in looking after themselves. They had been separated from their original lifestyle for so many years that they had lost that culture.

Missionaries arrived in huge numbers, picking out the intelligent displaced slaves and educating them to become missionaries, teachers and nurses. They trained others in trades. Despite the big influx of Christian missionaries, the island has maintained a predominately Muslim culture which was introduced to the east coast of Africa in the 10th Century by refugees from Persia.

We came across the story of Seyyida Salme binti Said bin Sultan El Busaidlya, Princess of Oman and Zanzibar, 1844 – 1924, daughter of the Sultan Seyyid Said of Oman. She fell in love with a German merchant Rudolf Heinrich Reute and absconded with the help of the wife of the British Consul in August 1866. She converted to Christianity and they married in Aden and continued to Hamburg. Her Christian name was Emily Reute. Her account of living in such a different country excited the German readers. With three young children, her husband died in a horse-tram accident. No longer accepted by her brother the sultan of Zanzibar and unable to return to her home, she continued to live in Germany and improving both her German & English skills.

It is believed that she is the first woman to document life in a sultan’s palace and her transition to a European lifestyle. Her book, in English, is Memoirs of a Princess.

The Dispensary was originally built as the Jubilee Hospital in honour of Queen Victoria’s Julilee, but as it was unfinished at the time of the founder, Sir Tharia Topan’s death, the opening was delayed. Sir Gerald Portal, the British Consul saw to its completion. It was subsequently purchased by Haji Nasser Normohammad and opened as a dispensary.

Today it houses a craft market although only one stall was in operation when we visited it. Many of the rooms are used as offices for NGOs. The building is lovely but the balcony at the front is amazing with rich iron and timber lacework.

We visited the House of Wonders. One of the many sultan’s palaces that were built during their heyday.  This palace was the first building to have electricity in Zanzibar and also the first to have a lift and was therefore regarded with ‘wonder’. Built using the traditional method of coral, cement and mahogany, it boasts enormous ceilings and beautiful Indian carved doors. The style of the building reflects the Islamic culture and it has the grandest staircase I have seen. As with all Public buildings here, there is a tiredness about it, made worse by the roof collapsing during a recent storm.

The old fort sits near the waterfront. It was erected by the Omani Arabs about 1700 from materials of a Portuguese Chapel and a nearby stone residence. It was later used as a barracks and a prison as well as a repair shop for the Bububu Railway. Today it houses a craft market.

Our other outing was to the Kidichi Spice Farm. Most spices are not native to Zanzibar, nor even Tanzania, they were brought into the country during the Omanian days to grow and trade.

So today, with many cultural influences Zanzibar, is a mix of Christian, Muslim and Somali influences.

We ate a mixture of food, Somalian, Indian and Ethiopian and every meal was excellent, interesting and exciting. We found good coffee and good bars and lovely sunsets. Just the restful place we needed between safaris.