Zanzibar is so much more than turquoise water and a cluster of air-conditioned, all-you-can-eat holiday resorts.
As big fat reads go, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is pretty chunky. At more than 700 pages, it’s the kind of beach read you pack for an unhurried, week-long break to Zanzibar.
Everything’s slower in this semi-autonomous archipelago of Tanzania. There aren’t highways, strip malls, chicken joints and Wi-Fi. Locals say pole pole – ‘slowly, slowly’ – as the ultimate invitation to read, to chill, and to hone your patience.
It’s exactly what local Kambi Waziri is doing sitting under a roadside thatched shelter. There’s an airtime shop inside a small shipping container and little else on his side of the road, away from the tourist resorts that have annexed the beach and the ocean view.
He’s waiting for a dala dala, a converted truck with a metal frame acting as roof and windows. Benches line the sides meant to squeeze in people with their groceries, luggage, animals and whatever else doesn’t mind the roof seat.
‘The dala dala will come now,’ says Kambi, but he shrugs a little and offers up some of his shade. More minutes pass and he says again, ‘It is coming now’. He’s an ex-sailor, he speaks a bit of Italian and English and he’s passed through Durban before so he’s happy to chat to visitors from the south of the continent.
A few more bicycles and pedestrians pass, among them Masai in traditional dress. There’s the odd truck too, but no dala dala.
‘Where do you want to go?’ Kambi asks.
‘Just to look around, wherever the dala dala goes’ – even the beach and the big fat book need to be in pause mode sometime.
He thinks a bit. Then Kambi says he knows a person who knows a person and he can organise a mini-minibus and is happy to be a guide for a small fee.
Kambi’s village is a world away from the air-conditioned, all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink resorts that make tourism the second-biggest money-spinner, after spice exports, for Zanzibar. Electricity and piped water only became available about five years ago in the village of Pwani Mchangani. Women still draw water from the well for washing. There’s seaweed drying as children play among goats on the sandy streets.
Harvesting seaweed for the Asian market is one of the most popular income generating livelihoods during low tourism months. Most villagers rely on the tourist trade to peddle everything from scooter rides to carved keyrings and sarongs, or even charge to pose for photos.
Not everyone can afford electricity and refuse removal means just tossing garbage to the ground. At the local duka, a kind of spaza shop, you can buy a version of carbonated soda and starch for ironing. One kilo of rice costs 2 000 Tanzanian shillings (TZS), about R11; a can of cola is about 1 000 TZS, but there are no major shops within walking distance so this is as convenient as it gets.
‘Things are tough and it’s hard for some people, but it is getting better,’ Kambi says.
Zanzibar needs tourism and there’s mostly a friendly, can-do attitude. South Africans are becoming regulars, capitalising on new direct flights and low-season rates. Even a bad day in low season (March to May) sees rain giving way to sunshine and humidity, which can almost be tamed with local beer or cocktails with large doses of konyagi, the part gin, part vodka local alcoholic wonder.
Kambi proudly shows off the hospital. The Pwani Mchangani dispensary is run by Dr Kheiri Ali Kaheir, who’s been based here for 16 years. It’s basic, but it serves the villagers.
‘Jambo, jambo. Karibu,’ says the doctor in greeting and welcome. He starts a mini tour, showing off an inventory and printed chart of what illnesses present most frequently in the clinic – more than 40% are respiratory diseases. The eye charts are pictures diminishing in size, not alphabets for a largely illiterate village.
Kambi is also proud to show off his youngest daughter, Mwanahamisi. She runs to her father and hugs him. He drops her to the ground and she hugs the legs of her daddy’s new friends and breaks out in a wide smile before retreating to his arms. Other children gather and a baby is brought out to be introduced. Little Himidi’s face is painted according to a local Islamic custom to bless newborns, Kambi explains.
The archipelago is predominantly Muslim, but it also has a Christian population. It has a challenged history of colonisation, invasion and slavery that only officially ended in 1873. The Arabs have been there, so too the Indians, the Portuguese and the British. It makes for a heady mix in cultural life, politics, architecture and custom. At the same time there’s an absence of outward hostility or tension between people. There’s the appearance of an easy embrace of whatever arises – as Zanzibaris say, ‘hakuna matata’. No worries.
‘We have the same God, but I am Sunni Muslim and George is Christian,’ says tour guide Awesu Ismail Mohammed, speaking about himself and his colleague George Bizali. They’re leading a tour through Stone Town, the ancient heart of the capital, Zanzibar Town. It’s named for the coral stone and lime from which it was built in the 19th century.
George and Awesu say Zanzibaris are peaceful people mostly. Neither can instantly tell of problems they have. Awesu, though, says he used to be a teacher but his liberal views and outspoken ways made it difficult for him to keep stretching young minds under formal government constraints.
The only inkling they have heavy hearts are while they show tourists through the grounds of the Anglican cathedral in Stone Town that stands as a memorial of the years of slavery in Zanzibar.
There’s a basement holding cell that’s split into two, one for men and one for women. You lower your head to fit in. Even an old-style Volksie wouldn’t fit in the room, but Awesu says that up to 70 people were jammed into each of the cells, with no food, no ablutions and no sign of outside life.
‘There were our own chiefs who sold our brothers and sisters,’ he says.
Human caravans of chained men, women and children left Bagamoyo on the mainland and trekked hundreds of kilometres to be shipped to the Zanzibar slave market. Bagamoyo hauntingly means ‘lay down your heart’. Slaves knew all hope of freedom was lost for them once they were in Bagamoyo.
At the centre of the altar is a circular tile,
a memorial to those whose blood was shed at the slave whipping post. Inside the church is also a crucifix that’s said to be made from the wood of the mvula tree under which Dr David Livingstone’s heart was buried in Zambia.
Livingstone was instrumental in eventually forcing the Sultan Barghash to end the slave trade in Zanzibar. There’s some irony in that his old home is now a tourism office and its neighbour is a modern, shiny building for a trans-national bank.
‘When I think of the slavery and our history it does make me sad, but we are peaceful people, we get along,’ George says.
Of course Zanzibar’s not a paradise in a bubble. But maybe it’s easier to be peaceful separated from the white noise of the mainland; a piece of fertile soil surrounded by turquoise waters disturbed only occasionally by slow passing dhows and snorkelers coming up for air. It’s as if the already laid-back tropical vibe delivers a double whammy in the form of an intoxicating infusion of spices and fruits that grow with abundance here.
Markets and spice farms are places you visit with your nose on full olfactory alert. You’re offered jackfruit, all custardy and unusual, baobab seeds coated in pink sherbet-like sugar and coconut that, when cut correctly, comes with its own scoop with which to gather up the soft, creamy flesh.
And when it comes to spices, Zanzibaris are most proud of the king of spices – cloves, all pungent and aromatic. Their ginger root, too, is sure to be the hottest to cross your palate. Ylang-ylang also grows here – islanders call it ‘Chanel No.1’ because it’s one of the base fragrances in that other famous fragrance.
Zanzibar is spice and all things nice – layers of fragrance, aroma and experience to breathe in slowly again and again. It’s no surprise Franzen’s book lands at OR Tambo with its pages still unread. But as the islanders would say, hakuna matata.
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