The Exotic Essence of Zanzibar

Zanzibar – By Irene Butler

For Zanzibar Photo Gallery Click: Zanzibar-Photo-Gallery/

Published in TravelLady and TravelWise E-Zines

Zanzibar, Nungwi Beach

Old Stone Town of Zanzibar Island with its labyrinth of narrow streets andZanzibar Stone Town alleyways transported my partner, Rick and I back to ancient Persia; that is, until we were jarred back to the 21st century by vehicles passing with only inches to spare between their fenders and our bodies flattened against a wall. Ornate wooden doors entered crumbling buildings, patched many times during the past 150 years of their existence. Mold and mildew in the rainy season and the blazing sun of summer took turns peeling and loosening layers and chunks of stone and mortar. The interiors seem held together with innumerable coats of bright coloured glossy paint.

Bui bui (black veils from head to toe) or kangas (brightly patterned cloths, one for a skirt and another for a head and shoulder cover) are worn by women young and old. Papasi (“ticks”- the Swahili name for touts) flooded the streets peddling wares or steering visitors to a commission paying hotel or tour company. “Call to prayer” resounded from the many mosques in this 97% Muslim community. A lively market once dealing in slaves bound for Arabia, Persia and India was filled with heaps of clothing, footwear, fresh produce, meat and the unmistakable pong of fish.

Zanzibar Spice Island TourLocally called Unguja, Zanzibar Island is but one of many islands in the Zanzibar Archipelago situated off the east coast of Africa. Their common appellation “spice islands” adds another exotic element. Knowing our visit would not be complete without seeing the source of the little packages that season gourmet concoctions the world over, we joined a spice tour.

Our conveyance was a wacky open-sided truck with bars, extending from the bench seats along the back and sides, to the garish Mac-Tac covered roof. Scrunched in, along with ten other people, we bounced along country roads to visit both government and privately owned farms.

Pepper vines spiraled up the trunks of trees in an epiphytical relationship. Our fingers turned scarlet as we squished the seeds of the Cinnabar or “lipstick tree”; the luscious colourant is used in cosmetics, food, and paints. Pinching the leaves of one-hundred-year-old cinnamon trees released the delightfully familiar fragrance. The bark is peeled regularly, with no harm to the cinnamon tree which has the capability to repair the layer within three months; both leaves and bark are dried and ground into powder.

Most awesome were the thirty-foot giants with clumps of cloves dangling from loftyIMG_7526 branches. Tall tri-pod ladders are required to do the frantic picking during the two-week window when the cloves will fetch the best price. Strangest were the jackfruit with their mottled green reptilian skin; some up to 24″ long and 8″ in diameter. An ambrosial combination of pineapple and banana was released as we sampled chunks of its juicy pulp. The “forty-tree”, as it is known by locals, contains quinine used to treat malaria as well as constituents to cure another thirty-nine ailments. Our minds were saturated at the end of pinching, prying, sniffing, tasting and absorbing facts on over thirty plants and trees.

As a part of the spice tour, our guide, Joey, drove to the slave enclosures at Mangapwani. After slavery was abolished in 1897, the profitable business went literally underground. With only low stone roofs with a few air vents protruding above ground, it was almost impossible to detect the cold grey stone pens used to hold captives until they could be clandestinely transported to cargo ships. Descending jagged rock stairs into a dank, moldy 8 ft x 10 ft x 10 ft high room, we noted a row of gouges half way up the walls along each side.

IMG_7568“After the first 50 slaves were forced in,” Joey explained, “poles were slotted into the gouges, then covered with planks so another 50 men could be crammed in on top.” A second bunker held women and children – a chilling, gruesome sight.

The Beit al-Sahel (Palace Museum) in Stone Town holds a chronology of historical events. Some of the highlights were the drawings and charts of dhow ships that chronicle the 12th to 15th century trade-boom of amber, tortoise shells, and slaves. The sultanate era is detailed with intriguing stories of the Oman rulers and their families. Princess Salme (1844-1924) was of particular interest. In the 1850’s this radical daughter of Sultan Sayyid Said taught herself to write by secretly copying verses from the Koran onto a camel shoulder bone and later scandalously eloped with a German trader. Her autobiography is still read today. In 1964 after the last sultan was overthrown, the Zanzibar Archipelago merged with Tanganyika to form the country of Tanzania.

Nungwi beach, on the north shore of the island, was an excellent choice for our last stop;Zanzibar, Nungwi Beach fine white sand, coral reefs, and turquoise seas glistening in the sun. Access to the beach area was down a ramp of bamboo poles tied together. A rooster with attitude commanded the right of way on the path in front of our cozy beach bungalow. Cows grazed out back. Nungwi was both as rustic and as near paradise as one could get. Nearby restaurants served good basic food, though so “polee-polee” (slowly, slowly) we first thought our waiter should be reported as a missing person, but soon went with the flow. Each evening we watched women meet the fishing boats and load up the days catch in bright red and green five-gallon pails. In an amazing feat, they balanced the weighty containers on their heads to walk back to the village behind the beach area; their life unchanged by the passage of time.

Zanzibar FamilyOur reminiscences of Zanzibar flow, like the island’s soft breezes, of days wiled away meandering the streets stopping to haggle over carvings or textiles, and sipping a glass of wine as we watched the munificent setting-sun bleed into the Indian Ocean. From the crumbling mystique and rich Islamic culture of Stone Town, to the tropical beaches, it is a place to slip into a mellower existence.

“Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar” by Emily Ruete (Princess Salme), 1888
When to Go: The tropical climate ranges in the mid to high 20’s Celsius all year round, but rains and humidity vary – July to Oct –low humidity; Nov to Mar – short rains and higher humidity; April to June – long monsoons.

Getting there and away: From Dar es Salaam: By Air – ZanAir and Coastal Aviation have daily flights; – Ferry company lists & sailing times obtained at – Tanzania Tourist Board, 1555 Samora Ave. Dar es Salaam Ph: 212-0373

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