Originally published in The Oregonian, December 17, 2010
Baboo, a tall Zanzibari man in a white linen robe and sandals, found me sitting atop my luggage in an alley examining my guidebook. A reservation error had left me without a place to stay in Zanzibar City.
“Jambo, friend. Do you need help, a ride perhaps?” Baboo asked in perfect English. Within moments, Baboo and I were zooming through Stone Town, the city’s historical center on Unguja, Zanzibar’s largest island.
Stone Town’s rusty-roofed old palaces, narrow shaded streets, churches, mosques and a Hindu temple stretch out to where Unguja’s white sand beaches meet the turquoise of the Indian Ocean. Each doorway in the pitted, coral stone walls seems more intricately carved and mysterious than the last. Handcrafted dhows sail from the harbor, and the sound of children playing blends with the noise of construction work.
But the modern tranquillity of this island paradise belies its long and turbulent history of commerce, conquest and slavery.
Because of their position with relation to the trade winds and the resource-rich coast of East Africa, the islands, once known as the Spice Islands, have been a center of trading since the dawn of civilization. The first non-African visitors to Zanzibar were Sumerians between 2000 and 3000 B.C. Ample evidence shows subsequent trading connections with Phoenicia, Assyria, Parthia, China, Greece, Rome, Egypt, Malaysia, Indonesia and Persia. After ransacking Unguja in 1503, the Portuguese built a garrison at the present-day location of Stone Town. By 1701, soldiers from Oman had burned the garrison at Unguja and erected a high-walled stone fort in its place. The Omanis then established Zanzibar as the epicenter of both the rapidly expanding market for slaves and the lucrative spice trade. Between 1811 and 1871, more than 1 million people were sold in Stone Town’s slave market alone, and Zanzibar’s plantations supplied four-fifths of the world’s cloves.
Ornate palaces and multistory coral stone structures rose to replace the traditional mud buildings around the fort. In 1841, as Zanzibar reached its height of wealth and power, the Sultan of Oman moved his capital to Stone Town. The Omanis lost control of Zanzibar to the British as economic decline followed the abolition of the slave trade. In 1964, after a period of ethnic strife, Zanzibar united with Tanganyika to form the current nation of Tanzania. Today much of Stone Town’s former opulence is tarnished by years of impoverishment and lack of maintenance.
From the vantage of my hotel’s rooftop, I could see much of that former glory now in the process of restoration. Increasing tourism and Stone Town’s recent designation as a UNESCO world heritage site have workers on the move hand-restoring this historic city.
That night, I met my new friend Baboo to sample Stone Town’s renowned street food market in the oceanside Forodhani Gardens. Along the way we strolled past the old Omani fort. Even riddled with the scars of antiquity, its massive stone walls, slit windows and turrets seemed impregnable.
The mesmerizing smell of spices, grilled seafood and baked bread lured us around the corner of the fort and into Forodhani Gardens. Barefoot men in pristine white chef’s hats were grilling the day’s catch of kingfish, lobster, tuna, prawns, octopus and scallops.
Other stalls sold bowls of pilau rice, Zanzibar pizza, fresh juice, fruits and vegetables. Local boys entertained the crowd by performing flips and spins while diving into the ocean 20 feet below.
The next morning, we set off to explore Stone Town properly. Two things stood out immediately: the friendly nature of the locals and the splendid hand-carved doors that grace so many of the buildings. A few of these doors appear lovingly restored, but the more interesting ones bear deep scars from generations of use. Some have Indian patterns, others African, still more look distinctly Middle Eastern.This is how the buildings’ original owners announced their origins.
We began the day with tangawizi chai (strong ginger tea) at Jaws Corner. Next came old shops filled with locally made garments, jewelry, art and antique nautical equipment. At the huge indoor market, mangos, passion fruit and blood oranges are on display, and fishermen ferry in the day’s catch. Down one narrow street, I saw a man delivering milk from a tank lashed to the back of his bicycle into a young girl’s container.
After a lunch, Baboo took me to the slave market memorial. Following slavery’s abolition, Anglicans built a church over the old slave market. It felt strange and unsettling to pass from the beauty and warmth of the church’s nave down the cold stone stairs into the tiny, windowless, underground holding cells where so many awaited a fate beyond their control or imagination.
Morning found us bouncing down the road once again listening to Afropop and reggae as we passed bicycles, buses, scooters and cow carts. We were traveling to Kizimkazi on the southern tip of Unguja to snorkel and, we hoped, swim with dolphins.
Aside from the white sand beaches and popular dolphin cruises, Kizimkazi is home to East Africa’s oldest standing mosque, built by Persian settlers in A.D. 1107. Looking completely unremarkable from the outside, this historic structure’s intriguing feature is an interior wall scored by antiquity.
The tide was low at Kizimkazi, its beach littered with listing boats stranded by the sea, their dry anchors resting at the ends of chains. Baboo and I hiked past them across fine white sand to the water’s edge, where two young men helped us board a long, narrow wooden motorboat. Unfortunately we chose a day when the dolphins were elsewhere. I made the best of it by snorkeling in live coral.
Afternoon found us in the shade of massive old-growth hardwoods within Jozani Forest, part of Jozani-Chwaka Bay National Park. At the center of Unguja, the park is a habitat refuge for many native birds and animals, including the highly endangered red colobus monkey.
Our guide, Joseph, led us along a trail pointing out weaverbirds building nests, a tiny forest frog and rare native plants. As we left the cool air of the deep forest and entered a more open grassland savanna, Joseph stopped and put a finger to his lips. From the rustling tree to our right, the most amazing face appeared.
The piercing brown eyes belonged to a red colobus monkey. Soon an entire troupe was happily eating leaves all around us, unperturbed by our presence.
I spent my final day in Zanzibar sailing with Baboo on his family’s dhow. We hoisted the mainsail and leaned into the wind, flying across the turquoise water toward a group of smaller islands.
Anchoring the dhow off Bawe Island, we spent hours snorkeling through its rich, colorful coral reefs, populated by countless curious fish, squid, octopuses, turtles and moray eels.
Looking back, the vivid underwater colors, the pungent spices of street food, the wise-looking monkeys and the friendly people of Zanzibar are engraved in my memory as surely as the carved doorways that make this place unique.