By Ogova Ondego
Published December 22, 2008
What can one make of a land that seduces and entices kings to abandon their subjects and move their seat of government away from home, or better still, how does one describe a town in which one may wander about freely at midnight without any fear of mugging? Believe it or not, such a place does exist and I have since 2000 explored it every year on foot with my camera, recorder and other journalistic paraphernalia well after midnight without any incident. Luck? Maybe.
With her friendly, cheerful, out-going and welcoming residents, Zanzibar is a relatively safe haven unlike many cities of the world where I am often cautioned against even venturing beyond the hotel precincts unaccompanied by armed security.
Zanzibar Island, I am told, was colonised over the centuries by a succession of people ranging from Egyptians, Chinese, Persians, and Omanis, to Portuguese, Dutch and British. This legacy has given rise to the cultural hotpot reflected in architecture, culture, religion and cuisine of this almost magical East African island whose every corner offers a new, exotic scent.
Heavy wooden doors and their frames carved as intricately as the embroidered caps on the heads of older men give a magical feel to the maze of narrow alleyways that reminds one of the ancient Middle Eastern towns as described in the Bible.
Add to it the curry and cardamom from the kitchens and sandalwood from the almost enchanting women in black robes and what you have is a magical, fairy tale-like Spice Island.
Zanzibar, located about 36 kilometres off the coast of East Africa, comprises Unguja and Pemba, and some 50 islets.
Zanzibar (Unguja), the biggest of these islands, is 85 kilometres long and 39 kilometres across at its widest point. Her average year-round temperature of 32 degrees Celsius is influenced by western monsoon winds. December to March is hot and dry while heavy rains occur in April and May.
Early visitors to the archipelago came from as far as China, the Far East, the Indian sub-continent, Persia and North Africa. However it was the Portuguese and the British who opened Zanzibar to the rest of the world upon being lured to the island by the prospect of trading in slaves, gold, ivory and spices.
The main tourism feature of Zanzibar is Mji Mkongwe or the Stone Town that began as a fishing village in the 10th Century before evolving into an enviable Swahili commercial, diplomatic and cultural hub for eastern Africa (15th-19th Centuries) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 AD.
Mji Mkongwe encompasses a fascinating mix of cultures and is only a stone’s throw away from the international airport on the East coast of the spice island.
Although the whole island is fascinating, I single out some of the landmarks and places that one must see to have been on the island whose magic cast a spell and pulled the Sultan of Oman from the Middle East and made his home here: Stone Town (also called Unguja Town or Zanzibar): Stone Town’s labyrinth of narrow streets, praised by UNESCO as “an outstanding material manifestation of cultural fusion and harmonization”, were declared a World Heritage Site in 2000.
The Old Dispensary: This grand four-storey building found near the sea front on Mizingani Road was built as a private home for a prominent Ismaili Indian merchant, Tharia Topan, in the 1890s. He was a customs advisor to the Sultans and one of the wealthiest individuals in Zanzibar at the time. In 1899 he is said to have given up the house to be used as a dispensary, also funding the medication and other services. It fell into disrepair during the 1970s and 1980s, but was renovated with funding from the Aga Khan Charitable Trust in 1996 and opened as the Stone Town Cultural Centre.
Darajani Market: This lively place is located on Creek Road and near it is the Anglican Cathedral Courtyard that was once home to the Great Slave Market that was closed in 1873. Slave shackles can still be seen here; the Anglican Missionary Hospital is said to be sitting on top of the old slave chambers.
David Livingstone’s House: This landmark at Funguni was built around 1860 for Sultan Majid and used by many of the missionaries and explorers as a starting point into East and Central Africa.
The National Museum (Beit el Amani or House of Peace): It showcases sections of archaeology, early trade and ships, slavery, palaces, mosques, sultans, explorers, clove oil production, traditional crafts and household items.
The Palace Museum: Built in 1883 by Sultan Barghash, this was formerly the official residence of the Sultan of Zanzibar from 1911 and was renamed the People’s Palace after the 1964 Revolution when Sultan Jamshid was overthrown. The building was then used as government offices until 1994 when it was turned into a museum dedicated to the history of the Sultans of Zanzibar.
The House of Wonders (Beit el Ajaib): Said to be built on a foundation made of dead slaves and black criminals’ bodies, it dominates the skyline of Stone Town. It is surrounded by tiers of pillars and balconies and topped by a large clock tower. Outside the building are three canons that date back to Portuguese times. After the British naval bombardment in 1896, Sultan Hamoud (1902 -1911) reconstructed it and used the upper floor as a residential palace until his death. It was the first building in Zanzibar to have electric lighting and the impressive tower is still used as a lighthouse, having been moved from its original position after the bombardment.
The Arab Fort (Old Fort or Ngome Kongwe): Built between 1698 and 1701, this building is situated next to the House of Wonders, constructed on the site of the Portuguese chapel, which can still be seen on the site of the walls. The fort is open to visitors and contains shops, a cafe and an ancient Greek-styled amphitheatre. This is where the annual Zanzibar International Film Festival is held every July and attracts film and culture lovers from across the globe. The Mambo Club, where music performances and DJ sessions are held, is also housed here.
Forodhani Gardens: This open place in front of the House of Wonders and the Old Fort is also known as Jamhuri or People’s Gardens. It features a nightly open-air market where families and individuals feast on fresh crab claws, marlin, tuna, crab claws, lobster, squid, shellfish, octopus, calamari steaks, ‘urojo’, ‘Zanzibar pizza’, ginger tea, French fries, samosas, chapati, kebabs, spiced sugarcane juice and ice-cream. People start streaming in here as early as 4 pm. The space has no lights and residents say this is deliberate to guarantee privacy to lovers who may wish to be affectionate with each other in the cover of night. It appears like families prefer to eat here to cooking at home. Forodhani’s is arguably the cheapest food in Zanzibar. One may eat as much as one can on US$1. The Dhow Harbour It lies about fifty metres inside the port gates, featuring traditional dhows and a lively wharf.
To the northern tip of Zanzibar is Nungwi, the dhow building capital of the island, with craftsmen at work. Nearby coral reefs are ideal for diving and snorkeling.
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Spice Tours Visitors can also learn about spices, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, black pepper, ginger, and cinnamon their uses in cooking, cosmetics and traditional medicine, and how trade in slaves began, by going on Spice tours.
Jozani Forest: This is a natural reserve located about 35 kilometres southeast of Stone Town. The rare Red Colobus monkey is found here.
Kikamkazi fishing village: Here, visitors can swim with the dolphins in the depths of the Indian Ocean. This is also the site of a 12th century mosque and the earliest evidence of Islam in East Africa.
Prison Island: Formerly a treatment centre for lepers, this island boasts a coral reef ideal for snorkeling and is home for the giant tortoises imported from the Seychelles in the late 19th century. It is a 50-minute boat ride from Zanzibar port.
Sunrise Cruise: As the evening progresses, one may wish to sail away along the shores of the historic coast while the sun sinks into the ocean.
Other places of interest:
1). Freddy Mercury’s House on Kenyatta Road
2). Princess Salma’s House
3). Museum of Natural history
4). Peace Memorial Museum at Mnazi Mmoja Gardens
5). Tippu Tip (the infamous slave trader)’s House
6). The Central Market or Marikiti at Darajani
7. St. Joseph’s Church (the Twin towers of Zanzibar)
8. Hammamni Persian Baths at the centre of Stone Town
9. Zanzibar hand-carved doors and chests
10). Msikiti Mabuluu (The Blue Mosque)
11). Maruhubi and Chukwani Palace ruins.