Zanzibar’s leading relaxation park, Forodhani Gardens, has been closed to the public. Although declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, this Indian Ocean park that brings together African, Arab, Indian and European cultures is to be modernized by Aga Khan Charitable Trust. OGOVA ONDEGO reports.
According to a quit notice presented to traders by the Municipal Council of Zanzibar on January 17 2005 was to be the last day for activities to take place at Forodhani. It was unclear to observers how modernizing Zanzibar’s popular hang out joint could be in line with its new status as a heritage site. The decision of the local government will not only adversely affect visiting tourists but also Sauti za Busara Kiswahili Music Festival (February 10-13, 2005) and Zanzibar International Film Festival’s 8th Festival of the Dhow Countries (July 1-10, 2005)whose adherents meet at the seafront for socio-cultural activities such as relaxation, business and meals.
But just what is at stake?
Although this market is quiet and almost deserted during the day, this hitherto quiet and breezy seafront takes on the image of flickering kerosene and gas lamps to cast light on various mouth-watering foods piled high on tables with men standing behind them as the evening approaches. Forodhani Gardens has no electric lights and I am told this is deliberate to guarantee privacy for the romantic in this largely conservative Islamic society that frowns on any display of affection between men and women in public. This nightly open-air market, on the historical Mizingani Road trodden by ancient Omani Sultans, Portuguese, British and German colonialists, Arab slave dealers and Christian missionaries and human rights activists, is variously known as Forodhani, Jamhuri or People Gardens.
Situated between the House of Wonders and the Old Fort and the Indian Ocean waterfront, Forodhani Gardens is the perfect venues for families, lovers, acquaintances and strangers to feast on fresh marlin, tuna, lobster, squid, shellfish, samosas, chapati, fried mashed potato ball, prawns, fried fish, chicken, crab claws, octopus, calamari steaks, French fries, beef, chicken kebabs, cabbage and tomato salad, and freshly pressed, spiced and ice-laden sugarcane juice. A glass of this refreshing heavenly juice goes for a paltry TSh100 (US$0.8). And you cannot find alcohol anywhere in this market. The closest one comes to beer is bottled soft drinks. People start streaming in here around 6pm and the business is at its peak at 7pm.
You find whole families comprising up to 10 grand children, seven children, mother and father taking their meals here. It appears they prefer to eat here rather than preparing meals at home. It is perhaps the only market in East Africa that has no people haggling over food prices. If this be due to the price of food being rock-bottom is unclear. However what is not in doubt is that three famished adults may have a full delicious dinner for less than US$2 which would be hardly enough for a pot of coffee and a snack for one in Nairobi, Kampala or Dar es salaam. Each sweating trader tells you the price of his (yes, only men deal in food) dishes by pointing at each mound of food with the serving spoon.
Once one orders, the trader warms it on a burning charcoal jiko (stove) before placing it on a disposable paper plate for one to eat with a tooth pick (not chop sticks) as most people appear to be allergic to hand-washing. The toothpicks are particularly popular for attacking the meats and chips (yes, Irish potato chips and not tiny French fries as we know them). And the traders appear not to be in any particular hurry to receive pay for their food; a customer eats to one’s feel and pays afterwards. While most people eat, rest and then pay for the food as they leave, others (mainly from mainland East Africa) have been known to just vanish into thin air like the proverbial jinis of the Arabian nights after eating.
For those who enjoy buying souvenirs, the curio market is adjacent to the food market. Unlike the food, though, one is expected to bargain and haggle over prices with the vendors of curios whose wares appear to be tailored to white tourists as they consists of kikoy, bangles, belts, paintings of animals and a Maasai tribesman standing in a stork-like fashion while leaning on the shaft of his spear. Forodhani Gardens was certainly a colourful market place as its end may have come with the planned renovation and modernisation.