Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a language and cultural immersion program on Zanzibar island. While only a 20 minute plane ride from Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar is culturally and politically unique to Tanzania. They have different customs, clothing, food and even a semi-autonomous government structure that operates within the United Republic of Tanzania. Their population is 97% Muslim (Tanzania’s is roughly 33%), so conservative dress is a must for the respectful tourist.
The main city, Stone Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is not hard to see why. The architecture and urban fabric, still largely in tact, are a masterful blend of African, Arab, Indian and European influences at work since the 1800’s. One could get pleasantly lost in the labyrinth of narrow streets for an hour and emerge thoroughly content. Apart from its famous wood-carved doors, Zanzibar is also historically known for clove production, its role in the slave trade and as the base of operations for abolitionist David Livingstone.
Another fact, one that can only be appreciated by former park planners, is that Zanzibar has a real life public park, used by locals and tourists alike. During the day, Forodhani Gardens is the linchpin of the major tourists sites, linking the Old Arab Fort, the House of Wonders, and the People’s Palace. At night, dozens of local vendors in white chef hats cook a cornucopia of fresh seafood (yuck) and Nutella crepe-thingies (yum) to order. All of this with the Indian Ocean as a backdrop! For Africa, this is refreshing.
Can you tell I like this place? If not, this video should seal the deal. It begins with traditional Zanzibarian dancing from the pre-Islamic era. By today’s standards, it is scandalous, as both dancing and bare-headed women are prohibited in Islam. I have included some clips from a spice farm, a visit to a traditional mganga (a doctor, of sorts), and the Anglican church which was built to commemorate the abolition of slavery. You might catch a small wooden cross hanging on the wall above the choir. This cross was made from a tree in Zambia, in front of which David Livingstone’s heart was symbolically buried before his body was interred at Westminster Abbey.
This post would not be complete if I neglected to mention that Freddie Mercury was born in Zanzibar, a reality that locals would rather forget. His understated ties to the island did not escape our attention though. Matt and I befriended Freddie on our last vacation to Montreux, Switzerland and so it was fitting that we should meet him again.