Zanzibar Day 4 – Stone Town
Left the beach this morning to drive in a minibus to Stone Town, aka Zanzibar City. Fortunately, it started raining as we left so this made the departure from the beautiful beach less of a wrench. As always, when leaving a place of strong experiences and memories, my mind turns to how I felt when I first saw it and now. I feel the time in my belly.
We returned to the spice tour we finished early on our first day because I had a revision lesson at the diving centre at 4:30pm. We tasted lots of different fruits and spice teas. There was a delicious masala tea which was very gingery, one of my favourite tastes. Then there was a demonstration of coconut tree climbing but I gave that a miss and sat in the bus with several others.
Them we drove on to our hotel in Stone Town and checked in. Man, it was hot.
Stone Town is the main city on Zanzibar. It is a city of prominent historical and artistic importance in East Africa. Its architecture, mostly dating back to the 19th century, reflects the diverse influences underlying the Swahili culture, with a unique mixture of Moorish, Arab, Persian, Indian and European elements. For this reason, the town has been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2000.
At first sight, it looks a bit, actually very, delapitated and you’d thing Dulux would make a killing here. However, reading about the history and different influences, you begin to read the story of the city in the buildings, especially architectural styles. The carved doors are amazing. It also has an urban buzz, almost an urban cool, with lots of coffee bars and a completely unique feel from the Arab occupation.
The Stone Town is a labyrinth of alleyways, spice markets and unruly traffic, all sufficiently exotic for a chase sequence in a Bond or Bourne movie.
There is a mix of Arab, Indian and African influences, notably elaborately carved wooden doors with brass studs, a style that originated as a defence against charging elephants. No one could accuse this place of being soulless.
Daniel, our Tanzanian tour guide brought us out on an orientation tour of the town and showed us some places we might like. We even saw the house where Freddie Mercury of Queen, was born. It’s now an hotel!
We then went off for lunch: samosas in an Indian Gujarati restaurant. Then back to hotel for a shower and a nap.
Around 5ish, a few of us went to view the Museum of Slavery. Zanzibar was one of the largest slave ports in the vast Indian Ocean slave trade, which was dominated by Arab slave traders. The Arab slave trade originated before Islam and lasted more than a millennium. The newly acquired slaves were often forced to carry ivory and other goods back to Bagamoyo.
The slaves were shipped here in dhows from the 0mainland, crammed so tightly that many fell ill and died or were thrown overboard. Sounded similar to the Irish coffin ships of the 19th century where many thousands died in similar conditions fleeing the Great Hunger or Famine from 1842-5 for the new world.
There were 17 dungeons for holding slaves and 2 were kept for historical reasons. Dozens of slaves, and women and children, were imprisoned for days in crowded cellars with little air and no food or toilets. Even after two minutes down there, under the low roof, the atmosphere seemed poisonously oppressive. Seeing, and touching, the actual chains used to manacle human beings was particularly harrowing.
The entrance price was US$5 and included the services of a guide. He said the slaves were led outside and lined up in order of size. They were tied to a tree and whipped with a stinging branch to test their mettle. Those who did not cry or faint fetched a higher price at market. Africa has its share of cruelty and suffering, but such stories bite our conscience as if for the first time.
The Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ is built on the site of the old market. The former whipping tree is marked at the altar by a white marble circle surrounded by red to symbolise the blood of the slaves. Seeing this was very difficult, imagining the unbelievable horror and terror that occurred at this place.
However, despite this horror, the museum was remarkably balanced and non-blaming. It presented the facts and invited you to make up your own mind. These was only one conclusion.
The last exhibit showed an information display on modern day slavery and stated that there are more slaves today than during the whole of the African slave trade. I felt deep despair on reading this.
On our way out, the place was now closing, we met a lovely old man who was the image of Morgan Freeman, the American actor. He was also as gay as a boxful of frogs although he spoke of his wife. He knew a Zanzibar Bar in Dublin. That’s more than I know.
He brought us back into the dungeon and showed me an old Irish blessing or beannacht, in the Irish language. A beannacht is the opposite of a curse and was perceived as being powerful. It went:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
May the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.
He was so positive that my mood shifted on meeting him.
Then we went to meet the others at an upmarket watering hole. It was happy hour! The place was a roof garden on top of a posh eatery. Nearly all the customers were various hues of white, beige, pink and brown while the staff were all black Africans. I felt uncomfortable there and wanted to leave but had to wait for the others. The view of the sunset over the harbour was pretty spectacular, though.
After this we walked to the nearby Night Market for some food. After sunset the heart of Zanzibar’s historic Stone Town neighbourhood transforms into a culinary playground.
By day, life around Zanzibar’s Forodhani Gardens moves at a leisurely pace: tourists and locals stroll down the seawalk, either sidestepping the eager advances of the city’s ravenous stray cats and taking in the views of an impossibly crystalline Indian Ocean. On the outskirts of Zanzibar’s historical Stone Town, this small park awaits the lucky travelers that manage to navigate their way through the heart of this historical neighborhood’s labyrinth of narrow streets.
After sunset, this quiet corner of Stone Town is almost unrecognizable. The once calm Seawalk is rapidly filled with chefs, clad in white hats, setting up gas lamps, grills and rotisseries, spreading out their wares across rows of tables.
The Night Market is a culinary playground for all—visitors and locals pour in, families gather with small children, and of course, the tenacious stray cats hunker down and wait for scraps. The chefs are a blur of motion, excitedly pointing to their culinary creations, cooing and coaxing until even the most hesitant eater gives in to their expertly spun sales pitches.
The Night Market perhaps best represents Zanzibar’s wonderful amalgamation of cultures and cuisines. It was once a trading center, at the intersection of the spice trade, the slave trade and the ivory trade. Arab, Persian, Indonesian, Malaysian, Indian, and Chinese merchants passed through or migrated to the island, leaving a lasting impact on Swahili culture.
The vestiges of Zanzibar’s often tragic history linger in many ways; most noticeably in the unique blend of cultures on the Market’s signature white cardboard plates.
Dishes vary widely, from Zanzibari pizza, falafel as big as your face, sugar cane juice, enormous samosas, coconut bread, seafood skewers (although debate persists pertaining to the actual freshness of the market’s pescetarian offerings), and crepes dripping with ribbons of chocolate syrup.
I bought a mango, avacado and vegetable pizza and a bowl of amazing soup for just a few €uro. Delicious.
Then walked back to hotel for a shower, a hot sweaty night and up at 4:45sm for another shower and 5:15am breakfast and 6am departure next morning for ferry.
Another satisfying day in Zanzibar