Day 26: Zanzibar

Thursday 1st December 2016

We woke up this morning in air conditioned luxury and feeling only very slightly guilty about deserting our fellow travellers. In fact we weren’t the only ones to bail from the other hotel. We took a few others with us.

Our room looked out over the town beach and this morning from almost before it was light, it sounded as if great crowds were gathering below the window. On inspection one might have been forgiven for thinking that a keep fit craze had gripped the island. A large group of women and girls dressed in brightly coloured burkas and veils were being coached in a series of exercises by the Zanzibar equivalent of Mr Motivator in tight t-shirt and shorts. This wasn’t just stretching exercises they were doing press-ups and star jumps, while little girls, maybe only 5 or 6, played in the sea fully clothed and head covered. Further down the beach young men practiced kick boxing moves or played energetic football. In fact it was the case that in the mornings in front of the hotel the women held their keep fit classes, whereas after 4.30pm until dark the beach was the place for at least 4 different football games. In the town itself men were jogging even in the heat of the day and in side streets were weight lifting clubs. All a little unexpected in what appears to be the very embodiment of hakuna matata . In fact in all the souvenir shops and there are many, it’s possible to get that phrase on everything from pepper grinders to tea towels.

Briefly going vegetarian

This morning we got a guide to take us on a tour round Stone Town before the temperature climbed into the mid thirties. We were introduced first to one of Stone Towns most famous late residents. It wasn’t Dr Livingstone, but instead and rather unexpectedly, it was Freddie Mercury. We were shown a small terraced house with faded pictures of Freddie stuck in the windows. He apparently lived here until he was 8 years old. Our guide later admitted to us that it wasn’t actually Freddie’s house at all it had just been picked for its convenient location.

Stone Town feels very different from any of the African towns we have seen so far. For 200 years Zanzibar was a Portuguese colony before coming under the control of the sultanate of Oman in the late 17th century, for some time it was even the capital of Oman. There is a very European feel to the streets and buildings and if someone told you that you were in a Spanish or Italian seaside town you wouldn’t disbelieve them. But, most of the old buildings are decaying and crumbling, streaked with black mound, their elegant facades missing plaster. The old ceremonial building put up by the Omanis with its vast carved doors and pillars is closed as its in danger of imminent collapse. All this picturesque decay lends the town a romantic charm maybe it looks a little like Havana. However, I expect one day someone will buy up the old British and German Embassy’s and turn them into expensive hotels and the original Portuguese fort now inhabited only by cats will become a cultural centre.

There is a very dark side to the history of Zanzibar and that is it’s pivotal role in the Arab slave trade. Its geographical position places it at the cross roads of trade winds which enabled boats to travel across the Indian ocean blown first East and then West on different monsoon winds. On this very humid morning we visited the site of the old slave market, now a church and also the stifling holding cells where shackled men, women and children might wait for as long as a week with no food or water for the market day. The chambers are dank with ceilings so low that you cannot stand upright, unbearable for even a few minutes. The gradual takeover of the island by the British was precipitated by the grand old victorians like Livingstone and the desire to abolish this trade. The abolition of slavery act had been passed by the UK parliament in the first part of the 19th century and extended to all its colonies.

When the internet doesn’t work

That night as we walked through the town, the square was filled with stalls barbecuing fish and chicken skewers and everywhere hawkers were frying pancakes liberally filled with bananas and nutella. The whole place was filled with families and in private corners was the odd couple canoodling on benches, there is a infectious charm to the island and I would have liked to stay longer.