The Beautiful Stone Town Of Zanzibar

People keep asking me why (so far, other than the Love Project) I only have a few articles about Africa. They even added, that for someone who seemed to be obsessed (take note of the term they used) with the continent, I seemed to have so little to write about it. Here’s my answer. It’s not ‘little,’ but it’s more on ‘too much.’ I have so many things to write that I just didn’t know where to start exactly. I have to admit that I have been quite neglectful about my experience there and this realization has encouraged me to start writing about my reasons for falling in love with Africa.

One of my reasons is the semi-autonomous city of Zanzibar in Tanzania. Many tourists love Zanzibar for its beautiful beaches and rich spices but my love revolves around its ‘mji mkongwe’ also known as the Stone Town. The diverse influence underlying the Swahili culture is just so captivating that anybody who has explored its narrow alleys lined by houses, shops, and mosques will decide not to put it in a category. The mixture of Arab, Persian, Indian, and European elements has made certain that this ‘local government seat’ will not be a victim of labels that most cities usually fall into when tourism has them by the neck.

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Taking a breather in front of that famous Zanzibar door.

Before it became the (now called) Stone Town, it was a fishing village. The first stone houses were only built in the 1830’s when the Sultanate of Oman moved the ruling seat from Muscat. Although the prominent construction material observed is coral stone, the architecture around town has a number of distinctive features because of the African traditions mixing with the foreign influences. As you walked through its mazes of narrow alleys, you’ll observe several, long stone benches on the outside walls of some of the buildings. Many of the locals use it as a place to rest or to socialize with neighbors who seemed to always have all the time in the world. Yes, that’s something you will observe too. Maybe not just in Stone Town or Tanzania, but also in the rest of Africa. There seemed to be no sense of urgency and that time should be allowed to bask in the sun as slowly as how lovers kissed.

Large verandas protected by carved wooden balustrades are also common; alongside are the finely decorated wooden doors with rich carvings and bas reliefs which Zanzibar is known for. It was said that there were two types of doors that we needed to see for ourselves – one, Indian influenced doors with rounded tops and two, Omani Arab style doors which were rectangular. We were lucky to have seen both and both are beautiful. If you are a sucker for architecture, a walk around this old town will be your Shangri-la.

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Two of the hundred doors we marveled on in Stone Town!

Take note that the streets are narrow and the town is crowded with bicycles and motorbikes, so if you don’t pay attention, there’s a possibility that you might be run over (or your belongings might be snatched) by uncaring culprits. Of course, Zanzibar is not without some bad elements but if travelers are mindful of the possibilities and rules of the place, I’m sure that the trip will be eventful in a positive way. I have heard of other travelers fearing to visit Stone Town after the acid attack on two young girls while they were exploring the area during the Ramadan season. As it turned out, some of the locals did not approve of what they were wearing and the noise they were creating, most especially since it was the Ramadan. I am quite aware that values differ country to country  but as foreigners, we have to learn to respect the ways of the locals and as guests who were warmly welcomed we have to be sensitive to their cultural norms.

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Through the maze.

Houses are not the only features in Stone Town. When it became the new capital of the Sultanate of Oman and Zanzibar in 1840, the era of development brought both economic and political changes which were punctuated by old institutional buildings, forts, and former palaces that you now see on the seafront.

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The seafront.

If, at some point, you tire of strolling then you can amuse yourself with other interesting things to do. You can go to the Forodhani Gardens and enjoy the Zanzibari recipes and the grilled seafood, go shopping in the Darajani Market, visit a museum, watch fisher folks work their magic at sea, talk to a local (I did and he showed me where Freddie Mercury’s old house was), watch the locals go about their daily routine, get a henna tattoo, or drink that famous Kilimanjaroo beer that everyone seemed to be talking about amongst others.

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