“All news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there, though not for the horror, the hot-spots, the massacre-and-earthquake stories you read in the newspaper; I wanted the pleasure of being in Africa again. Feeling that the place was so large it contained many untold tales…feeling that there was more to Africa than misery and terror.”
As I stepped off the airplane on to the tarmac at Abeid Karume (leader of Afro-Shirazi Party which overthrew the sultanate in 1964) airport in Zanzibar I thought of this passage from Paul Theroux’s 2003 book Dark Star Safari.
I returned to Zanzibar, hoping to spend more time in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Stone Town, an Arab medina where shops, mosques and schools intertwine down winding, narrow streets.
A British resident of Zanzibar in the 1961 travel manual A guide to Zanzibar quotes Sir Richard Burton from over 100 years ago: “The visitor to Zanzibar treads a path that has been worn by generations of travellers and sea adventurers for many centuries.”
I felt like one of these historical adventurers. I found this guidebook at one of Stone Town’s many shops and haggled the price down to a measly 5,000 Tanzania shillings (about $4 CAD). It gives the reader a geography lesson: “The Zanzibar protectorate comprises the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba and the islets within their territorial waters.”
The guidebook continues to sum up the allure to generations of tourists:
“Of all the towns on the East African coast Zanzibar may, for several reasons, justly claim to be the most fascinating and picturesque. The variety of its races and their dress, its medley of architectural styles, the narrowness of its streets winding through brilliant sunshine into purple shadow, its ornamental gardens, avenues of trees, spacious recreation parks and clove-scented air; all these combine to invest it with something of an Arabian Nights atmosphere.”
In the chapter on Stone Town, it adds; “the town has one feature in particular, which, besides being one of its most distinctive characteristics, is of special interest and attraction, namely its antique Arab doors.”
As I walked around the historic medina I snapped photos of these renowned Zanzibar doors. Such detail and craftsmanship goes into each one. Along my tour (safari in Swahili) I came across an old camera shop next to the Shangani Zanzibar post office. It stood between all the hotel chains and restaurants, right next door to my favourite spot; Stone Town café, which was closed for Ramadan (an Islamic holiday).
The camera shop was one of the few places open, excluding the tourist shops. Inside I began looking over the black and white photographs hanging on the walls. Snapshots of Tanganyika’s father of independence, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, and Zanzibar’s revolutionary hero, Abeid Karume, uniting to create the modern nation of Tanzania. There were also many pictures of visiting dignitaries and other African independence leaders.
The Zanzibari man behind the counter started to recount a bit of the history of his camera shop: “My father opened this camera store back in the 1930s. I apprenticed with him then took it over myself in the 1980s,” he said.
After a few hours at Prison Island, across the Indian Ocean from Stone Town, watching the giant tortoises move at a snail’s pace (the only prisoners left) I spent the next few days at Nungwi, located at the northernmost tip of the island. I stayed at Union beach, in the midst of many expensive hotels amongst speedo and bikini-cladded Italian tourists.
On my last day, driving across the island back to Stone Town from Nungwi, I saw more of Zanzibar’s picturesque countryside. I sat at the window of my taxi taking it all in. I made my way back to Karume airport in Zanzibar, which is only a 10-minute drive from Tembo Hotel in the centre of town.
A friend of Zanzibar’s first president, Karume, was Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. He made his impression of Zanzibar known in his 2001 book The Shadow of the Sun.
“Zanzibar: the old Arab town, like a brooch skillfully sculpted out of white stone, and further on forests of coconut palms, enormous, branching clove trees, and fields of corn and cassava, all of it framed by the brilliant sandy beach punctuated by aquamarine inlets in which bob flotillas of fisherman’s boats.”
Kapuscinski, like Theroux (quoted in opening) spent a part of his career in Africa writing about personal experience while traveling (coined literary reportage). As a journalist and writer myself I can only hope to complement the work my literary forefathers have accomplished and share with others.
I hope to introduce readers to the writers who inspire me to continue traveling to places around the world like Zanzibar. It’s an inspiring place in itself. While not a lot has been written about Zanzibar, or Tanzania, for that matter, it does pop up from time to time in travel reportage. My own safari njema included.
A Guide to Zanzibar
Dark Star Safari
The Shadow of the Sun