Zanzibar, with its dreamy capital and dazzling coast, is the place to head for a few days on the beach after a safari. Thembi Mutch explores the archipelago.
Myself, I would like to study archaeology," says the immigration official ruefully, casting an eye over my unopened suitcase. "Go through. I won't look at your stuff. Enjoy Zanzibar. Welcome!"
In no other arrivals section of an airport in the world have I experienced such friendliness as in Zanzibar.
"The past is never dead, it's not even past," says the sign hanging above the Zanzibar National Archives. Never a truer word, in the case of Zanzibar; the place is heavy with history. It was the home of Tippu Tib – the 19th-century trader, slaver and clove plantation owner – and, legendarily, of Scheherazade. Rimbaud wandered the souk streets of Zanzibar's capital, Stone Town, looking for inspiration. The explorers Livingstone, Speke and Burton all used Zanzibar as a springboard for their travels.
"Earth, sea and sky, all seem wrapped in a soft and sensuous repose," wrote Burton. "We distinctly felt a heavy spicy perfume and the sensorium was not the less pleasantly affected after a hard briny diet of NE trade."
These days, flights arrive daily from all over Europe. However, Stone Town is best viewed from the new Chinese speedboat from mainland Tanzania, 22 miles away. A two-hour ride from the dusty fury of Dar es Salaam, its skyline is dominated by the grand colonial architecture of The House of Wonders museum: the old British Customs and Immigration and, at four storeys high, the tallest building on the islands. Suddenly, you are in the land of bullock carts, sharks atop bicycles, and sugar-cane vendors squeezing out juice on mangles. It is a country where hustlers, beach boys and women with heavily kohl'd eyes peering from behind burkhas remind one that behind the ubiquitous visual beauty of the island (albeit marred by some of the more hideous new hotels) is a fusion of Arab, African, Indian, Shirazi and colonial.
Zanzibar simultaneously silences and thrives on its chequered past. It is many things, all quirky smoke and mirrors: not a single island, as many imagine, but an archipelago of dozens off the east coast of Africa; part of Tanzania, yet autonomous; a land constantly squabbled over by missionaries, abolitionists, unscrupulous traders, local leaders and invaders; a UNESCO World Heritage site yet a haphazardly growing tourist destination.
The architecture is an obvious draw. Huge, brass-studded, crafted mahogany doors in the capital – the exotic equivalent of Persian merchant bling – are evidence of the 17th- and 18th-century boom when Bohran Shi'a traders from Persia and the Arab states thrived on the trade in cloves, coconuts, slavery and piracy. These days, hoteliers, telecom companies, investors, wannabes, misfits and smart tourists alike are waking up to the potential of such bounty.
Zanzibar is not yet wholly established as a holiday spot. Despite the 87 new hotel licences issued for 2010, and the industry's chaotic growth in the past 15 years (from two or three hotels in 1993 to 150 in 2005 and almost 300 now), most development has taken place around the 60-mile by 20-mile Zanzibar Island. It is still possible, though, to find genuine isolation in the remote outlying islands of Mafia and Pemba. Now is the time to go, to see it all before big hotels and resorts change the place drastically – which they will if, as expected, they follow the lead of the Maldives and the Seychelles.
Dhows, jihazis and ngalawas (all boats made from mango or mahogany wood), modelled on the same design as their ancient Indian and Arabian predecessors, bob in the surrounding waters. The sea is still Zanzibar's main resource. Fishermen scooping up octopus, changu, tuna, dorado, kingfish and barracuda can be seen at Malindi, a 400-year-old fish market reminiscent of Shakespearean Britain, all yells and sewage. Near Khazini are the boat builders. Stripped to the waist, still working with hand-driven drills, chisels and rustic mallets, they practise the same techniques as their forefathers.
Frustratingly, though, it can be difficult to access decent background information about the history of Zanzibar. The bloody but fascinating revolution of 1964, for instance, led by a vision-fuelled drifter, John Okello, is covered by the guides of only one local travel company: Serene Tours. Yes, it was a horrific stain on history, with the Sultan overthrown and killed; but the reshuffling of the Arab, Indian and African hierarchies – the hand of the British Empire yet again, endlessly stratifying different races and according them different economic and voting privileges – gives many clues to the current political and social issues surrounding Zanzibar. For example, the elaborate kangas (pieces of printed material) and colourful kanzus (Arab dresses) worn by Zanzibar's African women are a direct throwback to slavery.
Previously, Africans were allowed to buy only "merikani" (white sailcloth, made from the kind of American cotton used for sails, hence the Swahilisation of the name). After the decline of the slave trade, then the revolution, wearing flamboyant clothes became a sign of both wealth and freedom. Indeed, in the 1940s, Zanzibar was known as "the metropolis of East Africa".
Slavery and piracy are generally hushed over by those who live here, like a rheumatic crazy aunt living in the attic. One of the few people who does talk knowledgeably about these and other elements of Zanzibar's cultural history is historian and guide Farid Hamid, the son of a respected iman on the island.
"We welcome tourists both for the revenue they generate and the interchange of ideas," he says. "We do, however, need actively to preserve and maintain our culture – both the buildings and the musical and oral elements."
Slavery, however, is not commodified here in the same way as it is in, say, Senegal or Ghana. Zanzibar has the uncomfortable honour of having actively ignored the abolition edict of 1873, despite Livingstone haranguing the British government and the Omani rulers, who profited enormously from Zanzibar's geographic position and the isolation and inefficiency of the British Protectorate. The Mangapwani Slave Caves, the Anglican cathedral and the slave market of Stone Town saw huge numbers of slaves: captured both by local African leaders delivering enemies from battle, and by Arab traders.
Farid takes me on a tour. There isn't much he doesn't know about mgangas (witch doctors), shitanis (evil spirits) and the role of Scheherazade and Taraab (the local music). He is a trove of (sometimes hastily gabbled) knowledge. According to him, most of the mosques on the island (allegedly 57 in Stone Town alone) were built by women. With disarming, guileless enthusiasm he tells me about kidumbak and kongwes: the strictly all-women dances taught to young brides before marriage, and the mentors in all things sexual for these girls. As we pass Forodhani gardens' food market at night – bristling with Zanzibaris flaunting and flirting – he tells me that for a short while, when ruled by the British, Zanzibar was the home of rather febrile British civil servants, all keen to leave their peculiar mark. They spent much time cataloguing people obsessively, "educating" local women by discouraging breastfeeding, and producing intricate, dull films about mosquitoes. The Anglo-Zanzibar war of 1896 – the shortest in history, lasting all of 38 minutes – was perhaps a continuation of this daft behaviour. Today the only reminders are the cannon sitting sedately outside the House of Wonders. Inside is a small exhibit about the role of dhows in Zanzibar history. Sadly, but not unexpect-edly, the fabled lift – the first in Africa! – no longer works.
There is, however, no dearth of information about the marine and biological life of Zanzibar Island, Pemba and Mafia. There are tracts of tropical forest such as Jozani on Zanzibar, with its red colobus monkeys, and three marine parks. The underwater ecosystem of the Indian Ocean is unique, and despite various issues (fish dynamiting, overfishing, damage by trawl nets and a chaotic sewage disposal system), the marine parks around Mafia and Pemba in particular are spectacular: genuine tropical finds. They are also well off the beaten track, with the result that only a handful of tourists visit each year.
For the effort of getting there, visitors are rewarded with local people who stop to practise English, or to offer you local tea, brewed with cinnamon, cloves and ginger. There are knowledgeable local guides and dive masters. And it is on these remote islands that you can really get away from it all. Most of the best white-sand beaches in the archipelago are on the east coast of Zanzibar Island (the west-coast beaches are gold rather than white) – but Manta Resort in Pemba, for instance, provides Bounty-ad beaches, butlers, delicious food and world-class diving.
On smaller Mafia, where Ann and Jean De Villiers of Chole Mjini Lodge run the Whale Shark Conservation Society, the abundant coral and huge diversity of fish, turtles, stingrays and manta rays testify to the success of its marine park – and to the determination of Australian Greg Edwards, who stopped dynamite fishing in the area.
Since the De Villiers began in 1993, they have built up a genuine eco-lodge project, supporting a feudally poor local community as well as offering tree-house guest rooms in 2,000-year-old baobabs. The beach is nothing special, but the lodge – its properties dotted among the ruins of remnants of German, British and Omani occupation – is a delight for birdwatchers, historians, marine ecologists, scuba divers and snorkellers. Indeed, it is perfect for anyone just wanting to be close to village life, away from the hassle of the Zanzibar mainland. The past is, indeed, never dead.