Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The 1960s tour of Zanzibar

If you walk along Gizenga Street you’ll see a number of the second-hand bookshops selling a distinct guidebook to Zanzibar. The sleeve features a black-and-white photograph of a woman weaving a basket and at its top a red band, over which the title, ‘A guide to Zanzibar,’ is printed in white. If you happen to be staying at Emerson Spice hotel then there is already a copy in your room.

This edition of the guide was published in 1961 and they still exist in abundance. It’s a must-have for any Zanziphile, and it may have directly or inadvertently influenced many subsequent descriptions of the island with its passages, such as:

Zanzibar provides a new experience by bringing to life the old story book pictures we thought were figments of the artist’s imagination. Here one steps into another world of palaces and tropical gardens, narrow streets and shops filled with hand-crafted gold, silver and ivory; a bazaar that mixes with colourful profusion the produce of the old and new worlds.

It is well worth a read, extensive in its content and incredibly well researched. Considering the history of Zanzibar, much of the information inside is still very valid. On the other hand, having been written over half a century ago, much has also changed. To be on Zanzibar with book in hand provides visitors and residents alike with a fascinating insight into the now and then, and even before then.

Last week I decided to follow a section of one of its walking itineraries that takes the reader through Stone Town, step-by-step, and began a partial tour of the town with nothing but this 53-year old book to guide me.

I began by entering ‘The quarter of Mkunazini (i.e., the place where there is a Mkunazi – Rhamnus nabeca, a tree the pounded leaves of which were formerly used by the Arabs as soap).’ So there is, or was, a jujube tree somewhere in Mkunazini, and undoubtedly prominent enough to have inspired the name. I was already learning something new.

‘In this area are situated the Zanzibar headquarters of the ANGLICAN UNIVERSITIES MISSION TO CENTRAL AFRICA and the CATHEDRAL CHURCH OF CHRIST which are approached by a turning on the right.’

The church is most definitely still there, but the given uses of some of the surrounding buildings have changed. For example, St. Monica’s Girls’ Primary School, now also admitting boys as Mkunazini Primary School; and the Mission Women’s Hostel, formerly a hospital for infectious diseases and the first of its kind in Zanzibar, now St. Monica’s Hostel.

Politely refusing a guide (for I had the book!) I then entered the cathedral. I remember taking a tour once before, and casually eavesdropped on descriptions and explanations given to tourists for comparison.

As I suspected, the book offers some details that I neither remember nor overheard, and all of them fascinating. For example, ‘The clock in the tower was presented in about 1880 by Seyyid Barghash (Sultan 1870-88) at whose request the tower was built slightly lower than that of his own Palace, the Beit-el-Ajaib.’ Also, ‘The altar mosaics were given by Miss Thackeray, cousin of William, the novelist,’ and the mezzanine gallery, then used as a Chapel (St. Peter’s) has ‘let in the altar a square piece slab of wood on which are carved five crosses. This slab is a fragment of beechwood from Winchester Cathedral in England and was found under the early English walls built in A.D. 1202. The wood was under water for 700 years.’

The stairs to the gallery were closed by a gate and clearly not usually part of the tour, but I asked to have a quick look and found the slab! It was as if the guide held secrets that I was unearthing; facts once known to a lost generation of residents but long since forgotten.


- See more at: Mambo Magazine

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