Monday, 16 November 2009

In which we discover the murky past of Zanzibar

November 3rd

This morning we have a lie in and while we’re lazing in bed decide that we’ll spend today exploring Stone Town. Breakfast at the Flamingo Hotel is on the roof, among the drying sheets and towels. From the roof we have a panoramic view over the corrugated iron tops of Stone Town’s houses. It reminds me a bit of Jerusalem from the roof of the Austrian hostel – the same ramshackle collection of roofs, and added-on bits to the backs of each building. The skyline is blotted by endless TV dishes, black water tanks, and dodgy looking electric wiring. Zanzibar town wasn’t designed to be seen from above, and above all else what you get is a sense of the intricate jumble of buildings, all added to in random fashion over many years.

Our hotel seemed empty when we arrived yesterday, but overnight it has filled with snoring Sri Lankans in the room next to ours (hooray for the ceiling fan which drowns out their snores), a Swiss couple, a few other Brits and sundry Americans. Ali, the owner, is wonderfully laconic. To say he’s a man of few words is like saying Mount Everest is a fairly high place. And he rarely registers any emotion, either. You get the feeling that in his time at the Flamingo he’s seen it all, and nothing remains to amuse or excite him.

We set off through the old town and take lots of pictures. Ngome Kongwe, the proper name for the old Omani fortress, is just a hollow shell with a grassy space inside, occupied in one corner by the ubiquitous craft stalls. Épi wants to go to the bank, but there’s a huge queue and we abandon for the time being. We look at Beit al-Ajaib, the “House of Wonders”, the biggest building in old Stone Town, and certainly the tallest. Built by one of the Sultans but to a design by a British marine engineer, it is like a stretched version of one of the grand ante-bellum houses of the American South. Cast iron pillars give balconies all the way round; a huge clock tower soars into the sky. The doors are simply enormous, about twenty feet high, and designed to impress and intimidate visitors. The doors of Zanzibar are famous; in the House of Wonders they are studded with dozens of pointed brass decorations. The story has it that these spikes are of Indian origin and were designed to repel attacks using elephants as battering rams. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to people that there are no elephants on Zanzibar to use as war machines, but the concept has certainly left us some beautiful and original doors.

We decline to go inside the place (it is a museum; the view from the top is supposed to be worth the entrance fee but we decide it’s more important for us to visit all the other places in the town than spend a lot of time on just one). We mooch along the shore road to the Big Tree, meanwhile being hassled by papasi who want us to book a snorkelling trip with them to Chunguu Island, a mile or so offshore. We’re not in the market for snorkelling today, but it puts an idea into our heads for tomorrow morning.

We come back through the alleys, stopping at a restored coffee house en route. Here, by chance, we meet our German friends from last night. Stone Town’s a small place when you come to explore it. I try spiced chai instead of coffee – peppery and very reddish coloured, but interesting in the heat. We take lots of pictures of the decorative doors along the streets, and there are some extraordinarily beautiful houses – five or six floors, every one with balconies and exquisite decoration. My absolute favourite is a big blue painted one right in the middle of town.

Eventually we navigate ourselves to the Anglican cathedral. The reason we’ve come here is because the cathedral stands on the site of the last slave market in Zanzibar. We have a guided tour which quickly reduces us to silence. The slave trade on Zanzibar was quite different from that in West Africa. The slavers were either Arabs or Africans. The slaves were mainly women and children. The destination of these slaves was the Arab countries along the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, and as far as India (Goa). Slaves were stored below ground in almost total darkness, shackled together in dungeons so cramped that I couldn’t stand fully upright even in the highest part. This part of Stone Town used to flood at high tide, and a noxious mixture of seawater, sewage and who knows what else would be flowing around the wretched people as they waited their fate. Only the strongest survived. In the cathedral itself the altar stands on the site of a pillar where male slaves were whipped to ascertain their hardiness. Men who bore their lashing without flinching proved their strength and commanded higher prices.

I don’t much like the cathedral; it seems ponderous and clumsy. At the entrance there is a set of marble pillars which were installed upside down, with the capitals at the bottom and the pediments above. Behind the altar are a set of brass panels depicting figures from the old testament and book of revelation. Their names are in Swahili but our guide points out a few mis-spellings. The cathedral was the work of Bishop Steere, who made his name by translating the bible into Swahili. An energetic man and undoubtedly one who was implacably opposed to the continuation of slavery by the sultan (the British prohibition mere drove the trade (literally) underground for a final twenty years or so), it is double unfortunate that even on his gravestone there is a mis-spelling…..

Just outside the cathedral, in the tiny close, is the slave memorial. This is profoundly moving. A rectangular pit has been dug in the ground to symbolise the underground slave chambers. Four figures carved from the local coral stone represent the slaves themselves; their faces beautifully expressive. Around their necks are iron shackles actually found in one of the slave chambers after emancipation. Slavery brought enormous wealth to some people on the island, but at enormous cost to those taken from the mainland. Tippu Tip, the most notorious trader of all, made expeditions as far inland as the Congo in search of human cargo. I don’t think he went into Rwanda; the mountainous terrain would be a very real deterrent. It feels ironic that, after enriching ourselves from the triangular trade with West Africa, it should be England which effectively forced the Arabs and Africans to stop trading in their own people in East Africa.

We have lunch in the cathedral restaurant; there is also a guest house (St Monika’s) at the cathedral, some of whose rooms stand vertically above the slave chambers. Who knows what ghosts roam this little plot of Zanzibar by night…. While we’re eating there’s a heavy rainstorm outside which cools the atmosphere and makes the afternoon more pleasant for exploring around the town. We go into the Shangani quarter and try to do the sights systematically. There’s “Africa House”, the former English Club, now staffed by uniformed servants as an upmarket hotel. The terrace is one of the places in Zanzibar to watch the sunset, gin in hand, but we’d have needed a fortnight in Stone Town to do all the sights the guidebook recommends. Nearby is the quaintly named “Suicide Alley”, containing some bars which are real dives, and other places lovingly restored as top class hotels. There’s also the slaver Tippu Tip’s old house, very grand but gently decaying. It is still used as a dwelling house, with a family installed on each floor. We seem to have split up as a group at this point, and I find myself alone, chatting to a beautiful Zanzibari girl on the steps of the house. Not all the locals are veiled up and shy away from strange men…..

On the edges of the alleys are raised benches, not continuous, which are used as seats in dry weather. They are usually lined with people taking shade from the sun, catching the sea breezes which waft up and down the lanes, and watching the world go by while they chat to each other. We foreigners must be an endless source of both fascination and frustration to them.

There are no gutters or drains in these alleys (they are too narrow), and rainwater collects in the centre in deep puddles. After rain the benches along the alley sides become raised pavements; you have to time your strides to be able to jump the gaps from one to the next. And if you are a Moslem women you have to do all this while raising your skirt just enough to keep it out of the wet but also preserving your modesty!

Coming together again we visit the Serena hotel, the former cable and wireless offices and terminus of one of the original undersea telephone cables across the Indian Ocean, now a top class place to stay with a terrace garden looking across the sea. We are allowed to visit, and see how the other half stays! We find a place selling Italian ice cream and succumb, sitting right on the edge of the sea. There is no wind; the sea is calm and oily and almost silver in colour. Drooping coconut branches frame our view, and from time to time a dhow sails past just begging to be photographed as it crosses the sun. Next door some local lads are kicking a ball around on a scrap of beach between houses. We look round some excellent craft and souvenir shops and decide we’ll do at least a half day’s hard shopping when we return at the end of our trip. We don’t want to be carrying heavy or bulky or fragile stuff in our backpacks all round the island.

In the evening we go back to Forodhani gardens to eat, but the papasi are so continuous and insistent that it rather spoils things for me. To escape them we head back to the bar we found yesterday, and one of them even pursues us there until we get the management of the bar to drop him a hint.

How can I sum up Stone Town? – people on scooters, not motos; women riding side-saddle in their long dresses. The endless tinkling of bicycle bells along the alleys. The infinite variety of dress among the Muslim women and the sheer number of ways in which wealth or personality can be expressed despite the apparent uniformity and featurelessness of hijab. Beautiful window displays in some shops like jewellers; joyous abandon and randomness in others. The contrast between the uncared for exteriors and spotless interiors of some dwelling houses. Posters advertising competitions for memorising the Koran. The deeply religious Islam of Zanzibari culture (we know that other religions are also here, including Zoroastrians, but they seem to keep a low profile. Even the Hindu houses and temples are restrained). .

We take the plunge and venture off the main alleyways and lose ourselves in the tiniest side streets. Here we find buildings desperately needing restoration; full of people but only held up by wooden shoring. For other buildings it’s already too late, they have collapsed into piles of rubble. It will cost billions and take decades to fully renovate Stone Town, but it must be done and when finished the town will truly one of the most fascinating urban environments in the world. Tourists rarely penetrate this far into the alleys, and we get curious looks from people sitting on the steps of their houses.

We walk Jenny home again. Out at sea there are still dhows under sail, looking ghostly in the moonlight. Cooking smells – curry, spices – waft from houses as we pass. The streets are almost empty. As you reach the “Big Tree” you start hearing the swish of waves on the beach just beyond. Then you get pungent fish smells from the landing stage, and the clangs of the commercial port as ships are unloaded all through the night.

By now we feel we have got themeasure of Stone Town. We love it here but rather than spend another full day doing the sights we decide we’ll go to Chunguu Island and try snorkelling tomorrow morning, and then head off east to the beaches of Bwejuu in the afternoon. We have no fewer than three people thinking they’re taking us to the island, but we can play the touts at their game and we’ll decide at the last moment which person we’re going to use. We’ll be able to spend more time rummaging round the alleys on our return stopover before we catch the catamaran back to Dar.

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