I get off the ferry in Stone Town at sunset, admiring the giant “KARIBU ZANZIBAR” sign on the terminal building. For political reasons I’m highly unclear of, given that Zanzibar is part of Tanzania, I must fill out an immigration form, get my passport stamped, and show my proof of yellow fever vaccination (a disease, mind you, that is not endemic to Tanzania). I get in a cab and tell him where I’m staying, accepting his quote of 5,000tsh, about $3, not knowing I’m getting charged almost double what I should be. We stop at St. Monica’s Hostel less than a kilometer down the road, indicating I also hadn’t realized how small this town is. The hostel is right next to the old slave market, and when I find the stairs to my room it is next to a sign with an arrow reading “slave chambers”.
My accommodation, like Stone Town itself, is a beautiful mix of histories and cultures. The Arab influence is immediately apparent in the architecture, and I realize I’ve never seen anything like it before. I think more than anything, it is this mélange of cultures that stays with me throughout my explorations of the city over the next day. It is an island that, in contrast to the mainland, is almost entirely Muslim, which I realize means I will wake up at 5am with the first call to prayer. Women here are always covered in a hijab or a burka (known here as a bui-bui), often with a beautiful pop of bright colors that gently reminds you that you are in sub-Saharan Africa. The streets of Stone Town remind me of Italy, more than anything else I can think of – though not quite as well maintained. They are narrow, twisted, and promote getting (happily) lost while wanderings through the maze of shops, houses, and markets. Like Italy, no cars fit down these roads, but you need to watch your back (and your front) for Vespas speeding by.
The first place I get lost is Darajani market. I wander through the seemingly endless twists and turns, always finding something new. Zanzibar was a key locale for the spice trade, and continues to produce an array of spices that still play an important role in the economy. I walk by cloves, chilies, cinnamon (three kinds, mind you – some of which were almost as tall as a grown man), paprika, vanilla, cardamom, saffron, black pepper, lemongrass, cumin, mustard, coriander, and nutmeg. The tag in the nutmeg reads “This is better for drinks, cooking, and woman that have given up strong desire for making or to fulfill their men,” and all shopkeepers point out the spice as good for women with a slight twinkle in their eye. Easy, boys.
Within Darajani I soon find the fish market, complete with freshly caught octopus, squid, tuna, dorado, prawns, snapper, and others that I don’t recognize off the bat. I watch as a fish auction begins to take place at one end of the market, before moving towards the opposite end of the building where the meat market is located. Skinned cows hang on hooks and piles of meat adorn the concrete slab counters. Flies are everywhere while butchers prepare orders for customers. As I’m trying to get my bearings, a man starts calling for me to take a picture of him. I turn to find an older man holding up the horns of a cow he has freshly butchered. Playing, he holds them up above his head for his photo op, while some of the animal’s flesh still attached hangs down on his head.
After winding through more rows of vegetables, spices, nuts, fruits, and eggs, I finally come across the chicken market. The men who work here are by far the friendliest of any section of the market I’ve been in before, and I end up staying for a while. They try to disperse the flies covering the chicken carcasses before I take pictures, but it only helps so much. I see a bucket with a variety of bits and pieces I cannot for the life of me place, and when I ask what it is I simply get the answer “soup.” Live chickens walk around, some that will be sold as they are and others that will be chosen live and then butchered on the spot. I watch a man choose his chickens carefully, tossing each one he picks into a large basket with a very small opening on top, just wide enough for one bird. His aim is impressive, and I manage to record a few tosses on film.
Upon parting ways with the poultry, I eventually wander out of Darajani and into alleyways filled with small shops for tourists. “Looking is for free” is repeated over and over again to get you into a store, and I wonder who taught them this phrase that I haven’t heard anywhere else. There are so many shops filled with paintings and jewelry, fabrics and clothing. I immediately know I’m in trouble, shopping-wise. Eventually I stop at a small tea house where I am served mint tea, hiding from the busy streets for a minute while I disappear into my book. I admire the wooden doors left from another era and learn from a passerby, who wants me to pay him to have him walk me around town, that the ones with huge round metal adornments are indicative of Arab culture while those with pointed edges are Indian. Apparently their design back in India was meant to ward off war elephants from breaking in doors, though I haven’t seen many war elephants on the island. Around the next corner, I come upon a group of musicians playing a song that all the children in the area come running over to, bouncing up and down in the street with that beautiful kind of uninhibited dancing that only children (and people at Burning Man) can pull off.
When I continue wandering I come out at the port, where I stop for a late lunch and make use of the free public wifi that covers this part of town. This is a huge indicator to me of how high tourism levels are in this city. I can feel this all around me as well – I haven’t been surrounded by so many wazungu since I left America. It also means that I feel my interactions with locals here are a little less genuine than they have been on the mainland – people are still very nice, but often for a price. I eat my chips and watch an elder Dutch woman trying to buy only fish from the small restaurant I am eating at so that she can feed it to some of the many stray cats wandering around – an exchange which the locals are very confused by. As I watch her take her fish to a group of felines I am completely in awe of both the cultural divide in front of me and of why anyone would think the solution to solving a stray cat issue is to hand feed them. A spay and neuter clinic sure, but this? I am reminded of the many conversations I have had trying to explain how pets are viewed in the developed world, knowing that it really can’t be comprehended here. I return to this spot, known as Forodhani Gardens, in the evening for the nighttime food market that pop up and are the place to be for locals and tourists alike. I get a plate with some chapati and veggies, and happily down a glass of sugarcane juice with ginger and lemongrass while watching all the stray cats feast on people’s leftovers that they haven’t bothered to put in a trash can.
When I get on the daladala in the morning to go to Jambiani, I am thankful a work colleague told me that they’re a little bit different in Zanzibar. Instead of a minibus, the daladalas here are old trucks that have been refitted in the back to hold three benches, one on each side of the bed and one against the driver’s seat. I sit staring at the people across from me, in disbelief every time we take on a new passenger and somehow manage to squeeze them in. Personal space is not a thing here. I laugh as we drive by a man with a baseball hat that reads “I AM A BOSS!” and a shirt saying “I FACEBOOK YOUR MUM.” Every now and then I partake in the passing over of a baby to its mother after she successfully wiggles her way into a seat, reminiscent of a fire line down the daladala bench. Sometimes when a woman has more than one small child another woman without a youngster will take on the other’s in her own lap. I can’t imagine an American woman not being bothered by a stranger taking her baby for her, and get a sense of how family and community structures differ here.
I’m sitting next to man who speaks very good English. He’s 25 and is a capoeira instructor. When he was 12 he found some capoeira videos and self-taught from those until he got noticed enough to be sponsored by an American instructor. He carries his musical instruments on the daladala, heading east to teach a class in Jambiani. I decide to ask him if he wishes Zanzibar were independent, something I have learned is a commonplace here. Indeed, he responds saying that every day he prays for that. He continues on to tell me that Tanzania does nothing for them and doesn’t consult them about anything. He talks about all the oil they have and how they’re not allowed to exploit it – something I can’t say I share his disappointment in. Later he tells me he just a call to go monkey hunting – not for the endemic red colobus monkeys which are protected, but more common ones that harm people’s crops. Knowing the cultural divide is too large to bridge in the space of an hour, I smile politely while he talks about how he loves hunting. When I talk about this interaction with my supervisor back in Dar, he says that Zanzibar will never be independent. He brings up how 80% of their food comes from the mainland and how all their money for infrastructure development comes from the Tanzanian government, essentially seeing it as one big subsidized island. Pointing a finger at me, he also says that America is a big reason Zanzibar will stay part of Tanzania – “the American government doesn’t want to run the chance of having it be an independent Islamic nation with the potential for harboring extremism and terrorist groups,” he says. Now there’s something I never would have considered…
When I return to Stone Town for my last night on the island, I am amazed at how well I can find my way around. That’s the beauty of a small town you do nothing but walk around in for eight hours, I guess. I eagerly head towards an Italian restaurant, thankful for tourists at least in this moment because it means I get real pizza.