‘..Not a ray of optimism can be seen,’ concluded Amir.A.Moh’d writing painfully of Zanzibar twenty years on from the violent revolution in 1964 which killed an estimated 17,000 Arabs and Asians on the African ‘Spice Island.’
Summoned to help in the aftermath, Eastern Block countries threw up drab housing estates and encouraged drastic nationalization measures. Food rationing was introduced in 1970 and Zanzibar’s woes were further compounded in the 1980s by a dramatic drop in the price of cloves. By 1997 income per capita was around $200 making Zanzibar one of the poorest places in the world.
Massive political corruption initially dissuaded investors, but Italian investment during the 1990s turned Zanzibar into one of the Indian Ocean’s most fashionable holiday resorts. Visitor arrivals are currently expected to reach 500,000 by 2020.
Once only accessible by dhow, Ujunga (its local name) is now served by international airlines from Europe and the Gulf States while sleek hydrofoils skim across from Dar-es -Salaam in 60 minutes.
But while Zanzibar has become a tourist status symbol, at heart it remains an old world island struggling to reconcile its popularity with local poverty. With your hotel comes a whiff of drains and the odd rat scurrying through capital Stone Town is not uncommon.
Stone Town was designated a World Heritage site in 2000. Some 1,700 buildings are classified of architectural significance. Tall pink and umber coloured houses, three sometimes four storeys in height, line the narrow lanes. Some buildings have been restored. Without maintenance others are in an advanced state of disrepair. The first discotheque — in an old house near the Zanzibar National Bank —collapsed with the vibrations.
The most elegant houses were built by wealthy Arab and Indian traders in the 19th century. Grand mansions along the waterfront, they include the large white coralstone palace, former residence of the Omani sultan’s of Zanzibar, now the National Palace Museum.
Of further interest is the House of Wonders a curious tiered edifice topped with a Victorian clock tower, at one time the tallest building on the Swahili coast of Africa.
Stone Town’s must be explored on foot with a local guide to lead you to the best original doors for which Zanzibar has enjoyed a reputation since time immemorial. The size of the door, the number of brass studs and the intricacies of its decorated panels being a sign of the owner’s wealth.
Stone Town’s notorious slave market was closed in 1873 by Sultan Barghash who consented to missionaries building a cathedral on the site provided it did not exceed the House of Wonders, at the time East Africa’s tallest building.
The Church of Christ Cathedral which held its first service on Christmas Day 1877 has a window dedicated to the great explorer and missionary David Livingstone. Livingstone, Burton, Stanley and Speke all planned their expeditions into the Dark Continent from Zanzibar which Livingstone called ‘Stinkibar’.
Zanzibar is only 85kms long by 30 kms wide, but unless you drive a four-wheel vehicle as do local politicians, the lack of infra-structure may mean even the shortest trip can take all day. Planning a quick visit to the East Coast, I was obliged to stay the night as the public dala-dala (mini-bus) went straight back to Stone Town and didn’t return until the following afternoon.
With long sandy beaches, swaying palms and a turquoise sea, the classically beautiful East Coast has attracted many hotel developers to the chagrin of local seaweed farmers who complain their plots are damaged by tourists wading out to swim.
Some of the biggest hotels are at Ras Nungwi on the north coast where the water is too deep for seaweed cultivation. Secluded here, the mainly Italian tourists, can behave as they like, being only asked to dress with some approbum when they go out.
A shopping excursion in Stone Town and a tour of the legendary spice plantations are often the only time they leave the hotel complex. For the rest of their holiday they lie on the beach watched by Masai security guards from mainland Tanzania who find Zanzibar more lucrative than looking after cattle.
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