Zanzibar Then and Now

Yesterday & Today

The image today of Zanzibar as a lush tropical island surrounded by powder white sand and lapped by a warm, azure ocean belies the long, sometime prosperous, sometime dark history. Evidence of settlement goes back to about AD150 and over the centuries has been colonised by Persians, ruled by Omani’s, administered by the British and assisted by East Germany and China.

The “Zanzibar Archipelago” is a cluster of some 50 islands, the main ones being Unguja (now known as Zanzibar), Pemba to the north and Mafia to the south prospered as centres of trade for many centuries. Trade was in ivory, shells, essential oils, spices and cloves with Zanzibar and Pemba producing 90% of the worlds cloves until the 1970s.

Zanzibar was infamous for its part in the slave trade, abolished in the late 19th century but continued illegally in to the 20th century. Illegal trading in poached ivory also continued until well in to the 20th century. Zanzibar was the stepping stone for many expeditions on the mainland, most famously those of Dr Livingstone and Mr Stanley.

The 12th of January 1964 saw one of the bloodiest revolutions in history when the local African population, backed by East Germany and China, took up arms against the Arab and Indian population. Zanzibar then united with Tanganyika to form the Republic of Tanzania and Zanzibar’s politics for 20 years was one of extreme socialism.

The economy was heavily reliant on the export of cloves, but with a collapse in the world price of cloves, Zanzibar’s economy virtually collapsed. The island went in to a state of severe decline during the 1970s and early 80’s but with the liberalisation of policies and the advent of tourism, Zanzibar and its people commenced on a brighter future.

Today tourism, and its associated commercial activities, are the mainstay of the economy. Visitors can choose to stay at a wide range of hotels, from the luxurious to the authentic, indulge in a wide range of marine and cultural activities, stay at beach locations, in fishing villages and have time in Stone Town.

Stone Town

Stone Town is the old part of Zanzibar Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many of the old Omani mansions and palaces have been, and are being, converted to their former glory, some as small “boutique” style hotels. The labyrinth of narrow streets see local people going about their daily business, most on foot, others on scooters and bicycles. Just a couple of streets are aimed at tourists selling local (tinga tinga) paintings, wonderfully wood-carved artifacts, jewellery, ethnic clothing, post cards, etc.

The museum at The House of Wonders (so called as it was the first building in East Africa to have electric lights and a lift) is well worth a visit to learn about the history and culture of the island, with a number of rooms set aside telling the story of Princess Salme, a wonderful story indeed.

A visit to the slave chambers and the whipping post at the Anglican Cathedral is a sobering experience. The food and fish markets on Creek Road is to experience Zanzibar in the raw! Just wander deeper and deeper in to Stone Town, away from the tourist streets, and admire the architecture, the children playing and the gatherings of men and women discussing issues of the day.

North Coast

Mainly centres in and around the interesting fishing village of Nungwi. The sight of the fishing fleets setting out and returning is a sight to behold. Here dhows and fishing boats are built in the same way as they have for 100s of years, using no mechanical or electrical tools. The daily fish market is worth a visit, as is the small aquarium and turtle sanctuary.

The central part of the tourist area has been tidied-up over the years now hosting shops, dive centres and restaurants and, fortunately, has not been spoiled by the development of some very large hotels to the south of the village. You can arrange a guided tour of the village, cooking lessons with Sele at Langi Langi Beach Bungalows and there are many dive centres and boat owners offering scuba diving, snorkelling and dhow safaris.

North East Coast

The North East Coast stretches for about 20 miles of glorious, palm fringed sandy beach. The fishing villages of Matemwe, Kiwengwa and Pongwe are located on this part of the island. Whilst some large hotels have been developed, there are many smaller hotels relatively untouched by the more commercial developments.

South East Coast

Similar in many respects to the North East Coast, a long stretch of palm fringed sandy beach where at low tide women harvest seaweed and men bring ashore their daily catch. There are many fishing villages to call in to while walking or cycling along the beach, some like Paje have shops selling a range of products for visitors. In Jambiani many types of village cultural tours are offered, well worth doing to learn about the village and the life of local people. This stretch of coast has fewer large hotels, and those which have developed tend to be more sensitive than developments on some other parts of the island.

South Coast

The coastline is different to other parts of the island. Here there are smaller bays and coves rather than long expanses of beach. The main attraction on the south coast is the dolphin viewing from the village of Kizimkazi.

Pemba Island

Pemba is a half hour flight north of Zanzibar. It is a destination mainly for scuba divers and serious snorkellers. The forested and hilly interior is not really accessible for walking, which is a shame and hopefully at some time affordable accommodation will be developed to offer alternatives to marine activities. Accommodation is limited, expensive, but very rewarding for people with a generous holiday budget who want to experience dives and snorkelling.

Mafia Island

Mafia is south of Zanzibar, a 30 minute flight from Dar es Salaam. With a population of just 40,000 people, the islanders are mainly fisherman and smallholder farmers. For visitors the island is a haven for scuba divers, snorkellers and deep sea fishing.

There are pristine coral gardens due to protection of the Mafia Island Marine Park, and the underwater life is diverse and spectacular. Interesting land excursions are available as well as sea excursions to other smaller islands.