Motorcycle Diaries / Zanzibar



The first impressions of Zanzibar (at least if you come by the ferry from Dar es Salaam) are almost inevitably of the relentless activity of the dock; the crush of people -- men, women and children carrying luggage, boxes, provisions of rice and fuel from the mainland -- all trying to avoid being stepped on amidst the tangle. There are others waiting for their sister or brother, children or grandchildren to step off the boat and into their arms, smiling and laughing. Overhead the sky is clear and the incredible beauty of this remarkable island engulfs the senses.

The stone buildings are set with intricate doors of carved wood, inscribed with family titles in Arabic and Hindi over the mantle. The centuries of cultural fusion are evident everywhere. Disembarking from the ferry, there are young Muslim students in their matching blue robes paying their respects to an elder on the street, and women in hijab walking on flat heels, their feet intricately tattooed with henna. Several guys wearing locs extend English greetings in passing. And amidst all the rush, negotiating their overloaded frame packs through customs while haggling with the waiting taxi drivers, are the tourists.

Once a center of clove production for export worldwide, this island began to rely heavily on tourism after the clove economy collapsed in the 1980s. As soon as my friend and I disembarked, we were greeted with a great many men, both taxi drivers and tour guides, who wanted to know if wanted to go on the spice tour, or swim with the dolphins or buy some paintings. Tourism is quite literally the lifeblood of this 97 percent Muslim society.

The following day, as we wandered through groves of banana trees (mg’omba), stands of lemongrass (mchai mchai) and pepper vines (pilipili manga) on the spice tour, I wondered aloud: How could a place so beautiful come to be stained with so much blood? There are ghosts in my head of enslaved Africans, mixed Shirazis and the Arabs and Indians killed in the revolution of 1964.

Zanzibar is a country grappling with the clash of cultures, inequities of class and race, as well as the effects of globalization, including an economy dependent on mostly European tourists. Along the beaches and in restaraunts, I saw plenty of evidence that this old colonial mentality had not been broken, but simply glossed over. For example, the most prestigious hotel in town, The Africa House, was the former headquarters of the English colonial country club. At the bar overlooking the Indian Ocean, an all white clientele is served by an African service staff.

The name Zanzibar comes from two Persian words, ‘Zanj’ meaning black, and ‘bar’, meaning coast. It should be no surprise that despite what many tour guides on the island told us ("the first people to settle here were either Arabs or Persians") the indigenous people of Zanzibar emigrated there around 1000 A.D. from the African mainland. They were known as the Hadimu, who settled primarily in the South, and the Tumbatu, who lived in the North. After this initial migration, a wave of traders from Persia and the Persian Coast arrived and intermarried with the Hadimu and Tumbatu. Their offspring became known as the Shirazi and they would figure prominently in the emergence of Zanzibar as a hub of the slave trade in the Indian Ocean.

We visited several monuments dedicated to enslaved Africans, but I still wondered if the formerly enslaved had gained any foothold in the society, especially since the revolution of 1964. That revolution led to outbreaks of violence and the confiscation of the property of many large landowners, mostly of Arab and Indian descent. Given voice by a political activist from Uganda, John Okello, who was also a member of the Afro-Shirazi Party, the revolution galvanized the African population of Zanzibar, especially the poor. Their impetus proved so powerful that a similar uprising in Dar es Salaam had to be put down by President Nyerere, with help from the British. Nyerere then shrewdly moved to federate the island within the union of Tanzania, an arrangement which continues, uneasily, to this day.

But the revolution, though it may have acted as a social and psychological force to redress the imbalance of land and business ownership, could provide very little in the way of comprehensive programs with which to implement the desired changes for the long term. However, I did observe some positive features. We toured one farm which was cooperatively owned by nearly 70 families, although according to them, most of the revenue they bring in was from tourism, and not food and spice production. Zanzibar’s food and fuel are shipped in large tankers that dock well off the coast of Stone Town.

There have been intermittent outbreaks of violence since the revolution; some of these killings were in retaliation for the revolutionary government’s seizure of land. In fact, the first president of the new Peoples Republic of Zanzibar was assassinated in 1972, and the current president, Amani Karume, is his son. It made me wonder: how does one absorb or avoid the inevitable backlash to a revolution by those deposed from power? And how does one use those instruments of power now in your hands (i.e. property, farms, weapons, manufacturing centers, and natural resources) to the benefit of all the people? Further still, what cultural programs are most effective for instilling the values of collective work, pride and self-reliance in a people who have been trained in the opposite mentality by colonial oppression?

I wondered too about the role of Islam in Zanzibar. The profiligate waste and easy promiscuity of beach tourists ran counter to the disciplined and familial devotion I observed in the Muslim society of Zanzibar. I did not have time to probe further into the coexisting presence of these contradictions, merely to scratch the surface of an observation demanding deeper analysis. Nor did I have time to explore the current state of Afro-Arab relations. The picturesque beauty of this island and an economy geared towards fulfilling the elaborate tropical fantasies of a European elite, can stymie such analysis. But the effects of globalization demand a deeper look at this idyllic, troubled island.

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by Nate Mathews

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