Zan – Zi – Bar


There are two Zanzibar. One is the idea of Zanzibar. The second is Zanzibar itself. This is often the case with travelling destinations but it is still interesting, I think, to compare the idea of a place with the place itself. Thus when I was on the ferry on Saturday morning from Dar es Salaam I was thinking about the books and stories I red in the past which told of kind of magical places: Samarkand, Isfahan, Kathmandu, and of course Zanzibar.

These are all places described by early travelers and traders. Reached in often adventurous circumstances. Places where cultures came together and often clashed. Places that have been on the early maps as reference points for sea travelers. Zanzibar, Zan – Zi – Bar. The sound of this name reminds me of that movie, Marrakesh Express or maybe Tourne’ where the two friends travel in this old car and remember the trip they did many years before to Kathmandu in this very same car. At one point, one of the two tells to the other: do you remember the noise that this car used to do? A strange noise that accompanied our journey. A rhythmical noise which we have never been able to fix but which sounded like: kath-man-du, kath-man-du, kath-man-du,…. The same here, although I am not on a car but on the sea: Zan-zi-bar, zan-zi-bar….

Zanzibar today is very different from the one of the books. Probably Zanzibar has never been like the one described in those books. This evening I was sitting on the terrace of the restaurant where I had dinner, looked at the people in the garden near the shore setting up their food stalls, hot pans, pizza table, bamboo juice machines. The first customers. Arab families, African families, tourists strolling at sunset and having dinner out. I looked at them and thought that not so long ago there was similar place in town. A market where people used to stroll around and buy slaves. A market where people were put on display to be sold to other people, who would buy them bring them to work in their homes or in their fields. A slave market of African people. That ended badly with an insurrection which cause thousands of deaths.

That is also Zanzibar or at least one of its many pasts. The old town with its narrow alley, white houses, wooden doors with carvings above them has a strong Arabic characters and resemble to Essaouira, Galle, Tangier. These old town which lie next to the sea and have seen passing through them people from distant places bringing spices in exchange for wood or cotton. Walking in this intricate labyrinth display renovated houses, other which are kept together by simple though insufficient wooden scaffolding. the smell fo garbage left in some corners mixes with sewage which spills out of some gully-holes. At the same time it is possible to detect in the air spices, incense which all mix together in a strangely attracting way.

SO how is it for people to live here? It looks like the weight fo all this history is really testing the solidity of the building in the old town and even though I can have glimpses of homes and courtyards through half open wooden doors I cannot see who these homes and houses are and how people live. I can only guess and I think it is not very good. there is too much do to here. Too much to fix. Too much to renovate and not enough money I guess. Outside the harbor a large sign reminds visitors that the old town of Zanzibar is a UNESCO world heritage site and I wonder how is it to live in a world heritage site which is falling down.

Again the memories of those old stories or reference to this town come to my mind and in a way help to keep distant the voice of the sellers who at every shop try to convince me to buy the same things: a painting, a masai carved figure, a wooden bowl, a CDrom, a pareo with the picture of Barack Obama printed on it. This happen at every shop along the main streets in the old town also called Stone Town. However by turning on the side of these main streets one can only hear the noise sandals, open windows which bring voices, a bicycle which goes too fast and nearly hits me, a radio from a shop selling a bit of everything. At six this evening the loudspeakers with the chanting calling for prayer. Lights into a small mosque. People standing up and kneeling following the rhythm of their prayer.

During the couple of days I spent here I had mixed feelings but also a bit a like a tourist again. I travel a lot for work and also live abroad but that is different. I guess it was the feeling that accompanied the decision to get on the ferry and come here. Find this hotel and just discover this new place with not much information than a simple map. It was a nice feeling and the sellers, the tourists guides, the students who just want to practice their English did not bother me too much. But I must admit that I often thought how would it be to be here with Olga and Venla and show to them these narrow streets where it is only possible to walk, these old houses which needs renovation as they are crumbling down, this mosque, the nearby madrasa. What would they say? Before leaving from Dumageute, Olga told me she wanted to come with me to Africa. She wanted to see the lions, the elephants, the hippos. I told her I would check how to do and where when pen day we will come here together. In the end, I came to Zanzibar where there are not many lions to be seen. But I think that she would have liked to walk this evening on the white sand beach , near the Africa House and watch that group of kids 8 or 10 years old practicing to become acrobats using a an old truck tire as jumping trampoline. So, maybe, next time we will be here all together.