Jun 25

Sand, Sea, & Slavery: Stone Town, Zanzibar

by Nikki

After landing in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I made it straight for the sea, sand, and splendor of Zanzibar. The cheapest, and most scenic way to get to Zanzibar is by ferry, so my pockets led the way. The mayhem at the port was foreshadowing for future endeavors at bus stations all over Tanzania, but the smooth sailing ferry calmed me down instantaneously. Two to three hours of ocean, the occasional tuft of sand and then more ocean are all that lie between Zanzibar and the rest of Tanzania. To ride there by boat is to fully appreciate the distance and history that distinguishes this spice island turned slave port from the mainland.

Unknowingly, I was making a journey many slaves made before me. Captured or bought from as far inland as Lake Tanganika, the slaves that survived the long walk to the coast were whisked away in dhows to the Zanzibar Slave Market in Stone Town to be sold. Zanzibars significance in the slave trade was new information to me, I hadn’t done my research before I hopped on the plane or jumped into the boat. I only knew that it was beautiful  and, as a traveler, my only ambition was to arrive. Reflecting on this moment, now a bit more informed with a perspective largely shaped by reading V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, I realize that the slaves and I had this in common, an ambition to simply arrive. The circumstances are different, I was there by choice. But acknowledging their journey is to understand that more than my own doings allowed for me to step foot on the island a free woman, and, perhaps, even a tinge of irony in my doing so.

“It was like the old days with the slaves.They made the same journey…but from the centre of the continent to the east coast. The further away they got from the centre and their tribal area, the less likely they were to cut loose from the caravans and run back home, the more nervous they became of the strange Africans they saw about them, until, at the end, on the coast, they were no trouble at all, and were positively anxious to step into the boats…Like the slave far from home, I became anxious only to arrive.”
-V. S. Naipaul, A Bend In the River

Fresh off the boat, I made my way to the Clove Hotel to spend my first couple of nights in Stone Town, a world heritage site and the capital of the Zanzibar Sultanate  when the island was controlled by Oman. I layed on my bed for a moment, soaking in my surroundings. Orange and pink cement walls, the detailed woodwork lining the canopy of my lofted, typically “Zanzibar” bed, and a mosquito net to protect me from stinging visitors. I’m on day two of my round the world fare. I have at least  364 more days of travel ahead of me. This Zanzibar bed is nice, but I need to go see Stone Town. So I left to check out the sites and sounds around town.

It doesn’t take long to discover the beauty of this place. Arab and Persian influence in its early days of habitation left a lasting impression on the island, permeating every aspect of culture, religion, and architecture. At 5pm, just after school lets out, you can see the city in all its splendor, with little boys and girls neatly dressed running up and down the maze of alleyways that make up Stone Town. A 95% muslim population, the girls all have their heads covered, letting the extra fabric shape their cheeks, emphasizing the mischievous smile that forms as they take note of the Black Mzungu in town. The same smile spreads across the faces of little boys in their taqiyah caps, who, for some odd reason think I’m hilarious. What is so funny! Then there are the boys with no place to be, no school to go to, and nothing to do. They paid particularly close attention, thrilled to have a Black American to throw their stereotypes at. Oh, thats why everyones laughing. Well, at least someone think’s I’m funny!

The Boys of Perpetual Laughter

What used to be the biggest slave market in all of Zanzibar is now The Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ. The whipping post is now the altar. A way of paying homage to the slaves that once graced its presence to be traded like clove and nutmeg, just another spice on the island. Taking a tour of the church was peculiar. The church, like the island, has taken on a new life, but its past hasn’t been forgotten. It’s hard to imagine what the place was like before it was a church with an ornate door, upside down pillars, and quotes from David Livingstone intermingled with bible verses. I bet it was chaotic. Was it like an auction where a man, talking really fast, yells numbers and people raise their hands when they want to bid? Were the bids in specific increments? Or was it more like African markets today where you negotiate one on one, haggling the seller down the the lowest possible price? What exactly happened at that altar/whipping post?

Photo Courtesy of New York Public Library

The monument outside leaves less to the imagination. Male and female figures jut out of the earth like cement plants, sunflowers without a sunny story to tell. The humaness of their features and  the abject expressions on their faces made me feel like they were real, standing there, chained forever to one another and to the earth. They looked tired and weary, but still strong, like they really walked all the way from Lake Tanganika to stand in this cement box and remind you what happened here before it was a grassy patch outside of an unassuming church . The artist knew what he was doing, when he made those penetrating, yet lifeless cement eyes, perturbing collar bones, and muscular deltoids. I can’t help but hope the lasting, stinging impression left on me is felt by every visitor who dares to delve in to the darker side of Zanzibar’s history.

Stone Town is breathtaking and undoubtably a must-do in East Africa. The alleyways, freshly flavored food, peppered with spices grown on the island and the woodwork is all part of a historical tapestry that is best understood through a  slave tour, city tour, and spice tour. For the best of all worlds, simply arrive and figure it out when you get there. Posts on the latter tours are soon to come.

Other slave-trade related sites worth checking out in Zanzibar include:

  • The Mission House next to the Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ which, houses old slave chambers.
  • Changuu Island (Prison Island),  now a popular snorkeling site, but once a prison for rebellious slaves.
  • Mangapwani Cave, a secret hideout used to illegally transport slaves off the island after the Slave Market was closed in 1873.

Have you ever been to a former slave market before? What was the experience like? Sharing is caring!

Previous post:

Next post: