Hope and Nostalgia in Zanzibar

A street in Zanzibar as seen from Beit Al-Ajab (The House of Wonders)

“We laugh because that is how we survive.”

I have heard Zanzibari humor explained this way at least twice.  The longer I live here, the more I wonder, survival of what or of whom?  A culture?  A nation? A people?  Somewhere between the hordes of feral cats in the alleyways, the great crumbling edifices which are all but the last tenements of a glorious past, and the daily ballad of the bicycling fishmonger, I fell in love with Zanzibar.  I am likely, therefore, far more invested in this place than I even know.

With a subtle desperation, Zanzibaris clutch their identity to their chests.  It can be seen on the faces of the men who sit outside of the mosques on Mkunazini street after the evening prayer.  It is served in heaping bowls of rice and fish to any guest who enters the home.  It can be heard reverberating like a haunting rhapsody in Taarab music halls.  Its fragrance mingles in the air with the perfume of the island’s remaining clove trees.  It is carved into the doors, and is tethered to the moorings of the dhows in the port.  It comes down as rain and swallows up an entire city in cascading rivulets.

With the onslaught on mainland mainstream mania, are these futile attempts at self-preservation or is there truly a chance for survival?

Arabic script carved into a door

When Zanzibaris speak of the island’s decline, they often mention the lack of industries.  I have been told that there are two water bottling plants, one Coca-Cola bottler, a noodle company, and very little else.  Even the vast majority of fruits and vegetables are brought by ferry from mainland Tanzania.  Food is expensive, and for the common Zanzibari, most produce is unaffordable.  Furthermore, in 2008 the Minister for Labour, Women, Children and Youth Development of the Zanzibar Revolutionary Government, Asha Abdallah Juma, stated that 541,320 Zanzibaris are unemployed.  With a population of about one million, that would have put the unemployment rate in 2008 at 54%.¹  Since I have been here, I have heard other figures as high as 80%.

East Africa's first elevator in the House of Wonders

When the locals speak about the past, their eyes gleam with pride.  Zanzibar was the first in East Africa to have a steam locomotive engine which was running in 1881,² as well as a building with power and an elevator in 1883.³  Stone Town was lit up by electric street lights in 1906, around the same time as much of Europe and the U.S.⁴  In centuries past, trade in slaves, spices, and copra brought untold riches to the isles.  It was the center of a beautiful symphony of Swahili, Arab, and Indian cultures; a rich melange of language, cuisine, dress, and tradition.  Modern Zanzibar can still claim the latter, the only difference being a considerable infusion of popular culture from both mainland Tanzania and America.

Some sources say that Zanzibar has seen growth in more recent years.  Locals, however, say that the islands have been stagnant for decades, with nothing but the empty promise of development just before every election.  Education on the islands is poor, and most Zanzibaris with the means send their children abroad for higher education.  Although Zanzibar is a two-party state, the CCM (Chama cha Mapinduzi or Party of the Revolution) has dominated island politics for the past three decades.  With an election coming at the end of this October, and a recent referendum in which 66% of the island voted for a coalition government between the CCM and the CUF (Civic United Front) parties, many are hopeful for the first time in decades.

1: http://allafrica.com/stories/200809230773.html
2: http://www.zanzibar.cc/chronology.htm
3: http://www.zanzibarheritage.go.tz/House%20of%20Wonders%20Museum.htm
4: http://www.swahilicoast.com/contents.php?bbb=42&cc=3


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