Zanzibar: Island Paradise

Zanzibar: the word itself is synonymous with everything exotic. Zanzibar is famous for many reasons. Slaves were traded here, explorations into the African interior began here and it was known around the world for its exotic spices, grown on enormous plantations and shipped around the globe. Today, it is known for its white sandy beaches – the best in the world according to some – and its impressive coral reefs which attract hoards of tourists each year.

I’d been looking forward to coming to this island paradise for a very long time and at last we’d arrived. Presidential elections had not exactly gone off without a hitch – there had been two days of rioting – but by the time we arrived, peace had been restored. A major festival was underway: Zanzibar is 99% Muslim and Ramadan had just ended. The island was celebrating Eid al Fitr – “Muslim Christmas,” as one local put it. What this meant in reality was that everything was closed. We would walk about aimlessly through deserted narrow streets in the rain (who knew that it could rain here?), desperately seeking local food and admitting defeat, would resort to expensive tourist hotels, where a single meal would set us back an extortionate $3.

After a few disappointing days, the showers stopped, local restaurants reopened and the intricately carved doors of Stone Town were thrown open. People were everywhere, dressed in their finest after ‘Christmas’. Children played with new toys (guns mostly) while adults sold fruits and spices on street corners or whizzed about through the impossibly cramped streets on bicycles and mopeds, ducking and diving between pedestrians at speed. Often, with a knowing look some Good Samaritan or other would ask if we were lost, which we often were – despite numerous food hunting expeditions in the area and superior navigational skills.

At sunset, we joined Zanzibaris who flocked to the Forodhani Gardens on the waterfront. Families sat on blankets and piled paper plates at the smoking stalls. Kebabs of fish, shellfish and meat were heated and mixed with salads, chips, potato cakes and bananas. After a bit of octopus, squid and maybe some barracuda, we would join the swarms of children to buy desert from the ice cream men on bicycles.

But there is more to Zanzibar than Stone Town. We decided to take a spice tour. We were driven into the island’s interior, where we were shown a variety of spices (cardamon, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, pepper, turmeric and vanilla). We crushed pungent leaves in our hands and heard of the many uses for each plant. Elephant apples provide jelly for hair gel. Coconut palms provide food and oil but are also good for rope, thatch, furniture and mulch. Neem trees contain fiercely bitter quinine used in the treatment of malaria.

After that, we decided to travel to the North of the island for some snorkelling and to visit one of these world famous beaches we keep hearing about. We kept an eye out for the seaweed farmers (all women) who venture into the impossibly turquoise waters every day at low tide and watched local fishermen returning to shore with their catch. What a sight it was to see those sailing dhows with their lateen sails filled as they drew into the harbour at sunset.

It was hard to believe, in that idyllic setting, that Zanzibar had ever been anything other than paradise. But for many, Zanzibar was a place of suffering and torment. For centuries, slaves were bought or captured from East and Central Africa, used to carry ivory to the coast and then traded in Zanzibar. The Slave Trade, what David Livingstone referred to as the “open sore of the world”, was finally outlawed in 1873 but not before approximately ten million Africans had been exported. We visited the underground slave chambers in the heart of Stone Town where slaves were housed in appalling conditions before being sold at the market. There wasn’t room to stand in those tiny rooms that would have housed fifty or sixty men, women and children. They would sit there, shackled, and gasp for air in the sweltering heat, an open sewer at their feet. As I ascended those dank, dark steps into the shining light of day, I reflected on that terrible suffering and wondered how many today still live in slavery.

– Written by Niamh O Riordan and Malachy Harty; published in The Imokilly People

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