Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Africa's mixed bag

Zanzibar's capital an exotic jumble with a history of spice

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STONE Town, the centuries-old capital of Zanzibar, is an exotic jumble of Arab, Indian, African and European architecture.

Looking inland from the rough-hewn port, the town is a vision of mismatched, bleached white buildings marching down to the brilliant blue waters of the Indian Ocean.

It was from Stone Town that sultans of Oman ruled and British explorers set out to map the African continent. Spices were shipped from the harbour and so, horrifyingly, were African slaves.

Today, the harbour is home to fishing boats, a few pleasure craft and several historically important buildings, many of them restored after Stone Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. There's the 19th-century palace Beit-al-Ajaib, known as the House of Wonders because it was the first building in Zanzibar to have electric light and an electric elevator. Next to it is the refurbished Arab Fort, with its castellated battlements, originally built between 1698 and 1701 by Omani Arabs.

Conveniently, many of Stone Town's major historical sights are within walking distance of each other in the oldest part of the town. You can't help but see them as you wander the narrow, winding streets, exploring the shops, bazaars and especially the central market whose stalls are piled with spices, pungent meat and apparently anything you need to repair a 1960s-era car.

In terms of souvenir shopping, locally made items like baskets and woven carpets tend to be outnumbered by imports from India and northern Africa.

Bargaining seems required, although during Ramadan, when we were there, negotiations can take on an edge. Stone Town is 95 per cent Muslim, and during the day shopkeepers are hungry, thirsty and occasionally impatient. Understandably.

This isn't a suggestion to avoid Zanzibar during Ramadan. The moment an entire town breaks its fast is one you'll remember. On every street corner, people would gather by stalls with platters of dates and bottled water, cash in hand, waiting for the ear-splitting siren to announce the end of day's fasting.

With nightfall, which arrives year-round around 7 p.m., a beautiful park by the harbour is transformed into a scene from a fairy tale: a feast suddenly appears, laid out on dozens of tables. Lit by glass lanterns, tables are piled high with meat, fish, chicken, samosas, breads of all sizes and types, tomatoes, peppers, onions, french fries, dates, bananas, red and green apples. There were hand-cranked presses to make juice from raw sugar cane. Whole lobsters, octopus, shrimp and slabs of freshly caught fish were crammed in among the kebabs.

The most sinister chapter in Stone Town's history is its role as the major shipping point for captured Africans on the East African coast. The renowned English explorer, David Livingstone, used his fame and influence against the trade. The notorious slave market for the most part vanished beneath the Anglican Cathedral, a deliberate effort to substitute prayer and love for the evil of the market in human beings.

The cathedral's font is ringed in red-veined marble, in remembrance of the whipping post that stood there. Captured Africans from the mainland were whipped to see who cried out. A higher price was paid for those who didn't complain. The slave trade was abolished only in 1873 when the reigning Omani sultan, under threat of a British naval bombardment, signed a decree outlawing it.

But if slaves were no longer shipped from Stone Town, they were from the Mangapwani caves, about 20 kilometres north of Stone Town. Dank holding pens still exist and can be visited; similarly, two unspeakably grim, dank cells under the Anglican cathedral are also open to visitors.

Zanzibar in recent years has been building up its fledgling tourism industry: There are tours of spice plantations, trips into natural forest reserves and diving expeditions in some of the world's most beautiful coral reefs.

The east and north coasts of the island boast wonderful white-sand beaches that are thinly populated, whether by tourists or local residents. Standing at the water's edge as the day gets under way, it feels as though you have slipped back in time hundreds of years. Fishermen leave at daybreak on traditional dhows and later in the day, when the tide is out, women wade out to gather seaweed to sell. Children tumble along on the sand, the older ones taking care of the little ones.

-- Postmedia News

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Airlines including British Airways, Swiss Air, and KLM fly to Dar-es-Salaam, Nairobi and Kilimanjaro airports, where travellers can pick up connections to Zanzibar.

STAYING THERE: Resorts in Zanzibar vary enormously in price and luxuriousness. The Palms on the southeast coast is an example of the upper end, charging $1,200 a night for two. But you can pay a fraction of that for the same incredibly white beach and green waters although with much less in the line of creature comforts. In Stone Town, a number of hotels are housed in historically interesting buildings. The Serena Inn, for instance, a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, is in the former Cable & Wireless offices.

BEST TIME TO GO: From June through September, there is little precipitation and temperatures stay around 28 C to 30 C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 5, 2011 E6

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