One of the most distinctive features of Stone Town’s architecture is the number of elaborately decorated wooden doors, which are all the more striking given the relative plainness of the buildings to which they provide access. They show various design influences – Arabian, African and Indian (many of the builders and craftsmen used in building Zanzibar were from the sub-continent). The simplest are usually the oldest, and these have traditional Arabian features with horizontal lintels. The more elaborate are those with rounded tops, such as the one in this photo, heavily influenced by Indian design. Many of these have brass studs which were used in India to protect buildings against elephants – unneeded here except for decorative purposes and to demonstrate the owner’s wealth.
Look carefully for the different motifs used in the carving, such as fish, chains, flowers, leaves, lotus and many more. Some of these can be used to determine the age of the door; many of the oldest have a symbol resembling a fish near the bottom of the side posts, which in time gradually evolved into a pineapple. If therefore the carving shows a clear and distinct pineapple the door is likely to be newer. Another symbol that became part of the decoration was a chain-like row at the very outside of the whole door. The chain was said to protect the entrance from evil spirits. Look closely at my photo to see this chain.
For more images of Stone Town’s doors check out www.zanzibarstonetown.org/gallery/doors/.
On one of our evenings at the Breezes Beach Club we were treated to a Swahili-themed barbeque and a performance by local drummers and dancers. The music was great (very hypnotic beats) and the dancing, illuminated by lanterns set in paper bags, was very lively and performed with a lot of enthusiasm. The main feature of all the dances was the use of wooden sticks. Sometimes these were used to pound the ground and add an extra beat to the music; sometimes they simulated weapons in a form of mock combat; at other times the dancers performed different steps over them, and even limbo-danced under them. Additionally the dancers stamped their feet to emphasise the rhythms.
The women wore colourful traditional costumes, though the men’s t-shirts advertising the dance company were a little more prosaic. As in many cultures, Swahili dances have specific meanings and play an important role in religion and social ceremonies. Traditionally women and girls are not allowed to participate in public dances – I’m not sure whether these women were ignoring that taboo or if they were not actually Swahili but were simply performing their dances.
If you get a chance to see a traditional dance performance, do take it, as it will certainly add to your appreciation and enjoyment of the local culture of Zanzibar.
- Arts and Culture
Mass in Cathedral
On the Sunday morning in Stone Town we decided to attend mass in the Roman Catholic Cathedral, St Joseph’s. The cathedral was built by French missionaries between 1893 and 1898 and with the exception of its heavily ornamented wooden door which echoes the traditional ones seen elsewhere in the town, is rather incongruously European in style.
We were fascinated to find that the mass, like the building itself, borrowed elements from the local culture, especially in the music with its strong rhythms, drumming and Swahili chanting. This is definitely something worth experiencing, but be warned – you’ll need some stamina. The mass lasted far longer than the one hour usual in England (closer to two) and as we had arrived not long before it started we found ourselves having to stand in what was a very hot and close atmosphere, despite the ceiling fans and open doors and windows. Local practice by the way is for men to occupy one side of the aisle and women the other, but no one seemed to mind that visiting couples like ourselves chose to stay together on the men’s side (we weren’t sure that the women would like to be joined by an unknown man).
If you would like to experience a different side to life in Stone Town do consider joining some of its people in worship, either here or in the Anglican Cathedral.
Directions On Cathedral Street, a little to the east of Kenyatta Road
A popular activity for tourists in Zanzibar is to have a hand or some other body part adorned with traditional henna painting. We saw signs for this all over Stone Town (se Chris’s photo, no. 2) but it wasn’t until we got to the beach that I decided to have one. There were several women offering to do this at competitive prices – they would approach us on the beach, but rarely hassled us (I think they were carefully monitored by hotel staff and chased away if they became too aggressive).
Henna painting, also known as mehndi painting from the Hindu word for henna, is a traditionally used on the hands and feet. The leaves of the henna plant are dried and powdered to be mixed into a paste which is used to dye the skin a reddish/brown colour. The resulting pattern lasts between 1-3 weeks. Aware that I would have to go back to work the next week I chose this fairly subtle design, and was very happy with the handiwork. If you’d like a henna painting you’ll find plenty of opportunities wherever you stay.
- Arts and Culture
GREETINGS - A GUIDE
As you walk down the road, your conversations will go like this:
You will hear (shouted at you) – “Jambo!” (Hello)
You reply – “Jambo!”
”Habari?” (what is the news or how are you?)
”Nzuri” (I am fine)
You usually hear “Karibu” (you are welcome here) sometimes the name of the village is said as well. I often heard “Karibu Jmbiani.” OR “Karibu Zanzibar”!
Always reply “Asante Sana!” (Thank You very much)
Sometimes after you have spoken to someone a little longer or purchased something from them you will be called “Rafiki” which means friend. This is heart felt and you rarely hear it unless you have become friends – in the village.
If the word “Rafiki” is shouted at you as a greeting – they are trying to sell you something, usually in Stone Town.
A Few Basics Words/Phrases:
Yes = Ndiyo
No = Hapana
Okay = Sawa
Maybe = Labda
How are you? = Habari Yako?
Good = Nzuri
Thank you = Asante
Hello = Jambo
I am fine = Sijambo
Please = Tafadhali (the dh is pronounced like a th)
Goodbye = Kwaheri
What is your name? = Jina lako ni nani?
My name is ...= Jina langu ni ...
I don't speak Swahili = Sisemi Kiswahili
Bia = Beer
Bia baridi = Cold beer
Daktari = Doctor
Duka = Shop
Hakuna matata No problem
A young person to an older one: "Shikamoo!" (originally it meant "I touch your feet" as a sign of respect) and the greeted answers, "Marahabaa!" (I acknowledge your respect!).
** Please note that as this is a Muslim Country – never greet a woman in conversation outside. You may respond if they greet you first. **
- Romantic Travel and Honeymoons
- Spa and Resort
Rip-off football shirts
As in many parts of the world, local people here follow the English Premier League with great interest, and this can be a useful topic of conversation if you’d like to get chatting to some locals. Naturally, like fans everywhere, locals who adopt an English team to follow would like to wear the appropriate football strip, but even if these were available here the prices charged for them would be far too high for local incomes. The solution? Rip-off copies of the official strips, usually copied faithfully by local producers and sold on market stalls for a fraction of the price we would pay in sports shops in this country. But these people are working from TV images and photos and just occasionally they get things a bit wrong. Imagine our amusement as Newcastle fans when we saw this local man wearing a copy of the famous black and white stripes carefully and accurately executed down to the smallest detail in every aspect but one – this shirt is not black and white but red and white, the colours of our bitter rivals Sunderland!
We sampled two local beers while staying in Stone Town, most often from the sunset-viewing vantage point of Africa House (see Nightlife tip). These were Safari and Kilimanjaro, both (as their names suggest) brewed on mainland Tanzania in Dar Es Salaam. Both were pleasant lager-style beers, very refreshing when served icy cold. Safari is brewed by Tanzanian Breweries, with an ABV of 5.5%, while Kilimanjaro has an ABV of 4.5%. Both are quite light in appearance and are very drinkable, but of the two I preferred Safari’s slightly hoppier flavour.
- Beer Tasting
In Zanzibar Island, especially in Stone Town, the people are very conservative Muslims. Everywhere you go you should show respect in the way you attire - avoid shorts and exposing your shoulders in Stone Town and no topless bathing or tangas by the beach. Cover up with a sarong to go to the bars.
Apart from showing respect to the locals, you could be saving yourself some hassle as there are stories of women travellers being harassed because they were exposing a bit too much flesh.
THE MONEY TRICK
PLEASE NOTE: THIS IS FOR BUDGET TRAVELLERS, NOT SOMETHING AGAINST LOCAL PEOPLE. You have to haggle EVERY price in Zanzibar, except some restaurants. So, you can play the money trick to make sure you always get a good price. Tanzanian Schillings are weak against the U.S. Dollar, which everyone will take. Make sure you take some single $1 notes for emergencies. You get about 1100 to 1200 Schillings to 1 dollar. Agree a price and take in units of 1’s so it sound like you mean dollars. Some people will even say $1 or 1000 Schillings. They would say 10 meaning 10,000 Schillings. Schillings are cheaper for you. Go to any good exchange in Stone Town have some Schillings with you when you haggle. You agree ‘10’, hand over 10,000 Schillings, not $10. Too late, they know you know and they have just given you a 10-20% discount! I did this with a hotel and agreed ‘30’. I saved $10 over a 3 night stay. It makes your money stretch! You can also agree the price, leave to get Schillings and come back. The deal has already been done. Remember – if you do agree a deal, you have to stick with it.
***PLEASE NOTE ** Watch out for anyone trying to agree Kenyan Schillings, they are much more valuable than Tanzanian and only con artists would say this. $1 only gets you about 69 Kenyan Schillings. So 10,000 Kenyan Schillings would be $143!
- Romantic Travel and Honeymoons
- Budget Travel
WHEN TO GO AND CLIMATE
The question of when to go to Zanzibar comes up a lot in the Travel Forums. The short answer is that April and May are the rainiest and also the cheapest time to go. Some hotels will close during the ‘rainy season’, but the one that do stay open lower the prices and you have the beaches more to yourself. Zanzibar is in the tropics and you could have a week of sunshine in the middle of the ‘wet’ season and a full day of rain in the ‘dry’. When you do have heavy rains they are often for an hour or less and many times at night. Zanzibar’s water temperature remains warm all year long and even in the rain it’s warm year round. April and May are often called the ‘long rains’, but locals like to call it the ‘Green Season’ because you see the best of the flowers and foliage. I visited at the end of May and recommend it for value vs. weather. During the dry season it can be unbearable hot and things go brown. No matter when you go – you need high factor sunscreen as you can get severe burns in minutes. Zanzibar is at sea level and close to the Equator. Throughout the year high temperatures in the day reach between 31-38ºC (87-100ºF).
Here is a general planner by months:
July – October
There is very little rain, the average temperature is 25ºC (77ºF) and humidity is low. Light breezes at night provide some relief from the hot days that always get up to about an average 29ºC (84ºF). Fewer tourists than in January.
November - March
The short rains come occur at this time and it is extremely hot and humid. The average temperature is 28ºC (82ºF) and the average high is 31ºC (88ºF). The Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan occurs in December/ January. Some restaurants and bars may be closed during this time. All hotels are open though.
April to June
This is the quietest season. The monsoon or long rains occur. It does not rain all day every day, but you will have to stay indoors when they really come down. It is the cheapest time to visit, but some hotels are closed. Email or telephone a hotel to make sure.
- Family Travel
- Spa and Resort
I had no idea that you could grow seaweed until I visited the east coast of Zanzibar. In fact I did not realise that it was eaten in many countries in the Far East. Seaweed is tied to poles out in the ocean. Because the east coast of the island is protected by a close barrier reef, the seaweed thrives in these sorts of undersea groves. The ladies of the village harvest this in large sacks and bring them into dry.
- Jungle and Rain Forest
- Family Travel
Traditional Zanzibarian Beds are essentially very large 4 poster/canopy beds. The canopy holds your mosquito net (essential), where is can be pulled back during the day. The head board and foot board are very high and have decorative panels. Most of the panels have paintings of simple objects like fruit. These beds are truly original and their history goes way back. I found 2 workshops in Stone Town who were restoring older ones and they estimated that they are about 200 years old. Given their depictions of inanimate objects, it is reasonable to assume that they are derived from Omani Arabs who practiced Islam when they occupied Zanzibar. This would also explain why they are not found on the mainland
- Budget Travel
- Romantic Travel and Honeymoons
THE SHORTEST WAR IN HISTORY
Zanzibar fought the world’s shortest war against the British Empire – and lost after 38 minutes. Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini had been cooperation with the British when he suddenly died on 25 August 1896. His nephew, Khalid bin Bargash, seized power at the expense of another would-be pro British Sultan. Khalid was ordered to step aside. He did not. On the 26th, 5 British warships began the shelling of the Palace at 9:00 am. They quickly sank the H.H.S. Glasgow, the Sultan’s only warship, and the Sultan fled to the German Consulate. The war was over in 38 minutes and the British installed their own candidate who they then promptly billed for the expense of the shells used.
- Historical Travel
- National/State Park
- Family Travel
Other Muslim considerations
It is considered extremely rude to eat in public (in the streets) during the Ramadan, whilst everyone is fasting.
Also be careful of not drinking alcohol in public, remember the Muslims are not allowed to touch any alcohol. Do not be surprised that many establishments refuse to serve alcohol, so be careful of the restaurant or bar you pick to hang out in :)
The traditional dhows became the maritime symbol of East Africa. The art of sailing was allready known for two millenia to the east Africans. The main dhow building centre was at the north coast of Zanzibar Island, where the teak forests were.
In Stone town you can book an one-day cruise at a dhow, visitng a sandbank, a reef and two islands. Also common are the 8 M long mashua dhows, that shuttle between Zanzibar and the mainland. I didn't sail with a dhow myself, but enjoyed to see them sailing at the ocean.
- Sailing and Boating