Tag Archives: history

Dar es Salaam: The Cultural Village Museum

An index to this series appears at the first post.

Natasha and I spent our last full day in Dar es Salaam visiting the Cultural Village Museum! The National Museum of Tanzania has five component institutions, but the only two institutions in Dar es Salaam are the museum we visited yesterday and the Village Museum. Visiting Zanzibar had given us a great perspective on how the Arabs and specifically the Omanis had shaped Tanzania, but Natasha wanted to understand better the indigenous chiefdoms that existed here before and after Zanzibar became a sultanate.


A 2005-2007 Toyota Spacio, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

We had arranged for a taxi to pick us up at 9:30 AM for our journey to the Cultural Village, wait for us at the site, and then drive us back to our hotel (for a cost of 60,000 shillings = $27.00 USD). Happily, the taxi arrived about ten minutes before the scheduled time. He was driving a Toyota Spacio, which confused me since it looked very like a Prius V that didn’t shut off its engine at traffic lights! As we moved north from downtown, we reached Ocean Road, a road curving along the shoreline. I felt a little tingle to realize that the road had been renamed “Barack Obama Drive” in the aftermath of the President’s visit to Tanzania in 2013. We saw some lovely beaches, though the sight was marred by quite a lot of rubbish. Soon we passed the old U.S. Embassy compound, closed since the terrorist attack of 1998. The new one is considerably more substantial and more secure.


A tuk-tuk, courtesy of Getaway.co.za.

As we continued to the northwest, we passed into an area under extensive construction. It seemed that every block had a sizable office building or apartment tower underway, with a large sign naming the construction company (frequently in Chinese lettering). The driver said that Chinese firms had been hugely involved in construction for quite some time. Our route on Bagamoyo Road separated Oyster Bay (a very wealthy area) from the middle-class Kinondoni area. After a while, our progress slowed considerably, and a fair amount of pooled rain water had gathered on the shoulders. Through the night, we had heard several rain storms pass through the area. Insufficient drains in this area had nearly rendered the road impassible! Just the same, three-wheeled tuk-tuks were trying their best to create their own lane on the shoulder. Our taxi pushed through a large, submerged area to reach the muddy and rocky Cultural Village parking lot.

The Cultural Village Museum


Yao homes


The migrations that proliferated Bantu languages

How many ways can you make a hut? It turns out that there are plenty of different materials and designs to choose from, and the chiefdoms of Tanzania have sampled an impressive variety. The groups who had structures represented by the museum included the following: Sukuma, Zanaki, Washambaa, Swahili, Haya, Yao, Makua, Kwere/Doe, Iraqw, Rundi/Ha, Wamwera, Zaramo, Chagga, Gogo, Ngoni, Pimbwe, Fipa, Hehe, and Nyakyusa. Almost all of these groups can be described as “Bantu-speaking,” but it’s worth noting that Bantu is a highly diverse family of languages (both Zulu and isiXhosa languages from South Africa fit this category). Swahili is a widely-known African language in the world at large, but in fact it represents a combination of several Bantu languages with Arabic; it became a widespread trade language across several nations in East Africa.

I would highlight the Yao as a chiefdom that played a key role in the historic slave trade in East Africa; additionally, their commitment to Islam made this group a stalwart against European powers’ domination. The Ngoni are a group that migrated up relatively late from KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa in the aftermath of the Zulu Wars. I mentioned the Fipa in connection with a one-piece carved wooden door that we saw at the museum yesterday. Depending on the type of farming, the climate of the regions they occupied, the contact they enjoyed with other groups, and so on, these chiefdoms turned to rather different approaches for home construction.


Fipa iron-smelting furnace

I would emphasize that the Bantu-speaking chiefdoms spread to cover a huge fraction of Africa because they developed iron-working technologies and had a rich and diverse agriculture to keep their populations fed. Many of the movies about African populations in the last century stereotyped them as bloodthirsty savages, but this image has little to do with reality– these groups were actively participating in international trade back in the fifteenth century and before! That’s why I was delighted that the cultural village included a smelting furnace in connection with the Fipa people. The smelting furnace, constructed almost entirely of clay, reflects that the Fipa were producing iron as far back as the seventeenth century. This process combined iron ore, charcoal, and flux (various types) at a temperature approaching 1000 degrees Celsius (~1800 degrees Fahrenheit) to produce liquid iron which could then be smithed.


The Hawa hut is an example of the “Mushonge” type.

The huts that we observed were large enough to be subdivided into several spaces, in some cases by internal walls. I particularly liked the Haya homes, called the “Mushonge” type. These banana and coffee farmers use bamboo, sticks, and grass to build round huts with an entry hall that can be divided into storage, cooking, and sleeping spaces.


The Gogo people of the Dodoma region are pastoralists.

Structures for the Washambaa, Sukuma, and others featured internal ceilings that left room for storage (or children!) above and work and sleep space below. The complexity of these homes definitely stretches well beyond what we think when we say “hut.” By the time we examined the clay walls and verandas of Mwera houses, it was clear that only a small step in complexity differentiated it from a Swahili house with plastered coral and lime walls.


The matrilineal Mwera community built homes with clay walls on wooden pole frames.

As we finished our tour of the village, Natasha and I were treated to a rousing music and dance performance by a troupe of six. They put their all into the show, even though their audience numbered only two! At the close, the group sang a local song including the words “hakuna matata” (not the Disney one), and a dancer enticed Natasha and me to join them. Each of us was adorned by cowrie shells and headdress to join them dancing.


Some of our musicians

On the drive back to our hotel, I was startled to feel a roach crawling across my neck. I shrieked and swatted it into the air. Sadly, it was flung in Natasha’s direction. She responded with greater aplomb. When we reached the hotel room, the roach scuttled out of her backpack. I smote it with my flip-flop.

Our excellent adventure in Dar es Salaam had come to a close.  The next morning we were on a flight back south to Johannesburg and Cape Town!



Dar es Salaam: the National Museum of Tanzania

An index to this series appears at the first post.

In many ways, the National Museum of Tanzania is the obvious tourist destination for Dar es Salaam.  Natasha and I were especially excited to see the controversial “Nutcracker Man” remains housed there.  We were somewhat uncertain what we would find, though, since we could not find a responsive web server for the museum!

The National Museum and House of Culture


This is the street-facing side of the museum, not the more ornate House of Culture!


Al Qaeda killed many Africans in its quest to defeat Western powers.

After photographing some historic buildings along the waterfront, we strolled northeast along Sokoine Drive.  We spotted two or three casinos within a mile on our walk.  The National Museum complex has greatly expanded since it originally opened its doors in 1940.  The main museum building has an open structure lining Shaaban Robert Street.  Our two tickets cost 13000 shillings ($5.85 USD).

When we entered the courtyard, my attention was immediately drawn by a display of thoroughly wrecked vehicles.  I wandered closer, and my attention was transfixed.  I was looking at a memorial remembering the 1998 al-Qaeda attack on the United States embassy in Dar es Salaam.  It combines three destroyed vehicles (a bicycle, motorcycle, and a light truck) with a sheet of shattered bulletproof glass and a statue of a woman without arms.  It’s important to remember that the first al-Qaeda attacks (this one was simultaneous with another in Nairobi) cost many Muslim lives.


The brownish structure behind the Sacred Fig houses most exhibits and classrooms for the National Museum.


This door from Ufipa was carved with iron tools.

The courtyard also features a truly massive Sacred Fig tree.  This specimen was planted in the early 20th century by the Germans as part of the botanical gardens (just across the street to the Northwest).  It’s the same kind of tree that Siddhartha Gautama sat beneath in the 6th century B.C. as he became the Buddha.

With that, Natasha and I climbed the stairs to the exhibit hall of the museum.  She and I both returned several times to examine a door that had been carved from a single tree trunk by the Ufipa in southwestern Tanzania.  By contrast a bed frame created in the 18th century for the grandfather of Sheikh Hussein of Kilwa was a sublime example of both woodcarving and joinery.  Many of the photographs and maps emphasized the history of Kilwa, an East African coastal city that played a substantial role in the slave and other trade networks leading to Zanzibar from the 13th century to the 15th century.  The World Heritage Site comprising the ruins at Kilwa is far off the beaten track, though, so it seems unlikely I shall ever see it!


Master-work from Kilwa

I was glad that the museum covered the history of Kilwa, but more about the history of Dar es Salaam would have been nice.  For example, why were the British so powerful in Zanzibar during an era when the Germans were dominant on the mainland (“German East Africa“)?  I appreciated a bust of Dr. Richard Hindorf, who introduced sisal as a drought-resistant crop (of 1000 bulbs sent from Florida, only sixty-two arrived safely).  The museum also featured a 1951 radio transmitter used to launch Radio Dar es Salaam!


Hindorf: some Europeans were able to contribute to the growth of this area.

Three art galleries complemented the art collection.  The first featured prehistoric and historic rock art, to Natasha’s delight.  A second, contemporary, gallery featured a variety of art from modern Tanzania.  Julius Nyerere, the first president of the modern state, featured prominently.


President J.K. Nyere: two 1970 paintings from B.N. Desai

We saw another example of the banana leaf art we had first observe at Zanzibar’s art museum.  This gallery had several carved ebony pieces including one titled “socialism,” in which each level of figures supported the one above it.


The House of Culture occupies the original building of the National Museum.

The third gallery, over in the original building for the museum, was largely photographic, detailing traditional methods for food preparation, iron smelting, and for crafting dance masks.  I came back to the contemporary gallery to photograph a few of the masks for Mapiko dance.


These Mapiko masks are for dance, not candy-gathering!

What can I say about the museum’s star exhibit, Louis Leakey’s discovery of “Nutcracker man?”  On this front, I must say I was profoundly disappointed.  The museum exhibit was being renovated, and the fossils were not available for view.  The front desk reported that it was expected to reopen in February, 2018.

As the sun lowered in the sky, we ventured over to the Bibi Titi Mohammed loop to find Mnazi Mmoja Hospital and Park.  Amongst the street hawkers and some child pick pockets-in-training, we found the eternal flame of the Uhuru Monument.  This word, meaning “Freedom” in Swahili, is commemorated by a flaming torch.  Well, the flame looks a bit like red plastic.  I liked the fact that Lieutenant Uhura’s character on Star Trek was adapted from this term!


Uhuru for all!

Natasha and I celebrated freedom by eating barbecue chicken at Mamboz Corner BBQ again.

Dar es Salaam: peaceful harbor, thriving city

An index to this series appears at the first post.

Just as we cannot tell the history of St. Petersburg without Peter the Great, to tell the history of Dar es Salaam without Majid bin Said, first Sultan of Zanzibar, would be impossible.  In 1862, Mzizima was a fishing village beside an extensive harbor, populated by Swahili who had moved down from Somalia and Zaramo inhabitants who had come from further inland.  By 1879, many partially-completed city blocks had been constructed along the waterfront to form the nucleus of Dar es Salaam, the “harbor of peace.”  What would inspire the Sultan to invest so heavily in constructing a city from scratch?

From village to city


Sultan Majid bin Said, from the British Library

Zanzibar’s economy thrived on two sources: transit trade and plantation agriculture.  The area that became Dar es Salaam incorporated the largest natural harbor in close proximity to Zanzibar.  The Sultan saw that a well-developed port could further boost the flow of goods from Sub-Saharan Africa into Zanzibar.  As his reign progressed, the attractions of a second home away from the constant strain of the court at Zanzibar also became apparent.  Sultan Majid passed away in 1870, however, leaving the sultanate to his brother Barghash, who had contested Majid’s selection as Sultan.  The second Sultan of Zanzibar was much more interested in developing the infrastructure of Zanzibar than he was in building a city on the continental coast.  A French missionary visited the city site in 1886 and had this to say:

Situated on the shore of its harbour, like an Arab woman in rags in the home of her former husband, Dari Salama appears to mourn its isolation and poverty. To the left, the palace of Said Majid is still to be seen, half concealed by mass growth… (Brennan and Burton, pg. 18)

Because Natasha and I had found a hotel close to the ferry terminal, we were quite close to the oldest structures in Dar es Salaam.  The “Old Boma,” constructed in 1866-1867, stands just opposite the ferry terminal.  Many British colonies in Africa constructed bomas as a single building housing government offices and police startions.  The building currently houses an organization dedicated to architectural heritage.  When I see the walking tours they made available, I really wish we had signed up for one or more!  Sultan Majid’s palace has been demolished, but an ancillary structure, possibly built to house his harem, evolved in time to house the “White Fathers” organization in 1922.


Atiman House may have begun life as a harem, but now it houses missionaries.

Rebirth at the close of the 19th century


A mission stands near St. Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral.

These older buildings were subsequently joined by two substantial churches that were for years the tallest buildings in the city.  A building that was once a mission has been repurposed as some sort of government building.  Quite close by we found St. Joseph’s Cathedral.  The foundation stone was laid in 1898, and the construction was completed in 1902. Just a couple blocks away one finds a rather different kind of church.  German missionaries constructed a Lutheran church at roughly the same time… and they used a Bavarian Alpine style!  It’s quite a striking departure from the Catholic design.


The Azania Front Church was constructed starting in 1898.

Carl Peters, violent colonizer

If the Sultan of Zanzibar had turned his back on Dar es Salaam, what led to this growth boom at the end of the nineteenth century?  At this point we must introduce Carl Peters, a German colony builder who was largely responsible for the creation of “German East Africa.”  Representing his “Society for German Colonization,” he toured what is now Tanzania through 1884 securing “treaties” with leaders throughout the region.  He returned to Germany to found the German East Africa Company. He attempted to convince an initially unwilling Otto von Bismarck to grant him an imperial charter to transform these pieces of paper into an actual German colony.

The influence of Carl Peters on German East Africa was highly aggressive, first in the sense that he single-mindedly pursued more “treaties:” “most of [the Society’s] funds were absorbed by financing treaty-gathering expeditions” (Perras p. 113).  In the second sense, Carl Peters actively advocated for the use of violence to maintain control of the local citizenry.  He was apparently fond of asking “Haven’t you shot a negro yet!?”  It was in connection with Carl Peters’ efforts to achieve leverage in this region that Emily Ruete (sister of Sultan Barghash) returned to Zanzibar with a German fleet.  Peters’ heavy-handed aggression led to a late 1880s rebellion against the German East Africa Company which was overcome through use of the German military.  After that involvement, it was clear that the colony would be officially supported, and an 1890 treaty swapped territories between British and German areas in East Africa to reduce the tension between the two (Perras p. 168).

In other words, the last decade of the nineteenth century brought the “Scramble for Africa” to what is now Tanzania.  What the Sultan of Zanzibar had started at Dar es Salaam would be expanded upon by the Germans.  The church buildings I showed above reflect this area passing from Sultanate to German control.  World War I, however, brought a substantial shift in power.  The Treaty of Versailles stripped Germany of its African colonies, and France and Great Britain were the recipients (apparently returning the inhabitants to self-rule wasn’t a popular idea– that would wait until the independence movements long after World War II).

Today’s Dar es Salaam

In 2009, the World Bank estimated the population of Dar es Salaam as 2.7 million.  Tanzania has become the second most populous country in East Africa (after Ethiopia) with 40.4 million people.  The city is the economic centre of the country, even if the capital is the much smaller Dodoma.  In 2012, Tanzania’s national bureau of statistics reported that Dar es Salaam had reached 4.4 million out of 45 million; people continue to migrate to the city from the countryside to find work.


The Port Authority (left) and twin towers (right) dominate the area near the ferry port.

The Dar es Salaam skyline has been changing dramatically in recent years.  The Tanzania Ports Authority (2015) and PSPF Commercial Twin Towers (2014) are the only buildings in Tanzania to exceed 150 meters in height.  The PSPF is the Public Service Pensions Fund for the country, while the Tanzania Ports Authority is a parastatal organization to manage the busy port of Dar es Salaam.  These are just the most visible examples, though; the tallest seven buildings in Tanzania were all constructed since 2010, and all were in Dar es Salaam!

Zanzibar: chasing Princess Salme and dialing up a dhow

An index to this series appears at the first post.

In just moments, today’s itinerary changed from loose and open-ended to complex and fascinating.  Natasha and I had bestirred ourselves from bed with little notion of how we would spend our day.  I wanted to capture some photographs, but after that?  Who knows!  Instead, we tackled three tourist goals in a single day.

The Hamamni baths

The warren of pathways through Stone Town are starting to seem familiar to us after five days in the area.  Still, the maze to the west of the Darajani Market is challenging.  After I misdirected us all the way south to New Mkunazini Road, Natasha took the helm to guide us to an Arts Collective in the neighborhoods north of that road.  We liked the paintings and shirts, but we didn’t make a purchase.


The antechamber has a fountain to wash your feet.

We were happy to discover that the Hamamni Baths were directly opposite the collective.  These baths were constructed for public use by the Sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash bin Said, between 1870 and 1888.  Hold on to that name, since he figures into another story from today.  The Bath complex is quite large, featuring a foot-washing fountain, changing rooms, both hot and cold baths, shaving areas, and other spaces.  Constructing these baths was considered a key service expected of a Muslim ruler, since believers are occasionally obligated to perform a full bath by their religion.


Hungry cats are a common sight in the streets of Zanzibar.

After we became lost in the winding alleys again, Natasha was able to steer us to Hurumzi street, where we had found the offices for Eco and Culture Tours of Zanzibar.  Our goal was its neighbor, the Princess Salme Museum at the Emerson Hotel.  Sadly, its doors were still closed.  We decided to take the opportunity to check in with Eco and Culture again to make plans for that evening (see below).

The Princess Salme Museum


Emily Ruete (image from Wikimedia Commons)

As we stepped back into the road, we saw a gentleman dismount his bicycle to open the front door of the Princess Salme Museum.  We were in luck!  At first, Natasha and I were inclined to simply pay the admission to enter the museum, but when we realized that the gentleman, Said el-Gheithy, was the founder of the museum, we opted for the guided tour instead.  Along the way, we learned that he had consulted in the process of establishing a room to Princess Salme’s memory in the Palace Museum that we had seen two days before.  He was delighted that we had so many questions about his favorite topic!  The museum is not a large one, but it is packed with information on Princess Salme that helps to explain why she was such a lightning rod for the Sultans of Zanzibar:

  • She intervened in a succession struggle, allying herself with the losing side.
  • She left court without requesting permission.
  • She converted to Christianity from Islam.
  • She married without requesting permission (and changed her name to Emily).
  • She allied herself with German interests even though the Sultans favored the British.

When the original Sultan of Zanzibar died in 1856, a succession crisis followed because inheritance of his title was not based on birth order but rather perceived ability to rule.  His son Majid eventually won out over his son Barghash, and Barghash went into exile in India.  His brother would rule as the first Sultan of Zanzibar until his death in 1870.  Their sister Salme was one of very few women in Zanzibar who could write, having taught herself by copying text from the Quran on a camel scapula.  Barghash had enlisted her aid in the succession crisis, so she was hardly favored by the brother who won.


A few of the books that emerged from Emily Ruete and her children

Princess Salme continued using her pen throughout her life, taking controversial stands about the equivalence of extreme poverty in the developed world with slavery in the world where she had come of age.  Her three children who lived to adulthood each continued in prominence, and her descendants now live throughout the world.  I was very glad to see her memory detailed in such vivid terms by Said el-Gheithy.

Sunset in a dhow


Dhows can also sail upwind.

We had returned to Eco and Culture to schedule a sunset cruise in a dhow, the type of sailing vessel that launched Zanzibar to such economic importance for Indian Ocean trade.  The tour guide met us at 4:15 outside our hotel.  Rather than leaving from the port, our dhow met us at a stone staircase just below Tippu Tip’s ruined mansion.  Our boat, named the “Cimiya,” was a smaller model since our cruise would involve only two crew and two passengers.  It had been constructed just three years before.  It is essentially identical to the smaller boat in image above, using a single “lateen” sail.  Natasha and I scrambled over its metal ladder, and the captain powered up its outboard motor to push us into the channel.


Ahoy there!

I must admit I was a little frustrated at first to learn that the boat’s course would take it south, so I would not be able to acquire a “magic hour” photograph of the famous buildings of Stone Town.  The course, we took, though, gave Natasha and me a look at the government complex (High Court of Justice and State House) for the island as well as its chief medical complex, the Mnazi Mmoja Hospital.  From there, we mostly saw public beaches and a rent-controlled apartment complex (in nice condition and an easy walk to the beach).  Despite the presence of some threatening clouds in the distance, the winds were pretty light during our transit, but the sail stayed full-bellied (the captain had killed the engine once the sail was up).

I enjoyed the peace of sailing.  I am reminded of the sense one gets when riding in a hot air balloon, that the balloon is holding still while the world moves by at a stately pace.  Our little snack of nuts, bananas, and cassava chips seemed like the right mix in the gathering dusk.  The first mate was very talkative, so some of the potential romance of the cruise was a bit diminished.  Just the same, it was highly enjoyable, and I’d recommend it to others.

Natasha and I were dropped off at the same place we had boarded, so we set off on foot through the maze of Stone Town passageways.  This time we found ourselves on Hurumzi Street, where we briefly considered a tourist restaurant before realizing we hadn’t brought much cash onto the boat (and the credit card machines were out of order again).  We stopped by the hotel and then ate at Lukmaan’s, the diner where I never skipped a hot cup of chai tea.  We had a lovely chat with the Patton family, YouTubers who have been teaching their three daughters about the world by visiting it, one country at a time!  With that, we were off to bed.

Zanzibar: the Palace Museum and penury

An index to this series appears at the first post.

logoToday’s adventure in Zanzibar started off on uncertain footing as a key problem with Tanzanian Tourism took center stage: How could we pay for stuff on an island without reliable ATMs or credit card networks? We began our day by running over to Eco and Culture Tours, a company that previously operated as an NGO to build economies in smaller towns of Zanzibar. We scheduled a half-day tour for tomorrow that would take us to three key sites in the southeastern part of the island. The cost, however, was higher than all the Tanzanian shillings we had on hand, and our credit cards were not usable. We paid approximately the first half of the bill, and then we headed out for an ATM.

One might be excused for thinking that acquiring local money as simple as walking up to an ATM, typing in a PIN, and selecting an amount, but this was sadly not the case. We tried multiple ATMs (including Barclays Bank) near the Darajani Market without success. We trundled down to an ATM for CRDB that had been reliable for us on prior days, but both ATMs were out of service. We walked to the heavily touristed west side of Stone Town to use the Barclays, National Bank of Commerce, and Diamond Trust ATMs. Barclays was entirely out of operation, NBC threw a system error when I tried to specify the amount of money, and Diamond Trust could only operate with Visa cards.


The beach facade of the Palace Museum

Natasha and I resolved to break into our supply of dollars quite sparingly until we could find another option. We walked up the beach road to the Palace Museum, which occupies a prime location on the beach front between the Arab Fort and the Custom House where we had attended a concert the preceding night. Our bottle of water cost a dollar, and the admission to the museum was only $6 USD for both of us. We dismissed the guide, explaining that we had no shillings.


A look into the upper stories of the Palace


Was this water jug inexpensive export-ware or a priceless diplomatic present?

The Palace Museum is really something to see. The ceilings are tremendously high, and some of the items in the building are truly one-of-a-kind. Natasha found that some of the objects that were not highlighted were in fact hugely remarkable. A display cabinet on the first floor used a layer of crystal rather than glass. Some of the tables holding artifacts incorporated hand-painted tiles. In particular, the Chinese vases found in several rooms were likely to be extremely valuable, dating from the late 18th century. These vases, however, were frequently covered with a substantial layer of dust on every upper surface. Because the palace was occupied by the royal family until 1964, the museum also contains items of furniture from the 1950s and 1960s, eras that struggled to produce a “stately” look.


Guess which chair holds the Sultan!

I appreciated the museum tale of two people, in particular. The first was Said bin Sultan of Oman, who moved his court to Zanzibar in 1828. Arab traders had a substantial footprint on Zanzibar for centuries before that, but the first Sultan of Zanzibar decided to invest all his efforts in transforming this island into an economic powerhouse. Much of the stone construction of Stone Town dates from 1830 and onward, reflecting his decision to make this island his capitol.  Sayyid Said apparently once claimed, “I am only a merchant.”


Seyyid Said bin Sultan and his son, Seyyid Majid bin Said were the first and second Sultans to rule from Zanzibar.

The second noteworthy person highlighted by the museum was Princess Salme (Emily Ruete), a daughter of Sayyid Said bin Sultan, born in 1844. Having spent her first seven years at the Mtoni Palace to the northeast of Stone Town, she moved to the Beit el Sahil palace (the one in which the museum stands today) for her later years. It was while she lived at this palace that she met and fell in love with Heinrich Ruete, a German merchant. She was baptized as a Christian and married him in 1867. Her autobiography, “Memoirs of an Arabian Princess,” was one of the first glimpses into the lives of Arabian royalty for the Western world.


Emily Ruete (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The Palace Museum reinforced the message that the United States was key to the rise of Zanzibar. The United States signed a “Most Favored Nation” treaty with the Sultan in 1833, the first of many such treaties by an interval of six years. Similarly, the United States established the first consulate on Zanzibar in 1837. Even this early in its history, the United States had demonstrated that it had an unquenchable thirst for luxury goods.


A look across the Palace grounds toward the House of Wonder

I was glad that the Palace Museum was open, given that its next door neighbor, the House of Wonders, was closed for entirely necessary repairs.  The Palace Museum is about the same age as South African democracy (1994), and it is clear that every bit of investment there will make a difference in telling the story of the Sultans of Zanzibar!

Natasha and I attempted two more ATMs at the northern side of Stone Town, but we were again stymied. At each bank machine, we encountered other tourists who were frustrated at how to get local currency. We were glad, however, to find the Passing Show Restaurant near the latest ATM. I enjoyed vegetarian ugali with two cups of tea, and Natasha went with the chicken curry ugali and a Stoney Ginger Beer. We wandered through the maze of back streets behind the Darajani Market until we reached the New Mkunazini Road. Happily, the ATM that had been out of service in the morning had returned to life! We refilled our wallets and acquired another 1.5 liter jug of cold water.


Once a madrasa named for Ian Smith and then a Muslim academy, this building later became an orphanage.

Natasha decided to rest for a while, so we agreed to meet at 6PM at Mother’s Restaurant (we had enjoyed it a couple of days before). I wandered back to the shoreline along the northwest side of Stone Town and shot photos of the buildings. I was happy to find a high vantage in a pedestrian walkway leading up to a former orphanage, and I shot some panoramic photos there and along the beach.


This image knits together the Forodhani Gardens (at left) with the House of Wonder and the ruins of the Arab Fort (at right).


Detail of the primary window in the tower of the House of Wonder

I was glad to get the chance to visit Tippu Tip’s house a bit further south. His life story showed an incredible tenacity to accumulate wealth for himself at the expense of others. Today his once glorious mansion stands in ruins.


An inebriated person occupied the front step of the one-time mansion. This portrait of Tippu Tip appears at the National Museum of Tanzania.

I joined Natasha at the restaurant and we enjoyed our rice, beans, and spinach with fried snapper. I tried to ignore that the fish head kept staring at me.

Zanzibar: Stone Town!

An index to this series appears at the first post.

December 31, 2017

Stone Town is the crown jewel of Zanzibar.  It has just about everything a tourist would want, with new mystery around each corner, other-worldly charm, and a well-developed history.  When I visited Venice in the 1990s, I loved wandering until I got lost in the maze of passageways, and Stone Town offers a very similar experience.  I hope you’ll enjoy my tale of this remarkable place!

We think of coral as something to be preserved, but the substantial coral reefs around Zanzibar made these calcium carbonate “rocks” the most abundant building material in the area.  Large coral chunks were mixed with lime to create thick walls to keep the tropical heat and humidity out.  Buildings were constructed close together to keep the passageways shaded from the sun.  Most of the construction took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Today, motorbikes and bicycles compete with pedestrians in the warrens of Stone Town.


The wall of the Arab Fort, as seen from the inside, reveals its coral construction.

The Arab Fort is still quite a powerful sight, though it is one of the oldest stone structures in the city.  The site was first used for a Portuguese church, but the destruction of Portuguese power at the end of the seventeenth century meant that the Omanis were the ones to fortify this site.  In 1712, a Portuguese spy informed his patron that the new rulers of Zanzibar had built a “ridiculous fort” on the site of a pre-existing stone house and trading post.  Today the fort sits between the House of Wonders (Beit al Ajaib, 1883) and the Forodhani Gardens (1936).  Over its long history, the fort has served for defense, a prison, a slave holding area, and then a British ladies’ tennis club, staffed by volunteers from the Girl Guides (the Girl Scouts are a later parallel). It now houses a amphitheater for arts events, and the interior hosts many booths for vendors of African art, clothing, and henna tattoos.


Entrance bastion of Arab Fort at the North corner


A Zanzibar door in good repair. Many were quite worn.

As we walked through the tangle of passageways, Zanzibar’s sumptuous doors kept drawing our eyes.  They were frequently made of Burma or East African teak (the former is now quite rare in the wild).  The earliest doors, such as the ones at the Old Fort, use a rectangular frame with geometric designs.  Indian doors (end of the 19th century) generally comprise at least two parts; the “female” door incorporates the center post, and the “male” bears a chain lock.  In addition, a semicircular top is typical of Indian doors; some even feature images of flowers or animals (Sheriff pg. 21).  Some Arabic doors, particularly at the palaces, feature calligraphy from the Qur’an, perhaps emulating the door of the Ka’aba in Mecca.

Many doors feature an array of brass studs; this design element reflects grand doors in India designed to withstand the attack of a war elephant.  Many doors we examined featured a motif of clove plants, reflecting their dominance as an export for this spice island. A repeating motif on the door frame resembled the chains of slaves.  No history of Zanzibar can be complete without including its role in the slave trade.


St. Joseph Catholic Cathedral is very much in service!


Jaws Corner illustrates the state of repair for much of Stone Town.

Our tour passed east across Stone Town, and we encountered the Catholic cathedral, built at the end of the nineteenth century by French missionaries after an earlier success with a mission in the 1860s.  The church is most easily spotted from the water; the neighborhoods of Stone Town press close to it, and there’s barely a plaza in front of its entrance.  I would have loved to have seen the interior, but apparently the Old Testament art was damaged in a 2014 restoration.

Our walk passed by Jaws Corner, Zanzibar’s local traditional coffee corner.  At most hours of the day, you can watch elderly men play dominoes and solve the problems of the world.  The small plaza is surrounded by “baraza:” stone benches that are typical of Stone Town.  Small flags flutter in the breeze from lines high above the corner.  In the last couple of years, a new mural of a famous shark has been added to decorate the space.

Our navigation led us to New Mukunazini Road (where we’d found a working ATM), so soon we had reached the eastern boundary of Stone Town.  Our destination was the Former Slave Market, now a museum dedicated to memory of the lives destroyed by the East African slave trade.  The facility is supported by the World Monuments Fund.


The beauty of the grounds masks its sinister origins.

The museum is notable for the local detail that it conveys to the visitor, with historic photos of the people and places that drove the East African slave trade through this island. The boards were able to explain the complexity of the groups interacting in the African interior, such as the Angoni who fled from the violence in 1830s South Africa, or the Yao, a group that joined with the Portuguese to enslave others. The museum also names individuals who made a fortune from slavery.  “Sultan” Mlozi used an army of mercenaries to capture slaves in the Great Lakes region.  Rumaliza, Sultan of Ujiji,  became wealthy from trading both slaves and ivory (once a tusk had been cut from an elephant, the group sought slaves to carry it; both could be sold at the destination).  Tippu Tip  became outrageously wealthy in the diverse nation-scale economy he managed.


Exhibit from National Museum of Tanzania

I was moved to learn that the United States served as a principal driver for the ivory trade, since ivory played a similar role to that of plastic in today’s economy.  One source estimated that 80% of the soft ivory exported from Zanzibar in 1894 was bound for the United States. The museum has quite a lot to say about the end of the slave trade (only the third treaty for this purpose “stuck” in Zanzibar: 1873). I was saddened to learn that the government never worked out a proper plan for how to improve the lives of former slaves. For most, repatriation was unlikely (slaves abducted as children might not be able to detail their former homes), and concubines might find that accepting freedom meant leaving the children they bore for former masters. The museum houses two storage cellars where slaves were once secured, and a chain is still there to tell the story of physical bondage for resistant slaves.


Beyond claustrophobic

With that, we returned the area outside the museum, and we were in the Anglican cathedral yard. On this Sunday, the church was full of parishioners singing Christmas songs! We stepped inside, and I recorded some of the lovely singing we had enjoyed from the nearby Riverman Hotel.  Construction of the cathedral came in 1879, just six years after the closure of the slave market.


Minarets and steeples live side by side in Zanzibar.

From there, we walked into a modern market along Creek Road.  I haven’t had a lot of exposure to duriens or jackfruit from my years in the United States, so I was delighted to see them in person.  We stuck with purchasing more cool water; durien fruit, in particular, does not smell particularly nice, even if it tastes good.  Our next stop was the British Darajani Market, built in 1904, with divisions for fish, beef / goat meat, and a world of fruits and spices. it was glorious, once we got past the fly-ridden meat areas!  The spice section seemed to have every possible flavoring on display.  I was reminded of the shop we had passed earlier in the day that distributes a red spice made from baobab seeds.  We acquired a bag to munch later.


The 1904 Darajani Market, with the Anglican cathedral spire at the left

As we passed from the market stalls behind Darajani, we passed the Emerson Hotel on Hurumzi.  Our guide mentioned that a museum dedicated to Princess Salme was next door, and Natasha and I made a mental note to check into it later in the week.  Our path meandered past the rear portions of the beachfront palace, and then we had arrived at the House of Wonders!


The House of Wonders desperately needs its current restoration.

The second sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash bin Said, constructed the House of Wonders (Beit al Ajaib) in 1883 as a ceremonial palace and reception hall.  The building was named the House of Wonders due to its inclusion of electric lighting and of an elevator.  Its appearance is unmistakably British colonial, perhaps because it was designed by a British marine engineer.  The wide verandas and tall ceilings (made possible by iron columns) make for a very distinctive shape.  Recent collapses of internal and external structures, however, have closed the history museum inside; significant restoration work was underway during our visit.


Freddy Mercury performing in 1977, by Carl Lender

We had just one more stop before the end of the tour. We came to a crowded spot on the road, and we saw signs on the wall of a hotel that explained that this was the building that Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the rock band Queen, first called home! His parents were Persian in origin, but they lived in Zanzibar at the time of his birth. His original name was Farrokh Bulsara. Mercury’s origins help to explain some of the lyrics used in his songs, such as “bismillah,” which means “in the name of God.”

After lunch at the Lukmaan Restaurant (with knock-me-over hot chai tea) and a nap at the hotel, we returned to the streets for our first swim on the island. We reached a beach right at the point of Stone Town. At 4:30 the beach was quite empty; we took turns guarding the backpack and swimming. Katharina, a German woman who had joined our tour of Stone Town, joined our group.  We had all gotten the same idea about a swim.  As the sun dipped toward the horizon, more locals came out to enjoy the water. A fair number of guys demanded the chance to talk with the women. Natasha rather enjoyed a “fat chat” with a 12 year old who wanted to practice his English. Katharina, on the hand, had to explain that the “no touching” rule would be enforced quite vigorously.

On our walk back, we enjoyed a yummy drink of sugar cane squeezings, flavored with lime. Natasha and I came back to the Lukmaan Restaurant for dinner and then retired to our room. Neither of us was awake when the New Year arrived!

Zanzibar: Slavery, Ivory, and Cloves

Our visit to Tanzania is detailed in a series of posts:

  1. Zanzibar: Slavery, Ivory, and Cloves
  2. Zanzibar: Transiting Dar es Salaam
  3. Zanzibar: Too close to the Fire
  4. Zanzibar: Stone Town!
  5. Zanzibar: Kizimbani Spice Farms
  6. Zanzibar: The Palace Museum and Penury
  7. Zanzibar: Turtles in the Jozani Forest and Tradition in Jambiani Village
  8. Zanzibar: Chasing Princess Salme and Dialing up a Dhow
  9. Zanzibar: The Victoria Garden Museums
  10. Dar es Salaam: Botanical Gardens
  11. Dar es Salaam: Peaceful Harbor, Thriving City
  12. Dar es Salaam: the National Museum of Tanzania
  13. Dar es Salaam: the Cultural Village Museum

History has always been accompanied by myths that seem almost real: Plato’s drowned nation of Atlantis, King Arthur and Merlin at Camelot, Qays and Layla in the ancient Arabic world, the Queen of Sheba, and the Sultan of Zanzibar.  One of my surprises from living in Africa is to learn that Zanzibar is a real place with a fascinating history.  Every year, tourists from South Africa go there in droves.  Over the New Year holiday, I took the opportunity to visit there myself with my favorite historian, Natasha.

Putting Zanzibar on the map


The marker points to “Stone Town,” the nineteenth century city built from coral and lime.

Zanzibar is an archipelago off the coast of East Africa.  The largest island, Unguja, is approximately the size of Oahu, the third largest island of Hawaii (and the one on which two-thirds of Hawaii’s population resides).  In the case of Zanzibar, the full population is 1.3 million people, with 45% living in the region facing the coast of Africa, in and around Zanzibar City.  Zanzibar City itself is split by “Creek Road” (recently renamed for Benjamin Mkapa) into the nineteenth century Stone Town to the west and the more modern city to the east.

Ironically, the area to the east of Creek Road was referred to as “Ng’ambo,” or “the other side” for much of its early history.  The wealthy of Zanzibar lived in Stone Town while the area to the east was allowed to develop much as the local Swahili population decided.  Around 1900, the population of Ng’ambo was roughly the same as that of Stone Town, and by 1922 it was nearly double. (G. A. Myers 33).

Zanzibar is only six degrees south of the equator, and that brings with it good news and bad news.  The good is that being close to the equator means that summer and winter temperatures are not very different from each other.  The bad is that the typical climate of Zanzibar is hot and humid!  I brought my broad-brimmed hiking hat and a pile of long-sleeve T-shirts to stave off sunburn.


Seyyid Said ibn Sultan founded the line of Sultans of Zanzibar.

The long view of Zanzibari history

The upcoming blogs will walk through different historic sites that tell the stories of a particular time in the island’s history, so I thought it would be useful to talk about the broad sweep of events for Zanzibar to explain why it is such a unique place:

  • First century CE: Greek voyagers record the existence of “Menuthias,” an island thought to be Zanzibar, in Periplus Maris Erythraei.
  • Sixth century CE: Ruins at Unguja Ukuu attest to a substantial iron-using agricultural and fishing community.
  • 1107 CE: The original mosque at Kizimkazi was constructed, representing the arrival of Arabic settlers from Shiraz, Persia.  The combined population of Bantu and Arabic settlers developed the Swahili culture under the leadership of a Mwinyi Mkuu, or paramount chief.
  • 1503 CE: A Portuguese fleet under Rui Lourenço Ravasco exacted tribute from Zanzibar, marking the start of Portuguese dominance in East Africa.
  • 1698 CE: Fort Jesus in Mombasa fell to Omani Arabs, ending Portuguese control over this region.
  • 1828 CE: The Sultan of Oman, Seyyid Said bin Sultan, moved to Zanzibar, marking a shift to direct Arab rule over the “Swahili coast.”
  • 1896 CE: The British enforce their authority to name the next Sultan of Zanzibar in the “Shortest War in History.”
  • 1964 CE (January): The Zanzibar Revolution culminates in violence between the Swahili-speaking population and the Arabic ruling class.
  • 1964 CE (April): Zanzibar forms a union with Tanganyika.  They choose the name “Tanzania” to reflect their two names plus “Azania,” an early Greek term for Africa.

Kiswahili usage dominates the areas shaded in yellow.

Many Americans perceive “Swahili” as the language of Africa, though it is more limited in scope than that.  In fact, Kiswahili is a remarkable African language because it was a trade language that evolved to merge Arabic words and grammar with a collection of Bantu languages.  Over many centuries of usage, it has gained quite a lot of flexibility.  Though it was originally written in Arabic script, today one will frequently see it written using Latin letters.  Looked at more broadly, Swahili represents an entire culture, not just a language.

Why does Zanzibar matter?

From the brief summary of its history above, it is apparent that many civilizations wanted to control Zanzibar.  The title of this post summarizes its allure in three words.  Zanzibar became the central market of the East African slave trade, accumulating stolen lives from the inland “Great Lakes” region of Africa all the way down to Sofala in Mozambique.  This inland network also made possible the export of elephant ivory from hunters deep into the continent.  Ivory was hugely valuable in nineteenth century, taking on the role that would later be filled by the twentieth century invention of plastics.  Finally, plants from all over the world would thrive on Zanzibar and its mainland possessions, transforming it into a “spice island” that was heavily dependent on slave labor.  The production of cloves in massive plantations became a signature of sorts for this area.  (Fun fact: the Afrikaans word for cloves is “naeltjies,” meaning “little nails.”)

Historians have had a bit of a debate over the nature of Stone Town.  Was it a plantation town or a commercial center?  Advocates of the first role point to the rapid growth of wealth in Stone Town as the spice plantations to the east of the city grew in size and variety.  After the “clove mania” of the 1830s production rose to a level that caused a crash in prices in the late 1840s (Sheriff pg. 14).  The city’s wealth was able to continue growing, however, due to substantial growth in transit trade.  Essentially, long-distance caravan trade from in-land Africa brought goods to be sold at the international market of Zanzibar.  Traders such as Tipu Tip were able to enrich themselves and the Sultans of Zanzibar by bringing booty from the heart of Africa.  By the 1860s, four-fifths of the merchandise handled at Zanzibar were produced in the body of the continent (Sheriff pg. 48).

I hope you will enjoy this series of posts as much as I enjoyed my trip to this island!