An index to this series appears at the first post.
Our last full day on Zanzibar gave us a chance to visit a pair of museums grouped around the Victoria Garden. They don’t get much attention in the guide books, but we enjoyed our look at the Zanzibar Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum. Just what would we find beyond the archway at the southern traffic circle of Stone Town?
Rather than scurrying about as our time on the island drew to a halt, Natasha and I relaxed with a bit of light shopping during the morning. We began with a couple of women’s collective arts stores in the Hurumzi district at first. We liked some appliqué pillows, though they were priced a bit higher than we thought appropriate. We saw some shirts and shorts that might look nice for me, but again their prices were high (going to $30 USD for shorts seems excessive to a frugal mind). We enjoyed a couple of antique shops. At one, Natasha found a box with pivoting lid intended for salt and pepper; she acquired that for holding earrings.
At another, I spotted an Imperial British coin from India featuring Queen Victoria. I think my brother might use that with his students to show that Africa and India were actively trading with the rest of the world around the time of the American Civil War. I also found a Quran in Arabic that I wanted for my brother’s classroom. We returned to a T-shirt shop near our jetty from last night to purchase some T-shirts for little ones in the family. It was a good run!
From there, we took the road south past the High Court and State buildings (photos of government buildings are not permitted, though I snapped the High Court without realizing what it is). The way ahead was blocked, so we headed away from the coast, and happily that course led next to the Victoria Gardens. This park, also called the People’s Gardens, was dedicated to the people of Zanzibar by Sultan Hamoud in 1899 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. A 1996 renovation has produced a park that still looks a bit ragged, but some of the trees there are still rather pretty. A large house adjoining the garden that was originally constructed as the British Residency now serves as the State House: the official residence of the Zanzibari president.
Zanzibar Museum of Art
The park adjoins a complex of two museums that we both enjoyed. For 6000 Tanzanian shillings ($2.70 USD), we gained access to both the Peace Memorial Museum (now the Zanzibar Museum of Art) and the Natural History Museum. The Peace Memorial building dates from 1920 during the reign of George V. It was constructed in honor of those who lost their lives in the “Great War,” commemorating the “victorious peace.” Why would Zanzibar have cared who “won” World War I? As it turns out, the British used the island as a repair base for its navy. The “Battle of Zanzibar” saw the German cruiser Königsberg sink the British cruiser Pegasus during 1914. The Peace Memorial building looks quite unlike other World War I memorials that I have seen, such as the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City. One might easily mistake it for a mosque, with its high dome surrounded by six smaller domes!
As I mentioned, the building now houses an art museum. Visitors are not going to see long galleries full of oils flanked by a massive sculpture garden, though. I would highlight a few items as worth seeing. The first is a set of miniatures. Since Stone Town has dilapidated quite a bit, it can be hard to imagine this city in its prime. The minaret for the Malindi / Mnara Mosque, is one of the oldest structures standing in Stone Town, though it is now matched to a mosque below that was constructed in 1834/5 (Sheriff pg.51). It now abuts buildings on almost all sides, so the miniature version at the museum is the only way to see the mosque as a separate structure. “Zanzibari mosques are very plain and unobtrusive, hardly distinguishable from domestic buildings. They normally form a continuous line with neighbouring domestic houses…” (Sheriff pg. 5)
The Old Dispensary is a major landmark in Stone Town. Its story revolves around a fabulously wealthy Ismaili businessman of the late 19th century named Tharia Topan. As one measure of his wealth, a tract of land he owned in the Ng’ambo (the other side of Creek Road) was so large that it contained 1300 huts (Andriananjanirana-Ruphin pg. 101). When he decided to create a hospital to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, he spared no expense. He chose a plot of land that would be prominent on the coast (though the extension of the port later blocked its view), and he brought architects and craftsmen from Bombay to create a building better suited as a palace than as a hospital. The building uses teak imported from India throughout its structure. He crafted a golden trowel for the ceremony of laying the building’s foundation stone and shipped it to London for exhibition. Unsurprisingly, he was knighted in 1890, but a year later he was dead. He never got to see the completion of his triumphant creation (Battle pg. 91-99).
Next, the museum gives a corner chamber to the topic of ceramics, mostly a set of pots and vases. On a shelf, though, stands a small statue of a chained female slave, looking down but not defeated. I was really moved by the work, especially since our visit to the Slave Market Museum had reinforced the importance of female slaves in the role of “concubine” or “second wife.” Many of these women decided against accepting freedom since it would mean separation from their children and other violations of dignity. I had noted that the Slave Market Museum relied heavily on photographs and text; incorporating this statue could add depth to their presentation. As it stands, the statue is presented without annotation of sculptor, date, or even title.
Natasha called my attention to Mr. Naaman‘s brilliant recreation of an 1840 photograph by Gillian depicting Stone Town from above. What makes it brilliant? The artist made it entirely by pasting together fragments of different banana leaves in 2005, using different species to achieve different shadings.
Everywhere Natasha and I have gone in Zanzibar, we have been greeted with Jambo (“Hello”), Karibu (“You are welcome”), or Hakuna Matata (“No worries”). I learned another phrase from a museum piece showing a woven fish trap. It reads “kuingia demani,” which means getting into problems that one doesn’t know how to solve. I think we can all relate to that!
Natural History Museum
Visitors to the Art Museum are also encouraged to visit the small natural history museum next door. We were both worried that the chamber would be filled with dusty Victorian taxidermy animals. While some stuffed animals were indeed present, we encountered a few things that kept our attention. For me, the first was a partial skeleton in a glass box locked in a wire cage on the wall. The description indicated that the skeleton represented the bones of a dodo bird from Mauritius (a gift of W. Harold Ingrams, Esq.). This might not seem so remarkable, but remember that the last accepted dodo sighting took place in 1662! These bones are either fakes, or they are more than three and a half centuries old.
We puzzled over a really large vertebra standing on a small table. It must have been a foot across on the central column. At first we thought it might be from an elephant when Natasha snapped her fingers and realized it was from a whale. My attention was also grabbed by the jaws of a largetooth sawfish (Pristis microdon) and a common sawfish (Pristis pristis). They look something like a chainsaw blade with inch-long teeth sticking out on either side. Outside the building, Natasha noticed that the museum was once home to giant tortoises. Gladly, the animals have been moved to nearby “Prison Island,” where we hope they have more room to maneuver.
Abyssinian Maritim Restaurant
For dinner, Natasha and I decided to break from Tanzanian food (which we like) to enjoy an Ethiopian restaurant we had spotted near the SW corner of Stone Town. The restaurant had large posters of sites in the country to tell some of the nation’s history. Because we started accumulating insect bites the moment we sat down, we decided to move to a more internal table; sadly, the insect bites continued. We realized from the menu that our dinner was going to cost substantially more than we had been spending. A normal lunch at a local food joint might cost 12 or 13,000 shillings. We opted for a vegetarian entrée for me and a chicken entrée for Natasha, and we added a bottle of water and a spiced Ethiopian tea on top. The total bill came to 49,000 shillings ($22 USD), so ultimately it was “much of a muchness.”
We wandered north toward the tourist area when Lady Hellen appeared at her shop door. Where had we been? Didn’t we know she was waiting for us? Laughing, we stepped inside. Natasha found two refrigerator magnets, and I bargained for a watercolor of a Zanzibar door that would form a nice triptych with our dhow and street paintings. She seemed nonplussed at the small purchase, but she still showed good grace.
Our efforts to get back to our hotel produced an unusual result. I headed for the southeast corner of the Old Arab Fort, and then I marched us into the maze of alleys. The Friday evening crowd on the streets had collectively decided to close up the shops. Somehow I got us entirely turned around, and we popped back out near Freddie Mercury’s house! This time Natasha took the fore, and she charged us back into the maze. Once again, we took a wrong turn, and we bounced out of the maze near Lady Hellen’s art shop! We decided to play it safe with our last effort. We headed south and east along the belt road, and then we walked northeast along a familiar track back to our New Mkunazini Road, bought one last bottle of water, and then collapsed into our room at last!