Island is the ultimate melting pot of culture, civilisation and natural beauty
The 2,460 odd kilometre square island known as Zanzibar has a greater aesthetic, cultural and racial mix than any other part of the African continent.
This Indian Ocean island territory has known human occupation for 20,000 years going by the presence of Mesolithic tools. It is a melting pot of races, from black Africans to Arabs, Persians, Indians, Chinese, Europeans and others, majority of them fused by years of intermarriage into chocolate-coloured humans bonded by one great language, Kiswahili.
Tourists of all colours pour in by their thousands to visit the historic sites dating back hundreds of years, adding to the island’s global mix. They come to see the ruins of palaces where the Sultans lived and ancient mosques and churches that played a crucial role in securing the freedom for slaves. While both the churches and mosques were built on slave labour, mosques glossed over the vice.
This most widely spoken of African languages today is a palpable reflection of Zanzibar’s racial mix, drawing words from Arabic and Bantu dialects, Portuguese, German, English, French, Persian and others through contact during the last five or so centuries.
The name Zanzibar is traced to Persian, largely of Shiraz origins in Iran who first settled on the Island around 975 AD (1,035), years ago. In Persian, Zangi means black and bar means land, hence Zanzibar (place of black people). Zangi was later to change to Zanzi with the occupation of people from other Arabian lands, which have no letter g in Arabic.
While Arabs chose to isolate themselves as a community by not inter-marrying with blacks who they preferred to exploit through rape, resulting in a few people with Arab/Bantu blood, the Shirazi Persians married freely with the locals, giving rise to a community with distinctive features not found on the mainland.
So widespread was this intermarriage that Zanzibar’s first independence party was called Afro Shirazi as opposed to the Arab Umma Party. Shirazi Persians who chose not to intermarry retained their identity as a separate group, though in the minority.
The discriminative and exploitative nature of the Arabs against Africans spawned the slave trade that turned the island into the epicentre of the business, bringing in Africans from the mainland as far afield as Mozambique, Congo, Malawi, Zambia, Rwanda and Burundi.
Male slaves sold into the Arab world were castrated to stop what was perceived to be “bad genes” from spreading. Many who failed to attract buyers were killed, but a few survived to work on clove plantations on the islands of Unguja and Pemba, nurturing their separate cultures, including languages that with time gave rise to Kiswahili.
The many breeds of Africans drawn from far and wide are evident in Zanzibar where folks vary distinctly in colour, height and general appearance.
The Arabs retained their racial purity to the chagrin of other groups until the post-independence revolution in 1964 when first President Sheikh Abeid Amani Karume instituted forced interracial marriages. Many Arab girls committed suicide as a result. Arabs remain a sizeable population on the island to this day.
The overwhelming Arab influence means that religion is predominantly Muslim, estimated at 90 per cent. For the majority of the population; life, from birth to death, revolves around Islam. Mosques dot both Unguja and Pemba islands and prayer is a strictly five-times-a-day ritual.
So dominant is the Muslim culture that it has literally spilled over into the seven per cent Christian community who, like their Muslim compatriots, have separate pews for men and women in churches. Hindus form a paltry three per cent. One of the ancient Anglican churches has inscriptions above its door in Arabic.
And how religion can influence a people! Women, as a rule, have their heads covered in veils while others have their faces covered under the dark hijab to the extent that one can easily fail to recognise one’s own wife, mother or sister! Men, on their part, wear white, embroidered caps across the age divide. The visitor must brace to be awakened by the loud muezzin to prayer at 5.00 am every day. The crow of cocks is muffled by these routine calls.
For a visitor from a non-Muslim society, the cultural shock is most dramatic in the toilets. Toilet paper is non-existent. Buckets of water are the vogue, accompanied by small tins, with which to draw the liquid after answering calls of nature. Woe unto you if you have reservations in that respect. Christians have adapted to “washing” in the toilet.
Arab, Persian, Indian, Portuguese and diverse African influence is evident in the architecture - from mosques and palaces to churches, temples, shops and residences. Arab mansions, with high, blank white walls sit next to the lacy wooden balconies and colourful stained glass windows at grand Indian residences.
Wherever you go barazas or benches are a focal point of community life. Benches run around verandas outside traditional Swahili homes. The long narrow streets of Stone Town, for instance, have baraza benches built on each side instead of pavements. In the villages, palm leaf shelters flanked by wooden seats fulfill a similar function.
In the towns, men loll on cement or wooden benches playing the popular ajua, bao or cards while sipping thick black coffee, styled kahawa thungu, in small porcelain cups. Women on their part sit and banter, plaiting each other’s hair or drawing beautiful patterns on their feet and hands using henna, a kind of dark brown paint used for adornment.
As is the wont on the East African Coast, coconut products are galore, ranging from coconut flesh or madafu to drinking its water and relishing its wine. Tourists sample these too.
Arabs brought with them the date palms and dates or tende a popular sweet bite. Besides, Zanzibar ranks among the Spice Islands of the world, thanks to the Arab Sultans and the British conquerors who brought all manner of spices, among them cloves which are said to be a native of Indonesia. Vanilla, Cinnamon, ginger and pepper are also in plenty.
And, for people who love fish, Zanzibar is the place to be
By JOSEPH OJWANG’
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