Oh beautiful Zanzibar. I’m so glad I was able to visit this amazing place. Colin’s sister Alex had the incredible fortune to study abroad on this island off the coast of Tanzania so Colin had visited before, but this was my first time. You know when you type “beautiful beaches” into google and images show up with these unbelievably pristine beaches? That’s Zanzibar. We visited two such places—Pemba, another island off the coast of Zanzibar, and Nungwi, a town on the north-most tip of Zanzibar.
Our trip in Pemba included some of the most amazing snorkeling, after Belize, and the reef was right off the beach—no boat needed. You simply swam out from the blindingly white, sandy beach through crystalline, turquoise waters and looked down on the vibrant reef wrapping around much of the island. The beach was entirely deserted, except for our boat driver and a few marine park rangers.
Nungwi at first was a complete disappointment. The town has been overrun by the grossest high-end tourism, complete with massive resorts, wealthy white people walking everywhere in bikinis, and overpriced restaurants with not a single local food item on the menu. Why come to Africa when there’s literally not even a smidge of Africa anywhere around? We decided to explore and eventually walked through the town, where locals live, to the other side of the island where the beach was almost untouched by tourism. We found one particular place, Sazani Beach House, with hammocks, empty beaches with deliciously warm bathtub water, and a 2-for-1 happy hour. The staff lent us some bicycles (for free! Gotta love that Zanzibari hospitality) and we biked to and from our hotel to the opposite side of the island every day to enjoy a bit of quiet.
The capital of Zanzibar is Stonetown, a lovely place with winding roads reminiscent of a town in a Europe and seafood to die for. We had the most amazing 5 course meal (#foodies #CantHelpIt) at a place called Emerson Spice, on the top of a beautiful hotel straight out of Arabian Nights/Scheherazade stories. The beautifully tender lobster tail dipped in sweet vanilla sauce that melted in your mouth almost like ice cream was definitely the highlight.
Stonetown was also the site of one of the largest slave ports in the area. The town has a fantastically informative museum on the site of the old slave market. (If any of you have ever been to a museum in East Africa, which are sparse, not well-labeled, and haphazardly arranged, you’ll know what a feat this is.) Slavers (often of Arab or Bantu descent) would travel inland, to the forests of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda and bring back slaves, ivory, and other goods to sell and trade on the coast. Apparently, up to 75% of all the ivory passing through Zanzibar went to Connecticut, where it was traded with textiles made from cotton grown on US slave plantations. Zanzibar also became the world’s largest supplier of cloves, and since clove plantations were worked almost exclusively by slaves, the island’s slave population overtook the local population as the majority due to the clove trade. By the mid-1800’s, Zanzibar’s slave population grew to an estimated 60,000-100,000 people.
Slavery was such a part of life and it became a culture, with local tribes waging wars on their weaker neighbors and selling prisoners as slaves or becoming overseers to gain some power and separation from becoming slaves themselves. The museum highlighted one woman’s story, who’d been wrongly enslaved and petitioned the government for her release. She won her case and when asked what she would do with her financial settlement, she stated, “I’m going to buy a slave, of course!”
The sale of slaves was made illegal in 1873 by the British, who dispatched a grand total of three ships to patrol the oceans to prevent slaver ships from reaching their final destinations. It’s unsurprising, then, that it wasn’t until 1897 that slavery was declared illegal and slowly the slave culture started unwinding. Life as a slave after liberation was still super tough, with few options to establish a new life and tons of stigma surrounding social status. Many former slaves changed their names and re-identified themselves as “Swahili” to disguise their slave origins. Even today, this stigma still exists. This is a quote from a local in 2014, included in the museum:
“I had my fiancée. She loved me very much…but when I declared marriage her family refused me…. I was told ‘don’t you know that your parents have a slave origin? …That the family you want to marry is different from you?’ So I lost the girl.”
The museum also had a neat focus on the female experience of slavery. But that’s whole other blog post—hopefully soon to be posted on my new website. Stay tuned 🙂