The Secrets of Zanzibar
(by Steve Outram)
is it about Zanzibar? What makes it so exotic to people who have
never been there and hardly know where it is? It is one of those
magical African names like Timbuktu and Casablanca.
In history books and novels this Indian Ocean Island is full
of mystery, a land of slaves and spices, a tropical idyll of bleached
white beaches with palm trees leaning languidly in the warm ocean
It has indeed a long and colourful past. Traders plying in their
dhows, first stopped off there some 3000 years ago. Much later
came the conquering Portuguese and then the Omani Sultans, who
ruled Zanzibar from the early 1800's and presided over the shame
of the slave trade. Livingstone, Stanley, Speke and Burton and
other intrepid 19th Century explorers of the African interior
set out with their caravans from Zanzibar, some of them never
The last of the Omani Sultans fled just after independence in
1963, and Zanzibar united with mainland Tanganyika to become the
independent African State of Tanzania.
My first visit there was in September 1999, and I was enthralled
and visually stimulated with the photographic opportunities everywhere
I went. Of course, first impressions are very important. A beaming
smile from the young taxi driver at Zanzibar Airport and the greeting
of "Jambo" (Swahili for hello) Mind you, the journey
to Stone Town started well, as the old Chevrolet Impala wouldn't
start! I'm certain that in this part of the world, spare parts
are hard to come by. I was headed for Emerson's and Greens, on
Hurumzi Street. Newly developed from a beautiful old Zanzibari
four story hotel, it is full of the atmosphere of opulence, with
a mixture of Arab and Indian influences, and huge high ceiling
rooms, complete with roof beams of Burmese teak. The Ballroom
Suite, with it's four poster bed, pillars, and sumptuous décor
is amazing, while the smaller Lavender Room, is more intimate,
and ideal for lovers. The bathrooms have tiled stone tubs made
of dozens of coloured glass panes.
Dinner at the rooftop restaurant is an experience not to be missed,
where you eat a multi course dinner, sitting crossed legged on
cushions and enjoy great views and sunset. Also, you can listen
to traditional Kidumbak and Tarab music at the weekends.
Town is the only "town" on the Island, and was built
by Arab and Indian traders in the 18th and 19th centuries. It
will delight the traveller with it's magical alleyways, minarets
and mansions, bell towers, latticed balconies and breathtakingly
magnificent carved doors. Old, bearded men, pass you, wearing
long white robes, whilst others just stare at you from the shadows.
Women, wrap their flowing black bui bui around bright dresses,
perhaps on their way to the many little shops, selling food, clothes,
hardware, electrical goods, and even Internet access.
The 200-year-old streets, are too narrow for cars, and bicycle
bells sound out their vibrant warnings, as they, and scooters,
pass you. Sooner or later, you'll discover Mosques, Persian Hammamni
Baths, Churches and small hole in the wall tailors shops and eating-places.
And, it's guaranteed that you will get lost, so a small compass
is handy to head westwards to the sea front, perhaps for a break
and meal of fresh Barracuda at Blues Restaurant, opposite the
Jamituri Gardens, where in the evening there are dozens of lantern
lit vendors, selling cheap street food, such as grilled octopus
served on a square of newspaper.
keep a look out for POPO BAWA! Of all the ghosts and demons who
inhabit the tangled, centuries old alleyways, none has caused
so much dread as Pop Bawa. Popo Bawa (Bat's Wing in Swahili) is
a bat-man, along the lines of Dracula, but with even more base
habits-he sodomises his victims, man, woman, child or dog. He
began his reign of terror in 1995. When darkness fell he would
fly into houses and rape the inhabitants. No use shutting doors
or sealing windows, Popo Bawa always found a way in. His victims
told the tabloid Uhuru of a bad smell that preceded him, then
of slipping into a coma-like state. Only when morning came did
they wake and realise what had happened. Many victims said they
began to smell themselves, and no washing or soap would relieve
And Zanzibar is ghost friendly. The tangled, dark side streets
in Stone Town are made for haunting. And the lush interior of
the Island- the strangler figs and vines, man- high grass, banana
trees, mango trees, clove trees, cashew - nut trees, rustling
palms, bush so thick and teeming you need a machete to move a
hundred yards- surely provides demons with hide-outs.
Well, after enjoying the unique sights and sounds of Stone Town
for 3 days, it was time to explore the rest of Unguja, to give
it it's correct local name, with my guide and host, Salim Abdullah,
whom I had contacted prior to my visit by e mail. This is an ideal
place to travel simply for it's own sake; to wander slowly among
plantations and farmland, or pass through small towns and fishing
villages. Once you move away from the somewhat "touristy"
parts of the island, you will find a very different, and more
authentic world, where local people continue with their everyday
lives in a manner which has changed little over hundreds of years.
It is refreshing to see this other side of Zanzibar. This is a
very important aspect of my Photo Tour, but I don't want people
regarding the Island as some kind of rural paradise created for
tourists to admire. For local people, this island is home, where
the work in the fields or on the sea is hard, and where great
poverty is not at all unknown. If you remember this, and get behind
the picture-postcard image with my help, your visit to Zanzibar
will be greatly enriched.
Highlights of my tour with Salim included a visit to Muhurubi
Palace, a little to the north of Stone Town. It was built by Sultan
Barhash to house his harem. At onetime, he reputedly kept 100
women here: one official wife and 99 concubines. Unfortunately,
the palace was destroyed by a fire in 1899. All that remains today
are the great pillars which supported the upper storey, and the
Persian- style bathhouse. The original water tanks also remain
in the grounds of the palace. The ruins can be romantic and it
is pleasant to wander down Muhurubi's avenue of mango-trees, imported
from India, or to sit, as the women of the harem must have done,by
the ponds with their carpets of green lily pads and star- petalled
flowers of cerulean blue.
as always in Zanzibar, is never far away. If you are interested
in the easily missed facet of a foreign way of life, there is
always something to see. I hope you can join me there next January.
You will not be disappointed.
Please contact Steve as soon as possible, if you are interested
in joining him on a tour of Zanzibar - it will be an experience
you will not forget!
About the Author: I'm an English,
Professional, Freelance Travel Photographer, living in Western
Crete since 1987.
From here, my travels start, taking shots
for Photo Libraries such as Getty Images/Stone, as well as having
commissioned work from publishers of Travel Magazines such as
Conde Nast Traveller and Travel Guide Books.(Berlitz, Fodor's,
Insight etc) A hectic lifestyle I thoroughly enjoy!
I always try and find time to shoot personal
images and my style involves elements of color, graphic design
and texture. Plus, I pass on my knowledge and advice to people
who attend my Photo Workshops which are held in Crete and Zanzibar.
People have to teach themselves and learn by their mistakes. I
just let them know what's going on and show them the doors to
open to increase their creative visual awareness.
You can see more of Steve's work at the following websites:
- Steve Outram