Re-writing Stone Town, Zanzibar

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Words and images by Lauren Kent

For me, in my five months in Unguja, Zanzibar, walking through the streets of Stone Town is a sensual journey – of sight, let your eyes follow the carvings on the Zanzibar doors, the burnt coral stones that make up the houses, the maze that is the Stone Town streets; of smell, inhale hot oily chapatis, spicey kachori (potato balls) and cardamom coffee; of sound, listen to the taarab music wailing, the children running and shouting, the coconut sellers announcing their fare; of touch, feel the hot material of the many kangas on sale at the market, or the cold cement bazaras outside some of the houses; of taste, the sweet kashatas nibbled on while you drink your Arabic coffee, the salty air nearer to the beach.

All this and more is what makes up Stone Town – a town so old, so mysterious, so original and unique in its design, and sometimes so very decrepid that it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the whole town an officially protected area.
Sometimes, in its protected state, the dynamic nature of its residents is forgotten behind the history of the town. Indeed, many a Stone Town Tour takes people on the rounds of “this Indian inspired door” and “the Freddy Mercury House” and “the Persian carpets on Africa House roof”. But it is so much more and I urge anyone going to the island to familiarise yourself with her history and then prepare yourself for a meeting of cultures of a disproportionately huge size!

Below are some of the other sites that, if you allow yourself a few more hours to wonder the streets of Stone Town, might give you a deeper insight into the people that live in this city of mazes.

Near the Seyyida Hotel, Stone Town. This is an example of contemporary life and art form re-written over a much older way of life and art. This one states that something will never die, maybe the artist, or what the artist stands for, or equally that the story of Stone Town and its development and adaptation through many centuries. The youth of the island are definitely a Hip Hip generation!

One of many black board notice boards throughout Stone Town, on which anyone can write anything (as long as it is not offensive). This notice reads: We do not want a Union; it is not serving us. (Tensions between the mainland and Zanzibar are rife – according to Zanzibaris, all that Zanzibar is – what she makes, such as spices, clove oil etc – is taken to the mainland, used there and exported from there and little of the profit makes its way back to Zanzibar). Covert political opposition in its prime! This board in Jaws Corner, the liveliest of squares in Stone Town due to its bustling street side coffee bazara, its central location to watch football matches and also close to tour companies and internet cafes. The notices here get noticed.

One of the many score boards in Stone Town. Sometimes it seems as if half of the town has disappeared to watch the matches. One of the public televisions can be found in Jaws Corner, mentioned above. This score board is located near Darajani vegetable, spice and food market. It is the largest wall score board that I have seen in the city. It is updated regularly. Another example of the old architecture being incorporated into a changing way of life, and the changing importance placed on different things, in this case football.

I am hugely biased to the beauty of Stone Town, in all its mysterious history, dysfunctionalism, fantastic food and clammy heat. This is not Cape Town in Tanzania, it is the Zanzibar is Tanzania – vibrant and very much evolving in its own way.

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