Wandering around Stone Town

Once upon a time, Zanzibar was ‘one of the most important trading centres in the Indian Ocean region’, and Stone Town (or Mji Mkongwe as it is called in Swahili) was the capital of the Zanzibar Sultanate. It flourished with the commerce of spices and slaves.

Stone Town is a city of prominent historical and artistic importance in East Africa. Its architecture, mostly dating back to the 19th century, reflects the diverse influences underlying the Swahili culture, with a unique mixture of Moorish, Arab, Persian, Indian and European elements. For this reason, the town has been included in UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in 2000.

Due to its heritage, Stone Town is also a major tourist attraction in Tanzania, and a large part of its economy depends on tourism-related activities.


April, 2011.

Lulu ben was born and bred and lived in Karachi until a man from Zanzibar proposed to her and she said yes, which is how Fate led her to an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, into a vertical house right in the middle of the crowded, narrow alleyways of the labyrinthine Stone Town. This is where she spent the next 20 years or so of her married life, raised a family of six children, and where her husband continued to stay and run his business from a shop under the house, even after she decided she could no longer bear the claustrophobia…

Now she lives in Dar es salam, all the children are married (save one who is due to be married next year) ….grandchildren abound.

She visits her husband in Zanzibar weekly, and it just so happened that she had Tina and I with her this time. He is recuperating from the shock of undergoing a major surgery recently, and Lulu ben made a beeline for her old house, weaving her way expertly through the alleys, pointing out some historically significant buildings along the way.

I clicked away, my shirt stuck to my back, juggling my bags, my cap and my camera. It was a super hot and very sunny day, and I wished I was wearing shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt instead of the ridiculous outfit I had chosen for myself for the expedition. I had heard that Zanzibar had more of a Muslim/Arab influence, so I thought I’d be better off erring on the side of conservatism.

The coraline rock of Zanzibar was a good building material, but it is also easily eroded.
This is evident by the large number of houses that are in a bad state of repair.
Several buildings have already been renovated and the Stone Town Conservation Authority has been established to co-ordinate the restoration of the town to its original magnificence.
Most of the houses that can be seen today were built in the 19th century
key feature of most buildings is large verandas protected by carved wooden balustrades.
and the doors...
The most well-known feature of Zanzibari houses are the finely decorated wooden doors
sometimes with big brass studs of Indian tradition

Two main types of doors can be distinguished: those of Indian style have rounded tops
some were decorated rather differently.
Lulu ben and I (photo courtesy: Tina)

We continued walking through the convoluted alleys, me stopping to click interesting views and things and getting lost periodically. I was scared once when I couldn’t figure out which lane Lulu ben and Tina had veered into in our search for the Anglican Church. A boy approached me and we exchanged jambos and he asked what I was looking for. I told him I was looking for the people I was with and he suggested I turn left and follow the road. I did as he said, doubtfully, feeling afraid of coming to a dead end where I would then be conveniently mugged. To my relief, as I turned a corner, I finally caught up with the ladies.

But it was a bit creepy…

Stone Town is a living, breathing heritage area, and people live and work here.

Most of the women cover their hair...
shops lined the streets, really clean by Pakistani standards...

Soon we reached Lulu ben’s house. We walked through a small shop that sold a variety of hair accessories and an assortment of other goods, manned by two very old, frail-looking ladies in ridas. They were Lulu ben’s husbands sisters, and she greeted them warmly as they smiled and welcomed us in.

It was really dark inside, and she told us to be careful on the steps as we went upstairs. It reminded me of being in one of those really old buildings in the old parts of Karachi….only different.

the landing..

I finally met the elusive Mr Lulu ben. His name is Saifuddin, and we found him sitting quietly by himself on a chair in his bedroom, lost in thought. Lulu ben met him affectionately and introduced us, and while they talked and caught up with each other, Tina sat on the edge of a bed while I looked around curiously. This picture on the wall caught my eye.

formally dressed and turbaned in sherwanis, a long time ago

She took us further up the stairs to show us the rest of the house and I found the layout to be so unusual…. and interesting. Lulu ben had often felt so cooped up here, especially with so many kids. It would get gloomy and stifling inside, I’d imagine.

She showed us the door which lead to the terrace roof, where she would get some light and some fresh air and I pictured her having tea while the kids ran around….

But the door was locked, so unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the view.

(to be continued…)


  1. fatema says:

    “thought I’d be better off erring on the side of conservatism.”…………………:D
    the pics are lovely doll!!…perfect compliment to make a blog visually alive……………….waiting for more..:)

    1. Munira says:

      Thank you so much Fatu!!! Finally got down to telling the Zanzibar story……I feel content 🙂

  2. photokunstler says:

    Great photos of the buildings there! I live ON coral/limestone, but no, wouldn’t want a house built of it!

    I’d hate to be pushed up against that door with the spiky pokey things on it – ow!! But the carvings in the doors are amazing.

    Can’t wait to read and see more!

    1. Munira says:

      You know why they have those spiky knobs, right? It’s to stop the elephants from knocking them down 🙂 (at least in India…..I don’t know if there are elephants in Zanzibar)

      The doors are really amazing though. I love taking pictures of buildings and architectural details. Left out quite a few pics…..will put them up in the next installation of wandering Stone Town!

      1. photokunstler says:

        It would sure stop me from knocking down the doors! 🙂

        I look forward to more photos. I love architectural details too!

  3. I would have guessed conservative dress would be better, but, yes, so hot. We had to be fairly well-covered working in the Delhi slums, but it was so incredibly hot there in May!

    But, Munira, the doors are stunning! I would love to have one for my house! How incredible!


    1. Munira says:

      I have to read about your Delhi experience sometime. Will you give me the link, if you’ve written about it?

      Carved doors would add a touch of splendour to any house 🙂 I love them too.

  4. satsumaart says:

    I echo everyone else (and you) on the conservative dress. That’s the choice I would have made too!

    The closeness of the houses and their architecture reminds me just a bit of the old part of Macau (http://www.flickr.com/photos/satsumabug/sets/72157623820749781/), although it’s less that they resemble Macau than that Macau is the only place I’ve ever walked that felt like that. 🙂

    I love seeing your gorgeousness again. 😉

    And oh my goodness, that first photo! That blue-green of the door and shutters, the blue of the sky, all those angles, the pale rock and dark shadows! I’m so captivated. 🙂

    1. Munira says:

      I’m more comfortable all covered up as it is, so it didn’t make a difference in that sense, but I can’t tell you how hot it was! I tanned at least 5 shades darker in that one afternoon!
      Will check out your Macau pics…..that should be interesting!

      Haha, my gorgeousness!!! 😀 *blush blush* oh come now…….!

      So glad you liked the first photo as much as I do!!! And for all the same reasons too!! *entwines pinky with Lisa’s*

      1. satsumaart says:

        Teehee! *pinky shake*

  5. Fabulous pictures M 🙂 I remember some from your album that made me so envious 😛 Still am 😉

    The narrow streets remind me of the old parts of Bombay, South Bombay especially where my aunt still lives in her 100 year-old heritage building! But you’re right…so much cleaner than anything one can ever hope for in India 😦

    Love the woodwork and those doors…almost like doors to a fort na? They obviously believed ‘My Home is my Castle’ 🙂

    1. Munira says:

      Would have been great to have you there with me to wander around with H!
      And if people from the subcontinent could be half as clean as Tanzanians (and Ghanaians, so my hubby tells me) our world would be so much more pleasant!
      Kab seekhainge hum log……*sigh*

  6. auntyuta says:

    With those pictures one gets a real feel for this place. Great photography and comments makes it all very interesting. I can imagine it’s easy to get lost in a place like this. You must have been so relieved to find your way back to where the others were!

    1. Munira says:

      Next post should wrap things up nicely I hope 🙂
      Yes Aunty Uta, it would be extremely easy to get lost here, it’s really a maze. I would have been very lost and afraid to lose my guide in the middle of it! So it was a huge relief to see them waiting for me to turn up!

  7. Your photos of this beautiful place have taken my breath away! I’m glad I read this post and gazed at them before trying to get to bed at the end of a difficult day. I hope I can sleep tonight, so they can permeate my dreams.

    1. Munira says:

      I’m glad you dropped by for a look Sparks 🙂
      Sorry about the difficult day though. Hope the dreams made up for it.

  8. Great travel post again, Mun. Doors have great character, don’t they?! I’ma bit of “door” collector myself. I always think that if you come home to a grand and interesting door then it’s a welcome in itself and something to be proud of. Unfortunately, our door is, like most UK doors, pretty dull.

    1. Munira says:

      Thanks Alan! I agree, doors are very…revealing. and I so agree with what you say about a grand and interesting door being something to be proud of! You have no idea. We took a section of a corridor into our house and had to have a new front door made to replace the cheap one the builders had put in. It was a labour of love! I searched for designs, modified it to make it my own, decided on the wood, the polish, the finish, the details, the handle, the lock, and am so proud of the end result….for weeks after it was installed, complete with hand-painted glass panels, I sat by the door on a little chair with a mug of tea and stared at it happily.
      Yeah, I really love my front door. Maybe I’ll put a picture of it up here so you can admire it too 🙂

  9. Neil E. Das says:

    Lovely pictures, Munira. Nicely done. I love the whites of the buildings, contrasted with the blues and aquas. And the doors, wow!

    1. Munira says:

      Thank you Neil! Coming from you, that’s hugely complimentary! 🙂
      And you’d go nuts in a place like Stone Town. It’s one big photo-op!

  10. transplantednorth says:

    Hi Munira! Thanks for posting these incredible photos. Haven’t traveled in a long time, so I’ll live vicariously through your postings. Haven’t heard from you in a while, was getting worried!

    1. Munira says:

      Hello Transplantedperson! I haven’t visited your blog in a long time, guilty as charged *sheepish smile*
      Glad you checked in on me though, have posted quite a bit since your last visit too 😉
      Will catch up with you soon. x

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