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…)

The place and the people

No, I didn’t die in a plane crash after all, or get eaten by sharks 😛 But I DID have some close encounters with tsetse flies and mosquitoes…

So many pictures to showcase, and so many stories to tell…and I’m clueless where to start. All I have to say at this point is, Tanzania turned out to be as interesting as I dared hope it would be. All of hubby’s experiences of travelling solo in Africa have now come vividly into focus in my head, and I am no longer a vague disconnected spectator. It’s great to finally have seen what he saw 🙂 But as Proust said, the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes….

My jaded Karachiite cynicism had to rethink itself in the East African habitat. It expected certain attitudes and was surprised to find the same rules of behaviour did not apply, the ones it is used to meting out at home. People ARE different from place to place! This was an unusual trip in many ways, and one of the reasons for it has been the interactions with various people while I was there……a truly multicultural bunch. They enriched my experience in ways that I’m not even properly aware of, yet I feel changed because of them. This must be one of the coolest things about travelling. If we’re lucky, we manage not to just skim along on the surface of a touristy trip, stay at a nice hotel/resort, eat in fancy restaurants, see the sights that are laid out for us to see and go to the places the guidebooks tell us to go…

So I dedicate my first post-travel post to the people I met 🙂 May they all be chugging along merrily where I left them. I hope I get to see them again someday. They had no idea I am a closet anthropologist (albeit a clueless one) nor do they know just how much I enjoyed their conversation and their company, even when we ran out of things to laugh and talk about.

Ali, Muni, Lulu ben, Hani and Murtaza behind them.

This is only one-third of the family that adopted us while we were in Dar es Salam. There are many more of them, scattered around East Africa 🙂 Not only did they drive us around and show us places and make sure we tried as much of the local junk food as we could, they blew me away with their quaint, typically East African sing-song way of speaking 😀 I’m sure they must have thought I was a bit crazy, smiling away while I listened to them talk, but it was hard to suppress my delight as they occasionally burst into Swahili in the middle of all that beautifully accented Gujarati. I learned that Lulu ben drives like a maniac and (in her own words) has grown old listening to Vital Signs blaring in her car. She was born and raised in Karachi till she got proposed to by a man from Zanzibar, for whom she left all that she had known to go live in a completely strange new place. Her family means everything to her, and I’m happy to report they’re a charming lot, at least the ones I had the good fortune to meet, friendly and full of life, busy in their spheres, multiplying every now and then with new additions to the family 🙂

Shirin (not in the pic) and the older Hani are twins, yet completely unalike. Ali and Muni love Dar, and wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else, though Muni would love to come to Karachi just for the food and to shop till she drops. She loves jewellery and gemstones set in classy rings, and used to help her father in his tour operating business enterprise in Arusha until she got married. Murtaza is married to Shirin, whom he met at the beach and dated for 3 years before they got hitched. Huz and him got along like a house on fire. And Ali loves to tease the older Hani by freaking her out with ghost stories from Zanzibar, so much so that she can’t sleep alone with the mere *mention* of spookiness. She can’t even sit with her back to the ocean!

And then there was little Hani. We were inseparable. We took pictures of each other, secretly shared laal badaam juice (she wasn’t supposed to have any) she whispered stories in my willing ear, so many cute little stories about her homework, the locals that hung around outside their window, her little brother…and every time we parted ways, she’d give me a little gift from the purse she always carried….a Snickers bar…and gum 🙂

little Hani and me

If there was anyone in Dar who was concerned about us not getting bored, it was Godfrey. He made it his personal responsibility to show us places we might not have been able to access easily, and once there, he showed us around with indulgence and a pleasantly quiet enthusiasm. I loved the way he pronounced my name….Mu-neee-rahh. He has a penchant for white wine and Pringles 🙂 If not for his willingness to drive us all the way to Mikumi (a scenic wildlife reserve), we might have been too insecure and a bit daunted by the newness of experience outside Dar es Salam. His son Bryan (yet another 5 yr old!) sang songs and Tanzanian beer jingles all the way and we were amused no end by him. He had a way of responding to questions by just raising his eyebrows with a certain expression in his eyes, and we were left to decipher what he meant 😀

Godfrey’s wife, Anna Maria turned out to be this really educated woman, holding double degrees in Chemistry and Wildlife Studies, teaching entrepreneurship for a government-based program. She schooled me on the correct method of preparing Ugali, a maize-based staple in local cuisine, and divulged that if it wasn’t for the fact that she had to work to supplement the family income, she would rather be home and spend more time with Bryan, and perhaps have more kids.

Our safari experience was the richer for the hours we spent riding around in the same car 🙂

Godfrey, Anna and Bryan just before we left Mikumi.

How would I have had the courage to go to Mwenge, and Kepepeo, and Zanzibar, if not for Tina, the Ghanaian wife of Willem, Huz’s long-time colleague and friend…

the girl has joie de vivre! 😀

Without Tina’s moral support, I would have been a blithering idiot. Not to mention, completely unaware of the dire hair issues of African women! I can now recognize and tell the difference between real hair and extensions 😉

There are 49 languages spoken in Ghana, and Tina doesn’t know Swahili. Yet, she was completely at home in Tanzania, charming the locals with her West African-ness and her rust-coloured extensions. With her, I was just an anonymous ‘muzungu’ (white person! me!! HAH!!). She occupied centre-stage in Tanzanian male attentions, causing random coconut sellers to declare their love and offer to marry her 😀

Dong with a platter of fruit at a special Tanzanian dinner at the New Africa hotel 🙂

And this is Dong. I think this picture best captures the wackiness that is her 🙂 She works for the UNIDO and lives in Vienna, where a single eggplant costs 1 euro and her mother is scandalized, since in China you can get at least a kilo for that much money. She loves her work (she plays a huge part in getting work for Huz too) and her tuna sashimi, and would like nothing better than to travel all over the world :). A self-professed nerd, but as much fun as a barrel of monkeys.:D Loved her company during our sumptuous breakfasts at the lovely Kilimanjaro Kempinski, where strange and amazing things happened, such as the elevator doors opening to reveal Kofi Annan waiting for the lift (he was in Dar es Salam for a conference on poverty alleviation!)

Yep, too many stories….I’m back with loads of inspiration. Albums have been duly facebooked, and now……to blog about it. 🙂 More on people and places in coming posts!