Tales From Stone Town
Get lost with us in the maze-like streets of Zanzibar’s charming and historic Stone Town.
Photography: Brian Siambi
We are standing outside the Old Fort when Taib, with suspicious enthusiasm, launches into a colourful story about an Arab princess called Salme. Suspicious, because how someone can be so chipper in this heat is beyond me; I can already feel a migraine start to throb within the crevices of my brain thanks to the sun mercilessly hammering at it. As he drones on, pausing ever so slightly to adjust his kofia, I momentarily halt my frantic self-fanning antics as I am gently transported to a Stone Town of 1866, when this fort upon whose walls I now lean would have been used as a garrison and prison. Merchants, I imagine, would have been haggling about the price of a kilo of cloves, a teenage slave hopelessly marching behind his brother towards an uncertain tomorrow, an adventurer setting foot on ‘zinj-bar’ soil for the first time fresh off the boat from a faraway land, and for Princess Salme, utterly scared of the whispers in the palace and her brother the Sultan’s reaction to finding out that she was pregnant by their German neighbour.
Shortly after, she flees this homeland having been rejected by her people for her choice in a lover. Once in Hamburg, her name is no longer Salme but Emily Ruete, and while she gets baptised as a christian, she secretly dreads going to church and adamantly refuses to eat pork. Through this woman’s story, 19th century Stone Town fascinates me because of how different the society and culture are from present day. I wonder what life would have been like for me, an African woman. Despite being born into vast wealth, the youngest of a Sultan’s thirty children, Salme still has to secretly teach herself how to write because this skill is not taught to women. Imagine, then, the policing of friends, fashion, marriage, entertainment, work and the works.
I am drawn out of my reverie by a cat – these lanky felines that slink proudly along the verandahs, and when you come face to face, it is you that has to move out of the way. This being my second visit to Stone Town, hiring Taib to take us on a walking tour was a smart idea. My first visit, I’m afraid, was wasted, because I mostly wandered around the streets overwhelmed by the beauty with no real insight into the rich history.
Much like Lamu Old Town, the pathways are narrow and maze-like, lined with curio shops and art dealers, and after a couple of turns, start to blend into one another in their similarity. Brightly coloured scooters whizz past. Women swathed in colourful kangas or beautiful buibuis gracefully sashay along with handwoven baskets in hand. Gentlemen perched on barazas play a complex board game of bao, the winner clapping animatedly and talking smack to his opponent, and I am so intrigued I that I buy a set. Distinguishing between the beautiful intricately carved Arab and Indian doors, some pastel and others with shiny golden brass studs, becomes a fun pastime. If a place ever so deserved to be called charming, it would be this town. I fall in love with its very essence, African, Arab, Indian, Persian and European influences distinct in everything from the people to the mosques, churches, bazaars, architecture and food. Stone Town is picture perfect, the heat notwithstanding.
THE STONE TOWN LOW DOWN
FOR COFFEE: JAW’S CORNER
We were actually lost when we first wandered onto this street where four of the town’s winding alleys intersect, but we stayed for the people watching. It is hard to miss, distinguished by a large painting-on-the-wall of the poster of that classic 1975 Steven Spielberg movie. Here, a mzee brews strong, black, Arabic-style coffee in steel kettles balanced precariously over a small charcoal stove. The beverage is cheap and flows almost as freely as the gossip, and there is a high chance you will be roped into a debate about anything from football to the weather. Should you wish to call your online lover living somewhere in Sweden or Thailand, there is a long pole with an old phone and a cheeky sign announcing “free international calls”.
FOR ICE CREAM: TAMU GELATERIA ITALIANA
We may have only been in Stone Town for two nights but we stopped by this spot so much – at first to find solace from the heat but pretty soon like a pair of hopeless crackheads in need of a fix – that we were on a first name basis with the waitress. The walls are decked in photos from around town and the refreshing gelatos are made from real fruit. Local flavours include coconut, tamarind, hibiscus, passion and baobab. They were so addictive, in fact, that I walked from my hotel room in pajamas at 10:00pm to go get a scoop; a pathetic sight, I am certain, but my taste buds were quite pleased.
FOR ZANZIBAR PIZZA: MR MANGO’S STAND AT FORODHANI GARDENS
This is a glorious seafront night market bustling with tourists and locals alike, with numerous vendors selling local dishes all being cooked on the spot. The seafood is oh so seductively spread out, but because it’s not always refrigerated, to try these would be to set a date with food poisoning. You should however definitely try Zanzibar pizza, and Mr Mango’s stand is the place to go. To be honest, his signature mango-nutella combo is more like a crepe than a pizza, but it sure is downright delicious. To his left, a vendor sells freshly squeezed sugar cane juice to wash down your food with, and if you’re still hungry, because you’re a glutton, a lady to his right sells a spicy Zanzibar mix also known as urojo. We were told that this market is a tourist trap since the same food is much cheaper at Darajani, but I liked the vibe so much I didn’t mind the snare. If you’re here before sunset, entertainment will be by way of local boys diving from the perimeter wall into the sea below.
FOR COCKTAILS: THE BEACH HOUSE
This modern upscale bar and restaurant is said to have some of the best sunset views, but both times I’ve been there have unfortunately been after dark. It has a multicultural millennial staff and the menu offers an array of excellent gin-based cocktails infused with Zanzibar’s popular spices. On this visit, we sat on the outdoor terrace – the best spot in the house – where there was remix to the Game of Thrones theme song playing. Some local guys were playing a lively game of football on the sand below and after two ginpassion-and-saffron cocktails, I had to be held back to stop me from joining.
FOR SPICES: JAMBO SPICE FARM
Herbs and spices were initially introduced to Zanzibar by Portuguese traders from their colonies in India and South America in the 16th century. During the Omani rule, cloves were actually more valuable than their weight in gold. We drove for a little over 10km from the town center to an organic farm where we learnt how the spices got to the island, how they are grown as well as their uses, some of which we had never considered before. We were smelling, tasting and collecting spices like cloves, lemongrass, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, vanilla, pepper, cardamom and more. I love using spices in my kitchen…cooking without any is like hosting a party with no music. I have only ever seen some of them ground, which made the tour all the more interesting. Fresh whole nutmeg for instance opens up like a jewellery box and the seed sits inside like an exotic ring, and I was just about to say yes to this unexpected marriage proposal until our guide told us that the spice is actually “like a viagra for women”, at which I very slowly backed away. It was only 10:00am for heaven’s sake. At the end of the tour we came to a stand selling packaged spices and soaps as well as interesting spiced tea combinations. We loaded up by the kilos.