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Old Spice on the Island of Zanzibar

Zan-zi-bar. Three syllables – expelled wistfully by the initiated – trip easily off the tongue. Zanzibar conjures up the clichéd Crusoe-esque paradise: in every cliché there is a grain of truth.

The one-time slave trading centre of East Africa, spice island, former Omani colony and birthplace of the late Farouk Musara (better known as Freddy Mercury), has a name which brims with exoticism. Zanzibar is the embodiment of the daydreamer’s exotic desert island. Azure sea, blindingly white beaches and coconut palms swaying gently in the breeze. Today the island’s reputation it: Kempinski are coming; the hoards will undoubtedly follow. Now is the time to visit this Afro-Arab influenced isle.

Named Zanzibar (the black land or land of the blacks), by the Arabs who first visited, in reference to the pigmentation of the inhabitants’ skin, its fecundity and proximity to the African mainland made it a much disputed prize (the British and Portuguese vied with the Omani Sultanate for control of it).

Initially, the slave market attracted the Sultan’s interest. From the 1700s to the 1890s, the wealth of Zanzibar was inextricably linked to the trading of East African slaves. Today a church sits on the site of the original slave market; beneath the sacred edifice a few of the dungeons used to incarcerate captives awaiting sale (many of whom were from the distant interior of the continent) have been preserved. They remain an eerie reminder of the suffering endured in the low-ceilinged, dingy, airless hovels during the long wait for market day. A few minutes in one of the most spacious dungeons with 9 other people was absolutely enough for all of us; we could not fathom being cooped up with 70 urinating, defecating, vomiting and frequently expiring beings in the woefully inadequate space.

Our guide David beams as he explains that it is a little known fact that Dr Livingstone (of ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’ fame), had an uncelebrated hand in the abolition movement. Dr Livingstone, we are told, publically exhorted missionaries to go and live among the Africans, preach the Gospel, and assist in the freeing of slaves. Coming as most of us do from 21st century cities like London, Sydney and Toronto, where multiculturalism is inescapable, it is hard to grasp the novelty of this appeal to Victorian Britain. However, we are assured that like William Wilberforce, he was convinced that slavery was inherently wrong. Today East Africans widely credit him with accelerating abolition.

Zanzibar Today

Approximately 1 million people call Zanzibar home. The majority (96%) of the residents in Stonetown are Muslim. Islam can be felt everywhere in Stonetown; from the billowing abayas which sweep round corners and glide along cobbled streets to the absence of alcohol outside a couple of tourist spots and the early morning call to prayer, there is no mistaking the religious heritage of the inhabitants.

A hired matatu, driven by Mohammed the ex-Arabic teacher and part-time muezzin, sped us to a farm outside Stonetown for a Spice Tour. Mohammed had been unable to make a decent living as an Arabic teacher, so he had left the madrasa for the cut-throat world of matatu driving (he also moonlighted as a mechanic) We took the opportunity to have a free Arabic lesson with him during the 1.5 hour journey to Nungwe; finally we were able to make some progress with our pronunciation! We also learned a lot from him about the intricacies of marriage proposals, dowries and divorce among Muslims in Tanzania – apparently, failure to cook dinner for your husband could constitute rounds grounds for divorce.

Boasting coffee, pepper corns, turmeric, kumin, vanilla, cinnamon, cocoa and cloves (historically the island’s most sought after export after slaves), Zanzibar is a fantastic place to find many of the items that clutter spice racks kitchens across the globe. It is fascinating to observe these herbs and spices germinating, and indicates, like the gory scenes at the meat market and fishmongers we had visited that morning, how far removed from the food we consume most Westerners are.

In addition to the commonly consumed spices, David, our guide, introduced a cornucopia of specimens from the bizarre bounty of the island: lipstick fruit, named for the vivid pigment which it contains – modelled here by Musa (Moses) one of the farm’s 300 employees; the ‘shy’ touch-me-not plant, which recoils its leaves when touched and the kapok fruit, a one-time mattress and pillow filler that is no longer used because its fibres exacerbate asthma.

52 species of cassava and 18 of banana thrive on Zanzibar along with the coconut palms introduced by the Arabs. Coconuts do, in all seriousness, pose a threat to life and limb (at our beachside hotel in Nungwe, the staff were given the job of removing all the coconuts in the vicinity of the pool, lest an unsuspecting guest be rendered comatose while ambling through the grounds), but they are also a wonderfully refreshing treat in the tropical heat – if you are impervious to bouts of vertigo, or able to convince someone who is to harvest them!


Things that go ‘bump’ in the Night

With so much wildlife on offer in East Africa, it can be hard to decide where best to spend your limited time – Masai Mara, Amboseli, Tsavo, Serengeti, Tarangire, Mikumi – and those are just the parks in Kenya and Tanzania. The cost of the parks is another consideration as entry can range from $20 to $100 per person, add vehicle charges of up to $200, accommodation and various other fees and you could find yourself shelling out the equivalent of a down payment on a house, so some due diligence is required. Random polling of overland drivers who have been working on the continent for at least 5 years, perusal of the Lonely Planet Thorntree forum and discussions with members of our group finally convinced me that Ngorongoro Crater was simply one of the things that a visitor to Tanzania must do. I was not disappointed.

After seeing 15 lionesses and 7 cheetahs in Masai Mara along with countless elephants, my expectations for the crater were set pretty high: I really wanted to see a male lion with a fully mane, the elusive black rhino and a leopard.

The Ngorongoro crater, formed by an extinct volcano, is the largest caldera in the world. Within the depression in the earth lies one of the most amazing gatherings of wild animals anywhere in Africa including a whopping 24 of the shy black rhino.

From the moment I got to the park, I was constantly reminded of how ‘wild’ it really was for example, two minutes after arriving I was sitting in the car chatting to a local woman while the driver was sorting out the park fees, when several baboons jumped in through the window. Before we knew it we were surrounded, only able to escape by leaping from the car and the kind stranger who came running up, grunting at the baboons in an attempt to frighten them off.

That afternoon, I met the rest of our group who had driven up from the Serengeti. We pitched our tents at the hill top campsite overlooking the crater and contemplated all the wildlife teaming down below, which appeared invisible to us from our elevated position. Walking though the campsite I noticed a disturbing amount of dung concentrated in one area.

“Looks like elephant dung, doesn’t it Mark?”

“Don’t know about elephant dung. It’s more likely to be cow dung, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I suppose so. Perhaps the Masaai use this for grazing…”

In a Jurassic Park moment later that night, our worst fears were realized during one of those typical campfire story-telling sessions which occurs nightly in Africa. Usually, someone starts by regaling the group with the gory details of an animal attack, which a friend of a friend of someone they know suffered. Once the gauntlet has been thrown down, the other members of the group have to tell progressively disturbing stories about life threatening malaria infections, insect infestation, road accidents, boats eaten by hippos and the tour guide who announced that those members of the group who are not cannibals could be catered for separately (alas, this last offer is true – the guide obviously got his carnivores and cannibals mixed up!).

Anyway, we were in the middle of such a session when Adam, a member of the group, wondered aloud whether the dark twisting pipe-like thing protruding from a tree at the other end of the campsite could, perhaps be an elephant. All necks shot back 180 degrees, all eyes bulged, a unanimous sharp inhalation of breath occurred and then the population of the whole campsite mobilized.

People ran, chairs were overturned, screams were emitted as a mass of humans migrated towards the huge male elephant whose tusks almost reached the ground. Then the cameras started clicking. Flash photography was necessary because it was almost dusk, which was obviously dangerous given that the elephant was a wild animal, we were in a campsite situated on the precipice above the crater which is positively brimming with predators and there really was nowhere to run, but everyone was running – towards the huge beast.

After a call for calm from one of the campsite cooks, and a request for the running and sudden movements to stop things relaxed. The elephant drank his fill from the campsite water fountain and trundled off into the night. The occupants of the campsite lit fires to discourage wildlife and everyone tucked in for the night. Needless to say, between the howling of hyenas and odd rustling sounds outside our tents, nobody slept well. At 5 am the next morning we awoke to discover a herd of zebra grazing amid the tents. Goodness knows what else might have passed through during the night. Unfortunately, we never did get to see a leopard, but there is still time…


A visit to a Masaai Village in Tanzania

Since we had travelled through the Masai Mara in Kenya, we had been fascinated with the people of the world famous Masai (Maasai) tribe. Having heard that there were over 42 tribes in Kenya alone, we wondered why it was the Masai, more than any other tribe which had captured the imagination of Western visitors and why they had become poster children for the tourism industries of Kenya and Tanzania.

Discussions with Kenyans from other tribes revealed that some feel that the Masai culture has been commercialised to the point of destruction. The Masai receive a considerable amount of the park fees paid by foreign tourists which range from $20 to $80 (not including vehicle fees, which can be up to $200), making them relatively wealthy. Another bone of contention is that they are also able to make money from the numerous crafts, which they sell to tourists and from charging for photographs.

In light of this, we had decided to steer clear of the touristy village visits which one sees advertised. However enquiries about how we could get a little more information on the Masai led us to a ‘real’ village not far from Arusha in Tanzania.

Our time with John in Kenya had given us a great opportunity to learn about the customs and traditions of the Masai. Being half Masai and half Kikuyu himself, John was able to describe the circumcision ritual from personal experience and to answer our questions on marriage, dowries and family. He taught us that circumcision of men happens at about age18 and involved the man sharpening the knife which will be used himself. Given that a blunt knife could cause unnecessary pain and injury, he explained that it was in the individual’s interest to sharpen it as well as possible! The procedure is performed without anesthetic, so the boy is held down by some elders. He is not allowed to flinch or show any discomfort as it will bring shame to him and the tribe. Following the procedure the young man will be sent into the forest for 6 months with the other men who were circumcised on the same day. Occasionally an elder will visit to check on them.

Circumcision (also referred to as Female Genital Mutilation, or FGM) of Masai females at age 15, was routinely practiced until recent bans by the government in Tanzania. Some families still have their daughters circumcised in secret, but they face heavy fines and possible imprisonment; in Kenya we were told that a Masai woman does not feel like a woman if she has not been circumcised. However, the Masai guide we had in Tanzania explained that the Masai had grudgingly accepted the government’s ban.

The village was about 20 minutes walk, or a short camel ride from the Snake Park Campsite (camels are not traditionally kept by the Masai, however these two were adopted by the snake park and are now put to good use by the Masai guides).The man who lives in this particular bomu has 9 wives and approximately 50 children, many of whom came running to greet us when we arrived. Each woman has her own house which she shares with her children, however all of the wives work together to construct the simple dwelling from acacia and mud.

Wife sharing is another practice of the Masai. Brothers and friends may share the same woman when her husband is absent. To avoid the embarrassment of being caught in flagrante, the man who is ‘visiting’ must leave his spear outside the door to her dwelling as a sign for her husband.