New Moon: Diversity and Tolerance in Stone Town, Zanzibar

By Lauren Frick ‘20

Sunset over a fisherman’s beach southeast of Stone Town.

Sunset over a fisherman’s beach southeast of Stone Town.

This summer, I interned for six weeks with a microfinance NGO in Zanzibar, Tanzania. I was there with a group of nine other Washington College students who were working with various organizations including schools, women’s empowerment, and environmental NGOs. We lived together in a third-floor apartment of an Omani family home in Stone Town. We shared one bathroom, while for most of our neighbors, running water and electricity are luxuries. After about three weeks, we began to adjust to life there. Many things were not as we expected.

Stone Town is renowned for its unique blend of architecture from India, the Middle East, and European influences. A long line of Omani Sultans ruled Zanzibar until the revolution of 1964 overthrowing the Sultanate and ending Zanzibar’s status as a British Protectorate. Soon after, Zanzibar merged with Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Zanzibar. Despite being known for its architecture, most of the historical buildings in Stone Town are dilapidated. The coral walls have slowly grown algae and turned black or eroded over time. Walls are crumbling. Trash is piled in the streets. Alleys are plastered in graffiti and posters advertising this month’s “Full Moon Party” rave on the north side of the island.

I was struck by the idea that this was once a bustling place of commerce where traders grew rich from the proceeds of cloves, slaves, and exporting ivory. These magnificent homes were once luxurious, and now they are decaying. Poverty is rampant. Tin shacks stand in the shadows of coral stone palaces. The people here were once able to build so much, the most beautiful stone arches and courtyards, fountains, stained glass, and intricately carved wooden doors displaying the trade of the occupants. Many of those doors are rotting today, and the meanings behind the carvings have been lost.

The entire city of Stone Town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. While it is wonderful that the historic importance of this place has been recognized, the designation also means that no new buildings can be erected here, and restoration projects must meet stringent regulations for historical accuracy. The historical building methods are expensive today because there are so few workers trained in them, and so restoration projects are outside the means of the local community to conduct. There are some NGOs working on projects to train local tradespeople in the use of local materials and historic building practices. Others have begun “Adopt a Door” campaigns encouraging donors to help fund the preservation of the history coded into the carvings. There are also projects to train locals to give historically accurate tours of the city.

House of Wonders, former Sultan’s Palace, Stone Town, Zanzibar

House of Wonders, former Sultan’s Palace, Stone Town, Zanzibar

Our team went on one such tour. We visited several World Heritage Sites including the Tipu Tip House. Tipu Tip was a widely renowned Arab trader who made himself wealthy in the 19th century through the export of spices, slaves, and ivory. Our tour guide told us of how Tipu Tip would trick villagers from the mainland to come to Zanzibar, promising them very good prices for any ivory they could bring. When the villagers and traders arrived, Tipu Tip took their ivory and captured them, locking them in his basement until he gathered enough to send out as a shipment of slaves. The World Heritage Site commemoration mentions nothing of his involvement in the slave trade, only that he owned many clove plantations and built his home in Stone Town as the center of his trading empire. Tipu Tip is buried in a small plot not far from the house which the locals use as a landfill today.

Tipu Tip House Door, World Heritage Site, Stone Town, Zanzibar

Tipu Tip House Door, World Heritage Site, Stone Town, Zanzibar

A former British consulate was designated a World Heritage Site because David Livingstone’s body was kept there on the journey back to England after his death in 1873. Our tour guide described how Livingstone requested that his heart be buried in Africa and how the rest of his organs were removed so that the body could be mummified for transportation across the globe to its final resting place in Westminster Abbey. The entire journey took over a year.

Other landmarks we visited on our tour included the Old Fort, which was constructed as a defense against the Portuguese in 1699, and the Sultan’s Palace. All that remains of the Old Fort are the external walls. Inside, local vendors peddle their wares such as scarves printed with the ever-popular phrase “hakuna matata” or offer henna painting services. Now the Old Fort is Home to Zanzibar’s International Film Festival. We had the opportunity to watch a documentary called “New Moon” about the director’s journey toward accepting Islam as she filmed another documentary about the life of a Muslim boy on an island similar to Zanzibar off the coast of Kenya. Films from all genres across Africa and the Middle East were showcased there.

I could relate to the struggle she felt about discovering her faith. She loved Islam even though she did not agree with many of its social aspects such as plural marriages and constraints on women’s freedoms. She saw beauty in the faith and honored it even though she was seen as an outsider in the community in which she lived and worked during the filming of the documentary. Struggles with faith are often lonely ones.

Old Fort, Stone Town, Zanzibar. Home of Zanzibar International Film Festival

Old Fort, Stone Town, Zanzibar. Home of Zanzibar International Film Festival

Even though Zanzibar has a Muslim majority, I had yet to see anyone pray. I heard the calls to prayer each morning, noon, and night, but I never saw anyone put down their work to go to mosque. The call to prayer was simply background noise to latest football match in the World Cup.

Our city tour guide told us that the first people here practiced animism and ancestor worship until Arabs (mostly Omanis) arrived and converted them to Islam. Later, the Portuguese and British attempted to bring Christianity. We live a few blocks away from a Catholic cathedral which has services in both English and Swahili. There is also a Protestant church in the same square as the former slave market. Our Coordinator, Ulrica, was raised Catholic, but she rarely attends mass. It seems that is the way with many people here. Few talk about religion. Faith is a private affair. To proselytize is taboo. Most women here wear hijabs, but I think it is as much of a social norm as it is an indicator of religious conservatism.