Fascinating for its beaches, rich cultural heritage and unique blend of African, Arab and Indian influences, Zanzibar is an island located off the coast of Tanzania and a true pearl of East Africa. Discovering this paradise was a real fascination for me, due to all the emotions it carried throughout each experience.
Once, Zanzibar was a trading post for merchants from Arabia, Persia and India and its strategic location made it an important center for the spice trade and African slaves that were brought from the mainland. In addition to its historical and cultural significance, Zanzibar is also known for its stunning natural beauty. The island’s coastline is dotted with pristine beaches, coral reefs and turquoise waters, sea urchins and starfish, but also lush tropical forests where unique wildlife can be seen.
Gastronomy is undoubtedly one of Zanzibar’s strong points, a fusion of African, Arab and Indian flavors, a mix of flavors where spices predominate and some famous dishes like the Zanzibar pizza, a thin dough stuffed with meat and vegetables. But what surprised us most were the people. The hospitality and cordiality of the Swahili people left us completely surrendered. For a few days, we lived to the rhythm of the motto Hakuna Matata (which means “no worries”). A people who value their community and are proud of their cultural heritage, rich in traditions, art, music and lots of dancing. Everything is a reason to celebrate and a smile was waiting for us at every meeting – a priceless simplicity and genuineness. We always feel welcome and touched by the positive spirit.
On the beaches we found several tour guides and some members of the Maasai tribe with whom we spoke during a walk, they explained to us a little of their history and the simple way they see the world, focusing on the essentials and what brings them happiness. Helping families and the local community is their main objective. The population of Zanzibar is made up of different ethnic groups and this same diversity is what makes it so special and unique, with the majority being of African origin and a minority of Arab, Indian and European descent. All coexist harmoniously, even in terms of religion, divided between Muslims and a small minority of Christians and Hindus.
Walking through its streets is to feel a bit of the history that lived there, a mixture of intense smells of spices (such as cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla) and a characteristic tranquility of its people who slowly walk through the streets. In the distance we hear the sound of children playing happily and as far as the eye can see are the green fields, where rice and sugar cane are grown. Currently the island is geared mainly towards tourism but also fishing and agriculture. Its famous stunning beaches, crystalline waters and coral reefs, attract visitors from all over the world and I was completely surrendered to the sound of its traditional music, the taarab, which incorporates elements of Arabic, Persian and Indian music.
When in Zanzibar, it is mandatory to visit Stone Town (Mji Mkongwe, which in Swahili means “Old City”), not only because it is a historic city on the east coast of Africa, dating back to the 15th century, but also because it is here that we find a series of important attractions to visit, from the time when it was an important trading center for slaves, spices and ivory: The Sultan’s Palace, the Freddie Mercury House Museum, the Slavery Museum or the Fortress (with a Portuguese cannon at the entrance) are some of the highlights but what I really appreciate are the local markets, their famous wooden doors (expertly crafted), and the street shops, where you can talk to people, learn a little about their history and immerse yourself in the true spirit of this most populous city in Zanzibar. Today, Stone Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and despite its dark past as a center of the slave trade, it is a vibrant and fascinating city with a rich history and culture that it is preserved and celebrated by locals and visitors alike.
By Carla Branco