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      Volume 11 |Issue 30| July 27, 2012 |


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Straight Talk

Good Morning Zanzibar!

Nadia Kabir Barb

The cockerel obviously had no sense of timing — the clock on the bedside table was flashing 5:30 am, well before sunrise but he appeared to like the sound of his own voice and was crowing away vociferously. After what felt like an eternity he fell silent and I could once again hear the sound of the sea rising and falling, the waves crashing gently on the rocks. The sound was both rhythmic and soothing. I sat and listened for a while then went through to the veranda. The innumerable stars that had been scattered around the sky illuminating the heavens had faded and gradually the first ray of light crept over the water giving my surroundings a hazy glow. Watching the sun rising slowly above the sea, painting the sky in different shades of orange, blue and even gold, was breathtaking. It was an amazing start to our holiday in Zanzibar.

Our ten days in Zanzibar gave us the opportunity to visit a country known for its spectacular natural beauty and a place steeped in history. It is a country of contrast; a blend of old and new, the hustle and bustle of the spice markets made incongruous by the tranquillity of the beaches, a harmony of different cultures, races and religions reflected in the cuisine and architecture and the stunning natural beauty of the landscape hiding a legacy of cruelty and slavery.

On our arrival at a friend's beach hotel situated in the south east part of Zanzibar on the Michamvi Peninsula, we were awestruck by the stunning surroundings we found ourselves in. The backdrop of the villa was a long stretch of white sandy beach, the clear blue waters of the Indian Ocean and palm trees and coconut trees swaying gently in the wind. It was a tropical paradise and thankfully a distant cry from the fast pace of life in London.

Breathtaking Zanzibar. Photo Credit: Ayesha Barb

Driving from one place to another gave us ample time to observe the countryside. The houses, little shops and different types of trees including the coconut trees lining the side of the road were very reminiscent of the landscape we are used to when driving around the rural parts of Bangladesh. The difference was that there were far fewer people and even fewer vehicles on the road.

After a few days of relaxation, just reading books that had been beckoning but sadly ignored, going for long walks on the beach or simply sitting on the veranda watching the tide just ebb and flow, we decided to finally explore the Island.

It was delightful to drive up to Nungwi in northern Zanzibar to see the turtle sanctuary, spot the famous Red Colobus Monkeys indigenous to Zanzibar, while driving past Jozani National Park, a conservation area and watch the sunset from the rooftops. What was by far the most interesting part of our sojourn was an excursion on a traditional 'dhow' or sailing vessel and our trip to Stone Town formerly the capital of the Zanzibari Sultanate and still the cultural heart of Zanzibar and declared a World Heritage site.

The daytrip entailed driving to Fumba, southwest of Zanzibar, and taking a boat ride to the Menai Bay conservation area. Little did I know that to get to the traditional 'dhow', we would have to physically wade a few hundred yards into the sea to clamber onto the boat! There were about fourteen of us on board including three friendly Canadians, an Italian father and son duo and a Bulgarian body builder and his surgically enhanced wife. The day was spent sailing around catching glimpses of dolphins gliding gracefully through the water, espying lush mangroves, snorkelling and seeing a stunning variety of exotic fish, swimming over the amazing coral reefs and underwater sea life.

We moored for lunch on Kwale Island where we were served a sumptuous Zanzibari meal on the beach followed by a tasting of a whole host of tropical fruits such as jackfruit, mangoes, pineapples, shoki shoki (or rambutans), grapefruit etc — my idea of heaven. A couple of hours given to exploring the island including climbing the ancient baobab tree before getting back on board the dhow was an idyllic day out for the family.

Our trip to Stone Town showed us a different side to Zanzibar. Walking around the vast labyrinth of narrow alleyways gave us the opportunity to take in the sights, sounds and smells of the bustling markets famous for its spices, the mosques dotted around the city, the shops bursting with handicrafts from Zanzibar on offer and to see the charming houses alongside the streets that reflect both the Arab and Indian architectural influences. A key feature of the Zanzibari houses were the magnificent doors with ornate wood carvings and brass studs decorating them and each door seemed to tell its own story.

The name 'Stone Town' comes from the widespread use of the coral stone used in the construction of many of the buildings in the city giving them a very distinct warm, reddish hue. Strolling through the streets felt like stepping back in time as little appeared to have changed in the last couple of centuries. Once again there was a familiarity about the place as certain parts of the city reminded me of Dhaka Old Town. However, we did not have the jostling of hordes of people and of course no rickshaws in sight. Many of the winding alleys we ventured through were mainly for pedestrians though there seemed to be a constant stream of motorcycles and bicycles whizzing past us, but wherever we went there were ready smiles and the warmth of the people was charming.

Looking back on the rich history of Zanzibar, it was known not just for its thriving spice trade but also for its slave trade especially in the 19th century when it was the main slave trading point of East Africa.

Our visit to the former Slave Market is something that will stay with me for a long time. Slaves were either bought from tribal chiefs or simply kidnapped from the mainland and then shipped to Zanzibar. Here they were imprisoned in one of fifteen underground chambers and resold and transported to other parts of the world. Currently only two of these chambers are accessible.

Both the chambers had low ceilings and one tiny window making the room dark and airless. The atmosphere was claustrophobic and oppressive. We were told that the slightly larger room housed 75 women and children and the smaller one, 50 men. There were six of us in the room and it already felt cramped. The channels in the middle were used as bathrooms and the chambers were connected to the ocean by a small tunnel. The slaves were kept in the compartments for three days to see which ones survived. Many of them died due to suffocation, disease and exhaustion. The survivors would be taken up to the whipping post and whipped. If they did not cry out they would fetch a high price for being strong, others would be sent back to the chambers.

A memorial now stands where the market used to be, reminding us of the suffering of countless innocent people and it is hard to imagine the unspeakable cruelty meted out and the atrocities committed in the very spot we were standing in. Currently there is an Anglican church that stands where the whipping tree used to be and the chambers lie beneath present day St Monica's Hostel.

Our second trip to Stone Town was rather different. We arrived at the city to find that many of the roads especially the ones leading to the port area had been cordoned off. It was only then that we heard the shocking news of a tragic accident that had left many dead and missing when a ferry had capsized during its journey from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar. Almost 145 were killed in this disaster and my heart goes out to those who lost their lives and those who lost loved ones in the accident. What was even more poignant was that a similar ferry disaster had taken place the previous year where almost 200 people lost their lives.

My memories of Zanzibar will always be of a beautiful country with an abundance of character and charm but tinged with sadness due to the tragedy. The day we left, we left behind a city in mourning.


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