Joe Yogerst leaves east Africa’s Swahili coast and the hanging tree of crushed hearts to take in the mythical island of Zanzibar. Photography by D.Hump.
AS the sun broke over the Indian Ocean, the train slowly wound its way through the bright green hills that separate the Kenyan highlands from the coast. The line was built long ago as the British East African Railway – the famous “Lunatic Express” that took so much time and money to complete. And that encountered so many peculiar African problems, not just malaria and tribal attacks, but a pair of man-eating lions that inspired numerous books and the 1996 film The Ghost and the Darkness. But we passed through the wilderness region without sound or sight of a lion.
The train rumbled over a causeway and soon I was disembarking at the old Mombasa railway station onto what seemed like another planet. In just a few hours, Africa had changed dramatically from wildlife-strewn plains – and a new view of snowcapped Kilimanjaro around every bend – to a land of palm-shaded strands, bays protected by coral reefs and sun-splashed fishing villages. So distinct was the change it was almost as if the train had crossed an international border while we slept in our berths.
Although now divided between several states – Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique, as well as islands like Zanzibar and the Comoros – the East African coast carries a shared vibe and common customs. Most of the inhabitants are Swahili, an ethnic group of mixed African and Arab origin. Devout Muslims, they long ago lent their name to the lingua franca of East Africa, a language that blends Arab words and African grammar.
For more than 2,000 years the Swahili have largely turned their backs on the African interior and, instead, focused their interest and energy on the lands across the Indian Ocean. Many ancient civilizations ventured along this coast and traded both goods and ideas with its inhabitants. The ancient Romans called it Azania; the medieval Arabs knew it as the land of Zinj. Five different European empires carved the region into colonies but could not dilute its Swahili character. Even now, decades into independence, the coast has more in common with Mecca, Cairo, or Dubai than colonial-era creations like Nairobi or Maputo.
Tumbling out of the station, I ambled beneath the giant faux elephant tusks that have long served at Mombasa’s symbolic gateway and down Moi Avenue to the old Castle Hotel. The height of hospitality in British colonial times, the Castle is nowadays populated by a mixed bag of travelers who prefer to bunk down with history rather than the sound of waves at Mombasa’s flashy beach resorts. And I found the hotel’s ground floor café the best place in town for cold Tusker beer and people watching – a constant ebb and flow of humanity along the avenue; old men in embroidered skullcaps and flowing white robes; women in full-length black dresses or colorful kangas; longshoremen up from the docks; and scantly clad young ladies who make a living from the world’s oldest profession.
Mombasa lies almost at the geographical center of the coast and, along with Zanzibar, is one of the spiritual capitals of coastal culture. The bustling port city boasts the largest Swahili population in East Africa and for many years was the linchpin of coastal affairs. Much of its charm can be attributed to Swahili influence: the proliferation of mosques and the narrow streets of the Swahili quarter known as Old Town, its ancient domes and minarets casting exotic shadows across the city.
Dominating the scene is Fort Jesus, the massive citadel built by the Portuguese in 1593 when they were masters of the coast. The museum inside the fort spins tale of Arab traders who sailed down this coast starting around 600 AD. They established small trading posts and intermarried with the local African people. By the 13th century these humble settlements had evolved into a string of powerful city states stretching all the way from the Horn of Africa to the mouth of the Zambezi River. As well as a common language, the coastal people established a vast trade network. Their safaris (Swahili for “journey”) probed deep into the continent while their lateen-sailed dhows called on ports all around the Indian Ocean.
The Swahili sultans and merchants became wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of those early Arab sailors. They imported Ming porcelain from China and Siamese stonewear, and exported their own products (in particular ivory, slaves and spices) to the outside world. They erected great mosques and palaces, and established the first mint south of the Sahara. Everything changed after Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 and sailed up the East African coast. Within a decade, the Portuguese had subdued the sultans and ended the golden age of the Swahilis. Two centuries later Omani Arabs helped the locals expel the Portuguese (1698) and establish a powerful new sultanate in Zanzibar. By the end of the 19th century, the Europeans were back, the Swahili region divided between British, German, Italian, French and Portuguese masters.
In days gone by you could simply hop on a dhow in Mombasa Harbour and sail south along the Swahili coast. But these days few of the old boats ply the coastal route for anything other than cargo. I was left with two possibilities for reaching Zanzibar: backtrack to Nairobi and catch a plane … or ride a bus down the coast road to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s de facto capital and the only mainland port with regular ferry service to the offshore islands. Cruising down the coastal highway seemed a much more organic (and scenic) means to continue the journey, and several days later I boarded a bus bound for the Kenya-Tanzania border and points south.
Along the way is a place largely forgotten by both time and tourists – the old town of Bagamoyo – on the mainland directly opposite Zanzibar and indelibly tied to the island’s history. Bagamoyo is where the trade caravans arrived from the interior with their cargoes of slaves and ivory. The ivory was loaded directly onto waiting dhows and spirited away to Arabia and beyond; the slaves were crammed into tiny coral-stone cells awaiting shipment to the great slave market in Zanzibar.
Exploring the ruined slave quarters on my own, it seemed like the buildings, the trees and the very soil were haunted by the memories of the thousands who suffered and died on this spot. I was told the name Bagamoyo means “crush your heart. ” And after an hour alone amongst the cryptic, haunting old buildings – and beneath its infamous Hanging Tree – it was easy to see how it earned that sobriquet.
Bagamoyo is historically important for another reason: this is where 19th century European explorers often commenced their explorations of the “heart of darkness” – author Joseph Conrad’s name for the wild, unknown African interior. Stanley and Livingstone, Burton and Speke, all passed this way. And some never left – at least not alive. A small chapel at the Notre Dame Mission on the outskirts of Bagamoyo was Livingstone’s final resting place in Africa, the good doctor having perished from malaria and dysentery.
The town boasts a couple of modest Western-style hotels, mosquito infested affairs that underline the fact that Bagamoyo is no tourist resort. But the beach is gorgeous, and largely empty, and you can often see Zanzibar floating 20 miles across the water. Two days later I was on the other side, stepping off a ferry at the Stone Town ferry terminal on an enigmatic island that has changed immeasurably in recent times and at the same time stayed very much the same.
Twenty years ago, Zanzibar was the quintessential backwater, the historic buildings crumbling, the economy depressed and visited by only the most intrepid tourists, most of them overland backpackers. But then a renaissance of sorts took place, sparked by energetic locals and enough foreign investment to kick-start tourism. It no doubt helped having a name (like Timbuktu or Rio) that seems to define “exotic” in a single breath, as well as a quirky spot in pop culture history as the birthplace of Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury (his father worked for the island’s British colonial government). An international film festival and annual Swahili music jamboree helped stoke interest. For whatever reason, Zanzibar began to attract a steady stream of celebrities, jet-setters, and ordinary travelers bent on experiencing its far-off allure.
After roughing it in Bagamoyo, I was ready to splurge in Zanzibar. And there was certainly much to tempt me: more than a hundred hotels, some of them brand new beach resorts and others located in restored structures hundreds of years old. I settled into one of the latter, a sleek boutique called 236 Hurumzi in the middle of Stone Town. The 19th century manse was a an architectural gem combining elements from several cultures that have influenced the island – big Arabian-style rooms framed by teak beams from Burma, Persian windows with wooden shutters and delicate stained glass imported from India, plus a rooftop restaurant with harem-style seating and bird’s-eye views of the ancient metropolis.
Small and pedestrian-friendly, I could have easily explored Stone Town on my own. But given the lack of information in my guide book, I looked around for a guide who might lend me a more intimate perspective on Zanzibar’s capital city. Enter a local fellow named Sam, who offered his guiding services outside one of the curio shops on Hurumzi Street.
Sam claimed he had once worked for the Tanzanian Department of Antiquities. Whether or not that was true was beside the point. He proved to be a most able escort, a veritable Wikipedia of knowledge on local history, architecture and culture. We started with the hulking House of Wonder, built as the sultan’s palace and later the British colonial administration centre, but now a museum dedicated to all things Zanzibar.
“And why do you think they called it the House of Wonder?” Sam asked. “Not because of its size or shape or who lived inside, but rather because it was the first building in Zanzibar with electricity. People once stood outside for hours each night staring at the lights. Can you imagine?”
Among the other stops on Sam’s circuit were the house where Dr. Livingstone lived while outfitting several of his landmark expeditions, the ruins of the sultan’s harem, and the Old Dispensary, a colonial-era drug store and medical clinic with an ornate façade that is considered the island’s finest example of hybrid Anglo-Indian-Arab architecture.
Stone Town’s notorious slave market was demolished in the 1870s when human bondage was outlawed. According to Sam, it was replaced by a remarkable religious site – a place where Christians worshipped on Sunday and Muslims on Friday. In later years, the unique interfaith shrine was superseded by present Anglican cathedral, its steeple decorated with a clock donated by the Sultan of Zanzibar as a further sign of religious tolerance. In the churchyard is a moving memorial to the human chattels that were once sold here – five bronze slaves linked by ominous chains and diabolical history.
The next day I finally got a chance to sail aboard a dhow, a voyage with half a dozen other visitors to one of the smaller islands scattered around Zanzibar. The skipper’s name was Rena, a one-time fisherman who now found it more lucrative to give tourists a brief glimpse of maritime life along the Swahili coast. In his Mickey Mouse sunhat and “Diesel Power” t-shirt, Rena was not your cinematic vision of a dhow captain. But he could certainly handle the boat like Sinbad, sweeping up the west coast in tight turns as we cruised towards Tumbatu Island.
Coming ashore on the island’s leeward side, Rena led the way to a cluster of coral-stone ruins, all that remains of Shirazi Persian colony established here around 900 years ago. A 14th-century mosque was the largest structure, although truth be told, such was the crumbling state of the ruins it’s now hard to tell what any of them might have been centuries ago.
Further up the coast we anchored in a turquoise channel, the water clear enough to see fish mingling in the coral gardens below. Rena set some of us up with fishing poles and crab bait, while others jumped overboard for a snorkel along the reef. As the veteran fisherman among us, Rena seemed to catch three fish to every one the rest of us landed. But together there was plenty for a barbecue on the strand.
After lunch, walking down the long empty beach, there was a sense that nothing had changed in hundreds of years along this particular stretch of the Swahili coast. “Earth, sea and sky all seemed wrapped in a soft and sensuous repose,” is how British explorer Sir Richard Burton described Zanzibar in the 1880s. And at least here on Tumbatu Island, that’s how things remained.