Sunday, October 19, 2008
Zanzibar, even the name sounds exotic. It conjures up mosquito netted beds on beautiful white sand beaches. Rooms with matted floors, cloth lined ceilings and walls, and pillows thrown about to recline on. Dark alleys with women in their Muslim garb and men trying to sell you everything - half of which is illegal. Some of that is the fiction of the movies but most of it is real.
Despite the fact that the island of Zanzibar belongs to Tanzania, it is very much unlike the mainland. In fact, in many ways they act as if they are their own country. Cars here have their own license plates, you must go through immigration upon entering the island even though you are coming from the mainland, and you must pay a departure tax upon leaving - which is not the same departure tax that you must pay upon leaving the country of Tanzania. Our understanding is that many people on the island really do want to be their own country and not part of Tanzania.
Whereas the mainland has a mixture of religions, Zanzibar is almost completely Muslim. Women are covered from head to toe and many even have their faces fully covered. Men typically have their heads covered with a skull cap and some walk around in the long "dress" like garb that is worn in the mosque. While the language is still Swahili, your instinct is to speak something different to them as their appearance is not that of an African; it is more that of cross between an Arab, an Indian and a Tanzanian. The fact is that their heritage is probably all three. The architecture is very middle eastern and they are know for their large intricately carved wooden doors.
Many people who come to Zanzibar choose to go to one of the beautiful beach resorts on the North or East Coast. We passed on that and chose to stay in the historic city of Stonetown. At times you walk down the streets of Stonetown and see only dilapidated buildings, other times you see charm and mystique. The old buildings are rapidly decaying and only now are they beginning to take the care to restore them - it will be a huge undertaking. Stonetown was also a large slave trading area of which almost nothing is left to mark this fact. Once slavery was abolished, just about everything related to the slave trade was demolished. On the land where the slave market once was stands a church with its altar in the location of the slave whipping post. A couple of slave "caves" where the slaves were held until sold and that's all that remains of this dark period in history. Not until 1997 was a memorial established at this site to commemorate those who had been taken as slaves.
As you walk down the alley ways you sense yourself being hyper vigilant. It's almost as if you are just waiting for something to happen - something not so good. But then you arrive safely back to your hotel and you wonder why you felt the need to be so "concerned."
Stonetown will also hold another unique memory for us in this presidential election year. This is where we cast our ballots in the hopes that the mail will be received by election day and that our vote will be counted. We did our best, now it's up to the Tanzanian and US postal systems!
I have no idea what the election situation looks like in the US but I can tell you one thing, if it were up to the Tanzanians, Obama would be in office in a heartbeat. It's Obama mania here with lots of enthusiasm for the man who has roots from this continent.