Our word for the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar: exotic. Not only was this our first destination in Africa, but the island melded Arabic influences in such an otherworldly Indian Ocean setting that we had no other word for it. Suzy, Dan, and I spent a few days here then went inland for a safari in the Serengeti and Ngoronogoro Crater before Suzy and I headed to an orphanage near the town of Mwanza.
Zanzibar is known as the Spice Island due to its history of spice growing and exporting. While today the island relies more on the tourist industry than the spice industry, we got a peak into its famed products during a spice tour. The Clove Hotel where we stayed (with a rooftop balcony that offered breathtaking views) connected us with the daylong tour. We hopped in the white van and soon narrow alleys between whitewashed buildings gave way to a main paved road as we made our way north out of Stone Town.
A view of the island we hadn’t yet seen emerged. The land became more rural, dotted with tiny storefronts and simple mud and brick houses. In addition, streams of people walked and rode bikes along the sides of the fairly fast moving road. Women, with their heads covered in hijabs, balanced loads on their heads. And the myriad of male bike riders either had an additional passenger on the back, or basketfuls of goods attached. Looking out the front window, I gripped the seat back in front of me on a few occasions as it seemed there’d be no way for our van, a speeding car from the other direction, and all the people on the sides of the road to all fit at once. Somehow we did.
After about a half an hour’s drive north, we arrived at the spice farm. As we unloaded from the van, a boy passed us driving an ox cart- a reminder that small farms here use traditional, organic methods not out of choice but necessity. Our tour guide explained that most family plots have a variety of crops— perhaps bananas, sweet potatoes, and spices, rather than just one in case of a crop failure. We began the tour with a fresh taste of pineapple—cut from the middle of the low growing spiky leaves jutting straight up from the ground.
In addition to the tour guide, a half dozen boys around twelve years old assisted as unofficial helpers– fashioning every conceivable, and inconceivable item from palm leaves. The goods included spice holder cones, rings, bracelets, necklaces in the shape of frogs, and even an ornate crown. The boys asked our names and where we were from in between stops to see vanilla beans growing on the vine, the bark that makes cinnamon sticks, cardamom, pepper, and cloves. One boy when asked his name proudly responded, “Barack, like Obama”. Obama fever was high here in Kenya’s southern neighbor. We wished we had brought Obama pencils or key chains to trade for the myriad of souvenirs we desired. Suzy asked her young helper if he was still in school, and he responded he was done. We later read that just 7% of Tanzania’s population goes on to secondary school. In government schools, primary school is taught in Swahili, but secondary school is taught in English. The difficulty in comprehension, in addition to being needed on family farms or to help run businesses, must contribute to this low number.
After tipping our unofficial guides for their assistance and goods we headed back into the van and made our way down the road for lunch. We had been told we’d have a traditional lunch in a village made by local women. So it was unsurprising as we drove down a dirt road and then walked amongst the simple structures to our eating area. Used to tourists coming through, the women cooking and children playing hardly looked up. We sat on mats on the floor as the meal cooked over a wood fire outside was brought before us. We savored the potato curry over rice, cooked greens, and bananas for dessert.
The tour continued with a quick stop at the bathhouse of a former Omani Sultan who ruled large sections of east Africa in the late 1800s, as well as a cave where the Sultan had hidden 200 slaves during the time after it had been outlawed by the British to own slaves. We had learned the day before at the museum in Stone Town that the influence on Zanzibar from the Middle East had included not only Islam—the religion of the majority of the island, and about half of mainland Tanzania, but also language with about 25% of Swahili words coming from Arabic.
Our last leg of the tour included a swim in the warm, azure waters of the Indian Ocean. As our tour guide said, “I know white people like to swim.” Our guide selected his dinner from one of several fisherman docked down the beach as we waded in.