A spirit of optimism filled the nation after independence and, intent on sweeping away the memories of foreign rule, the new Government sought ties with Eastern Bloc countries. Unfortunately, many of the building projects arising from these relationships failed to pay due respect to Zanzibar’s cultural inheritance and consequently were desperately ill-conceived. Now, in decay, they have lost the ‘brave new world’ spirit that they stood for and now simply serve as reminders of the new nation’s naivety.
The complex of flats at Kilimani and Michenzani, with its huge multi-storey blocks and regimented dual carriageway, would have looked more at home in East Germany from which they were imported. Not only has this type of building now been widely discredited, but here the incongruity with the Zanzibar scale and culture is almost unforgivable. Similarly, some of the out-of-town hotel and residential developments are equally desperate.
All in all, there has been little development of note in the period since independence. In contrast, however, and perhaps as a consequence, there has been an increasing realisation in recent years of the value of the existing building stock. At last, thirty years after independence, the people of Zanzibar are now willing and able to feel proud of their inheritance and Stone Town is beginning to enjoy a renaissance.
Fifty metres inside the port gates on the right is a quay which is usually packed with traditional dhows and a wharf alive with workers and trucks, loading and unloading. These days very few dhows across the Indian Ocean, unlike times gone by when fleets would arrive carrying goods from Arabia and the Orient, returning loaded with slaves, ivory and the produce of the islands’ plantations. The best time to see one of these large ocean-going dhows is between December and March before they return on the South-Westerly monsoon. There is still plenty of dhow traffic all year round between Zanzibar and the mainland, for the most part bringing building materials and flour to an island that is not self-sufficient in these basic commodities. Early in the morning, the humid, dew-laden air carries the heady odour of cloves.
The deepwater harbour, with its wharf piled high with containers, is located opposite the town’s main seafront. The landing is most frequently used by boats and hydrofoils from Dar es Salaam, Mombasa and Pemba. Occasionally an enormous ocean-going container ship or cruise liner comes into port and dwarfs the whole town.
The peninsula was constructed using stone brought from Chukwani, to the North of the island, on a light railway that ran right along the seafront. The dock-side was constructed on huge piles (a photo of which in the National Museum shows them being tested under a 75-ton load). Construction was completed in August 1925.
Turning left at the port exit leads into the Malindi quarter.
Malindi used to be a spit of land at the North end of town, but the reclamation of both the harbour and Darajani Creek has expanded it greatly. It remains essentially the ‘industrial’ end of town, with docks, cargo sheds, a clove distillery and boat sheds.
A quick circuit of this area just after dawn reveals dhows returning with their catch to the fish market, a canteen where hungry fishermen and townsfolk meet to eat a hearty breakfast of fish stew, dozens of prowling cats and a wonderful misty view of the bay across to Mtoni.
Malindi, like ports in most towns, is best avoided at night.
Return to the port entrance and continue along the front.
This building, with its magnificent balconied facade, was built around 1890 as the private residence of Sir Tharia Topan, a prominent Khoja Ismail Indian and customs advisor to the Sultan. Topan presented the building to his community in 1899 with the intention that it should become a hospital. After his death, however, the building was sold to Nasur Nurmohamed and became a dispensary. The Dispensary fell into disrepair but was rescued in 1996 by the Aga Khan Foundation. It is due to open as an African Heritage Centre.
Three further buildings, including some SMZ Government offices, lead to the ‘Big Tree’ or ‘Mtini’. This giant tree is a banyan and was planted in 1911 by Sultan Khalifa. Along with its great cultural significance, it also provides welcome shade for fishermen and street vendors alike. Further along, the two large, rather plain buildings, both with magnificent carved doors are the old Customs Offices and the old Grand Hotel d’Afrique de l’Est respectively. Both fell into disrepair and are under renovation, the former into a conservation training school (financed by UNESCO) and the latter is to be reinstated as a hotel.
The magnificent House of Wonders (Beit-el-Ajaib), with its four-sided, four-storied, collonaded facades, dominates the skyline of Stone Town. It was commissioned by Sultan Barghash as a ceremonial and administrative Royal Palace and built on the site of the 17th-century palace of native ruler Queen Fatima, the Mwinyi Mkuu. The fact that it was designed by a British marine engineer offers some explanation to this unusual building, with its steel superstructure and wide, ship-like balustraded ‘decks’. Originally there was a ‘pharos’ lighthouse in front of the building, but this was seriously damaged during the bombardment of 1896 (see page 26) and was rebuilt in its present position on the roof. The building is centred around a huge roofed atrium, with the deck pattern mirrored from the outside, giving all the rooms the benefit of the shade of the wide decks and the cool sea breeze.
The building has beautifully carved and gilded doors and mirrors and was the first building in East Africa to have electric lighting and an electric lift. It was also the tallest building in East Africa – a true House of Wonders.
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Although there are plans to turn it into a Museum of History and Culture, the House of Wonders is presently in a deteriorating state of repair. On the ground floor of the great atrium lie a number of aged vehicles (one of which was Karume’s state vehicle) and, reputedly, piles of uncounted ballot papers from past elections, all under twenty or more years of dust.
Outside the building are three canons which date back to Portuguese times, carrying the monograms of Kings Emmanuel and Jean 3rd (16th century), said to have been captured by Persian forces during the siege of Hormuz in 1622.
When the Busaidi family of Omani Arabs finally banished the Portuguese from Zanzibar in 1799, Stone Town had barely come into existence. There were very few stone buildings, the rest of the village being traditional coconut thatch huts. The Omanis could not know for sure whether the Portuguese would return, or whether their Arab rivals, the Mazrui, would attack from their base just across the channel at Mombasa, so the need to build some kind of fortification was paramount.
The fort was constructed on the site of a Portuguese chapel (which can still be seen built into one of the walls) and adjacent to a palace of the Mwinyi Mkuu (the traditional Zanzibari chieftain). The heavy walls are of coral ragstone, with castellations at a high level and slitted windows for shooting through. The fort was never successfully attacked.
The fort has been used for many purposes, being a prison for many years until around 1906 it was converted for use as a customs house and railway shunting, with the Bububu railway running directly into the courtyard through the main front entrance. In 1949 it was converted into a ladies’ tennis club. These days it houses an open-air theatre, a cafe and several craft shops.
The formal gardens in front of the House of Wonders and the Old Fort used to be the location for the customs sheds, which were moved in 1936 to the deepwater anchorage. Formally laid out in grand style, complete with bandstand and floating restaurant, the gardens remain a pleasant place in which to stroll at sunset, to meet and to chat and for children to dive into the surf from the sea wall.
A night-market is held here, perfect for a kebab and freshly squeezed sugar-cane milkshake.
Adjacent to the Jamituri Gardens, there is a building through which the road passes in a tunnel. This is Zanzibar’s Orphanage, although it has previously been an English Club and an Indian School.
Passing through the tunnel, the second building on the right has a plaque on the wall facing, that reads : “This building was the British Consulate from 1841 to 1874. Here at different times lived Burton, Speke, Grant and Kirk. David Livingstone lived here and in this house his body rested on its long journey home.”
If the tide is low enough it is possible to pass down the side of the British Consulate and onto the beach, from where the magnificent Omani merchants’ houses can be viewed to their best advantage. The next building used to be the American Consulate and is now Government offices.
The Tembo (Elephant) House, now a hotel, is one of the finest of the buildings along the front. Looking from the beach, the left-hand side is a new addition, but the original right-hand wing has all the characteristics of a residence suitable for a wealthy Arab merchant, with high timbered ceilings, a central atrium, an impressive stained glass salon and balcony on the first floor.
The new building adjacent was recently constructed on an open patch of ground previously used by local fishermen to beach their boats. The Starehe Club on the other side used to be the European Yacht Club of Zanzibar.
A hundred metres further on is the Mambo Masiige, or ‘Inimitable Thing’, so-called because thousands of eggs were apparently used to enhance the mortar – something which would be too expensive ever to repeat. This is another fine merchant’s house, dating from 1847 and like so many of the prominent buildings of the town, the Mambo has led a varied existence. For much of the eighteenth century, it served as the residence for the British Consul General and was the base for Stanley’s ventures into the interior. From 1913 to 1924 it was converted into a European Hospital and presently it houses the Registrar of Companies. There are plans to convert it into a Museum of Exploration.
On the headland, itself are two more fine houses one of which was built in 1918 to house the Eastern Telegraphic Company and is also known as the Chinese Doctor’s House. They have both been recently renovated and converted into the Zanzibar Serena Inn.
Continuing around the headland leads to what is left of the steps in front of the Africa House Hotel to re-join Shangani Street and end the walk.