Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Recollections of Zanzibar in the 1950s and early 1960s

by Abdulrazak Sheriff Fazal.
read the full account at: http://www.dewani.ca/af/

“Zanzibar was just out of this world. It was a godsend gift. Those who had experienced its superabundance and easy life shall vouch for it. The locals or indigenous Zanzibaris were God fearing and honest people. The rapport between members of various communities and the brotherliness that prevailed was distinctly exceptional.”….

I was born on the 18th of February, 1948 into a highly religious and orthodox family of Indian ancestry in that tiny island of Zanzibar off the eastern coast of Africa. My father was also born in Zanzibar in 1898 and so was my mother, in 1911. I therefore consider myself a pukka Jangbario (Zanzibari) though my command of the language Kiswahili is substandard unlike the other Khoja Ithnashris who had inhabited the island.

Zanzibar with its insular position was a prosperous place where the Omani settlers had imposed their Sultanate but owed allegiance to the British Colonial Government. The one sad aspect of Zanzibar had been its cruel slave trade that scarred an otherwise remarkable history. The once 'slave trade market' by the side of the Protestant church at Mkunazini and those isolated, scattered and ruined graves(makaburini) at several spots in the stone town bore testimony to the tragic past. Perhaps the Zanzibaris' notoriety for their fixation with mashetani (ghosts) could be ascribed to such spirits haunting around there.

The Portuguese had also earlier ruled the island as evidenced by their old fort. Zanzibar fascinated the Indians from Kutch and Kathiawad, and in particular the Khojas who emigrated in hundreds by dhows in the nineteenth century. At a later stage even the Aga Khan, H.H.Sultan Mohamed Shah, patronized the island and made it his headquarter for a brief period of time in the 1940s. My ancestors being Khojas had landed in Zanzibar from Jamnagar as Ismailis as far back as 1850s. Other initial settlers were the Hindu Bhatias who provided merchandise and financial acumen. …..

Zanzibar was extraordinarily different. Its narrow streets laid with stone houses adjacent to each other and almost clinging to the opposite ones, formed an unusual sight. The hustle and bustle in its streets and bazaars created buzz and livened the atmosphere. The tinkling bicycle bells sent aside passersby as cyclists made their way through those narrow lanes. The milkmen knocked the doors of the residents and delivered milk that had to be filled through a tap from the bulky churn placed on the back of their bicycles.

On the way people would be seen drinking kahawa (black coffee) which was habitual of the Zanzibaris. The Washihiri (Yemeni) kahawa sellers with their brass dele (cone shaped containers) went around juggling and rattling their small cups. They had peculiar and methodical way of pouring coffee into those cups. The Zanzibaris were pious and highly affectionate people, and their impeccable life style was an exemplar to the rest of the world.

There were several Asian communities in Zanzibar and they had their own places of worship. What was striking was the spectacle of their processions such as Ithnashris' julus, Ismailis' dhan dhan, Hindus' marriage or Goans' funeral procession. Also striking were Zanzibar's eateries and some of them still form part of my consistent reminiscence. Those masis' bajia, Abedi's mix, Adnan's mbatata (potato) and Maruki's halua (sweetmeat) tasted exceptionally good. Zanzibar was just one of its own, its vendors like Ali hawking "Adanda" to sell off his bajia, the Asian gubiti (candy) seller or Mamdu Bi(Mohamedhusain Virjee) selling malai(barafu or ice lolly) were special in their own way.

Zanzibar's fruits like doriani, shokishoki and matufa were unique and besides Zanzibar can be found in certain parts of South East Asia only. The crowded market at Darajani was the source of Zanzibar's abundant supply of fresh meat, vegetables and fruits including the exceptional mangoes, shomari and muyuni. The Suri(Yemenis) and Somali formed Zanzibar's seasonal traders and among the many items that they brought were the popular ubani maka(chewing gum), ghonda(dried fish) and kismayu ghee. The little Zanzibar was also famous for its cloves, copra, carved wooden doors embossed with metals, man drawn rickshaws and the popular picnic resorts of Chwaka, Oroa, Fumba, Jambiani, Beju, Paje, Mkokotoni and Mangapwani beaches.

In the evening people gathered at Forodhani or Jubilee garden by the sea side sitting here and there on the ground, benches or at its fountain which was in the middle. Many formed small circles and chatted or played cards. The group of boys and girls strolled along there and even glanced admiringly at each other. In one corner stood Habib Pira's 'fruit & ice cream' stall while in the centre vendors stretched themselves in a raw selling mohogo(cassava), mishikaki (roasted meat), mango chips(keri), nuts(jugu, jugu mave, daria, bisi) in paper cone, cut sugar cane(miwa or ganderi), chana bateta, different kinds of juice(machungua, mabungo, ukwaju, ndimu, anenasi, miwa), various coconut and tropical fruits(joya, kichwa nazi, mapera, kungu, kunazi, mbuyu, zambrao, fu, chavia, embe kizungu) and all sorts of eatables.

Children played ashore with sand at Forodhani Mchanga adjacent to the garden.
On Tuesday evenings the Police Band played its orchestral music at the Jubilee memorial and entertained the public. Forodhani commanded spectacular view of the monumental Beit al-Ajaib (House of Wonders), Sultan's Palace and Portuguese Fort.

At the other end of stone town was the spacious Mnazi Moja ground where Zanzibar's sports loving public participated in various outdoor games. Mnazi Moja had three cricket pitches with a patchy pavilion, a couple of volleyball courts and a vast football field. A little further on the right of Mnazi Moja stretched the Coopers ground where the English had their club. They played golf, tennis and cricket. In its centre was the structure of its circular shaped pub where the colonialists relaxed and entertained themselves with alcoholic drinks.

The Sultan in his traditional joho(aba or robe) and kilemba (turban) went around in his vermilion coloured Austin Princess driven by chauffeur in red kizibao(short overcoat) and waved at passersby and acknowledged their salaam(salutation). At times even from his palace balcony he waved at the onlookers. The British Resident rode in his black limousine. The askari(police) in khaki coat, pair of half trousers and red tarboosh cap patrolled and kept guard over the island.

There was absolute harmony and peace. Even petty theft was a rare occurrence while the terminology 'corruption' was unheard of and did not figure at all.

At dusk the loud siren (hon) would traditionally go off and the fluttering red flag in the backyard of the Sultan's palace descended from its mast. The azan (call for prayers) from the mosques and the church and temple bells sounded from each and every corner. The public servant with his long wooden rod went from one street to another lighting street lamps.

Zanzibar by night though dim was inviolable and had its serenity, sanctity and also liveliness.


  1. Your description almost emanates the smells and fragrances of Zanzibar. I happened to visit it in July this year, retracing my late mothers life in Zanzibar. Well done!

  2. I was a child around the 60s when my father was posted there as a teacher. Zanzibar's beaches were pristine with the white sand and gently swaying palm trees. I often used to go on morning walks with my father. A hard working and ambitious young man at the time, he had fallen in love with my mother in Lahore before he married her and brought me and my young brother to this paradise on earth. The smell of freshly baked bread, the aroma of the chips from the newly built factory near the beach and the fragrance of bhujiya (a savoury lentil fried delicacy) from the numerous homes of the Memons and Khatris live on in my mind to this day. I was too young to understand the political tumult of the day or why we saw daily processions from the window of my mum's kitchen in that smart flat which was our home for four years. When the coup came, my father began looking for other pastures and we ended up in Zambia in 1970 where I was exposed to English and where my rudimentary Swalihi was gently eroded away to live in the recesses of a time long past. With the years and passage of time, my strongest memories are of the clear skies, the smell of the salt wafting from the ocean and my father's proud gaze as he looked down at me and away at the horizon, probably hoping for a better future than he had lived.