ZANZIBAR: A SPELL IN STONE TOWN

INTELLIGENT TRAVELLER I was dropped off on Kenyatta Road just as a call to prayer wheeled out from a nearby minaret and spiralled into the sky. I stood besides the car half listening, half hunting for change when an old friend greeted me.

“Welcome home bwana, safari nzuri?”

Yes, my journey was good – and I was delighted to be back.

Few places have a name as piquant or as foolishly romantic as Zanzibar. It should be onomatopoeic. If the crumbling walls of its capital, Stone Town, could whisper then the word Zan-zi-bar might make perfect sense, as it somehow sounds as exotic as it actually is.

I’m not so much in love with Unguja – the largest of several islands in the Zanzibar archipelago – as infected by it (Stone Town’s equatorial spell snagged me years ago). I used to live here in an apartment crowned with a tearoom overlooking rusty corrugated iron rooftops towards the preposterously blue sea and the fishing dhows in the distance.

The labyrinthine sprawl of the narrow streets is a feat of 18th-century Arab engineering. Tall houses – stained grey after decades of neglect – loom high, funnelling the smallest breeze and casting welcome, deep shadows onto the pavements below. The flaking plaster on impressive facades imparts a sense of decadence and living archaeology. It is ridiculously photogenic.

But even though mass tourism has started to gorge on its fragile charm, Stone Town is still enchanting. A mass of stalls flogging colourful tat has proliferated behind the old fort, around the House of Wonder and through some of its tangled lanes. The sale of tacky paintings, carved masks and ubiquitous African drums (latter-day Spanish donkeys) provide much needed work for a population increasingly reliant on tourist dollars.

Gizenga Street pretty much dissects Stone Town; stretching from my old flat in Shangani at one end towards the dala dala (bus) stands at the other. Torpor and tropical ennui slows life down to a trickle – nothing here is rushed and my trip to the market becomes tardy. I lazily avoid oncoming bicycles and scooters, bump into more friends and catch up on rumour and hearsay. A man called Rabbit sells second-hand books from a stall near the mosque; he wants to hear my news too. Stories are a way of life in these parts.

The markets are wonderful. A small building houses a shambles preparing meat for the butcher’s stand. The yells of slaughtermen and the sound of meat cleavers crunching bones precede a sweet stench like rotting strawberries. Twirls of curly goat guts drape over concrete altars and greasy trails of blood splash down gutters.

Next door is the fish market. A monger remembers me from before and tries to sell me a whole tuna for about five pounds – I have to resist the bargain. The fish is only hours out of the sea, clear eyed and perfect. Elsewhere mounds of green banana, papaya, sweet potato and pineapple tumble from huge baskets; miniature tomato pyramids, bunches of mint, red chillies and the island’s famous spices are sold for pennies. The air here is partially scented with cloves.

The magic of the place is not idle romanticism; Zanzibar – like most of East Africa – is deeply superstitious. A potent combination of Islam and the supernatural quietly informs everyday life. Djinn (the local spirits) are believed to reside all over the islands, and especially so on Unguja’s sister, Pemba. One of its more infamous and feared residents is Popo Bawa, a creature that is part man and part bat who terrorises the neighbourhood when he flies out at night.

The famous doors of Stone Town take on another quality when set against this mystical background. It’s as if every closed door masks a secret. Small courtyards can be glimpsed within – children play with toys improvised from jerry cans, women wearing kangas (colourful sarong-like strips) sweep away the red dust and aged escaris (watchmen) doze in the shade.

As the sun disappears a different rhythm charges the city, and even though the atmosphere is still syrupy, it’s underscored by friction. There are few street lamps in Stone Town and without light it is marvellously sinister. Night time brings the disembodied voices from countless radios to the street and a startling variety of insect noise. Cats – invisible by day – silently repopulate the town and hunt for rats. Children play late into the evening as others glide into the darkness. On some corners those with entrepreneurial flair might set up a TV to watch the Manchester United or Chelsea game.

I head over to the New Happy, a small bar beside Tippu Tip’s dilapidated mansion. This place is a dive, full of working girls and bad boys – I love it. Cheap beer and Konyagi (a local gin) are dispensed along with individual cigarettes and knowing smiles. A cripple jerks his way over to me like a clockwork toy for a few shillings. He says he’s off to Forodhani Gardens to buy fried chicken, but doesn’t leave the bar.

I’m hungry though and visit Green Garden, a simple restaurant hemmed in by a wicket fence and plenty of greenery. Like many places, it doesn’t have a liquor license, but I’ve come prepared with my own bottle of wine and sit down to a plate of barracuda. It’s the end of the day, the final call to prayer loops above me and I stumble back through the dark to my hotel.

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