Losing and Finding Myself in Zanzibar*

I set out on my first morning from my hotel in the middle of “Stone Town”, so named because most of the buildings in the town are made from coral stone, determined to remember my route of departure.   This was not as simple to achieve as one might think at first blush.

Geographically, Stone Town is located on the main island of the Zanzibar archipelago in the Indian ocean, about 30 miles away from the East African mainland.   Architecturally, Stone Town is a unique blend of Arab, Indian, Persian, Indo-European, and African traditions.   Like the Swahili people who live there,  the city was evolved over time through the interaction of different cultures involved in trade along the East African coast.   Unfortunately, not an inconsequential part of this “interaction” involved the slave trade.  Zanzibar was one of the largest slave ports in the Indian Ocean slave trade and has the dubious distinction of having had the last legally operating slave market in the world.

Stone Town was designed to keep things cool on the ground level:  buildings are tall as 5 or 6 stories , plastered with white to reflect the sun, and build as close together as possible, to form what appears to be a disorganized labryinth to the uninitiated.  However, once you have spent a little time losing and finding yourself, and with the help of a small map prepared by one of the more modern bazaars, the maze of narrow alleys lined with residences, shops, bazaars, mosques, and churches, all shaded from the harsh sun by the height of the surrounding buildings, becomes a familiar collection of intertwined neighborhoods.

The pink coral stone can be seen in walls where the plaster has fallen off; nearly 80 percent of the 1079 buildings in the town are deteriorating, due to the fact that coral stone is very friable and the buildings require frequent maintenance which many residents simply cannot afford.   UNESCO designated it as a World Heritage Site in 2000 in order to protect its heritage but the designation does not provide full protection.  Without major restoration efforts, some of the buildings will unfortunately, eventually, be lost.

Knowing the navigational puzzle that lay before me on my first morning, I had hoped to delay the inevitable for at least an hour or two by keeping careful track of my path from the hotel.  But my efforts were in vain.  Within minutes of happily stumbling across a shop I had read about where I might be able to replace the Zanzibar chest that had been a casualty of my divorce more than 30 years previously, I realized that I was already hopelessly lost.   This, of course, posed two problems.  First, the immediate concern of how to get back to my hotel.  Then the future concern about how to find the shop again (assuming I got back to my hotel) in case I decided I could afford to purchase and ship a chest.   The last time I had bought one, I had filled it with goodies for everyone back home and this was my plan again, if my financial circumstances were to permit it.

I scrutinized my situation:   There were several paths I could take and they all looked equally promising, or not, since the narrow alleys between the towering buildings looked more-or-less the same.    Of course, I was really not that worried.  It was early, and I had a bottle of water.  I also knew that the secret to being lost in Stone Town was simply to keep on walking, enjoying the sights as I went,  greeting people along the way, relaxing into the environment, secure in the knowledge that, eventually, I would find myself somewhere again, all the more richer for some trinket that I might have found in a shop that I would never have known existed had I not lost myself in its neighborhood.

I knew from previous experience in the Moroccan souk in Marrakesh, just as complex as Stone Town, and my favorite place in the world in which to lose myself,  that finding myself in an Arabic bazaar sometimes took awhile.  And although Stone Town was not a single bazaar, the network of small intersecting paths placed in a seemingly random arrangement, required the same skills to navigate as a large souk —  trust, curiosity, perseverance, a willingness to (literally) walk into the unknown, and a  very high tolerance for ambiguity.  As regards the longer term question of how to find the shop again, I knew I would be there for a week, with ample time to find the shop again.  Still, just for insurance, I was clutching a business card with the name of the shop and its address and phone number.  It was one of the few shops in Stone Town that actually had business cards.

I had set aside my first day  for reconnoitering; I was not planning to buy anything.  My purpose was to not only educate myself about my physical surroundings so I could go out and find my way home with some degree of consistency, but also to figure out  reasonable prices for  things so that I would know when to haggle, and for how much, when it came down to the business of actually buying something.    My “mission” was complicated by the fact that I had come during peak tourist season and prices would invariably be over-inflated for any unaware mzungu (white person).

Indeed, this time of year, the streets of Stone Town are littered with watalii (tourists).  They come in large groups, in families, and in pairs.   Only occasionally do I see one alone. They are everywhere, sunburnt and, more often than not, inappropriately dressed for a Muslim community.   But Zanzibaris, like all Swahilis along the East African coast, are known for both their friendliness and tolerance, both of which I attribute to their multi-ethnic history as well as their religion.   Unlike Christianity, Islam embraces more religious diversity than Christianity does, although they are perhaps not as generous in this regard as Buddhism.   I always remember HHDL (His Holiness the Dala Lama) explaining in one of his talks that  of course, the world needs different religions, how else would it accommodate the spiritual lives of so many different peoples?  

As I wandered in and of different streets and shops, I noticed that the Muslim men wearing kofia (prayer caps) and woman wearing their buibui  (a black hooded gown that covers them from head-to-foot except for their faces (in most cases),  did not seem to be paying any attention to the half-naked wazungu in their midst.  They did not stare at them, laugh at them, or eschew them.  They are simply included as part of the multicultural mix of people that characterizes the town, historically as well as in these times.     Of course, they were usually warmly welcomed in any shop and  treated courteously at all times although, from what I could overhear, the initial “asking” prices for items were consistently higher for them than they were for me.

I had hoped when I set out on my first foray into the mystery of Stone Town that the fact that I was wearing a long dress and shawl and speaking only Swahili  would  help me weed the wheat from the chaff when I came to finding shopkeepers would not try to charge me an exhorbitant price.   In many cases, they exclaimed when I spoke with them “Oh, you are a mswahili (a Swahili person), then I will offer you a Swahili price (instead of a tourist price).”  Of course, that did not mean that I would not have to barter; it simply meant that the initial inflation would be less than if I had been a mtalii (singular for tourist).  More often than not, watalii were expected to pay a price more than double of what a mswahili would pay.

It didn’t take me long to distinguish between shopkeepers who treated me like a mswahili and those who did not.  In general, the shopkeepers who decided I was a mswahili  far outnumbered those who only saw me as a mzungu and, as the day progressed, Kiswahili flowed from my midomo (lips) with the same ease that it had 40 years ago. It really helped to be listening to native Kiswahili speakers, and speakers of a dialect very similar to the one that I learned.  By the end of my first day, I no longer had any errant Kinyarwanda words making an appearance in my Kiswahili speech.  Forty years had simply fallen away.

A sense of personal relaxation  comes over me when I am somewhere where I can understand what is being said and can express myself as fully as I would like.  This is even more true when the dialect of the language I hear around me is the one that I know.   I realize as I settle into my mswahili self that I do not have this sense of personal relaxation in Rwanda, where I still do not understand Kinyarwanda and where the dialects of French, Swahili and English, are all very different from my own.   I also never experienced it in Japan where I remained illiterate, even after four years, and lived in a part of Japan that spoke a dialect of Japanese that was significantly different from the one that I had studied.

Although it may seem strange, I have found many similarities between my experience in Japan and my life in Rwanda, not to mention my life in Vermont.  In all three settings,  the native population is comparatively homogeneous and insular.     Although people didn’t point, shout, and/or stare at me in Japan, as they do in Rwanda, my separateness was always understood in the country that prohibited all foreign contact with outside countries from the world for more than 200 years.   In Vermont, well, I was, after all, a Californian!   Certainly, I was never a New Englander, even after 30 years of living there.  As peculiar as this may sound, even after forty years, the only Americans with whom I feel completely at ease are Californians.

The subtle awareness of what might be characterized as  “personal vigilance” does not happen to me in a coastal Swahili community.  It didn’t forty years ago and it doesn’t now.    I didn’t know until now whether the comfort I had felt previously felt in Mombasa was due to the nature of the Swahili culture as a whole, or to the fact that I belonged to an actual Swahili family.   Now I know that my experience was cultural rather than familial.   I find it remarkable.  It seemed that,  as soon as I opened my mouth, I was recognized to be a community member.  There was no further discussion about the subject,  certainly no sense of  separateness,  apart from the fact that I am a unique individual.   Most were bemused to hear that I had last visited the town forty years ago.    Upon hearing this would laugh and say “Ahh…I wasn’t even born yet then!”   Others, still half my age, would joke and say “Oh, then that is why I remember seeing you before!”   In my experience, personalized, fun-loving banter is common among members of  a Swahili family and their friends.   Each time someone engaged me in this way, it confirmed that I had, indeed, come home.

In a Swahili community, the fact that I am unmarried and without children is much more of a concern than the color of my skin or my nationality.   At my age, the lack of children is a matter that evokes a certain amount of disbelief and the lack of a husband, well,  this is something to be remedied as soon as possible.   In fact, the driver of the car that later took me, and my female Muslim tour guide, on a day trip informed me, upon hearing that I hadn’t slept well the night before that, if I had a baba  (father, but in this context meaning a “husband”), I would have no problem sleeping!    That is, if I got myself a husband and all my problems would be over.   He was entirely unmoved by my explanation that I liked being on my own, regardless of how well, or not, I slept.

In the Swahili coastal communities of East Africa, language appears to be the only “price” of admission.   True to their multi-cultural origins, you don’t have to have a particular set of facial features, a certain color of skin, or worship in the same way.  As long as you can hold a conversation and, especially, if you can engage in playful chatter, nothing else matters.    What I discovered on my first day in Stone Town was that, not only could I found my way back to my hotel, but that I had also found my way back to my mswahili self.   No longer lost in the wilds of Uzungu (strangeness and/or foreignness), I was back at home in Uswahili  (Swahili norms and/or eloquence).

*The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Rwandan government.

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