ZANZIBAR – where Africa meets the Orient in an explosion of the senses. As the ferry approached Unguja, the archipelago’s main island, I found myself beaming just as brightly as the sun.
Aside from the safari circuit, nowhere in Tanzania sees more tourists. They come from all over the world to escape to the island’s powder-white sands and turquoise waters and dive the world famous coral reefs.

Nungwi Beach, Zanzibar

The island’s capital is Stone Town, a labyrinth of narrow, crooked streets and bustling bazaars. Packed with grand mansions and Arabic palaces, the town is the cultural and historical heart of Zanzibar. It once served as the most important commercial centre in the western Indian Ocean from where goods of all descriptions, including ivory and slaves, were transported through.

Stone Town, Zanzibar

Zanzibar, like mainland Tanzania, is a place of many contrasts – traditional wooden dhows share the harbour with modern yachts and ferries; women in black buibui veils chat on mobile phones with children in superhero t-shirts in tow and old mansions are transformed into luxury hotels.

Boys at play in Stone Town, Zanzibar

The entire island was without electricity when we arrived as a result of a technical fault on the submarine cable from the national grid in mainland Tanzania. Generators were being brought ashore daily for the island’s hotels and tiny stores that were plunged into darkness during the three-month cut.

Perfume shop in Stone Town, Zanzibar

The capital’s outdoor market, meanwhile, bustles throughout the day with locals doing their shopping and tourists buying souvenirs of Zanzibar spices and vanilla. The market is the most colourful I ever witnessed with literally hundreds of types of fruit and vegetables.

Meat is rarely eaten in Zanzibar, although there clearly is a market for it as I quickly discovered. Within an instant of walking through the market gates, the smell of blood in the air tells you both the meat and fish markets are close.

After wandering up a few steps into a stone building with high ceilings, I was swept away by the sights and sounds. To my right, fishermen were auctioning their catches and to my left, vendors were busy selling the fish.

Fish stand in Stone Town Market, Zanzibar

As we walk through floods of water and blood, we are confronted with enormous fish, many of which are unknown to Irish appetites. At the first stall we stumble across shark, squid, kingfish and tuna.

Through an archway is a somewhat smaller room where butchers were busy carving. Huge carcasses were hanging from the ceiling, a cow’s head lay strewn on a worktop and further on lay the remains of a huge bull’s skull. 

A butcher at work in Stonetwon Market, Zanzibar

Given the unusual glances we got, it’s unlikely the stop features on any guided tours of Stone Town.

Leaving the market and travelling through the winding alleyway, I passed children playing and old men sitting outside chatting. Suddenly confronted with an abundance of colour and sounds as I rounded a corner, I found myself in Stone Town harbour. With the smell of fish and salt water in the air, I hopped through murky water with stalls of wooden planks on either side with that day’s catch laid out. 

A Wednesday afternoon in Stone Town (Pic Helen Walsh)

Dozens of men and women in bright reds, yellows and blues storm the traditional fishing boats as they arrive into shore. Hundreds of varieties of fish are brought ashore here daily to serve the island’s hundreds of restaurants and hotels. Yellowfin Tuna, swordfish, kingfish and sardines glisten in the sunshine as fishmongers hand over their Tshillings and leave with their part of the catch.

Fishing boats in Stone Town Harbour, Zanzibar

Fishmonger with his purchase in Stone Town Harbour

From Stone Town and it is onto Nungwi on the very northern tip of Unguja to discover the impact, if any, tourism has had on a small fishing community.

The good road network leading from Stone Town to this tiny village dramatically stops as soon as you arrive in Nungwi. As the car dodges enormous potholes and winds past little huts and cottages, we find ourselves driving alongside an eight-foot wall, behind which lie some of the most luxurious resorts in Zanzibar.

Here, tourists and locals share the beautiful beaches – with Russians, Germans and Americans enjoying the stunning views and excellent scuba diving, while locals continue to fish in the way they have for generations.

Tourists sharing Nungwi Beach with local fishermen and fishmongers (Pic Helen Walsh)

Whereas sardines are the most affordable fish on mainland Tanzania, anchovies are the most popular and affordable fish for families in Zanzibar.

However, women living along the coastline also spend hours searching for seashells and octopus – cheap forms of protein for their families – and sell the anchovy catches to pay for other basic necessities.    

Women rush out to secure anchovies from a Nungwi fisherman

Women searching for seashells in Nungwi, Zanzibar

Nungwi women carrying anchovies (Pic Helen Walsh)

As well as being a tourist destination, Nungwi is also the centre of Zanzibar’s traditional dhow-building industry. On the northern end of the beach, generations of skilled craftsmen can be seen turning planks of wood into strong ocean-going vessels, using the simplest of tools.

A dhow-maker's tools (Pic Helen Walsh)

A dhow boat nearing completion (Pic Helen Walsh)

 *See Saturday, May 15th’s Evening Echo for a full report from Zanzibar.


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