Saturday, August 17, 2013


"It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar." -Thoreau 

Maybe true, but if you're already here, I think that it would be an interesting enough task. There are thousands of cats in Zanzibar. The place is a cat paradise with people feeding them scraps all day and letting them lounge with their families in the park.  The trash cans are overflowing with delicious morsels to scrounge. There must not be a single mouse brave enough to live in Stone Town.

We got in Friday afternoon on a bumpy flight run with a little propeller plane that seated 10. It was thrilling if we're being kind, but maybe Erica and I are a bit high strung because I definitely saw 3 children under the age of nine who looked super comfortable and relaxed the whole way here. Real pros.

Upon arriving in Zanzibar, it's easy to see that this island was its own separate nation from Tanzania until fairly recently (I believe they joined forces in the 60s).  Although the people are just as friendly and welcoming as their counterparts on the mainland, their attire is very different. I'm not sure about the numbers, but judging from clothes alone it looks like well over 90 or even 95% of the population is Muslim. The women seem to be on either extreme of super bright and patterned clothes to all black (with a large majority choosing exciting colors) and wear their hijab in a huge variety of ways, ranging from more loose to very tight and conservative. In an interesting note. We see fewer women in full burqa than we did on the mainland where the Muslim population is significantly lower (like in the 20% range).  A lot of the men wear white kanzu (floor-length robes), and even more were a kufi, a traditional flat-topped cap. In general, its recommended that Western visitors dress on the more conservative side, so Erica and I have been wearing long sleeves and our grimy jeans despite the heat. These are the same clothes we wore day in and day out in the bomas, which means that we're constantly the source of exciting new smells!

Some Zanzibar moments:

Walking from our beautiful hotel in Stone Town one evening, we wandered into the nearby Forodhani Gardens. At first we were lured in by the soft lights and the crowds of Zanzibaris walking sitting in small groups all along the paths. Then our eye was caught by a small crew of young men, breakdancing in a pagoda with a ring of enthusiastic children and adults cheering them on. No music, just a lot of attitude in the back and forth of moves that were ever-increasing in difficulty. When we wandered back later, the group was gone, but little boys had taken their place, eagerly trying to imitate the older guys while younger girls and boys ran around wildly playing tag.

In the gardens, it doesn't take long to notice the food stalls (or the cats who benefit from the scraps tossed by the many humans who eat here). There are maybe 100 stalls packed into a maize-like square displaying all kind of aromatic tidbits to eat. The cooks all make an effort to tempt every passerby to at least stop an admire the food: grilled fish and meat kabobs, samosas, root vegetables, fruit, pressed cane juice, and an interesting eggy crepe-like contraption that they call a Zanzibari pizza.  The vegetable samosas were my clear favorite, although I'm looking forward to sampling their version of naan tonight and have high hopes for it.

The whole garden is on the water's edge, and it's nice to sit with your food and just watch the boats and the night fishermen while listening to the ebb and flow of the Swahili spoken all around.


Yesterday we were swept out of our hotel by Mohammed, one of Bob's contacts who we're meeting with to check out his animal preserve, ZALA, and the primary school he runs next to it.

We had to trot to keep up with his fast, no-nonsense pace, punctuated only by short "Salam walekum"s to people we passed. In no time we were the only wazungu we saw, having clearly left the touristy side of Stone Town and entered something a bit more raw and authentic. Mohammed wound us through twisting alleys without a moment's hesitation about our destination. I was hopelessly lost within 30 seconds, but was thoroughly enjoying the beautiful hybrid architecture of the old city. It felt like we had left our century completely.

Soon we broke into the market, where we took a fast-paced tour in and out of the stalls. You can find everything here, fruit, vegetables, grains, all types of proteins, clothes and of course, spices. Pungent and sweet spices dominate the smells as you walk along until you reach the fish stalls.  Burlap sacs bulge with tiny dry fish, brightly-colored pastas, rice, and dozens of grains and legumes. Heads of garlic are stacked high next to spicy peppers and mountains of bright red, hairy lychees, still on the branch.

After an intense negotiation over the price of some fruit, Mohammed plunged us into the traffic to cross over to the bus station. With each busy road that we crossed, it was clear that the best strategy for survival would be to stay as close as possible to this old man who fearlessly glared down buses and cars that got too close.

It was then that we were introduced to the Dala Dala. A covered truck bed that serves as a bus, at first this seemed like a pleasant mode of transportation. That's because we were some of the first people on this thing. As more and more men, women, and children crowded on, I felt myself moving from casual interest at how many would fit, to a sense of admiration at the ambition of the Dala Dala drivers, to finally an uncertain panic that this was too much! With an overweight woman half sitting on my lap and a pleasant but unbudging man crushing me from the other side and nowhere to put my hands and then another woman sitting on my unprotected, flip-flopped foot, I hoped that it would be a short ride at least. Couldn't be more wrong. And once we started out, I also had the added interest of hearing the rickety creaking of the whole structure. Fascinating.

As we drove around, people chatted easily. The woman on my lap sometimes turned my way and said things, although I have no idea what she wanted to tell me. I imagined all kinds of things that she might be trying to communicate, like "You unwashed muzungu, do you know that you reek of goat pee and smoke?" (true) or "If the roof of this bad boy falls in on us, I'll do my best to throw myself on top of you and shield you from the worst of it as thanks for the ride on your comfortable lap." (probably less true) or "I totally saw you crack your head on the roof as you were crawling in here and it was definitely funny." (sadly true - everyone laughed).

It was a relief to climb out when we got to ZALA.


The school is a short walk from ZALA. It's a pre-school and the lower grades of primary school with about 180 students in total. The students wear color-coded hijab or shirts depending on gender to differentiate between each grade. The children were ridiculously cute and we were continuously bombarded with 'Jamboooo' in high-pitched little kid voices. Lots of giggling followed.

We met the various leaders of the school and went through the long list of things they need and want to improve the school. This ranged from computers to create a computer lab for the kids, to supplies like pencils, paper, crayons, and textbooks. Students study math, environmental science, English, Arabic, and gym (theory of sports only though due to lack of equipment), so there's lots of subject areas where books would come in handy. A pump for the well which runs dry in the summer was mentioned, as were supplies to build a playground for the kids. The needs are great, but the growth of the school from a one-room class of 20 kids to this sprawling, mid-construction school over the last 14 years is impressive.

The view from the top of our hotel

Food stall in the gardens 

A good place to stop and eat some food while people watching 

Mohammed, haggling fruit prices

Lychees at the market

Students at the school!


  1. Thanks for the up date. We really look forward to hearing from you guys.

  2. A most fascinating account, thank you!:)