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Zanzibar Gospel Singer



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The roads here in Dar-es-Salaam, better known as simply Dar, don’t seem to be that much better than Kampala where I have just come from, the latter seemingly get worse every time I visit. At least here one does not have the little chap by the side of the road ready to fill the pothole to ease your passage and seek a small stipend for his trouble as they do in Kenya and Uganda.

Here in Tanzania, there does at least seem to be far more of a serious work ethic and not the tendency to try and “get something for nothing” type mentality of their brethren elsewhere in Africa.

Having not been to Dar for several years now, although there is some evidence of new commercial building happening in the city centre, little else seems to have changed. In this country one always gets the impression that one has wandered into a time warp of some 30 odd years ago, even though you never noticed the entrance portal.

I first came here in 1996, for a two week work assignment and ended up staying nearly a year, having my very own Boys Own Safari adventure travelling the whole country. That was just after the socialist government had finally decided to throw in the towel and try this strange new thing called capitalism … and amazingly it worked! Tanzania today, although still mired in the past in many ways, sort of works in an African way, even if some of the buildings do remind one of its socialistic and communistic history. The horrific edifice that is Dar railway station being a prime example of a monument to the shear ugliness of communist buildings. But all in all, I bizarrely do rather enjoy and prefer it of all three of the East African confederation countries.

This part of the East African coast still retains much Arab influence, it will be recalled that Zanzibar, now part of Tanzania, was at one time, The Sultanate of Oman & Zanzibar, only obtaining its ‘independence’ in 1973, when it voted to join the Federation of Tanganyika and Zanzibar under a socialist regime, immediately falling into social and economic collapse, along with the mainland.

Zanzibar, a mere 20 minute flight, or 1½ hrs by Chinese Hydrofoil (when it works, which is rarely) from the commercialism of Dar. The island is truly stepping back even further into another time and place in history.

I had for some reason long held the desire to visit Zanzibar, as for me the very name was the epitome of exoticness and far-away fairy tale places. Perhaps this came from childhood memories of watching re-runs of the black and white 1940's movies that my Dad would bring home and set up a projector in our garden out in the heat of the Middle East desert nights. 'Road to Zanzibar' with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby has for some bizarre reason always stuck in my mind – not for its cinematic excellence, but just the title, Road to Zanzibar conjured up images of exploration and excitement. Even as a young boy, I already had the wanderlust spirit.

My first trip to the island was back in the mid 90’s when I had a long weekend off from working in Dar. It was when I spent a fascinating long weekend of exploration and discovery with a beautiful blonde Norwegian music Professor on a year’s sabbatical as my companion.

Back then, arriving by ferry, my first view was of the port and sea front. Along this variegated skyline were paraded some of the most impressive buildings to be found on the islands, all overlooked by the Clock Tower atop the House of Wonders.

“Jambo – Habari?”, (Swahili for "hello, how are you") from the customs official, my passport stamped with a Zanzibar stamp and an accompanying "Karibu" (welcome), “Asante sana” (thank you) I replied and then I was through the so-called immigration process, such as it was. I had been told that I should turn right out of the customs shed and walk down Mizingani Road, which passed the many amazing and as they were in the 1990's, dilapidated and deserted buildings; the first of which was the Dispensary with its particularly decorative balconies, since converted to a luxury hotel. This was followed by the Palace Museum, originally built as the official residence of the Sultan of Zanzibar until 1964, when the dynasty was overthrown in the people’s Zanzibar Revolution. Outside the museum was a small graveyard where some of the Sultans were buried.

The next building was and still is the most prominent. The huge and impressive House of Wonders, taking its name from the fact that it was the first building in Zanzibar to have electricity. The hundreds of light bulbs glowing at night must indeed have made it a truly wondrous sight. This four-storey building, surrounded by wide verandas and topped by a highly visible clock tower, was built in 1883 and is one of the largest structures in Zanzibar. Next to this is the old Fort, built by the Omani Sultans’s who used it as a fort, (for which the Omani's are famous) to defend themselves against the Portuguese and rival Omani groups.

All of these buildings were boarded up and dilapidated, black with mildew brought on by the intense tropical humidity – displaying a sense of a sad and forlorn past, long forgotten and little cared for.

This then was my first introduction to Zanzibar. There were however to be many highlights of that long weekend. Walking past David Livingstone's old house, tucked away inconspicuously down a small side street I eventually came upon my hotel. Checking in, I discovered that it was a locally owned Muslim hotel, right on the sea front overlooking Stone Town harbour and at the very edge of the labyrinth of alleys that form 'Old' Stone Town. Having worked up a serious thirst on the walk up from the harbour and in desperate need of a bitterly cold beer, I stupidly asked, "where's the bar". Without batting an eyelid, the receptionist informed me that being a Muslim hotel the premises were 'dry'. However should I so desire, I could avail myself of the demon alcohol at Harry's Bar opposite.

At that time, I was under the impression that there were in fact only two Harry's Bars in the world, in Havana and Venice, both of which I would subsequently visit. A few years later, I also discovered another on Clarke Quay in Singapore. Even though I suspect that this Harry's Bar had absolutely nothing to do with its more famous brothers elsewhere in the world … I was however more than happy for its existence. The discovery of yet another namesake proves the old adage, that travel does indeed broaden the mind and education! It didn't take me long to unpack, have a quick shower and walk the few steps across to the cold Heineken that was hopefully awaiting me.

Like most guys, whenever I enter a bar that I don't know, I always look around to see if there are any interesting faces already present, with whom I might while away a few hours talking shit, whilst supping a few cold ones. In Harry's bar that afternoon there were very few patrons, most of them Africans, busy chatting away in Swahili. However there was one who immediately took my eye, sitting on her own at a corner table, trying very hard to look inconspicuous. She had that unique Scandinavian look, long blonde hair, blue eyes, alabaster skin and from what I could discern at first glance, a gorgeously trim body.

I secured myself a very cold Heineken, "Baridi sana, asante" (very cold please) East Africa is one of the few places that I've travelled to in the world, where obtaining a bitterly cold beer slightly colder than a whores heart is nigh on impossible. When it comes to beer in this part of the world, 'Cold' is a very relative term, with the locals believing that properly cold beer will actually endanger your health. But this far flung outpost of Harry's Bar knew their clientele, so had plenty of properly cold beer on tap.

Being the only two Europeans in the bar it was natural for me to ask if I could join this blonde bombshell, to which she readily and enthusiastically agreed. I suspect that in reality she was just glad to have another European around, rather than be left as an anomaly and single woman in a bar – a rare sight in East Africa. Normally if a woman is on her own in a bar, it typically means one thing only … and it is indeed very rare to see a European woman on her own.

So we get to chatting, seems her name is Kristina, with a 'K' and she is a music Professor from Oslo University, but has taken a year's sabbatical to study the roots of Gospel Music. She had been staying with friends at the Norwegian Embassy in Dar-es-Salaam, but her research into Gospel music had led her to explore the Spice Islands of the Zanzibar archipelago where many slaves had been transported from. Seems that although Gospel music had been around for a long time, it really came to prominence during the slaving era. It was evidently developed and expanded by the slaves working on the plantations of America as a means of communication between themselves. Whilst the overseer's prohibited talking amongst the slaves, they did allow singing, as the workers seemed happier and more productive when they were singing.

Kristina is a probably only 5 or 6 years younger than me, speaks excellent English and we chat for a while, exploring one another's backgrounds over a couple of drinks. We seem to have a fair amount in common with the conversation being easy and relaxed. Being two single Europeans on their own in this strange and isolated outpost, it was natural that we should decide to have dinner together that evening.

We discovered that we were both staying at the same Muslim-owned Swahili hotel opposite. Although it did have the benefit of a great view overlooking Stone Town harbour and an excellent pool, its dining experiences left a lot to be desired … strangely it only offered breakfast, but no lunch or dinner. That night we wandered through the dimly lit alleyways of Old Stone Town, barely wide enough for pedestrians and mopeds in search of a suitable restaurant. Tourism had yet to take off in this far flung, isolated and forgotten place, therefore there were very few hotels on Zanzibar and decidedly few decent ones in Stone Town itself, most of them catering primarily to backpackers on a budget. We however were in search of what in those days was a well known upmarket guest house – Emerson & Green. It was owned and run by two aging American Hippies, who had bought one of the old Arab Sultans houses and were slowly restoring it to its former glory, recreating as they went, an atmosphere of Arabian Nights.

That night we sat on Emerson's rooftop restaurant, high among the minarets, and tall crumbling palaces of sultans long dead and forgotten, with a candle guttering on the table between us. This extraordinary location alone made us feel isolated and on top of the world.

We dined on freshly caught Kingfish and crab, cooked in the traditional Swahili way, whilst we took in the scene around us – the rusting rooftops of the coral rag built houses and alley ways of a weather-beaten and decaying Stone Town below. Listening to the Adhan calling the faithful to Isha, the last prayer of the, day from the surrounding minarets. This rhythmic and lilting call accenting the exotic setting of Arab style pillows and small tables. It was indeed a true step back in time, to when life was less complicated and simpler … remember this was a time before mobile phones, Wi-Fi and the clamour of constant connectivity.

I don't remember what we spoke about that evening, but I do recall that there were no embarrassing silences or lapses in our conversation. Strangely for two people that had only met a few hours previously, any silences between us were comfortable and intimate. Being the last two diners, we finally left the restaurant late to return to our waterfront hotel.

During the course of the evening Kristina had told me that her room had a traditional and high Zanzibari bed whilst the one in my room was of the standard European style. On our return to the hotel, she invited me to come and see her unique bed. It was here in this huge and original four poster Zanzibari bed, at least a metre off the floor that we awoke the following morning.

We were swathed in a white cloud of mosquito nets, gently waving in the ocean-scented breeze from the open window as the sun rose over the harbour. After a morning swim in the hotel pool, which we had to ourselves at that early hour, we breakfasted on fresh papaya and freshly squeezed lime, Arab flatbread, olives, cheese and other salad stuff accompaniments, all washed down with mint tea – a typical Arabic breakfast.
During the day we explored the historic and architecturally fascinating Stone Town capital of Zanzibar Island – a World Heritage Site. We spent hours becoming lost in the narrow labyrinth of lanes and alleyways, where mosses and lichens clung to damp, crumbling and mildew blackened coral-rag walls; the houses interiors hidden behind blank outer walls with their doorways fortressing the unwanted out with their thick wooden doors, carved and studded in the Arab style. Every turning gave way to a new vista, be it a quiet courtyard scene of old men chatting under shade trees, or a busy corner with a crowd of people watching international football on a small black & white TV set, balanced precariously on a stack of Coke crates. The Adhan, called from the many minarets – which for me is the seminal sound of the Muslim world. This calling of The Faithful to prayer drew our attention to the many small mosques tucked away in sleepy corners, with the men performing their holy ablutions outside in the water troughs prior to prayer. The very foreignness of the sound mingling with girlish laughter from a latticed balcony high above, where dark eyes flashed from the velvet shadows, whilst pools of sunlight washed the small squares and street-front cafes in a warm glow.
We were keen to visit The House of Wonders, but were disappointed to find it boarded up, deserted and clearly not open to the public. However walking around the outside, we were approached by a young boy, who asked if we wanted to go inside. For a small sum, he directed us to a rickety ladder propped up against the side of the building leading to the 2nd floor balcony. It was here that we managed to gain access to a piece of history that had literally stood still and remarkably untouched since 1973. Wandering through the many rooms of what was once very obviously a grand palace, we were transported back to the time of the Sultans. Many of the rooms were still littered with the personal effects of the family who had last lived there. I am always puzzled as to how such personal effects lay unclaimed and abandoned in such places, but perhaps more amazingly, untouched. Descending the grand staircases to the internal ground floor courtyard, we found stacked in boxes, the voting papers from the original voting of the 1973 referendum. This was to decide whether or not to stay independent or join the socialist Federation of Tanganyika and Zanzibar … the latter movement eventually winning and casting the island even further and deeper into an economic backwater. Next to these boxes there were several 1950/60's cars, including the original Governors’ car – a Ford Zephyr, with the number plate Z1 and a mere 300 miles on the clock.

In the centre of Stone Town stands The Christ Church Cathedral, built on the site of the original slave market, where slaves were auctioned. The altar in the church is incongruously, but perhaps fittingly, located on the very spot of the original whipping block. Like many other historical coral-stone buildings in Stone Town, the Cathedral was in a sad state of decay and in desperate need of restoration. In the square outside there is a monument to the slaves, depicting a few human figures in chains emerging from a pit.
But it is inside the Cathedral that my memory still lingers. The cross adorning the wall behind the altar was made from the wood of the tree that grows on the place where David Livingstone's heart was buried in Chitambo – Zambia. It was here, whilst sitting alone in one of the pews, that I listened to Kristina sing a gospel song solo from the balcony. The natural acoustics of a church have a unique quality and her angel like strains resonated strongly throughout the eerie stillness and emptiness of the building. The late afternoon sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows merely adding to the ambience and atmosphere of the moment. The beauty of it all did I have to admit, bring a tear to my eye.
We all have many memories that we gather as we go through life, but there are few which burn their way into our consciousness and remain as fresh as the day that they were formed. That afternoon listening to the beautiful and haunting voice of a woman who I will never see again has stayed with me ever since.
At some stage during the weekend, we ended up as guests of honour at a local traditional evening Muslim wedding, sitting at the head table eating Arab sweetmeats, sipping warm orange Fanta cool drinks. Although I was familiar with Arabic music, the thumping rhythm of African base drums, intermixed with the melodic treble strings and flutes of Arabia made for unique background sounds. The women dressed in their traditional and brightly coloured robes, with their heads covered, adding to the whole ensemble with their ululation, the long, wavering, high pitched vocal sound, almost resembling a howl, but with a trilling quality, peculiar to Arabia. There was much dancing with accompanying finger-clicking and spirited shouts of joy filling the air. Nearly all of Zanzibar and much of Tanzania’s coastal inhabitants adhere to Islam, whilst the inland populations follow Christianity, Hinduism, and indigenous faiths.

One evening we relaxed on cushions whilst sipping ice cold fruit cocktails on the deck of a traditional wooden sailing dhow with its lantin sail catching the evening breeze, watching the sun set over The Indian Ocean as we sailed past Prison Island. The island is no longer home to prison inmates but only to giant 99 year old giant tortoises, originally imported from the Seychelles.

It was obligatory to visit the birthplace of Freddie Mercury of Queen fame, or as he was known locally Farrokh Bulsara, although sadly his home is now a less than romantic Pharmacy. It is however, always thronged by dozens of tourists all hoping to see where the music legend was born – I suspect that most leave disappointed, or at least disillusioned.
The one day we hired a car and driver, with instructions to take us around the island to visit the sights outside of Stone Town. We did the usual tourist circuit, stopping off at a spice farm, where I was fascinated to see exotic cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon and nutmeg growing. Slightly off the tourist trail, we explored several of the many ruined sultans palaces, and traders mansions that dot the main island, which was in itself, like a voyage back through time. One could almost hear the voices of the concubines echoing within the hollow chambers of the Persian baths. The wails of despair from the slaves, chained in their chambered pits as they waited to be loaded aboard the ships that would take them to the other side of the world. To descend the steep and moss-covered steps leading down into this “bottomless pit”, was even in this 20th century like entering the gateway to hell, evoking in us all sorts of emotions that was the inhumanity of slavery. We could almost feel the scorching heat of the djinn's – supernatural creatures (genies in English) of Arabian myth arising from the depths to recount tales of horror from the past.
As I said this part of the East African coast still has a strong Arab influence, up as far as Lamu in Kenya – a small island just south of the Somali border, the last remaining truly Islamic town on the coast. Some years later I would spend another wonderful long weekend on that romantic isle – but that's another story for another day.

Although I am not overly fond of East Arica; at the coast, the heat, the humidity, the tropics, the warm breeze off the sea, the spice of the Swahili food and the unique history … we can fall in love all over again, exploring times and emotions long forgotten. Writing our own role into the cast from the tales of 'A Thousand and One Nights', all go to make for an exotic and almost visceral experience, one never to be forgotten.

The weekend was indeed like a tale from the fabled Arabian story book, 'A Thousand and One Nights' and like many of the tales in the book, mythical and not-quite real. These then were my first and lasting impressions of Zanzibar, but have remained vivid in my memory, these many years later. A land so very foreign to that I had been exposed to, a land forgotten by time and politics, untouched at that time by tourism. Yet offering a living history of past African and Arabian stories … yet still full of surprises today!

Although my stay in Zanzibar was short, taking place over a long weekend of some 4 days. The impact on the senses of the many sights and experiences made it seem much longer. Like ships that pass in the night, I never saw Kristina again … but it was truly a magical and ethereal weekend that will stay with me forever.