Zanzibar is a tropical island just 50 miles from the coast of Tanzania in East Africa. It is best considered as an international melting pot—having over the past two thousand years drawn people from the Middle East, India, and mainland Africa in addition to having extensive contact with China, Europe and the United States. The monsoon winds have long linked this small island to the rest of the Indian Ocean world helping to carry new people, religions, ideas, and leading to an international vibrancy. Being part of such a vast geography of networks meant that Zanzibar has long been a place of cultural diffusion and mixing. It continues to be a place where new ideas and practices are introduced, adopted, and adapted.Stone Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, full of narrow alleys and labyrinth pathways to explore and get lost in. Walking the streets of historic Stone Town today, it’s not unusual to find a woman covered from head to toe in black garment called a buibui, an Indian woman dressed in a sari, and a European tourist walking down the same narrow street. It’s this diversity that gives Zanzibar such energy, and provides students such a rich culture to come to know.

Zanzibar has a population of roughly 600,000 people, of which 30% live in the capital city of Zanzibar town. Outside of Zanzibar Town, the island is largely rural and involved in the cultivation of food and spices such as cloves, cardamom, vanilla and pepper. The island is about 50 miles wide and 25 miles long, and a majority of residents are Sunni Muslims. During the months of July and August, Zanzibar’s temperatures are mild and typically range from 70-85 degrees and consist of sunny days with clear blue skies.

Although Zanzibar is an international travel destination, it remains an ideal location to study Swahili and learn about Swahili Coast history and culture. A large majority of residents continue to speak Swahili as their primary language (despite often knowing English, Arabic, and other languages) and Zanzibar is continued to be one of the birthplaces of Swahili. In East Africa, it’s often said the island is the best place to learn “proper” or “pure” Swahili.

Books and Literature about Zanzibar

There are many great books about Zanzibar, some written by Zanzibaris, some academic texts, and some fiction. A few recommendations:

•Laura Fair, Pastimes and Politics: Culture, Community and Identity in Post-abolition Urban Zanzibar, 1890-1945

•Laura Fair, Historia ya Jamii ya Zanzibar na Nyimbo za Siti Binti Saad (in Swahili!)

•Jonathan Glassman, War of Words, War of Stones: Racial Thought and Violence in Colonial Zanzibar

•Eric Gilbert, Dhows & Colonial Economy in Zanzibar, 1860-1970

•Abdul Sheriff, Slaves, Spices and Ivory in Zanzibar; Zanzibar Under Colonial Rule; History & Conservation of Zanzibar Stone Town

•William Bissell, Urban Design, Chaos, and Colonial Power in Zanzibar

•Kjersti Larsen, Where Humans and Spirits Meet: The Politics of Rituals and Identified Spirits in Zanzibar

•Emily Reute, Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar

•Abdulrazak Gurnah, Desertion

Food, Drinks, and Eating

Zanzibari food--which is generally fast, cheap and healthy--should be one of the highlights of your trip. If you are an intrepid eater, here are some food recommendations that should not be missed: 

•“Mixi” Soup is aptly named, since it is a soup made up of mixture of items. It starts with a tangy yellow broth (urojo) that comes from pounded unripe papaya, and into the broth is added a whole host of treats: fried cassava bits, fresh grated coconut, potato cutlets, meat (sometimes), and fried balls that’ll remind you of falafels. Sounds strange,it’s but delicious, and more importantly--addictive! It’s sold all over town, oftentimes by women from their home during the morning hours. It’s also sold at night at Forodhani. Look for places where there are plastic bowls and spoons, and you will find it...Costs anywhere from 1000-1500 Tsh ($1) per bowl.

•Halwa is a sweet that is prepared across the Middle East, and also in Zanzibar, although in a form that may surprise some. In Zanzibar, halwa is thick and soft and sticky. It can be bought in the market in a variety of sizes and a finger-full is best paired with strong black coffee.

•Aforementioned strong black coffee. Get it from one of the guys who walk around town hawking it, or look for a more established location in Sokoni (near the mosque), at Jaws Corner, near Mnazi Mmoja Hospital, or at Forodhani. Normally it is 50 Tsh per cup, but near the sokoni mosque it will be 100 Tsh. Still worth the price and the walk, and the vendor has a great sense of humor.

•Sugar cane juice is available, is delicious, and as long as you aren’t worried about cavities, it’s even better than a Coke.

•Baked and fried sweets in the form of kisheti (donuts), kashata (nut candies), mandazi (donuts), biscuits, cookies and sweet bananas with coconut milk. Easier to find in the morning, although some small stores will have large containers with these items available all day. I think the best donuts are to be found in the morning across the street from Mnazi Mmoja hospital.

•For those that are looking for something healthier, fresh unripe mangos with chili powder, cucumbers, and young coconuts (dafu) are all good and good for you!

•Octopus (pweza) soup is said to give a particular type of “strength” (nguvu) to men, although women might also enjoy it. It should be spicy! For those who just need a snack, in the evenings, bites of grilled octopus are sold for 100 Tsh per toothpick bite.

•The foods that makes up the staple diet in Zanzibar are also delicious. Make sure to sample maharage (beans that are often cooked with fresh coconut milk), rice, and fresh greens (mboga/mchicha). The rice dishes biriyani and pilau are considered more special occasion food, but can also be found at restaurants around town.

That’s not the say that there aren’t plenty of more formal eating establishments that aren’t also worth your time. Some favorites:

•It is hard to find a better lunch than at Luis Yoghurt Parlor, on Hurumzi Street, right near the large mosque. The proprietor--Blanche’s--homemade yoghurts, lassis and juices are excellent, and make sure to order the whole wheat chappatis to go with your main dish. It’s the perfect sized meal, healthy, and will leave you with just enough space for a coffee at Msumbi. A good value, and you’ll get an earful about life in Stone Town. There’s also now a facebook page for the Yoghurt Parlour here.

Stone Town Cafe has excellent fresh Turkish style coffee that’s best to share with a friend unless you’re prepared to be hyper-caffeinated. Opens early. Also has a changing pad in the bathroom and is baby/kid friendly.

•Stone Town Cafe and Archipelago are owned by the same couple, and the Sticky Date Pudding at either place is easily the most satisfying dessert on the island.