We do not always locate it very well, we can not explain it, but Zanzibar is a dream. Between the "stone city" with multiple influences, the softness of the coast and the hidden treasures of the hinterland, the island keeps its promises.
In the afternoon of December, a song rises in the Anglican Church of Stone Town, the historic district of the city of Zanzibar. A group of young women are rehearsing Christmas songs, under the energetic rule of a choirmaster in a football jersey.
At their feet, a round of white stone: at this place was once the jojoba tree to which the slaves captured on the continent were tied before being sold to Swahili or Arab merchants. Above their veiled heads of color: a crucifix made of the wood of the tree that grew on the grave of Dr. Livingstone, indefatigable slayer of slavery.
A nerve center
Outside, a damp heat reigns in the labyrinthine lanes of the old city which was in the middle of the XIXe century a nerve center of the trade of men, ivory and spices. The many influences that made Zanzibar are read on the facades. They are also read on faces. Indians, Africans, Arabs, Europeans rub shoulders in the city with thirty mosques, two churches and eight Indian temples, even if Islam is here ultra majority. "If Zanzibar is dreaming, it's because of this mix," says Farouk Abdalla, a fashion designer, who lived in London for a while before returning to his native island. "Myself, my skin is black, but my eyes are blue. "
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Farouk Abdalla organizes sumptuous feasts in the ruins of the Mtoni Palace, on the edge of the old town. During the day, it takes a lot of imagination to revive the past splendor of this palace built in 1833 by the Omani Sultan Seyyid Said who made Zanzibar, off the coast of East Africa, the capital of his kingdom.
Innumerable slaves, maidservants, eunuchs then lived among the now-tagged walls of the palace, where one could hear "Persian, Turkish, Circassian, Swahili, Nubian, Abyssinian", writes Salme, daughter of the Sultan, in his famous memoirs published in 1886. On festive evenings, it suffices that an orchestra plays the taarabA mix of African, Indian and Middle Eastern sounds, so that visitors can be projected more than a hundred and fifty years back when the tropical island was at its peak.
Stone Town, the historic district of Zanzibar city. / Mariusltu / Adobe Stock
It is at night that Stone Town is best suited to daydreaming, when the souvenir shops close their heavy wooden door; that the air is caressing and that the Zanzibarians stroll on the port between the stalls of outdoor restaurants loaded with kebabs, seafood and crepes. This is the time of palaver and football matches, as we look on a plot, once opened the closet where the television is locked during the day.
Moving away from Stone Town is diving into the heart of tropical Africa. Roads make their way between a profusion of banana, jackfruit, mango and coconut trees that rise from a waterlogged soil. A tropical downpour suddenly falls and everything starts to shine, leaves and asphalt. The dala-dala, the local minibuses obviously overloaded, exceed the carts guided by children who fetch water in large yellow cans. Pedestrians, cyclists, merchants, life on the edge of the road is abounding.
Here is the treasure that made the reputation of the island: the clove tree, imported from the Mascarenes by Sultan Said, which made Zanzibar the world's largest exporter of cloves. In the middle of the XIXe century, large plantations where thousands of slaves toiled covered the fertile areas of the interior of the island, to the detriment of food crops.
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The socialist revolution of 1964 ended the reign of the sultans and the giant plantations. The land was redistributed to Zanzibaris, at a rate of 3 hectares per family, now devoted to growing cassava and a few rows of vegetables. Zanzibar is now "only" the third exporter of cloves, still harvested by hand, far behind Indonesia.
The state farm is visited, opportunity for a walk among the clove trees and cinnamon, lemongrass or cardamom plants. The walk gives rise to a vertiginous demonstration of climbing a coconut trunk, with the sole strength of the arms and legs. "Here, all boys learn to climb coconut palms," explains Rachid, the guide. In the coconut, nothing is lost: it quenches and nourishes, and its shell, softened in seawater for fifteen days, delivers fibers that can be braided.
The interior of the island is home to another treasure: a colony of red colobus monkeys, unique in the world. Just dive a few meters into the wet Jozani forest to see them perched in mahogany or eucalyptus. Lulled by sounds of indistinct birds, wrapped in vegetation and warmth, visitors immerse themselves in a large natural bath just a few meters from the road.
The clove tree, real treasure of the island. / Torsten Pursche / Adobe Stock
So, of course, there are the beaches. White sand with flour texture. An infinite variety of turquoises. Unusual places that attract honeymooners from around the world, like this restaurant-hut perched on a rock in the middle of the lagoon. "The 14 families from the coastal village deliberated and allowed me to set up a restaurant here"says Nigel, one of the three owners of the place.
Diving enthusiasts will be able to feast off the tiny island of Mnemba, reserved for customers handpicked of a hotel of the last chic, that is to say without television, without wi-fi and without air conditioning … Just jump in the water, equipped with a simple mask and a snorkel, to enjoy a festival of colors, from blue-violet to red through bright yellow.
Above all, there is the calm of a coastline where hotels still have the delicacy to camouflage themselves in the vegetation. The slow march of women, water at mid-thighs, looking for seaweed. Children cycling. The wandering of a zebu. The silhouette of a Masai wrapped in red, who looks for something. The mystery of Tumbatu, one of the islands of the archipelago that has just opened to foreign visitors, and again, the day only, provided you are accompanied by a native. We imagine. We dream. We let go …
►Go. Oman Air, in particular, serves Zanzibar. www.omanair.com
►Y stay. The TUI group offers 9-day stays (including 7 nights on site) in its Club Lookéa Kiwengwa Beach Resort, located on a white sand beach on the north-east coast of the island. from € 1,249 all inclusive (return flights, accommodation, full board, etc.) Rens. and booking with travel agencies or 0825.000.825 or on www.tui.fr
►Walk. Many excursions – a la carte – are possible from the club, including the visit of Stone Town, the historic district of Zanzibar, a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, a market tour followed by a Swahili cooking workshop, a stroll on Prison Island famous for its ruins, its beach and its giant turtles or an exit between mangrove and Indian Ocean aboard a dhow, the traditional boat.
►A guide. Tanzania and Zanzibar, ed. Lonely Planet, 25 €.
Emmanuelle Réju, Special Envoy to Zanzibar