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Zanzibar, an archipelago off the coast of Tanzania.
The word Zanzibar came from Arabic zanjibār (زنجبار ), which is in turn from Persian zangbâr (زنگبار ), a compound of Zang (زنگ [zæŋ], “black”) + bâr (بار [bɒːɾ], “coast”). The name is one of several toponyms sharing similar etymologies, ultimately meaning “land of the blacks” or similar meanings, in reference to the dark skin of the inhabitants.
Although it is officially part of the East African country, in almost all aspects—politics, religion, culture, food—life there is different. As a base for traders from the African Lakes region, India, and the Arabian Peninsula, Zanzibar became a hub for the region’s slave and spice trades. Most Zanzibaris consider themselves Zanzibari rather than Tanzanian, and their territory has its own leader and governing bodies.
Zanzibar consists of many small islands and two large ones: Unguja (the main island, referred to informally as Zanzibar) and Pemba Island. The capital is Zanzibar City, located on the island of Unguja. Its historic centre is Stone Town, which is a World Heritage Site.It’s main industries are spices, raffia, and tourism. In particular, the islands produce cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and black pepper. For this reason, the Zanzibar Archipelago, together with Tanzania’s Mafia Island, are sometimes referred to locally as the “Spice Islands” (a term borrowed from the Maluku Islands of Indonesia)
An island of mixed cultures
Zanzibar is made of many different cultures. This lovely island was known in the ancient times for the commerce of its spices, and thus the African population received soon the visit of Arabian merchants that brought Islam to the island.
The Arab influence on Zanzibar and Pemba islands is evident in the people, who are a mix of Shirazia (from Persia), Arabs, Comorians (from the Comoros Islands) and Bantu from the mainland, though the latter predominate.
Asians are a significant minority especially in the towns and cities.
The island of origin of the locals pretty much determines what tribe they belong to. The Waunguja would emanate from Unguja Island, with Wapemba tribe from Pemba Island and Watumbatu from Tumbato Island.
The Hadimu and Tumbatu tribes were the indeginous people of Zanzibar, most Hadimu live in the southern part the Island while the Tumbatu are predominantly found in the North.
People in Zanzibar are mainly Muslim (only a 3% of the population is Christian and Hindu), and when you hear the call of the Mu’addhin you’ll see everybody disappear for the prayer for a while: the streets get empty, and there’s a special magic in the air.
But to know the real life of Zanzibar people you just have to sit and look at the beach: the sand is the axis of all the island life.
The official languages of Zanzibar are Kiswahili (a Bantu language that is extensively spoken in the African Great Lakes region) and English. English is spoken by most of the islanders, and many have a working knowledge of Italian and Arabic. Zanzibaris speak Swahili (Kiswahili), Swahili is the de facto national and official language of Tanzania. Many local residents also speak Arabic, French and/or Italian.
Festivals and Events
Festival of the Dhow Countries July
East Africa’s largest cultural event, takes place in Zanzibar in magnificent, historical venues along the waterfront of Stone Town. The festival celebrates the unique cultural heritage of the “Dhow” countries: the African continent and the Indian Ocean region and their global Diaspora.
Sauti za Busara music festival
Features a rich variety of African music from the region with more than four hundred musicians participating over five days in historic Stone Town.
Mwakakogwa Festival – July/August
A traditional festival to celebrate the local New Year. It is mainly practiced in the Southern Unguja, particularly in Makunduchi. Originating from Persia and brought here by early, Immigrants, Mwakakogwa is marked by sacrifices, dances, and the actual field fighting. In addition to the tourists from abroad, it draws participants from the whole of East Africa.
Zanzibar is the home of the endemic Zanzibar red colobus, the Zanzibar servaline genet, and the extinct or rare Zanzibar leopard.
Get on Swahili time.
Time-keeping is initially confusing, but actually makes a lot of sense. In Swahili culture, people start counting time at sunrise rather than at midnight, which means that 7 a.m. Western time is one o’clock in the morning Swahili time, and 7 p.m. is one o’clock at night. (This works because sunset and sunrise times are relatively constant year-round, since Zanzibar is so close to the equator.) A trick to decipher this code is to imagine drawing a line directly across a clock face: three becomes nine, four becomes ten.
Zanzibar has two rainy seasons. Every year, there are the long rains and the short rains. On the heels of the blazing and seriously sweaty East African summer, Zanzibar’s long rainy season lasts roughly from March until May.
Taste the world
Zanzibar has had many rulers over the centuries, and its long, tragic history has created one of Africa’s most interesting cuisines. This is the original fusion food, a delicious mash-up of Indian, Arab, Chinese, Portuguese and African cooking traditions, all driven by the constant presence of spice (these are known as the Spice Islands, after all, where cloves, cinnamon, black pepper and nutmeg come straight from the source.)
Biryani and Pilau.
Thought to have originated in the Indian Subcontinent, biryani and pilau (also known as pilaf and plov) are rice dishes cooked with a mixture of spices such as nutmeg, cloves, pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, garlic, ginger and coriander. The key difference between the two is that biryani is cooked separately to the meat dishes that typically accompany it. Pilau, on the other hand, is cooked in the same pot as the meat (or meat broth), allowing the rice to absorb the juices. Both are delicious.
Also known as Zanzibar mix, this mash-up of a dish typically comprises a bowl of tangy, flour-based soup full of crispy bhajias (a fried, pakora-like snack), fried mashed potatoes and topped with a spoonful of coconut chutney, a dash of chilli, and a scoop of cassava shavings.
Mandazi, samosas and more Mandazi, samosas and more.
These triangular ‘Swahili doughnuts’ are essentially deep-friend balls of dough, lightly sweetened and occasionally seasoned with a hint of cardamom.
Who knew a French fry omelette could taste so good? There’s nothing much to this comfort food dish, but it goes down a treat with condiments such as kachumbari (tomato and onion salad), chilli sauce, mayo and/or good old tomato sauce.
BBQ octopus for the win. Zanzibar is renowned for octopus, which are caught by skilled ‘octopus hunters’ who can often be spotted wading out across the coastal flats armed with spears to catch the tasty invertebrates that thrive in the seagrass and coral beyond the beaches. Among the most popular ways to eat octopus include mishkaki skewers, octopus curry (cooked with a blend of rich spices like turmeric and simmered in coconut cream), and straight off the grill.
Egg yolks are white, not yellow. Across Zanzibar, and many parts of mainland Tanzania, breakfast options are egg white or egg white—even when the yolk is included. There’s nothing wrong with them, it’s just that yolks are never a sunny yellow. They don’t taste different; chickens here feed on a grain that makes them produce monochrome eggs.
Furthermore, it’s possible to drink in Zanzibar, and it’s fine to wear beach clothes in the right places. That said, there are times and places when neither is appropriate.
When the wind blows in the right direction, the fragrance of spice is deliciously strong, and you know you are in Zanzibar, the Spice Island, with its cloves and cinnamon, lichee nuts, cocoa beans, and coconut. A tiny island that is a part of Tanzania.