A chance encounter makes for a very special day – Tony Lewis, Malvern. 2020
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 seeming to 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
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 sort of way. And even if some of the buildings do remind one of its socialistic
and communistic history. The horrific edifice that is Dar railway station is a prime
example of a monument to the sheer ugliness of communist buildings. But all in all, I
bizarrely do rather enjoy and prefer it all three of the East African confederation
countries. One can’t somehow kick off the idea that you’re in a sort of wild-west
type country still.
Zanzibar – as romantic as it’s name sounds
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 1940s 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 a wanderlust spirit.
My first trip to the island was back in the mid 90s when I had a long weekend off
from working in Dar. It was when I spent a fascinating few days of exploration and
discovery. My companion for these now lost days was 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 seafront. 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 was stamped with an official 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 1990s, 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 adjacent building was and still is, the most prominent. The huge and impressive
House of Wonders, took 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-story building, surrounded by wide
verandas on every floor, 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’ who used it as a stronghold fort, (for which the Omani’s are
famous) to defend themselves against the Portuguese and marauding rival Omani
All of these buildings were boarded up and dilapidated, black with mildew brought
on by the intense tropical heat and 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
inconspicuously down a small side street I eventually found my hotel. Checking in, I
discovered that it was a locally owned Muslim hotel, right on the seafront
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
ship 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 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
Of all the bars in all the world….
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, where obtaining a bitterly cold
beer slightly colder than a whore’s 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 drinking 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
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 it was not perhaps my George Clooney good looks or startling personality that
allowed her to agree. In reality, I’m sure 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’. 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 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 overseers prohibited talking amongst the slaves, they did
allow singing, as the workers seemed happier and more productive when they sang.
Kristina is probably 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 in search of a suitable restaurant…
the alleyways were barely wide enough for pedestrians and mopeds. These were the
days before tourism had yet to take off in this far-flung, isolated and, forgotten
place, therefore there were very few hotels in Zanzibar and decidedly few decent
ones in Stone Town itself. Those in the town itself catered 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 stories.
Eat like a local and your supper becomes “food of the gods”
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 alleyways of 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 instant and 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
During the course of the evening. Kristina had told me that her room had a
traditional and uniquely 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 that we had to ourselves at that early hour, we
breakfasted on fresh papaya and 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 UNESCO 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 house 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 boys 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 … one that I never tire of. 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 before prayer. The
very foreignness of the sound mingled 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, whilst 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 second-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 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 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, casting the island even further and
deeper into an economic and forgotten backwater. Next to these boxes, there were
several 1950/60’s cars, including the original Governors’ car – a pale-blue Ford
Zephyr, with the number plate Z1 and a mere 300 miles on the clock.
A very special moment
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 prime memory of that visit still lingers. The holy
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 has 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
that 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 would never see again has stayed with me ever since.
At some stage during the weekend, we ended up as unknown, but as is the way of
Islam, honoured guests at a local traditional evening Muslim wedding, sitting at the
head table eating Arab sweetmeats, and sipping warm orange Fanta cool drinks.
Although I was familiar with Arabic music, the unique Zanzibari sounds of 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, their heads covered, adding to the
whole ensemble with their ululation, the long, wavering, high-pitched vocal sound,
reminiscent of a howl, but with a trilling quality, peculiar to Arabia. There was much
dancing with accompanying finger-clicking and spirited shouts of joy and celebration
filling the air. Nearly all of Zanzibar and much of Tanzania’s coastal inhabitants
adhere to Islam, whereas the mainland and 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 lateen sail catching the evening
breeze, watching the sunset 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
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. Today it is inevitably thronged by tourists all hoping to see
where the music legend was born – I suspect that most leave disappointed, or at
least disillusioned, as did we.
Tourists’ haunts – but still beautiful none the less
Another 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 20 th 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 their tales of horror from the past.
This part of the East African coast still has a strong Arab influence. This is evidenced
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
Although I am not overly fond of East Africa, 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 … it is easy to fall in love all over again, exploring times and emotions long
forgotten; even 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
The weekend was indeed like a tale from the fabled Arabian storybook, ‘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 me 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
or 5 days. The impact on the senses of the many sights and experiences made it
seem much longer. It was a truly magical and ethereal weekend that will stay with
Like ships that pass in the night, I never saw Kristina again, but I often wonder if she
ever thinks about our Thousand and One nights weekend together.
Wonderfully written by Tony Lewis of Malvern.
….and if you want to read more of Tony and his travel stories then subscribe to our newsletter. If you want to also write to people right across the World and hear more about their daily life, then join our Pen Pal Club. Find out more by hitting the link!.