History and Culture of Zanzibar

The name Zanzibar refers to the archipelago of islands in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of mainland Tanzania, made up of Unguja, the largest island, commonly called Zanzibar, Pemba, Mafia and other smaller islands.
Compared to the mainland, Zanzibar often seems like a different country and that’s largely because up until the unification in 1964, it was. The archipelago and its people have their own unique history and culture which is strongly influenced by the Portugese, Omani and English traders and invaders over the centuries.
Unlike mainland Tanzania, Zanzibar doesn’t have tribes. Instead local traditions are a fusion of different ethnic groups that settled on the islands, resulting in events like Pemba bull fights from the Portuguese and Mwaka Kogwa, the celebration of the Persian New Year.
In recent years, Zanzibar has gained international prominence as a cultural centre after hosting the Sauti za Busara music festival and the Zanzibar International Film Festival. This has shown how the islands have succeeded in celebrating their heritage while constantly moving towards the future.



According the United Nations, Tanzania is one of the four poorest countries in the world. Although Zanzibar benefits from tourism, the majority of the population still make their living from subsistence farming and fishing. A recent census showed that there are now over 1 million people living across Unguja and Pemba, which remains predominately Muslim. Islam marks the passing of days, the muezzin’s call to prayer, echoing across the islands from sunrise to sunset. Women veil themselves in ‘buibuis’ or ‘kangas’, children learn their prayers and their manners at the local madrasas, and the archipelago becomes a place of celebration at Eid, after Ramadan, the time of fasting.By Zanzibar’s standards, Stone Town is a sprawling metropolis and Pemba’s Chake Chake is a bustling, industrious town.
The are a outside town is known as ‘shamba’, meaning farm, where the majority of the people live.Village life is simple where most people live in mud houses with woven palm frond roofs, known as ‘makuti’. There is no electricity or running water in rural areas, instead water is carried from wells or rainwater is collected in buckets during the rainy seasons.The daily diet centres around a few local staples foods; beans, maize, breadfruit and cassava, which families grow on their land and cook over an open wood fire or charcoal stove. At times of celebration, rice flavoured with the island’s spices, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves called ‘pilau’ is cooked.



While most of Europe was still floundering in the Dark Ages, the light of the Oriental world had already fallen on Zanzibar. It nestled itself in the middle of a well established mercantile civilization, constructed from a series of independent coastal and island city states, which stretched across East Africa, from the Somali coast to the mouth of the Zambezi river.The Swahili civilization born on the coast of Africa, and nourished by the waters of the Indian Ocean became a well-worn route that was crisscrossed for centuries by merchant vessels bearing traders, adventurers and pirates from India, Arabia, Persia, China, Japan and Russia. They arrived on the East African coast with the monsoon and left with the ships’ holds groaning with trade goods.They brought metal tools, weapons and jewelry and took away ivory, tortoiseshell, slaves and palm oil.The 9th Century Tales of Sinbad the Sailor from the Arabian Tales reflect the seafaring tradition of the people of the Persian Gulf. It was they who named the coast ‘Zanj el Barr’ meaning “land of black people”The African people of the coast intermarried with the visitors, fusing their traditions with Arab customs until ‘the Swahili’ became a distinct race with its own language, feudal rulers, art forms and decorative traditions. They were named from the African word ‘sahl’, meaning coast.Driven from their homes by a succession of wars and conflicts that beset the countries of the Persian Gulf, Shirazi and Arab visitors settled permanently in Swahili towns, bringing the religion of Islam with them.

The Swahili had no one ruler as they were organized into separate communities each ruled by their own sultan.But with a constant flow of populations between the trading centres, that rose and fell with the progression of centuries.Zanzibar was ruled by a dynasty of kings and queens with the hereditary title of ‘Mwinyi Mkuu’. The Mwinyi Mkuu were Islamic rulers and folklore has it that they were credited with magical powers – they held in their possession a set of magic drums, which beat of their own accord when the kingdom was in peril. The last Mwinyi Mkuu died in 1873, and his mansion at Dunga in the centre of Zanzibar Island is thought to be haunted.



Zanzibar rose to prominence as a flourishing commercial centre in the thirteenth century. Swahili communities on Zanzibar and Pemba built stone mosques decorated with carved inscriptions; minted silver coins and used delicate Syrian style perfume bottles in green and blue glass.The graves of their more important citizens featured stone towers at either end, with Chinese porcelain bowls sunk into the cement walls. Mosques and private dwellings had dressed stone lintels; rectangular patterned wall niches, plasterwork friezes and stone latticed windows.

The Swahili decorative tradition arose from the fact that the dictates of Islam forbade the rendering of images of people or animals. Patterns on walls, ceilings, furniture and utensils were always abstract, or composed of verses from the Koran in Arabic lettering. The floors of rich households were covered with Persian rugs. Wealthy women wore decorated gold and silver jewellery, and prosperous merchants wore robes and turbans embroidered with gold thread.
Swahili houses were built of fossilized coral held together with limestone cement and thatched with makuti leaves. Stone benches ran around the outside porch, providing a space known as a daka where the master of the house received visitors. A carved double leafed door led into the interior of the house where the privacy of the Swahili women was jealously guarded. Their quarters were in the innermost recesses of the house, beyond an inner courtyard and visited only by the closest of family members. In the wealthier areas of Swahili towns covered walkways crossed high above the streets to allow well born women to glide between the houses without being seen by strangers.

Swahili domestic furniture was both decorative and ingeniously designed. Food trays had saucers to hold dishes at either side, corn grinders incorporated large flat stones, and high backed formal wedding chairs were inlaid with ivory or bone. Babies’ cradles woven from cotton cloth hung from the ceiling or from struts of springy wood. Beds were wooden frames, often carved and covered with coir rope made from coconut husks. They were sat on during the day, slept on at night and carried the dead to their graves. Brass coffeepots were engraved through hammering or chiselling.
Today, Swahili artifacts decorate hotel lobbies and private houses and men still weave through the crowded streets of Stone Town wearing long, flowing white ‘kanzu’ (robes) and embroidered ‘kofia’ (hats).
Swahili cuisine comprises of curries made from coconut milk and spices, maandazi donuts, fried octopus which is eaten daily by most of the population. The traditional music of the Swahili coast, ‘taarab’, is played alongside gangsta rap and European house.
Despite deep-seated traditions of hospitality and religious tolerance, colonisation over the centuries by successive Portuguese, Omani and European invaders has done nothing to dent the unique cultural identity of the Swahili people.



Henna has its origins dating as far back as the Bronze Age across Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It is used to decorate the body and hair and even used as a dye for silk, leather and wool. It was said that the Queen of Sheba was adorned with henna when she went to meet King Solomon.
Traditionally, henna is worn at times of celebration, for weddings and religious festivals such as Eid. Henna is made from the leaves of a flowering shrub which thrives in tropical regions and can be found across Zanzibar and Tanzania. To make the dye, branches are cut down and left to dry in the sun, until the leaves fall off. The leaves are then collected and ground into a powder and then sifted to remove any impurities. The powder is mixed into a paste with lemon juice and sometimes essential oils like lavender, tea tree or eucalyptus are added to the mixture to strengthen the colour to make the dye last longer. When the paste is ready, it’s applied to the skin, usually piped through a cellophane cone although sometimes a toothpick is used to trace out the designs. The paste is then left to dry and slowly flakes off to reveal the reddish brown patterns underneath. The dye darkens after the first couple of days and can last for up to a fortnight. Henna can also be used as a hair dye where fresh leaves are covered with coconut oil and left to infuse over a stove for 30 minutes, and then the coloured oil is applied to the hair, giving a red tint and leaving the hair healthy and shiny.

Black henna, known as ‘wanja’ in Swahili has become increasingly popular in creating henna designs. Wanja used to be made using seeds, which were burnt and then cooked with coconut oil to make a paste, similar to red henna, but nowadays, black hair dye is used as a substitute for the organic paste. Hair dye can cause allergic reactions, blisters and sores if it is used as henna, so if you want a design in black henna ensure that the paste is made from indigo and not hair dye.
During a Swahili wedding, the bride is decorated with henna for luck and to bless the marriage. A bride can sit for hours, as the henna artist paints flowers across the her skin over her arms, decorating both sides of her hands and also over her feet and legs. Her fingernails and toe nails are stained orange with the dye and some brides choose to have their backs and shoulders decorated. Henna patterns in Zanzibar are a fusion of Arab and Indian designs, combining the intricate fine floral and paisley patterns found in Indian ‘mehendi’ with the larger flowers found in Arab henna. Both red and black henna can be used and according to Zanzibari tradition the bride does not have to do any housework in her new home until her bridal henna has faded.

Designs and patterns have evolved over time, falling in and out of fashion. Western influence can clearly be seen, with mamas at the beaches offering henna along with massage and hair braiding to tourists, as part of the beach beauty package. Chinese symbols, Celtic tattoos and pictures of dolphins are increasingly found in pattern books but henna traditions remains strong on Zanzibar and will be used for many centuries to come.

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