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.
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.
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.
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.