The Globe and Mail
MAY 10, 1997

A newfound interest in the architecture of Zanzibar presents the people of the spice island with a sweet irony- the structures built by their former overlords may soon become the key to a new prosperity.

By Hadani Ditmars
Special to The Globe and Mail
Zanzibar, Tanzania

The architecture of Zanzibar mythical islands of spices and slavery, romance and revolution reflects its rich history of cultural metissage.

Arab, Indian, African, Persian, British, Portuguese and East German influences can all be seen in Zanzibari buildings, from the exotic (colonial columns combined with Indian carvings and Omani arches) to the ugly (East German designed late sixties housing estates).

But while Zanzibar architecture represents a positive manifestation of the archipelago's multicultural heritage, ghosts of the bloody events of the early sixties are still present.

Once known as "the Cuba of the Indian Ocean." after the years of hardline socialism that followed the Revolution in 1964 (during which 125,000 Arabs and Asians were massacred by the descendant of black African slaves), the area is still not free from political and ethnic tensions. Even so, Zanzibar is now opening it self up to the outside world again, with the Tanzanian government spear- heading a movement to promote cultural tourism as a means of stimulating the local economy.

And Zanzibari architecture - long neglected by post-revolutionary governments who did not seem to respect or relate buildings that had housed Arab and European colonial overlords is being rediscovered as an important part of the tourism initiative.

Recently, the Historic Cities Support Program of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture restored a turn of the century former dispensary building in the town of Zanzibar archipelago. The building's Indian, Arab and British colonial design features make it a prime example of the city's multicultural style, and last month it was opened as a mixed-use arts centre, with some small scale commercial use designed to make the centre self sustaining.

The Aga Khan's Serena hotel chain has just converted an old Arab house and a turn of the century British telecommunications building into Zanzibar towns first five-star luxury hotel. The sea wall surrounding the hotel which overlooks the azure waters of the Indian Ocean was originally built by Omani sultans and has also been carefully restored.

In their transformative capacities from dispensary to cultural centre, from telecommunications centre to hotel both projects are fairly representative of Zanzibar architectural history- one marked by constant winds of political and cultural change as well as significant commercial activity.

The 19th-century Anglican church, for example, built in the historic old Stone Town shortly after the abolition of slavery, boasts an altar that was once a whipping post. Nearby former slave quarters have been converted into a hostel (frequented more often than not by German back-packers - the first wave of cultural tourists to discover Zanzibar). The Zanzibar fire station is a beautiful old Omani villa; an historic Arab building in the old city has become a rather camp orientalist hotel called Emmersons catering to a small community of gay Americans who have put Zanzibar on the aesthetes map while another, similar one discreetly sells hard-core pornography; a rather horrific, box-like housing estate, designed by East German architects in the late sixties as a practical alternative to the existing mud huts, stands opposite a quite charming old Omani fort, now a prison, which seems a more inviting place to stay.

The old Stone Town, in the heart of the city and at the centre of restoration activities, contains many beautiful buildings- some in danger of deterioration through overcrowding and poor planning. Among the notables are an exquisite 19th-century hamman, a unique Ibadi mosque built in 1855 as well a Sultan Barghash's ceremonial place - an unusual combination of Arab and British colonial design.

The redevelopment of the port, sponsored by the European Union and the rehabilitation of the Central Market, financed in part by the United Nation Capital Development Fund, seem promising projects provided that political will and community support remain constant.

Plans to restore the old Stone Town, put forth by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, aim at cultural and environmental integration. In a city where 200,000 people use septic tanks and where cases of cerebral malaria are frequent, these would appear to be noble ideals. During Omani rule, its old quarter was off limits for blacks; the slaves and descendants of slaves lived in mud huts outside the old city until the East Germans came and built their social housing monstrosities. Now the well-to-do petit bourgeois live in hybrids of the mud hut/box apartment styles-concrete bungalows with corrugated metal roofs.

To aid the restoration effort, the Serena hotel has installed a small sewage treatment operation-possibly the only alternative to the septic tank in Zanzibar - and the old dispensary turned cultural centre has a mandate to explore an celebrate traditional Zanzibari arts.

In the restoration of the Old Dispensary building, great lengths were taken to use local materials and traditional artesanal techniques. But many of the original materials such as the teak used in the floor boards and staircases - were no longer available locally and had to be imported. (As the rain forests from which the original teak was used for the restoration was shipped from a plantation the mainland).

In addition, many of the traditional building crafts had dissipated or simply died out after the revolution. The lack of local craftsmen skilled in the art of fine wood carving, for instance, meant that several had to be brought in from India to restore the exquisitely carved timber work on the balcony.

The art of lime production, which had declined considerably in the absence of a discerning market, experienced something of a small renaissance during the restoration process. Several young Zanzibari stone masons were employed and trained in proper lime production, and have since found work on other sites.

The British site architect for the project, Stephen Battle, says that one of the greatest challenges in his five years of work in Zanzibar was to encourage the local people "to feel a part of the architecture, to experience a sense of belonging to it." Indeed, one wonders how the cultural centre will fare in a place where "culture" happens on the streets and beaches.

On an island where architecture often meant literally the architecture of oppression, the postcolonial, post revolutionary interest in the buildings of Zanzibar represents a unique opportunity, If social and environmental support connected to the restoration process is forthcoming, true integration between the island's architectural and human cultures might be achieved.

However, if greed and poor planing supersede human values in the rush for the tourist dollar, the locals great-grandchildren of slaves, may find themselves simply serving drinks sweaty tourists with fistfuls of dollars and Deutsch marks. A neocolonial tourist nightmare, or a vision of cultural harmony and economic growth? The answers vary. The president of Zanzibar, Dr. Salmin Amour, hopes that the island will become "another Singapore"; Zanzibari families hope that tourist dollars will stay in town instead of flying off on the next charter plane to Rome or Frankfurt; earnest architects and conservationist hope that a city can be saved.

Meanwhile Zanzibar, beautiful spice island where centuries collide, does not respond but dreams quietly of future greatness.

Hadani Ditmars is a Canadian journalist who writes about cross- cultural issues.

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