First tastes of the Spice Island


I recently traveled to Unguja Island, Zanzibar to carry out a quick overview of all the fishing villages that I will be studying in-depth next winter as part of my PhD. Initially if I am being honest I had mixed feelings about the place, I loved it but I disliked some things….  The only thing that made the experience in any way negative was the very Saudi influenced Islam that exists there, or that appeared to me to exist there. I didn’t realise that it had penetrated East Africa, that women are very often covered from head to toe except for their eyes, I always thought this was further towards the Arab Peninsula and parts of the Middle East…But I guess Wahhabi Islam has financed its way into existence in Zanzibar as well, I was surprised. I guess I was imagining it to be full of African music, dancing, vibrancy and noise…but wasn’t, well not the places I had been visiting around the Island Unguja. For the start of my visit there it was Ramadan so things seemed a bit extreme, a lot of dark colours everywhere as women moved along in sweeping black robes with their eyes averted.

My landlady Raya was a STAR, she made everything better, talking to her was extremely interesting. She invited me into her family with open arms, such a lady, much respect for her! I ate with her family every evening in a big circle on the sitting room floor, during Ramadan this is customary, to break the fast together. Also joining us for dinner were Libyan and Sudanese students, but besides Raya, I was the only women there. I shouldn’t have been eating with the men but as I am a Muzungo (White person) it was ok for me to sit near them andeat, she waited till they had left. The food was AWESOME, amazing coconut bean sauce, chapatis, rice, seafood soup and more! During dinner I sat listening to all the Swahili and Arabic as the men talked between themselves. I think they found it amusing to watch a Muzungo eat with her hands, even though if I could I would eat this way all the time, much better! Raya and I then would usually enjoy some Chai tea together with a chat when the men have left and gone to pray.

Each day I headed to a different coastal village to talk to the fishers, the traders and the beach recorders “Bwana Dikos”. I met some lovely lovely people, really friendly and willing to be interviewed, I was so lucky to be learning from them. Overall this introductory Zanzibar research experience was a walk in the park compared to Ghana, I had support from a translator (he was awesome!), a driver (he was ok) and I was a lot less badgered.


I had a few mishaps though, a typical thing seemingly when I travel.

One day I arrived in trousers to go to the field with my usual scarf and long sleeves, however, this did not go down well. I was told that I needed to go the whole way home and change into a skirt or dress so I would look more appropriate. Men should not be able to see my “shape”.  As you can imagine I was pretty mad, but I silently agreed, refusing to take a lift with the driver because I was afraid to say something in anger. I walked home fuming, changed into a long skirt and set out again, fairly annoyed but with enough common sense to keep it to myself and be a good girl.

On another occasion I arrived at a beach village in the east of Zanzibar to meet with the official, the Bwana Diko, who had already been rung and told that we were coming. I went up to him with my translator all happy and very appreciative that he would chat to us, as I extended my arm to shake his hand he jumped back with his hands up as if I had just pulled a gun on him. In the second village we visited that day, in the east, the same thing happened, I extended my arm just to be looked up and down and ignored. Both officials were more than happy to openly greet the young male student helping me though. To be honest I was fairly peeved; of course, I didn’t say a word and continued meekly to carryout the interview. But the complete lack of respect, cost them half their tip, sorry for that, but any many who believes he cant greet me because of my sex can just…. I am not a Muslim, I was completely covered up, I found it hard to understand how I could cause them to be “dirty” as it was explained to me, while all the other Bwana Dikos and fishers were very happy to shake my hand and openly greet me.

Drinking or eating in public during Ramadan is against the law, you can be whipped for it. I, of course wasn’t fasting, though I might as well have because it was impossible to find food during the day. However as I found it doesn’t matter if you aren’t fasting you can’t eat or drink in public. I was extremely hot after walking for 45mins to the fisheries department one of my first mornings there and so I took out my bottle of water to drink, on two occasions on the way home this was met with shouting from men “RAMADAN RAMADAN YOU BREAK THE LAW ” “PUT IT AWAY. I was a bit shocked at the shouting and then I started to notice all the staring I was receiving as I carried my bottle through the streets… I quickly hurried home to rehydrate in peace, a lesson learned.

Zanzibar is full of beautiful beaches, absolutely beautiful. I didn’t get a chance to swim as this is not allowed during Ramadan, I was with locals all the time so I don’t have a chance to escape and dive in, also, I think I would of caused them to drop dead of a heart attack if I donned a bikini! I was always covered up neck to foot with scarves and long skirts, but I refused to cover my hair even though people tried to make me. If men are so weak that they can’t handle a women’s hair then there are some BIG issues. Weirdly enough I started to get used to being covered, and when I spotted tourists in shorts or string tops I found myself shocked! Even when the breeze lifted my scarf I found myself nervously trying to cover my skin up.

To be continued..!


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