Zanzibar’s history is a hotchpotch of cultures fused together by the spice trade. Originally known as Unguje, and at one point referred to as the Spice Island, Zanzibar was first inhabited by Bantu-speaking Africans. Then, in the late 11th century Persians, driven by market demand, sailed across the world to establish their new commercial strongholds of the slave trade, one of which was Zanzibar. Then came the Portuguese who were the first Europeans to scout East African coasts and engage in both the spice and slave trades. In the 17th century, Omanis set up their trading companies in Zanzibar, ending 200 years of Portuguese dominance. At its height, in 1832, Stone Town actually became the capital of the Omani Sultanate and reinforced its position as a major morally-crippled yet hugely profitable slave-trade center: a dystopian trade hub. Having realized the soil fertility on the Island, the sultan of Oman introduced cloves and used the slave population to cultivate it. At that time, the retail price of cloves once they reached the market in London was 825% of the local price in Zanzibar. With the chance of profits like these, I’d be tempted to jump on a boat and row myself! Around that time, British influence would also grow partly as a result of their increased power in India and partly because of the power of the Royal Navy. The East India Trading Company and Bombay merchants would all have representatives in Zanzibar to coordinate the purchase and movement of goods. The Sultan was happy to use some of his wealth to access the latest European weapons and technology. After the slave trade was banned in the late 30’s, the Sultan of Oman invited Indian traders to use their skills and therefore realize his own political and commercial ambitions. Eventually, strengthened customer relations led to the British control of the island between 1890 up to 1963. The political vacuum created after they left provoked a bloody revolution that took lives of thousands of Arabs (perceived as rich, privileged class) and Indians, and the creation of modern Zanzibar, the government of which still calls itself “revolutionary”. In the following decades, the massacre was washed away by money invested by Westerners who flooded this little island to renovate old Zanzibar houses and open their businesses, this time implementing Pleasure & Oblivion model (POM). Needless to say, currently, tourism is the primary source of income, however, 70% of population works in agriculture and fishing.
So, after this brief cheerful introduction, back to my original question. Is it really Africa? Yes, with all of its uber complicated history.
While traveling, it’s not always necessary to learn history from books. Sometimes, it’s enough to understand local cuisine and its evolution. In the case of Zanzibar it is influenced by all the foreigners who sailed here on their big ships over thousands of years. It is very likely that Zanzibari Pizza remains the best metaphor of the outcome of this long process. For these who are not familiar with Zanzibari pizza: it’s two layers of thin chapatti stuffed with processed cheese, minced beef, onion, mayonnaise and egg, then folded and fried in vegetable ghee. It’s ridiculous, so ridiculous. But still tasty.