Westerner Tries to Make Himself at Home in Zanzibar

A look at the melting pot culture of Zanzibar, an East African archipelago off the Tanzanian coast, as seen by travel writer Christopher Vourlias.
By Christopher Vourlias
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 11, 2009

Ndiyefi narrowed his eyes and gave the man a dangerous look. The silence was thick enough to rest your chin on. Curious locals looked up from their piles of mangoes and cassava and bananas, wondering how things would play out. Here was Ndiyefi, an earnest, square-jawed boy of 17, a hang-about no doubt familiar to many in Zanzibar's Darajani market. Here was the vegetable seller, tall and baffled and nervously grinning, his produce spread at his feet like offerings to some pagan god.

And here was I: the white guy in the middle.

Ndiyefi had walked me through the narrow alleys of Stone Town, moving swiftly through the midday crowds. Around us the market stalls were teeming, a collage of fruits and spices and vegetables arranged in artful pyramids. Already my small market bag was overflowing with the day's haul: rice and sugar and loaves of still-warm bread; onions and eggplants and tomatoes the color of gemstones; spices whose names and uses were as alien to me as the powders and potions of a medicine man. Now we were haggling over the price of chili peppers, and the tension was high. Ndiyefi was slit-eyed, muscling close to me like a guard dog. He would not let me get ripped off.

"You not mzungu," he said, using the Swahili word for "white man." "You African."

I made a little strangled noise in the bottom of my throat and said the first thing that came to mind: "Um."

During a year's travels in Africa, I'd been reminded often that I was, indeed, a mzungu -- a complicated species that came to this corner of the globe with its hand sanitizers and malaria pills and good intentions. But this was different. I wasn't just some tourist snapping pictures of the locals being locals. I'd rented an apartment in Stone Town, the historic heart of the sprawling capital, Zanzibar city. And for the next two months, I was planning to call Zanzibar home. All morning I'd been on a mission with Ndiyefi to stock my quarters with food and cooking utensils and the household goods -- sponges! dishrags! -- that seemed as exotic to a road-weary traveler as leopards and lions might seem to the casual tourist.

I wasn't an African, despite Ndiyefi's protests. But I didn't want to think of myself as just another mzungu, either. I could be something in the middle, couldn't I?

Couldn't I?

* * *

I'm not the first to have come to Zanzibar with an identity crisis. For hundreds of years the East African archipelago, sitting in sun-blessed solitude off the coast of Tanzania, has thrived as a melting pot -- a place that, grudgingly or otherwise, welcomes foreigners to its languid, palm-fringed shores. A traveler arriving in Zanzibar in the 19th century could expect to find merchants from Bombay, sailors from Muscat, laborers from Madagascar, traders from Shiraz. Along the waterfront were ships flying the flags of Salem, Liverpool, Lisbon, Genoa and New Orleans, eager to exchange their New World wares for the island's precious spices and ivory. There were dhows bound for Arabia, their cargo holds full of the slaves that brought Zanzibar so much of its wealth and infamy.

Among all that human flotsam, something approaching a shared identity was forged. Consuls and cutthroats, duplicitous diplomats and mischievous merchants all found a common purpose as they chased their fortunes through the crowded streets of Stone Town. It might seem exotic -- the very name conjures images of Oriental mysteries and sultans' intrigues -- but Zanzibar's promise has always been one of fitting in.

I arrived last fall hoping to do just that. After months of exploring the East African bush, both as a travel writer and a wide-eyed tourist, I was ready for a bit of downtime. Zanzibar seemed like the perfect cure for the travel-weariness that ailed me. The island's history of seduction was the stuff of travel lore; David Livingstone, the great missionary-explorer, proclaimed it "the finest place . . . in all of Africa to rest before starting my last journey." I had visions of pearl-white beaches, coconuts and hammocks, dark-eyed beauties gliding from the waves like sea nymphs. Who knew what romance might lie ahead?

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