In May this year my hubby and I were fortunate enough to escape to the island paradise of Zanzibar for a week of sun, white-sanded beaches, turquoise water, lots of fresh seafood and cocktails served in pineapples with mini umbrellas. We got all this and so much more! Even though we were there for only 7 days we came back well rested, but also rejuvenated because of several experiences that re-affirmed our belief in Africa and the successful future that awaits our continent under good leadership and an active, informed civil society.
The first experience was the churches and mosques of Zanzibar. We noticed that they were often next door to each other, and this physical closeness was also reflected in a closeness of minds, as Christians and Muslims lived side by side with an acceptance and genuine tolerance I have not witnessed anywhere else in the world – developed or developing! I recognise that a true understanding of tolerance and acceptance can only be established once you have lived in a place for some time, but at face value there was nevertheless a marked difference in the way people interacted with each other in Zanzibar compared to anywhere else I have been. The thing about religion in Zanzibar that was really striking, however, was not this tolerance but the appearance of the churches and mosques…they were of the same type, size and condition as the houses around them. They were only recognisable as places of religion because of a cross, crescent moon or loudspeaker inconspicuously placed somewhere on the outside of the building. The buildings and their imams and priests lived as the people did, and despite not being in any way religious myself, I have enormous respect for any religious institution that treats themselves as equal to their members. Now don’t get me wrong, there are a few old, big (and beautiful) churches and mosques in Zanzibar, and these have their place, but the working houses of religion are as I have just described. There are very few ornate buildings laden with treasures while members go hungry and/or sleep outside in the rain. Zanzibar’s houses of religion, I was told by locals, often double as schools, clinics and whatever else is needed by the community – and all were welcome, regardless of which building this happened to be occurring in on that day and regardless of any religious differences. Many could learn from this sort of incredibly tolerant and advanced interpretation of religious belief.
This also translated into the way people treated each other and treated strangers – openly, honestly and with much love. Not once did a single person or place – trader, restaurant, tour guide, hotel, taxi driver, whatever – try to add the expected ‘tourist’ tax onto prices – locals in fact warned us of certain places that over-charged tourists. On trips to Barcelona, London, Kinshasa and Cape Town, among others, I’ve been charged the ‘tourist’ tax, so that was a pleasant surprise. We saw no beggars while we were there, which suggests that the poor (of which no one can deny there many in Zanzibar, 44% of the population lives on less than US$1.25 per day) are to a large extent looked after by locals, and we saw this first hand. While on a tour through the historic, vibrant and incredibly interesting Stonetown we saw several people feeding the poor in their area, children still in their school clothes ran through the streets carrying food deliveries to the elderly, and there was a sense of community that both enviable and tangible.
Only one person asked us for money while we were there. The person in question was a man with a very visibly deformed leg who required corrective surgery. He had a quotation from the local hospital indicating exactly how much the operation, hospital stay and follow-up treatment would cost, and finally a receipt book so that donors could not only receive proof of their donation but also could see how much of the total amount this man, named Samuel, had collected so far. Yes, it could have been a scam, but why bother when he could have just begged – he would have got the sympathy vote! Instead he was steadily and proactively trying to change his life, and I for one wanted to be involved, even in the smallest way, in donating to his worthy cause.
Zanzibar offered us beautiful beaches, Red Colobus monkeys in the Jozani forest (found nowhere else in the world), opportunities to feed and interact with giant sea turtles, historic beauty and interesting sites dating back over a thousand years, spice farm tours (which were MUCH more fun than I expected!) and a refreshing dose of reasons to believe, both in humanity and Africa. Sure, there are issues that need to be dealt with, there is much work to be done but what we saw suggested that things are improving, and with a people so involved and engaged that’s no wonder at all. Maybe it’s a little hippy, but then again I am a little hippy!
Poverty Monitoring. 2011. ‘Tanzania, Country Report on the Millennium Development Goals 2010’ http://www.povertymonitoring.go.tz/WhatisNew/MDG%20Report%202010.pdf