Travel – Zanzibar: On the island of faith

2014-07-21 06:00

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On a trip to Zanzibar just off Tanzania, City Press sports reporter Daniel Mothowagae encounters an island driven by Islam. He eats, drinks and basks in the sun - and meets a local beach boy

Midday in Zanzibar.

As we step off the plane, the heat hits us like a wave.

It’s the rainy season and the humidity here gives Durban a run for its money.

It’s not surprising the majority of tourists on the island spend their time in bathing suits on the beach.

Welcome to the land of “jambo” (“hi”) and “mambo” (“how are you?”), where you’ll hear way more Kiswahili than English.

A local Muslim woman in her hijab ushers us to the shuttle bus and into the rundown, buzzing terminal. It’s smaller than Noord Street taxi rank but oozes colour.

There’s no conveyor belt and luggage is handed to you over a counter.

Welcome to the island life.


We head to the legendary capital Stone Town, historic home to the island’s famous spice trade and tragic slave history. Through the bus window, one gets a snapshot of an island that is clearly in financial distress, yet also vibrant.

The foot traffic is frantic with worshippers rushing to places of prayer. It’s patently clear that religion drives the daily

routine on the lush, green island.


I’m here on vacation with my wife and plan to make the most of it and meet as many people as possible.

It’s easy to start a conversation as locals constantly stop and welcome one (“karibu sana”) and share the love of their home and its history.

Tourism is a way of life here.

The welcomes are mostly from men, though.

It soon ­becomes clear that trying to strike up a conversation with a woman in Zanzibar is a bit like trying to squeeze water from a stone.

Most women here would not even look me in the eye. My guess is that it’s because Muslim custom dictates their interaction with strange men.

For a Christian from a country of multiple religions, it’s curious and slightly unsettling.


We had done some reading beforehand, of course.

The tropical east African island is home to about 1.2?million inhabitants, 95% of whom are Muslim.

There is no written rule on what to wear or how to behave in public, but my wife was careful to pack a modest wardrobe.

Showing too much flesh – especially for women – can be considered indecent behaviour.

The same goes for drinking in public and public displays of affection. Try it and you’ll get disapproving looks from the locals.

It’s curious this, in a way. One of my colleagues had told me beforehand that sex tourism was big here.

Mainly German aunties, he said, who find an island squeeze in the form of a beach boy.

While the unwritten moral laws are pretty strict, Western dollars and tourism undermine them.

It must be conflicting for the locals. But they need the tourists and their cash.

Islam itself, of course, is a colonial construct. It was – according to our well-versed tour guide named Ali Baba – brought to the island by Arabic-Indian traders in the 10th century.


Ancient Islamic symbolism greets you wherever you go, most notably on historical doors.

“Arabic doors often bear an inscription on the top frieze, which is mostly a phrase from the Holy Qur’an for protection,” Ali Baba points out as we zigzag on foot through the bustling and congested Stone Town.

“These days, the size and decoration of a door shows the wealth of the owner of the house.”

We eat delicious local food in restaurants – Basmati rice is a staple, with chicken or fish – at the same kind of price as at home.


Heading northwest, we arrive at our resort and the incredible tranquility that is Hideaway of Nungwi. Only a year or so old, it stretches out into the blue waters and we sink into the powdery white beach for days on end, occasionally rising to eat, swim or kayak. Bliss.


I start to get to know the “beach boys” who are generally found hustling tourists for business.

Those selling boat rides like to call themselves “captain”.

They’re fluent in several languages – they’ll chat to you in broken Italian, German or English – because European tourists flock to this village and its often Italian-owned luxury resorts.

But not too far behind the scenes, Kendwa and nearby Nungwi villages are home to endemic poverty.

They are communities steeped in tradition and religion ­(despite the Western fashion influences – you’ll see Maasai in sunglasses and girls in hijabs with bright modern takkies).


But tourists must come first. One local trader I got to know – who only identified himself as Kico – is a Christian originally from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city. Zanzibar is quasi-autonomous but falls under Tanzanian ­control.

Kico is 25 and sells curios along the beach. At night, his stall turns into a shelter, where he sleeps.

He considers himself a foreigner in his own country: “Here you follow what the Muslims do or you go back to the mainland where there is a free mix of religions and everyone can follow what they believe.

“At first, the people of Kendwa were uncomfortable seeing tourists walking along their beaches half-naked. Especially the Italians.

They are crazy people. Some even go completely ­naked?...?But since the place is a tourist spot, they tend to break the rules to run businesses,” he says.

“But the locals don’t compromise when it comes to observing Islam. We follow what they do, such as observing the holy month of Ramadan, or else we face the consequences.”

Kico’s fellow trader at the tiny market, Robert, adds: “You can be jailed as punishment for eating during Ramadan.

There are people who police us throughout and if you are found with food during the day, you pay a fine or get imprisoned until the next Ramadan.”

But that rule didn’t apply to us because we’re tourists and as tourists, we’re one of the mainstays of the local economy.

- Find out more about Hideaway of Nungwi Resort & Spa at

Mothowagae was in Zanzibar courtesy of Mango Airlines. Mango flies directly to Zanzibar twice a week.

Visit for more details

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