Visa-Free Zanzibar: Tshidi learns to pole-pole

Being a young professional in Gauteng, your personality can’t help but be moulded by the demands of the rat race that comes with living in South Africa’s economic hub.

So when an opportunity comes to check out, it’s very difficult - but possible – as I soon found out by the laid-back island life that is Zanzibar.

My trip was a short one following a manic election period in South Africa.

I boarded a Mango flight, which took around 3 hours to land in Zanzibar and returned just days after that on the airline’s very first commercial trip to Lanseria airport.

I think the first thing one takes in upon landing is the humidity, high temperatures along with just how tropical the island feels, this is even before the expected sights of white sandy beaches and the ocean.

To quickly focus on what everyday life on the island looks like, the people are poor, it’s clear in how they dress, in the under developed roads, the state of their towns and homes as well as that of some of the buildings pointed out by tour guides as schools. Yet, there is something about their way of life, maybe it’s their movement or polite approach towards one another and tourists that forces one to forget about the madness of Jozi. For me it was just fascinating to take in the lush greenery juxtaposed against what the Zanzibari see as bustling communities with numerous barbershops and clothing stores along some of the routes.

Interestingly enough it has the feel of some of South Africa’s villages during the 1990’s, with hints of urban life, oozing a little bit of “cool,” a sign that it’s not a country completely closed off from the modern way of life.

We were booked into a 5-star resort; the Diamonds La Gemma Est, situated along Nungwi road and overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. While this is in absolute contrast with some parts of Zanzibar, it is a welcome sight. Part of the magic here was just how well situated the hotel is, every room has a majestic view of the ocean, incredible sunsets and most important, the purest blue ocean and white sandy beaches are a mere short walk from the rooms.

The hotel staffers, like everyone else I encountered were extremely polite, this, along with the humid air and views served as constant reminders that I was far from home. Even more so due to the constant Swahili exchanges of greetings such as “Mambo,” “Karibu Sana”, “Jambo” and  “Asante Sana,” which means thank you and is also one tourists are generally quick to learn, along with “Rafiki, which means friend” and the ever-popular Disney Lion King refrain of “Hakuna Matata,” meaning there is no trouble. 

In spite of these, the island takes on a very homely feel, very relaxed as the people have adopted a “pole” way of life and tourists feel secure, I was very impressed hearing locals comment on how crime was not a concerning issue for them because it was not a frequent occurrence. As an outsider I have to comment on how while very poor, the island looks very clean, even where you can see abject poverty, one can’t help but be impressed by how lush and beautiful it looks, and again that crystal blue water, where you can see right to the surface, not a piece of plastic or bottle in sight.

This the interior Minister Mahmoud Kombo denied during a brief interview with journalists, explaining that they have had challenges with litter, hence a decision to ban the use of plastic. I think the only time I encountered an actual plastic bag was at the airport as I was making my way back home.

The Zanzibari also take great pride in sharing stories of the island’s history and their way of life, that almost every engagement with a local feels like a lesson of sorts, where I was constantly left in awe of their simple way of life.

While Zanzibar is absolutely breath-taking, it’s not  the place to go to for a wild night on the town or to let your hair down, the islanders take the idea of a “slow approach” to life seriously, I had some urging me to not try too many things in one go as I would not be able to fully experience or enjoy each activity, this speaks to eating and walking, or shopping while you are racing against time.

Beyond lazing about at the beach or attempting to snorkel, the island has the famous Stonetown tours, which draw a lot of tourists because of the late iconic Queen frontman Freddy Mercury, who was born in Zanzibar.

Before getting to Mercury’s home, our group touring the area started off at a spice market, lots of traders here not only battling to sell their spices but very keen to share the Zanzibari’s use of spices, for instance they told me as a woman the best purchase for me there would be nutmeg and men should buy ginger as they both serve as aphrodisiacs for the different sexes. I remember buying many different coffee blends and looking for their tasty rice grains, (they have the best rice I have ever tasted).

The tour, which easily takes up to 2 hours or the whole day depending on how much time one spends at the different stops celebrates the strange function of this ancient town, which some have converted into living space.

There are also great stories behind the island’s beautiful hand carved doors, massive wooden doors with intricate artwork are part of the story of the island, with most of them dating to the slave era.

The old Anglican cathedral, for me was a difficult stop, it once served as a slave market and the island has taken care to retain and display as many details of that era as possible. It is also interesting that in Zanzibar has gone on to become a mix of Muslims and Christians, who carry no grudges or pain from their past and the role some in the Arab community previously played during the slave era, with some including the tourism and information minister saying the Zanzibari were more interesting in forging ahead and growing their nation from that perspective.

While I spotted people selling chicken in the market area of Stonetown, it is the fish market that is popular, where fresh fish straight from the ocean is processed and sold right there.

Fish is incredibly central to their way of life, one evening I had a seven-course meal and everything except the dessert had a sea food element.

Going back to an earlier comment I made on the Mercury house, which I was so excited about, only to find the whole experience of visiting his home underwhelming. This, the home of the great lead of rock and roll band Queen had not been honoured nearly enough; it’s merely a door and a few pictures of him along some of the windows. I wondered what I expected since I felt so let down, only to realise part of the reason was, based on what the minister had to say a night before I went to explore Stonetown.

Khombo almost took the silent diplomacy route, South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, then president applied to Zimbabwe when its former President Robert Mugabe was clamping down on his people’s freedom and their economy had completely collapsed.

Even mentioning Mercury’s name felt like a difficult mission for the minister, I can only assume the silence and quiet approach is linked to what Mercury has represented as a proudly gay man and how he died.

Leaving Zanzibar, I quickly realised I miss the think humid air, I miss the incredibly friendly people of the island and its most important lesson, “Pole Sana” slowly slowly… as I fight to keep the Zanzibari spirit within me as I dive back into manic Gauteng in South Africa.


*Disclaimer: News24 Senior Reporter Tshidi Madia was hosted by Mango and Africa Stay for the duration of her visit to Zanzibar

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