African town built on slavery crumbles away

Zanzibar historic site falling victim to neglect


ZANZIBAR, Tanzania -- The long-neglected house fell during heavy rains a few months ago, leaving another ragged gap in the labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys where Arab, African, Indian and European traditions have long mixed.

The three-story house was a remnant of the era when Zanzibar's Stone Town ranked as East Africa's leading exporter of spices and slaves. The rubble of coral stone and twisted mangrove beams is a reminder that the town's unique legacy is slowly being lost.

"We are in a race against time," said Mwalim A. Mwalim, director of the government conservation authority. "Now it's almost too late." Of Stone Town's nearly 2,000 buildings, "the majority are in poor to ruinous condition."

Still, the rate of collapse has slowed since the 1980s, when nearly every year saw a half-dozen buildings fall.

Five years ago, Stone Town received a boost when the United Nations awarded it World Heritage status, recognizing it as a historically intact East African coastal trading town that is also a living community. And the town is luring more tourists, who browse the shops and spice stalls along the winding streets.

Yet the core problem remains: Stone Town is no longer a well-to-do trading center. Most of its 16,000 residents are poor and pay highly subsidized rents to Zanzibar's government, which owns half the town but lacks money for preservation projects.

Without preservation, the town will crumble. Stone walls weaken in the hot, wet Indian Ocean climate, and the mangrove beams that hold up the roofs sag and rot.

Most of Stone Town dates to the second half of the 19th century, when the island-state of Zanzibar was ruled by an Arab sultan with ties to Oman. The sultan's family and court, along with Arab and Indian merchants, built grand two- and three-story houses with airy interior courtyards and elaborately carved wooden doors.

Expansion occurred haphazardly, producing the mazelike paths that in places barely accommodate pedestrians. Houses were built one against the other, and the addition of balconies and upper stories created a canopy effect, like an urban rain forest.

Slavery built the town. The Zanzibar slave trade, flourishing by the early 1500s when Portugal controlled the region, became a huge industry after the Omani Arabs expelled the Portuguese by the early 18th century. Arab traders journeyed far into the African interior for slaves, who were brought to Zanzibar and shipped to the Arabian Peninsula, Persia and elsewhere.

As recently as the 1860s, 20,000 slaves a year entered Zanzibar. Many were kept here to toil on the clove plantations that during the previous 50 years had grown up to make Zanzibar a leading source of the spice.

In 1890, Zanzibar became a British protectorate, and slavery ended. In 1963, the sultan became a constitutional monarch, but a month later a new government took power in a bloody revolution in which thousands died. Thousands more fled Zanzibar, which merged with mainland Tanganyika to become Tanzania.

Stone Town's grand edifices became mostly government-owned apartments inhabited by the poor. They built cooking fires on floors and paid no mind to leaky roofs, with disastrous results.

Today, some structures lean precariously, their coral-and-clay walls exposed to the elements. Muslim women glide past in black or brightly colored garb. Men idling away the days gossip in Swahili. The haunting Muslim call to prayer floats from the town's 48 mosques.

Mwalim is optimistic that a way will be found to preserve most of the town. But he wishes that his government shared his belief that conservation could turn Stone Town into a "moneymaking machine."

"It's pretty bad," said Thomas Green, manager of the Emerson and Green hotel, a former palace of the sultan's financial adviser. "In probably 50 years, I would expect a quarter of Stone Town to be gone if they don't start to do something."

Green, an American, said he understands the government's financial limits but cannot excuse the widespread neglect.

"They're not much on reinvesting," he said.

The most ambitious efforts have been made by the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the world's Ismaili community and a longtime supporter of Islamic cultural preservation. His local representative promotes preservation for its own value as well as a way to promote a community rich in history and natural beauty but little else.

"Tourists come to Zanzibar not for the beaches but for Stone Town and its heritage, buildings that are unique and were built 150 years ago," said Mahmud Shivji, who runs the Zanzibar office.

The Aga Khan network renovated the Serena Inn in 1997 and created a cultural center in the Old Dispensary, a former clinic with an elaborate double balcony.

The Aga Khan has also restored 10 multifamily houses owned by the government. After the renovations, residents are given 10-year leases to encourage better maintenance, and half their rent is put aside to pay for future repairs.

But it is not easy. On a recent walking tour, Shivji pointed out a house renovated a year ago. Already some tenants have realized that they can avoid paying rent. Already the lime coating on the interior walls is flaking off.

Shivji noted dryly that Swahili has no word for maintenance.

Moving briskly down a narrow alley, dodging an oncoming bicyclist, he continued: "You assume tenant committees would take a sense of ownership right away. But the reality is, it takes time."

Time is a luxury that Stone Town can no longer afford.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.