I was born in Zanzibar, and two years later my family and I moved to Egypt, where I spent most of my early childhood. So I wasn’t in tune with my upbringing, my homeland, my culture, or even my language.

After a couple of years my family decided to take me to Zanzibar on one of my school holidays.

It was then, in the mid 90s, when I had my first experience with

Confusion At First Sight

Anybody who has visited Zanzibar has probably been to  Forodhani Park . Not many people, however, have seen it before the 2009 renovation by Aga Khan. It didn’t always look so clean and polished, it didn’t always have a kid’s playground, benches, security and fines for littering.

No, back when I first visited Forodhani, it was simply a get-together by the sea where people gathered with their families, friends, or dates, and basked in the ocean breeze as they sipped on sugar cane juice and enjoyed juicy fish kebabs.

I knew very little of Zanzibar when I first arrived.

The people, the food, the culture — it was an anomaly to me.

I wasn’t an observant kid, so all I did was eat. As I got older, however, my visits to Forodhani got more, well, felt more intuitive.

The daylight was serene. A strange, sort of, “peace in activity”. There is not much noise, but there’s a lot going on if you pay attention. A short walk away from Forodhani is the harbour, where you get a nice view of the boats, dhow tours, and fishermen catching the varieties of fish that will be cooked and served from the evening.

You will find the youth diving into the ocean, showing off who can perform the most flips before jumping into the sunlit water. You can see the horizon as the sun slowly sets, turning the sky from a bright blue to a dim orange before finally being consumed by the sea.

A Gracious Fortification Of Social Bonds

Then night comes, and once the food stalls and shops have been set, life explodes into a cocktail of flavours. Fresh seafood, meat, fried bananas,  mbata za urojo  (potatoes in a tangy turmeric soup), sugar cane juice, and a whole lot more to satisfy your palate. Apart from the food, what makes Forodhani special to me is the joy that is all around you. People seem so happy there, and not a drop of liquor is sold in the area.

Alcohol isn’t a large part of Zanzibari nightlife. This may surprise you, but it’s easy to forget that Zanzibar’s population is  predominantly Muslim.  Alcohol does not play a major role in Zanzibari festivities. You will find that social interactions in Zanzibar are lubricated through the consumption of food and spiced tea. While it isn’t as rigorous as in other Muslim countries, outdoor consumption of alcohol is not allowed in Zanzibar. Alcohol is served at certain locations, however, mostly in foreign owned hotels, restaurants, and clubs. I believe that one of the reasons the sale of alcohol has not been banned completely is due to Zanzibar’s booming tourist industry. So do not worry, if you want a drink before or after going to Forodhani, there are plenty of restaurants, clubs,  and hotels that serve alcohol.

Forodhani, however, is an alcohol free zone. Considering that it’s a park that both children and adults go to, it’s probably a good idea to keep the area alcohol-free.

Apart from the cinema and the beach, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a place where a two year old is enjoying himself as much as an adult in the same place.

Places free of social pressure tend to appeal to people of all ages.

Forodhani definitely has that vibe to it. You can eat, if you want to. You can have some juice, if you want to. If you’re not hungry you can watch the sunset. If you’re bored you can interact with people, go for a swim, take a walk, whatever you fancy. It’s a blessing to find a place I can take my hyper-active nephew and not feel like I have to be there for him

Surviving Time In Tanzania

To my surprise, Forodhani has not been ruined by industrialization or modernization, yet it has not been completely left behind by it. Modernization, for example, has greatly affected the music industry in mainland Tanzania. It went from cultural rhythms to  Bongo Flava , which is essentially Hip Hop and RnB.  Taarab , a popular genre of music in Zanzibar, has stayed the same for as long as I can remember, with just a few tweaks and changes along the way.

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In the mainland, it feels that with every new construction project, the people lose a bit of their culture. I’m all for industrialization but I begin to wonder why it is that industrialization has to come at the cost of the culture of a country.

Is improving the standards of living in a country and keeping in touch with our roots and heritage a mutually exclusive ideal?

If so, that would mean that it is our culture that is holding us back from development, and that it must be sacrificed if we want to enjoy the fruits of industrialization.

In 2009, Aga Khan renovated the Forodhani Park to include more shops, more benches, a kid’s playground, and a restaurant. When they first renovated the area, I was worried. I thought it would be victim to industrialization, that it would no longer be the peaceful escape from whatever crazy life experience you’re going through as you read this. Yet, to my surprise, everything remained the same.

 

I always used to hate that about Zanzibar. That since coming home for the first time in the early 90s, and visiting it now in 2016, almost everything is exactly the same. I kept hoping that maybe a new shopping mall would open, or a video game store, or a new cinema, something different to expect upon my return. Yet, looking at Forodhani now, I can’t help but realize how much of a good thing that can be. We have enough skyscrapers, factories, and shopping malls all over the world. It is not so bad having a place where you can get away from all that. A place where you can bite and suck on a sugar cane while contemplating your existence as you watch the sunset.

I’m not the most patriotic person out there, anybody who has studied politics will likely say the same thing. But the fact that Forodhani Park, and Zanzibari culture itself, has stood the test of time is something I am quite proud of.

Original photographs by Ghulam SarwarArchnet and Muhammad Mahdi Karim.