This is a piece that I wrote for Karibu magazine about the cultural tour that you can do in the coastal village of Jambiani - would recommend it for all visitors to the East Coast who want to understand a bit about the history, culture, flora and fauna of the area.
"Beaches in Zanzibar are picture postcard tropical beaches. The fine white coral sand, enticing turquoise ocean, palm trees waving in the sea breeze – it’s understandable that many tourists, having saved to get here and travelled a long way from their home countries, just want to lie on that perfect beach for their whole holiday. But it is also a shame to travel such a long way and not get a taste of the culture of your host country.
Guests to Jambiani, on Zanzibar’s stunning east coast, do have that opportunity. This long, narrow coastal village hugs one of the island’s loveliest beaches, dotted with hotels and guesthouses. Three and a half miles long, with a population of over 6000 people, this village has for some years featured a cultural tour that gives travellers an insight into the daily lives of locals, and some idea of their past and how their future might unfold.
Eco + Culture Tours, the creator of the tour, ploughs all the profits back into community projects, including a kindergarten for children from the age of three to seven. It was the first such kindergarten in the southern district of Zanzibar, set up in 2000, and provides an early education for local children in languages – Kiswahili, Arabic and English – as well as maths, science and environmental studies.
The tour starts at the kindergarten so visitors can see where the money from their tour is going. Next the tour guide, Haji Mande, explains the history of the island in brief. Not so long ago, he says, everybody lived in areas of coral plantations, in huts made from coconut leaves, and only went to the coast to fish and harvest coconuts. There was no tap water, no electricity, no school. But gradually the custom for building houses from stone and lime that originated in the island’s merchant area, Stone Town, spread east, and people started to build more permanent houses along the shore. The current school was built, meaning the new generation is much more educated than their ancestors were, and there is a small dispensary also in the centre of the village, meaning that villagers gravitate toward the heart of the village for their needs.
Previously young people left Jambiani in droves to seek work in town, but the current abundance of hotels – there are at least 18 now in the village – means that most people are now staying put in their home village and hoping to find employment in the tourist industry.
Eco + Culture, which started as an NGO then added tours to its operations to generate funds for its community projects, is trying to lead by example in Jambiani – by showing people simple ways of making money or food and improving their lives. For example, outside their headquarters they have planted lots of herbs and trees to create shade and demonstrate the variety of plants that can be grown along the main street. Many people develop eye problems from walking and working in the harsh glare of the sun day in and day out; the planting of tall trees to bestow shade would make for a much more comfortable existence for all, but is an idea that hasn’t been contemplated before. The older generation, Mr Mande explains, didn’t plant trees, and so the younger generation don’t either.
He shows off an Indian almond tree, which was used to make soft drinks long before the advent of Coca Cola on the island. There are also a variety of mints – one type used to combat flu and another kind that was used in the past to cleanse and scent dead bodies – as well as ylang ylang trees and screw palms.
Jambiani, with its curious linear shape, suddenly opens to reveal further strata. The next layer is of light forest – here villagers used to come to pray to spirits believed to be present in the trees. First there is the beach, then the sandy soil, then the coral, says Mr Mande, but most tourists just lie on the beach without learning any more about the landscape.
Moving onto the next strata, he reveals proudly a project Eco + Culture have been working on for some time. It’s designed to show villagers that coral rock, thought to be barren by most people locally, can actually provide a home for most plants given enough time and attention. There are about 100 species of plants here – almost everything you can imagine. Look one way – pomegranate trees. Another way – guava trees. There is also eucalyptus, golden mango, lemon, kaffir lime, vanilla, lemongrass, aloe vera and cloves. There is a henna tree – used to make up henna paste to adorn the skins of local women, and also sadly to brew a tea to bring on miscarriage. There is a glue tree, which produces white sap so sticky it is used as a local alternative to Superglue. There are green curry leaves and small starfruit that can be used to make vinegars and chutney. Not bad for a landscape of rock that few people thought could yield much. The plantation is open to all locals – anyone is welcome to come and pick fruit or leaves. Its fundamental purpose is to encourage people to try to plant coral gardens themselves.
Zanzibar’s fertility is notable – if even barren land like this can produce such a rich harvest then nobody should go hungry. It is also reflected in the abundance of herbal remedies that locals use to treat ailments. Visiting a fourth-generation local herbalist’s quarters, it is revealed that he has had to rush off on an emergency visit so Mr Mande instead shows the leaves and branches that make up the art of the herbalist.
One tree root can be used to treat classic malnutrition in children where stick-thin children model unnatural pot bellies. It’s mixed with coconut milk or oil, fed to the children, and then their stomachs return to the right proportions and their diminished appetite returns. Another leaf can be grinded up and mixed with honey to treat children with asthma; another is used in a tea to lower high blood pressure; another is used to extract poison from a stingray sting. One leaf can be treated to extract castor oil, used as an antiseptic in the process of male circumcision. There is a thin vine that can be used to treat blood haemorrhages. Trumpet flowers are dried and then rolled up and smoked by adults to treat asthma. The list goes on and on – name just about any malaise and there is a local plant cure. Many medical researchers have visited the herbalist, Mr Suleiman, to find out about the cures that he uses.
Still, the most important tree remains the coconut. The people of coastal Zanzibar rely on this palm to meet most of their basic needs. The tree provides branches to make shelter, food, drink, rope, oil for cooking and skin, cooking implements, drinking cups, soap, even rudimentary toothbrushes. The next part of the tour takes in a typical local house, where the woman of the house is using an “mbuzi” – a small stool with a long extension capped with a serrated edge – to shred the insides of a coconut. Then she uses this grated coconut flesh to extract coconut milk, which she will cook with rice. She also demonstrates a large-scale mortar and pestle, used to pound rice into rice flour and to make uji, the local porridge.
Another local woman demonstrates how to make rope from coconut husks. The husks are left to soak in the sea and sun for some weeks until they start to disintegrate into wet fibres. These are dried and cleaned by pounding them with a wooden stick until all excess moisture and debris is expelled. Women then roll small lengths of rough rope from the fibres and pleat these together into longer lengths of rope that can be used to make local beach beds, or combined into larger ropes for anchors.
The other major activity here is seaweed farming. Walking out through the squelching white sand at low tide, through shallow pools of darting, silvery fish, Mr Mande finally reaches the seaweed “farms” – wooden stakes with rope strung between them, on which seaweed is grown and later harvested for sale to the Far East, where it is used in cosmetic products and in the silk-making process. From beginning to end the process of growing, harvesting and drying seaweed can take under a month, so it’s a quick crop to turn around.
Driving to the very end of the village, Mr Mande announces the end of the tour. Calling itself a cultural tour is perhaps misleading – it is as much a tour of the local flora and geology as the local people, but it does certainly give tourists who would normally see only Jambiani’s white sands the chance to contribute to its future and to begin to appreciate what life is like within the village houses they pass in their minibuses on the way to their hotel."