From Zanzibar World Edition

Stone Town: A Zanzibar Renaissance
by Karen Hoffman

Following the Africa Travel Association's annual World Congress in Arusha, Tanzania in 1998, I had planned a few days visit to the nearby Island of Zanzibar. Leaving Arusha, we rushed to the airstrip, sure that a presidential traffic tie-up had caused us to miss the flight. The 20 or so passengers calmly seated in the tiny terminal building indicated to us that the plane coming from Dar Es Salaam was going to be late. The more than an hour delay led to casual conversations with fellow passengers. And so it was fortuitous that we met Paul Oliver, owner of Oliver's Camp near Tarangire National Park. Learning that we were to debark at Zanzibar he recommended that we try and locate John de Silva, a local artist/historian, an excellent tour guide who could provide us with a more intimate 'portrait' of the history of Stone Town, the oldest section of Zanzibar Town, a bustling Swahili (Arabic influence) port.

Zanzibar, for me, was always one of those 'far off' places whose very name conjured up a romantic, mystical image. The reality, although on the brink of new development, in no way spoiled the dream. Located about 30 K off the coast of mainland Tanzania in the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar is actually an archipelago with the two main Islands of Zanzibar (also known as Unguja, the larger one) and Pemba (the smaller of the two). Incorporated into the United Republic of Tanzania in 1964, Zanzibar, which in 1992 had only 723,300 people, does have its own democratically elected president and government that run the internal affairs of the Islands.

We checked in at the Zanzibar Serena Inn, a 51-room world-class property on the Stone Town waterfront. The hotel, a splendid example of the careful preservation of historic buildings provided a perfect base for exploring on foot. This project undertaken by the Aga Kahn Fund for Economic Development, owner and manager of the Serena Hotels, involved the restoration and rehabilitation of two historic buildings , the Old Extelcoms Building and the Chinese Doctors' Residence.

Finding De Silva proved to be all part of the Stone Town adventure. Not expecting quick results, we started our inquiry with the Serena's Duty Manager, Rahim Azad. "Of course, I know him well," he responded with a smile. "But since he does not have a phone, I will take you there in the afternoon." The five minute walk to De Silva's flat through twisting and turning casbah-like alleys, was immediately intoxicating. At every turn, a new vista. Swahili-clad people mixed with those of western dress. Old buildings in juxtaposition with recent renovations.

At once, provincial yet cosmopolitan, a reflection of its history as a cross roads of the trade routes. De Silva lived on the third floor of an old Arab style house. The knock went unanswered. O ur gracious hotel manager left a note on the door to arrange a meeting with De Silva for the next day to take us on a walking tour of Stone Town. De Silva's personal story, intertwined with the recent history of Stone Town, is one of many stories that reflect the diversity of the population who call this historic place home. Born in Goa, he came to Zanzibar at the age of nine. His father was a dressmaker in the sultans' court. In 1958 de Silva started work in accounting, but his interest in art soon led him to work on the restoration of the paintings and murals of the Catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph's. Built by the French about 1898, the Cathedral's Romanesque style is a replica of the basilica of Notre Dame De La Garde of Marseilles. Although De Silver's early paintings featured Zanzibar portraits, the work on the Cathedral spurred his interest in the architecture and history of Stone Town. Concerned that there was no record of these diverse architecture styles influenced by the cultures of the Omani Arabs, Indians, Persians and European colonials, his art now focused on the buildings of Stone Town. De Silva captured these facades in pen and ink and watercolor as well as with his camera. He boasts a collection of over 300 photos, most taken by him, and in many instances the only known record of the carved wood doors, windows, iron latticework decorating the balconies, the alleys, streets, historical and architecturally important buildings typical of Stone Town. In 1991, the United Republic of Tanzania approved a proposal by de Silva to dedicate a series of postage stamps to the rich architectural heritage and history of Stone Town. A unique collection of four stamps were issued featuring De Silver's Stone Town drawings of the National Museum, The High Court building, the Balnara Mosque and a Balcony.

A living Museum
Walking along with De Silva, Stone Town became a living museum. He pointed out the details that distinguish the Arab ( Swahili) doors from the Indian style (Zanzibar has the largest number of carved doors in East Africa); the simplicity of the Arab mosques as compared to the ornate Indian mosques (Stone Town has 50 mosques and four Hindu temples); windows in the same building representing Gothic, Italian and English styles; history related through the chain of ownership of buildings as new rulers came to power; The House of Wonders, one of the first buildings in East Africa to have electricity; and the town's oldest existing building, the Portuguese Fort.

Our meandering continued past old buildings in various states of disrepair, interspersed with newly renovated buildings housing modern shops and hotels, that, like the Zanzibar Serena Inn, had preserved the original architectural design so to be in complete harmony with their surroundings. This respect for the environment is in large measure due to the fact in 1987, the Stone Town Conservation Authority was created to provide strict guidelines for architectural design and materials used in all renovations of public and privately owned buildings.

Is it working?
De Silva, through his paintings and drawings and frequent visits over the years to historical sites, and as a member of the Advisory Board of the Zanzibar Museums, often finds himself in serious discussions with the conservation authorities on what he considers inappropriate transformations of important architectural and historic areas which are under constant threat by wealthy and unsympathetic developers.'

The challenge to Stone Town, if it is to achieve a true renaissance, is to find the right formula for the preservation of its culture heritage, history and architecture, without creating a sterile new environment affordable only by the wealthy and the tourists, thus putting at risk the wonderful mosaic of peoples and cultures that make this historic community the enchanting place that it is today.