Legendary Zanzibar: beautiful but neglected. Renovation aims to restore once-thriving Indian Ocean port

Like Timbuktu, Zanzibar is a name that beckons. Romantic. Evocative. And outlandish in its exoticism. But for many, it also embodies the unattainable: West German author Alfred Andersch captured that quality in his novel ``Zanzibar, oder der letzte Grund'' (Zanzibar, or the Last Reason). It had nothing to do with the Indian Ocean island of Arab sultans, slave markets, clove plantations, and explorers. Instead, it symbolized a fantasy -- a place one dreams of reaching but never does.

Traveling through modern-day Tanzania (the collective name for mainland Tanganyika and the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba), however, I had no intention of missing that symbol of legends. The tales of Sir Richard Burton, John Hanning Speke, David Livingstone, and other 19th-century voyagers who used this lush coral island as a launching point to venture into what was then always called ``darkest Africa,'' had long galvanized my imagination. Thus, I was somewhat perturbed by a friend's warning.

``There's not much romanticism left, I'm afraid,'' he said. ``The place is falling to pieces.''

Undaunted, I went. Coconut groves, spice huts, and beaches were daubed in the soft pastel shades of the setting sun when we landed after a 20-minute flight from Dar es Salaam on the mainland. Later, as I began to scout out my new surroundings, I concluded that the warning was accurate: Zanzibar's renowned old Stone Town (the old town part of the city of Zanzibar) was in a sad state of disrepair.

Neglect has crumbled the once magnificent coral buildings, constructed by Indian craftsmen during the last century. Beautifully carved verandas, the wood badly rotted, hang precariously, while many of the town's distinctive ``Zanzibar doors'' (made from Burma teak, elaborately carved and brass-studded) have splintered for lack of upkeep.

But as I wandered through the narrow streets, I found Stone Town's magic far from lost.

A myriad of scents -- spices, coffee, burning wax, and flowering frangipani -- wafted from numerous alleyway shops. Sitting in the amber glow of street lanterns, old men and children greeted me merrily in Swahili. From one house flowed the melodious tones of a classical string instrument. Strangely, the light, the houses, the balconies, suggested a medieval Venice without canals.

According to Ulrich Malisius, a young West German architect energetically pushing for Stone Town's renovation, as many as one-third of its 150- to 200-year-old houses have deteriorated to a point ``almost beyond repair.'' Another third, he maintains, are in poor condition; the remainder he considers ``reasonably intact.'' There are also public safety concerns. Last year, a dozen houses fell down, killing eight people.

The overall decline of the Tanzanian economy has led to a severe shortage of building materials and funds for maintenance. Also, the population has changed. In the past, Stone Town used to be inhabited primarily by well-to-do Arabs, Indians, and some Europeans.

But in early 1964, a month after independence from the British, the left-wing Afro-Shirazi party revolted against continued domination by Arabs in Oman. The island's African majority massacred as many as 50,000 Arabs. Zanzibar's poorest were brought to live in abandoned or confiscated buildings.

The years brought overcrowding. Many families kept their rural customs and now women cook over open charcoal fires in courtyards or on the terraces. On the top floors they make flour using wooden mortars and pestles. The pounding dangerously shakes the foundations. ``The other problem is that absurdly cheap or even free rents have left no money for repairs,'' explained Mr. Malisius.

Zanzibar's past is illustrious but there were sordid moments. For centuries, the northeast monsoons brought sailing ships from the Gulf to the east coast of Africa where traders established settlements. Exchanging guns, knives, and cloth for slaves, ivory, spices, and skins, they then returned with the southwest winds.

Zanzibar soon became the principle East African port. So lucrative was the slave trade, that Omani Sultan Sayid Said transferred his capital from Muscat to the island in 1832. An estimated 1.2 million slaves were brought from the interior for sale during the late 18th and 19th centuries.

In 1890, the Omani sultanate became a British protectorate. Slavery was banned in 1897, but continued to operate illegally for years after.

The British gave Zanzibar its first semblance of town planning. They installed street lighting, water drains, and electricity, laid out public parks, plastered the streets, and imposed strict building regulations.

It is only recently that the Tanzanian authorities have begun to take steps to save old Zanzibar.

Renovation specialists have proposed the creation of a Stone Town Conservation and Development Authority based on three international studies. If accepted, plans call for an ambitious $5.5 million renovation project funded by Habitat of the UN Development Program and the Gulf nations.

In the meantime, a small team from the Town Planning Office is striving to prevent further deterioration through an emergency renovation program. ``The idea is to provide the right materials at reasonable prices,'' noted Malisius, who spends much of his time advising residents on proper renovation methods.

Inspecting several buildings in various stages of renovation, Malisius pointed out that outside walls must be painted every year. Ideally, too, the mangrove poles supporting the ceilings should be replaced every four or five years to prevent wood rot.

The renovation program, however, faces numerous problems. Whereas Zanzibar was once famed for its craftsmen, there are virtually none left today.

``At present, the quality of craftsmanship on the island is incredibly poor. Fortunately, we have one old fundi [craftsman] who taught his son who, in turn, is now teaching a group of apprentices. This, at least, is a start,'' Malisius says. Another drawback is that it is easier to import materials such as cement rather than dig for lime, a local resource. Eventually, stresses Malisius, Zanzibaris must seek to revive the island's lime production.

According to Malisius, one of the biggest impediments is persuading Zanzibaris of the need to preserve their cultural heritage.

``Many would rather tear down their old house and build a new one,'' he says. Ugly modern blocks already line the town. ``We Germans did the same after World War II until we realized what we were destroying.''

Overall, Zanzibar's best chance of survival is basic economics. Both the Stone Town and the island's historic landmarks, the sultan's palace or the former slave pens, both potentially attractive to tourists, could prove a valuable bread ticket for future development.

But the government needs to offer the right incentives. One positive sign is the gradual privatization of houses now in state hands -- roughly 40 percent of the town. As it is, various mosques and houses owned by an Islamic religious organization are being reasonably maintained.

Some observers see a great future in Zanzibar. Its location, traditional Persian Gulf ties, and natural beauty could help make it a leading business and tourist center for the East African and Indian Ocean region.

Foreign concerns, notably from Oman, are seeking to establish prestige offices in the old town should Tanzania's socialist government liberalize the economy. Tourist interests, too, are angling for choice buildings. One such edifice, the traditionally styled Spice Inn, already has been beautifully restored.

``People realize that Zanzibar is dilapidated,'' said Mohajir Ali, a Tanzanian member of the town renovation team. ``They remember when it was a thriving place with shops and businesses. But when it all slumped, they saw their lives ruined. It is our job to show them what can be done.''

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