AFRICAN JOURNEY. The Zanzibar mystique: scents and scenes of a crumbling coral island

LIKE Timbuktu, Zanzibar is a name that beckons. Romantic. Evocative. And outlandish. But for many, it also embodies the unattainable.

As a student, I remember reading a postwar novel by West German author Alfred Andersch called: ``Zanzibar, oder der letzte Grund.'' (Zanzibar, or the Last Reason). The story itself had nothing to do with that historic Indian Ocean island of Arab sultans, slave markets, clove plantations, missionaries, and explorers just off the coast of Tanganyika. Instead, it represented a fantasy; a place one dreams of reaching, if only because it exists, but never does.

Traveling through modern-day Tanzania, however, I had no intention of missing Zanzibar. The tales of Burton, Speke, Livingstone, and other 19th-century voyagers who used this lush, coral island as a launching point to venture into darkest Africa had long since galvanized my imagination. Thus, I was somewhat perturbed when a friend of mine back in Nairobi warned that I might be disappointed. ``There's not much romanticism left, I'm afraid,'' he said. ``The place is falling to pieces.''

From Dar es Salaam, it was only a 20-minute plane ride. Arriving shortly before dusk, the coconut groves, spice ``shambas,'' and beaches were still daubed in the soft, pastel shades of the setting sun.

The once magnificent coral buildings, constructed by Indian craftsmen during the last century, have crumbled with neglect. Beautifully carved verandas, the wood badly rotted, hang precariously, while many of the town's distinctive ``Zanzibar'' doors made from Burma teak have splintered for lack of upkeep. But as I wandered through its narrow streets, I found the stone town's magic far from lost.

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

First colonized by Arab traders in the 8th century, Zanzibar may still boast a mystique unimpaired. But this unique conglomeration of historic influences ranging from Arabia to Persia, India, and even China is in serious danger of collapse.

According to Ulrich Malisius, a young West German architect energetically pushing for the stone town's renovation, as many as one-third of its 150-200-year-old houses have deteriorated to a point ``almost beyond repair.'' Another third, he maintains, are in ``poor'' condition with only the remainder considered ``reasonably intact.'' It has also become a question of public safety. Last year, a dozen houses fell down, killing eight people.

``Everything started to deteriorate with the revolution,'' notes Malisius, who works as an adviser to the Zanzibar Town Planning Office. ``Not just economically, but also in attitudes. People just didn't care anymore.''

For one, the overall decline of the Tanzanian economy has led to a severe shortage of building materials and funds for maintenance. There is also so little confidence in the government that few Zanzibaris with wealth are willing to show it.

The population, too, has changed. In the past, Zanzibar 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 Omani domination. The island's African majority massacred as many as 50,000 Arabs. Zanzibar's poorest were brought in from the countryside by the new revolutionary regime to live in abandoned or confiscated buildings.

Over the years, overcrowding set in. Many families, too, brought their rural customs with them. Women still cook over open charcoal fires in courtyards or on the terraces. They pound cassava or maize into flour using wooden mortars and pestles on the top floors dangerously shaking the foundations. ``The other problem is that absurdly cheap or even free rents have left no money for repairs,'' explained Malisius.

Zanzibar's illustrious but sordid past is vividly reflected in its architecture. For centuries, the northeast monsoons brought sailing ships from the Gulf to the East coast of Africa where traders established a chain of 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 are believed to have been brought in from the interior for sale during the late 18th and 19th centuries.

In 1890, the Omani sultanate became a British protectorate. Slavery was banned outright in 1897, but continued to operate illegally for years after. It is still possible to visit clandestine slave pens, partially concealed by the undergrowth, in the more remote areas of the island.

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. Public works inspectors, too, ensured that the houses were properly maintained.

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

Based on three international studies, renovation specialists have proposed the creation of a ``Stone Town Conservation and Development Authority.'' If accepted, plans call for an ambitious $5.5 million renovation project funded by Habitat of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Gulf nations. In the meantime, a small team from the Town Planning Office are striving to prevent further deterioration through an emergency renovation program.

``The idea is to provide the right materials at reasonable prices,'' notes Malisius, who spends much of his time wandering around advising residents.

The renovation program, however, faces numerous problems. Whereas Zanzibar was once famed for its ``fundi'' (craftsmen), there are virtually none left today. ``At present, the quality of craftsmanship on the island is incredibly poor,'' Malisius says. ``Fortunately, we have one old fundi who taught his son who, in turn, is now teaching a group of apprentices. This, at least, is a start.''

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. Similarly, they could make their own tiles to replace the corrugated iron roofs covering most stone town buildings.

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 notes. Ugly modern blocks already line the outskirts of the town.

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

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

``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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