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Disturbing development in Zanzibar

A sombre report by Rafeal Marks of Zanzibar’s cultural mixture of vernacular architecture which is not seeing the benefits of regeneration

The island of Zanzibar, 22 miles off the coast of Tanzania in the middle of the Indian Ocean, conjures up romantic images of palm-fringed beaches, exotic spices and Arab bazaars. Once a sleepy backwater, it is now feted in the tourist literature as a charming and mysterious place still to be discovered by the discerning traveller.

At the heart of the island is Stone Town, an architectural milieu that reflects the island’s history as a melting pot of the different cultures and traditions of the Indian Ocean. A site of settlement from at least the 15th century, the town was built primarily between the 19th and early 20th centuries, combining elements of Omani, Indian, African and modern European building traditions into a unique hybrid mix. Arabic courtyard houses, long slender Indian ‘shopfront’ buildings and Swahili bungalows jostle for position along the narrow winding streets. The traditional restrained palette of heavy whitewashed limestone walls embellished with carved doors, windows and balconies, sits side by side with more modern materials of concrete, steel and glass.

Throughout its history, the town has had its fair share of trauma and change, including a bombardment by the British navy in 1896 and, more recently, the 1964 revolution, which saw the overthrow of the Sultan and his ruling elite. In the ensuing violence and confiscation of private properties, much of the urban population fled the island and the town lurched into a downward spiral of economic decline. Today, it is the site of newer struggles between the contradictory forces of global capital and local needs.

Since the 1990s the Zanzibar government has pursued an aggressive policy of liberal economics, spearheaded by high-end tourism. Stone Town is at the centre of these efforts, in which conservation, tourism and the free market go hand-in-hand. A Conservation and Development Plan, passed into law in 1994, signalled the start of this process. While well-intentioned, in reality it has had little effect in controlling the wave of development and change that the growing tourist industry has brought in its wake. Conservation and heritage have become smokescreens for the rampant exploitation of the town.

Much of the investment comes from foreign investors and little of the tourist economy trickles down to the local population. As parts of the town are privatised and transformed to cater to a tourist imaginary of a nostalgic past, much of the city remains untouched. Collapsing buildings, water and power shortages, accumulating rubbish, flooding, and other infrastructural problems remain the everyday experience of most people, causing increasing friction and discontent.

These issues have come to a head with a controversial land deal between the government and the Kempinski luxury hotel group. In exchange for US$1.5 million, the Dubai-based company received a 99-year lease for a building and adjacent public open space along the seafront which they plan to develop into a five-star hotel and car park. Mambo Msiige (meaning ‘do not imitate’ in Swahili) was until recently the island’s Register Office and the adjacent public space has long been used by fishermen and local footballers. As Abubaker A Shani, ex-Chief Building Inspector points out, these spaces have become deeply rooted in the Zanzibari cultural and social psyche.

Privatisation of these spaces has caused local and international outrage. Residents, local NGOs and even government officials have questioned the terms and legality of the deal, protesting about the lack of consultation and transparency. High-level corruption and back-door payments are widely suspected.

A petition to the government and local authorities has met with silence and UNESCO has threatened to revoke the town’s recently acquired World Heritage status if the development goes through. The government’s response is that it can make any decision, especially regarding its properties, and no one can question it. Meanwhile, only weeks ago Chinese contractors moved in, erecting site huts and fencing, closing roads and digging trial pits. Construction trucks weighing five times the permissible load now trundle the narrow streets.

Thirty years ago, sorry neglect and mismanagement threatened the long-term future of the heritage of Stone Town. Today, unfettered development catering to the growing tourist market is proving the real threat to the physical, cultural and social fabric of the town. Restoration efforts clearly need to steer a delicate course between attracting investment and promoting tourism while responding to local needs and aspirations. Unfortunately, at present, they seem to be heading in the wrong direction.

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