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Side effects: foreign oppression and otherness in Ng'ambo, Zanzibar Town

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Following physical separation from Stone Town and colonial alienation, Ng’ambo is gradually shaking off the shackles of segregation

In Kiswahili, the language spoken along the Swahili coast, Ng’ambo means ‘the other side’, a common way of referring to ‘the other side of a place’. It is also the name given to the ‘other side’ of Zanzibar Town, historically describing the neighbourhoods across the street from Stone Town, a World Heritage Site. Ng’ambo and Stone Town share a common history going back to the early 19th century and, over the years, the two parts of the city established a mutual relationship touching on all levels of the sociocultural, economic and urban aspects of life. However, the inherent connection between them was severed by foreign impositions, leading to a division of the city – Ng’ambo ceased to represent the geographic ‘other’ only and became a metaphorical ‘other’.

‘The borders of Zanzibar Town’s World Heritage Site follow the lines of the racially segregated city, re-etching the colonial legacy onto the present city’

Shaped by local traditions of Swahili urbanism, foreign dominance and international practitioners, Zanzibar Town is the capital city of Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous part of the United Republic of Tanzania. The diverse origins of its inhabitants, the varied provenance of the merchants passing through the city since the 10th century, the foreign background of some of Zanzibar’s rulers, and the tourists visiting today have all left their mark on its urban landscape. British, Indian, East German, Chinese, Norwegian, Israeli and Tanzanian planners and architects have all been responsible for the city’s rich history of urban planning.

06 lanchester ethnic map stiched

06 lanchester ethnic map stiched

Racial segregation in Zanzibar Town was outlined by Henry Lanchester in his masterplan of 1923, which showed Stone Town on one side of the creek, and Ng’ambo, the ‘Native Quarters’, on the other

The origins of Zanzibar Town can be traced back to a diko (fishermen’s settlement) once located at Shangani, a neighbourhood in present-day Stone Town. It experienced a short occupation by the Portuguese in the 15th century and, in 1834, became home to the Sultan of Oman, Seyyid Said. The sultan divided his time between Muscat and Zanzibar, which boosted the growth of the city. From the 1830s until the 1920s, Zanzibar Town was the largest urban settlement in East Africa and the uncontested centre of the Swahili world before losing its status to the new colonial East African capitals – Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Kampala.

102 4756

102 4756

Source: ALEXANDRA PAPADAKI

The city is a tapestry of different influences and cultures including Christ Church built in 1903 by the British (centre of image), Islamic minarets and Swahili houses. The Michenzani blocks in Ng’ambo, pictured in the distance, were designed by East German architects in the 1960s

Ng’ambo originated as a suburb of Zanzibar Town, most likely before the 1840s. It developed across a creek – a natural barrier once separating the peninsula, where Stone Town is today, from the mainland. By the advent of the British protectorate in 1890, the two elements, Ng’ambo and Stone Town, formed a truly cosmopolitan city inhabited by various social and ethnic groups, which built similar architecture on both sides of the creek.

Drhfcd

Drhfcd

Source: CHRONICLE / ALAMY

Perversely, the British colonisers were disappointed by Zanzibar’s largely undecorated architecture, constructing exoticised and Orientalist Indo-Saracenic buildings, like the Peace Memorial Museum designed by John Houston Sinclair in the 1920s

The natural barrier dividing the city was turned into a cordon sanitaire by the British colonisers and the creek was gradually reclaimed. By the 1930s, the city was segregated along racial lines, following proposals put forth by the urban planner Henry Vaughan Lanchester in 1923: Stone Town was designated the ‘European, Arab and Indian Quarters’ while Ng’ambo became the ‘Native Quarters’. Although a great number of labourers continued to commute to Stone Town on a daily basis, the ‘crossing over’, as the historian Laura Fair calls it, for cultural purposes became less frequent from the 1930s.

With the imposition of segregation, efforts to fix the racial boundaries were sustained through attempts to relate building types and materials to race. The legally defined ‘hut’ was associated with Africans and effectively banned from Stone Town (although by the beginning of the 20th century the number of ‘huts’ in ‘stone town’ still exceeded the number of houses built in stone). In addition to racially motivated interventions in the urban realm, British officials were driven by aesthetic motivations. The largely plain, undecorated architecture of Zanzibar disappointed the colonisers’ Orientalist perceptions as not befitting its exotic setting. Zanzibar Town’s waterfront was redeveloped in a monumental manner and elements of Indo-Saracenic architecture, foreign to the island, were introduced into the decorative repertoire of the city’s public buildings.

05 ng' ambo late 19th century znz archives

05 ng’ ambo late 19th century znz archives

Source: ZANZIBAR NATIONAL ARCHIVES

Huts started lining the streets of Ng’ambo in the 19th century (left). Although still found in Stone Town, the building type was forcibly associated with Africans and used by the colonial administration to impose segregation

Since Lanchester’s masterplan in 1923, Zanzibar Town has been subjected to four further masterplans: a second British masterplan, by Henry Kendall and Geoffrey Mill in 1956; an East German scheme by Hubert Scholz in 1968; one by Chinese planners Gu Yu Chang and Qian Kequan in 1982; and a proposal by Israeli firm Shapira & Hellerman Planners in 2015. None was ever fully realised – the impact of the 2015 plan is yet to be seen – due to a lack of manpower, finances or changing political circumstances, but all have, in various degrees, left their imprint on the city. Each of these masterplans attempted to impose a new urban order on Ng’ambo. From colonial times onwards, the built environment of ‘the other side’ has been considered unorganised and in need of rationalisation, and little attention has been paid to the quality of its building stock. Whether through gradual reconstruction or complete removal – as proposed by the 1968 plan commissioned by the first president of Zanzibar, Abeid Karume – Ng’ambo’s Swahili urban tissue has been repeatedly threatened with destruction.

Av23.75 tc

Av23.75 tc

Source: ZANZIBAR NATIONAL ARCHIVES

Labourers made the daily commute across the creek until cultural cross-over between Stone Town and Ng’ambo became limited from the 1930s

Following the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964, Karume inherited a city marked by the colonial footprint of segregation. Shortly after seizing power, the president embarked on a large-scale modernisation project to demonstrate the spirit of the young republic influenced by socialist ideology and to undo the existing racial split. Land and properties in the city were nationalised, and palaces in Stone Town were populated with families from rural areas, who replaced former owners. In spatial terms, the most imposing and distinct element of Karume’s project was the Michenzani housing scheme. Inspired by the ideas of the East German urban planners who designed the 1968 masterplan, the blocks and boulevards cutting across Ng’ambo were, in the end, a reflection of Karume’s own grand visions of a Modernist New Town. His project never went beyond the Michenzani blocks, but the intervention permanently altered the urban fabric of Ng’ambo by disrupting the existing neighbourhoods and leading to forced resettlements of the inhabitants.

Img 6044

Img 6044

Source: ALEXANDRA PAPADAKI

The controversial Michenzani apartment blocks, designed in the wake of the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964, cleaved through the fabric of Ng’ambo

Despite the turmoil and upheavals, Ng’ambo has retained its distinct Swahili character, sustained over the years by the inhabitants’ resilience. Traditional elements of the Swahili urban landscape survive in the organic pattern of the area, despite the erstwhile attempts of colonial and post-independence authorities to impose a new order. These can be seen in the direct relation of the single-storey Swahili houses to the streets, in the arrangement of buildings relative to each other, or the mitaa (wards) developed around their respective mosques. The baraza, a bench at the front of the house providing space for repose and daily interaction for women and men, is another characteristic of Ng’ambo’s urban landscape, marking the subtle transition from private to public space.

Negotiation between tradition and modernity is inherent in the Swahili urban context. Maintaining its historical character, Ng’ambo has modernised over the years through an ongoing process driven by its inhabitants in parallel with top-down architectural and urban interventions. Individual houses have continuously been upgraded by their owners, in particular by the piecemeal replacement of perishable matter such as wattle and daub with more durable materials. For more-affluent owners, the upgrading and modernisation of residential units can also take the form of the new multi-storey buildings popping up across the neighbourhoods. Today, Ng’ambo retains its chiefly residential character but, over the years, it has become a multi-layered patchwork of types, styles and building technologies with a range of elements witness to varied moments in its history.

1 3.30 michenzani air mieke

1 3.30 michenzani air mieke

Source: MIEKE WOESTENBURG

Part of President Karume’s grand Modernist vision, they displaced the inhabitants and changed the character of the district, resulting in yet more geographical segregation

The introduction of racial segregation to Zanzibar Town changed the internal dynamic between the parts of the city; no longer closely connected and interdependent, the city seemed to comprise two worlds. Colonial propaganda created narratives that are, arguably, even more persistent and difficult to unmake than the footprint of physical urban segregation. Perceptions that the continent’s built environment is primitive, chaotic and unchanging still loom, and in this way Ng’ambo is no exception. As if to confirm this notion, the borders of Zanzibar Town’s World Heritage Site follow the lines of the racially segregated city, re-etching the colonial legacy onto the present city; the colonial narratives are still echoed in the way Zanzibar Town and the historical and cultural importance of its respective neighbourhoods are perceived.

In 2011 a Department of Urban and Rural Planning was established in Zanzibar. Four years later, in 2015, the Structure Plan for Zanzibar Municipality and its Immediate Periphery (ZansPlan) was commissioned, in which Ng’ambo, the ‘other side’ of Zanzibar Town, was designated the new city centre. The masterplan was further detailed by the Ng’ambo Local Area Plan, to revive the old connection between the two parts of the city. It stands as the first attempt by the authorities to reassess the cultural and architectural richness of historic Ng’ambo and rethink its ‘otherness’, as created by the colonial legacy.

Based on Ng’ambo Atlas: Historic Urban Landscape of Zanzibar Town’s ‘Other Side’ by Antoni Folkers and Iga Perzyna (eds)

This piece is featured in the AR November issue on the Foreign + Emerging Architecture – click here to purchase your copy today