Zanzibar is an island off Tanzania in East Africa. Historically it was known for its spices and slave markets. Today it’s best known for its beaches and Stone Town. Jessica Sunter spent three months there as a volunteer with Youth Challenge International.
I was there working in a youth community centre with another young Canadian. I had studied international development at university and wanted to get some practical work experience. We lived and worked outside Stone Town in an area where tourists didn’t go, teaching English and participating in HIV/Aids awareness programs. I was also involved in a program to assist caregivers of children whose parents had died of aids.
Zanzibar is very different from the mainland because most of the people are Muslim. I found it really interesting to learn so much about Islam. We arrived at the beginning of Ramadan and the women were generally covered and very conservative in their dress. The only expectation of us during Ramadan was to be respectful so we never ate or drank anything in public because that would be hugely disrespectful for they were all fasting. We would always be asked about our religion and if we were fasting. They didn’t seem to care that we weren’t Muslim but they would have thought it strange if we said we weren’t religious. When Ramadan was over there was this huge feast and we went out dancing and were surprised to see some of our female students also dancing and in t-shirts and jeans.
Everyone was so kind and friendly. The young people wanted to always be with us and it was hard to get a moment to ourselves. They wanted to walk with us, practice their English with us, to teach us Swahili. As we walked along, people would yell out ‘white person’, ‘white person’, in Swahili. Often students invited us to their homes or to watch their soccer game.
The food is good and they use lots of spices. A favourite of ours was the French fry omelette (chipsi mayai). They eat lots of rice, fish and fruit. A woman came each morning to our house and cooked lunch for us. There would always be enough leftovers for dinner. Her brother, who was our night security guard, also had a coconut stand and every evening during Ramadan we would visit his stand as the sun was going down and break the fast with a drink of coconut milk. There was a sugar cane stand beside his and that juice was delicious too.
This was my first experience in international development and there was certainly a learning curve. At home we think we need to be productive all the time but a big part of my role there was to build relationships with the students and staff. I had to get used to being put on the spot. The second day I was there I was called upon to speak to the group and try to say something in Swahili. We were invited to a soccer game and in front of hundreds of people we were acknowledged as honoured guests. So the experience was character building.
Zanzibar is touristy. It’s the kind of place where travellers go to relax. The pace is slow. The island is small. There are Rastafarians around and ‘full moon parties’ on the beach. To get there, you take a ferry from the mainland. It can be a rough ride and you have to be careful that you buy your ticket from the right person or else you could be sold one for a small boat that takes three times as long to get there.
The best thing about Zanzibar is the people. I travelled in other places in Tanzania but certainly liked Zanzibar the best. No wonder they are so proud of who they are!
Photo credits: Jessica Sunter
© Riding the buses 2011