Reader Report: Streets and People of Zanzibar, by Hassan Abba
While out in Tanzania for a family wedding, I got the opportunity to take same time and visit the Island of Zanzibar. I had planned Zanzibar to be a history and photography trip (candid, documentary, heritage, portraits and scenery).
The name Zanzibar evokes adventure and the exotic. It is derived from the Arabic Zinj El Barr (land of the Black People) and the island has been at the centre of trade between East Africa, the far East and Arabia since the 10th century. Until the abolition of the slave trade at the turn of the 19th century – Zanzibar was famous for Ivory, Slaves and Spices under the Omani Sultanate.
As a centre of trade, Zanzibar has had many races passing and settling there – Persians, Indians, Arabs and Swahili.
Stone Town Alleyways
Stone Town – the capital of Zanzibar and a UNESCO world heritage site has been influenced by various cultures. Arab influences include tall flat and white featureless walls separated by narrow alleyways to keep the harsh sun out. Tea houses and roof terraces to catch the sea breeze. It’s very easy to get lost in Stone Town’s alleyways. Swahili influences include smooth cement benches (baraza – entertain visitors outside) and occasional covered bridges between buildings (designed to preserve the modesty of ladies). Intricately curved balconies of teak or rosewood are Indian (Gujrati) in origin, along with arched carved doors with brass studs.
People of Zanzibar
I found the people of Zanzibar to be the most friendly and welcoming I have met so far. They have a very humble and easy going attitude to the traveller – maybe a cultural necessity to be at the centre of trade between civilisations. I also found the Zanzibari people to have a very helping attitude to each other.
While being welcoming, I also quickly found out that some of the Zanzibari people do not like to be photographed. Most Women and Girls – they would waggle a finger, cover their faces or turn away. Men, on the other hand, would ask for “One Dollar” – the result of tourism. Stealth photography is key in Zanzibar if people is what you want.
Sony A7 mk2 with 4 batteries with the following lenses:
- Just after sunrise and after sunset, I would use the Zeiss 55mm f1.8. The street lighting in Stone Town and it’s narrow alleyways is low – stretching the capability of the Zeiss and sony sensor.
- In the day between the above times with sunlight, my work horse was the 28-70mm f3.5-5.6 kit lens.
- I made use of the Canon FD 70-210mm f4 for sunsets/sunrises and to shoot candid from far.
What have I learnt?
The Sony full frame sensor and the Sony kit lens on their own are a good walk around setup. Couple this with the Zeiss 55mm and you have a very powerful combination for day and night street shooting.
Key equipment challenges:
- Changing lenses in the field will introduce dust to the sensor at some point. A check against a clear sky at f16 is good to do. This is something I should have done daily.
- Stone Town alleyways are lit up by sparsely spaced dim bulbs. This stretches the capability of lenses – at some points I wished I had a fast f1.4 or f1.2 lens. Also in narrow streets and little space, a 35mm would have fared better in capturing context than the 55mm in my view.
Dressing the way I do in the UK, easily stood me out as a tourist a mile away – attracting touts. Being Indian from East Africa, I bought a Zanzibari Kofia cap and dishdasha (full length white garment) to blend in. This worked to a certain extent as people mistook me for being Omani but the expensive Sony A7 gave it away on occasions.
I also found that the best time to go street shooting was after early morning prayers at sunrise. At this time, the tourists and touts are sleeping, the people are beginning the day and the light is sweet.
What did I Photograph?
The first day, I scouted the place with a map and a guide visiting various heritage sites and getting a sense of the place and it’s people. Stone Town is not a very big place but it’s easy to get lost in its winding alleys and no sense of direction.
Following this, my routine after the morning Fajr prayers was to either; 1) head for the beach to catch the sunrise, people exercising, swimming and fishing dhows or 2) head for Darajani market to catch the cleaners and new produce coming in from the nightly fishing catch. It’s not a place for those who have sensitive noses but the fish auction is worth investigating.
I would then go back to the hotel for breakfast and back into Stone Town’s network of alleys towards the harbour – taking photos of doors and people.
In the afternoon I would head out to excursions such as Prison Island, spice tours and various ruins outside Stone Town (Zanzibar is a small island). I would recommend Marahubi Palace and it’s beach where boats are hand built & renovated; however, some of the boat builders will refuse any photography (believing that money is made with their photos).
Returning back before sunset, I’d aim to catch the people and kids playing on the beach and harbour. They enjoy jumping from the harbour in all kinds of competing styles. Sunset also provides the opportunity to catch the dhows which head out to fish at night, against the setting sun.
In the evening, in front of the House of Wonders, Forodhani Gardens comes to life with tourists and locals sampling the street food market. After dinner and evening prayers I would make my way back to the hotel walking through the alleyways stopping briefly at Jaws corner where the locals gather to play draughts and chat.
Visit 236 Hurumzi for its roof restaurant and panoramic view from the second highest point in Stone Town and the sunset from Africa house.
In summary, there is a lot to photograph in Zanzibar. Stone Town can easily be covered on foot, offering heritage sites (in varying degrees of disrepair), elaborate doors, alleys, people/portraits, market, fishermen, sunset/sunrises, beautiful beaches, night skies without light pollution, countryside and ruins. My photographs only provide a brief insight into the photography potential of Zanzibar.