Zanzibar Culture: Religion, Politics, And A Big Dance Party

Last week was the natural. This week is the cultural. But it’s not all churches and museums. Culture can be a late night, hip-hop African dance party, too. 


My second day in the Stone Town section of Zanzibar City was spent solo while the European girls went off to do some swimming with dolphins. I almost went with, but obeyed my truer calling to soak in the lifestyles of this novel, renowned part of the human world. Indeed, Stone Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so honored for being the political and religious heart of Zanzibar, and as such, boasts the architectural, cultural, and historical markers of various peoples past and present.

Zanzibar Island may be small, but it has a big history as a port of choice for traders meeting from Arab, Indian, Persian, and Western cultures. Though power volleyed between groups–most recently made independent from the British Empire in 1961–the dominate culture has maintained as Arab. Thus, Muslims of Middle Eastern and African descent make up 99% of the population.

I, along with a couple other travelers, was staying in the home of an expat living as a local in the heart of the Stone Town. Hers was one of countless squeezed into narrow units within the old school narrow alleyways that I stepped outside this day to see.

The doors of Stone Town are of specific intrigue to visitors:

Only three years after independence in 1961, Zanzibar joined the nation of Tanganyika, turning the name of the nation into TanZANia. But many would prefer to take the ZAN back out. Despite the autonomous standing of the island–with its own parliament and president–many want to loosen more so ties with the mainland.

This morning I encountered an alley intersection that opened to a house-sized square. Within were 100 men sitting and watching the one flatscreen televising debate on the floor of the Tanzanian parliament in Dodoma.

I was told the politicians were discussing a revised constitution–perhaps one with more autonomy for Zanzibar. You knew when a politician indicated this because that’s when the crowd of men would cheer.

After this, I exited the alleys for the coastal road where your more typical tourist attractions stood.

I wandered into the old fort and theater:

Built in the 1600s by the Middle Eastern Omanis. Today, it comes with souvenir vendors

I then took in a museum:

So did a class of local primary students.

To the left of this interior design exhibit was the museum balcony. Looking out, one doesn’t forget what made all this civilization possible–the ocean, and this location as trade hub of yesteryear, particularly in spices and slaves.

Leaving the historic, I then transitioned to the everyday.

Locals boys at a video game center

Dates for sale

By midafternoon, I took off my observer hat and jumped into the local life by going to a neighborhood gym.

As I was doing deadlifts, the owner came and stood by me with encouraging words for each up and down I did. “One!…Two!…Three!…Ndio! (yes) Ndio! (yes)”


While this whole day was unfolding, and the girls were out being one with the dolphins, I had also been taking the liberty to plan an event for the night–one that would unknowingly lead to a final, loud example of local culture.

Urska, the Slovenian flight attendant who stayed in the same place as I, had shared the day before that she was turning 30 on this day. I remember turning 30. I was in China and invited all my Chinese and Western friends out for a dinner. Assuming I’d be treated, I ordered a generous entree and even a dessert. As the meal was winding down, a few Chinese friends left, and I noticed it strange how the server hadn’t come by to settle their bill. Later, the server approached and handed me the tab with everyone’s orders. In China, the birthday boy/girl is honored to treat their friends.

Financial cultural differences aside, it was memorable evening, and one that I thought I should help Urska enjoy. I talked to Giovanni, the Brazilian fellow also staying with us and who worked around town as a cook. He set up a reservation at a restaurant where he used to work and ordered a cake. I bought some party favors at a small stationary store and prepared a gift from Lauren and I.

When the girls returned, we all readied to go out. Urska knew about the dinner, but not about the cake or the party hat!

She dove right into the birthday princess role.

We got to the restaurant, the third floor of an old building in the hotel section of Stone Town. We took the wooden staircase up the outside of the building, then stayed outside for dinner on the balcony.

Abdi, our spice tour guide, honored his invitation.

Lauren and Abdi

Then, so did Giovanni with a birthday cake. He also brought along a couple gal friends from Germany. Them three thirty-somethings liked to drink, smoke, and party. Lastly, there were a couple uninvited, but welcome, local guys who stood around and mingled and shared in the cake.

After dinner, it was time for gifts:

Lauren and I gave Urska a framed picture of us on our spice tour.

Fun was had by all.

Giovanni next to me. You’ll see more of him in a minute.

Contrary to our plans, the night wasn’t over. Giovanni and his party girls told us to jump in a taxi and follow his car to a big dance party.

Though I was skeptical whether I’d enjoy this loud, crowded, alcohol-induced, late-hour event for local Zanzibarian youth, Giovanni was persistent, and the decision was Urska’s.

Off we went.

Our taxi followed Giovanni block after block until buildings ended and forests began. Where were we going? On the way, some Bob Marley played in the cab. Nice touch as I looked out at the starlit night. I wanted to keep this mood going.

But soon we slowed down as we saw cars parked along the rural road in the 11pm darkness. Men in military fatigues guiding our car where to go. (We had heard it had something to do with he military, which made me wonder. Turns out they were there just for security, I believe.)

We parked next to Giovanni and then approached the club with a couple dozen people standing outside.


Here’s a summary of our night thus far courtesy of myself with birthday girl as camerawoman:

We walked to the entrance, paid the three dollar cover charge, and entered a large, dark room with a recessed dance floor. The others jumped in right away. I waited alongside the “pool” like an apprehensive swimmer. When I hopped down into the floor to give it a chance, though, I really began to enjoy the dancing and the music.

Of course, so did the others:

Party girls in their element. Giovanni found it favorable to go shirtless–told ya you’d see more of him. (Not sure why the darkness and my camera flash produced these spots.)

As the night went on, the floor got more crowded.

Who made all these people move about so?

Back outside, people were scattered in groups of twos, threes, and tens. Those of us coming from the dance floor made for these guys across the way who set up a fruit stand.

And after a welcome, middle-of-the-night refreshment, we found a taxi to bring us back. I didn’t put my head down on my pillow until 2-something. (Late for me, anyway.)

This was the end of Stone Town for me—a fitting end as I came to Zanzibar with images of quiet, relaxing beaches dancing in my head. And since I was heading to them the next day, best to end this bustling part of the island on a bang.

Next we go to the white sand beaches of the northern Zanzibar coast.


What say you?