Zanzibar and Cultural Differences

Recently, the Dar es Salaam interns spent a weekend near Stone Town, on the island of Zanzibar—only a short ferry ride away from Dar. During our trip, the culture in Zanzibar proved strikingly different from our own, and even from the culture in Dar es Salaam. Until 1886, Zanzibar was controlled by Arab slave traders, so Arabic influence still remains there today. Notably, Zanzibar is known for its Arabic architecture, including its aging, but beautifully ornate, doors. Islamic religious customs are also more noticeable in Zanzibar. The population of Tanzania as a whole is approximately one third Muslim, but in Zanzibar, the population is estimated to be 99% Muslim. We were thus immersed in a culture with contemporary Muslim customs and echoes of colonialism.

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Differences were immediately apparent, as we walked through the streets and the women were dressed in long, conservative garb. Now, Dar es Salaam is also conservative in dress (women are covered above the knees and shoulders should not be exposed), but a lot of the women we saw in Zanzibar had their arms and legs completely covered, which is a little less common in Dar.

Another notable cultural practice in Zanzibar is Ramadan. Ramadan is the Islamic celebration of the day on which Muslims believe that the Quran was first revealed to the prophet Muhammed. To commemorate this event, during the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast during the daytime, only eating and drinking at Sehr (a meal before sunrise) and at Iftar (a meal after sunset). In Canada, the month of Ramadan can pass entirely unnoticed, and even in Dar es Salaam, Ramadan is only celebrated by a minority of the population, but in Zanzibar, Ramadan greatly impacts many locals’ daily routines. This year, June 5th was the first day of Ramadan, and as we walked through Stone Town that day, everything seemed relatively quiet. Again, this was distinct from our experiences in Dar.

One evening, as we sat out on the rooftop of Maru Maru restaurant at sunset, we faced the skyline of Stone Town rooftops. A minaret’s location in the middle of Stone Town, right next to St. Joseph’s Catholic Roman Cathedral, presented an interesting juxtaposion of historical Western missionary work and contemporary Muslim religion. The call to prayer was easily heard from where we sat, and the atmosphere was entirely different from anything I had ever experienced. Put simply, it was beautiful.

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Overall, our trip to Zanzibar provided us with a fuller experience of some cultural elements that, while present in Dar, were still relatively unexplored by us. Having returned to Dar now, in the midst of Ramadan, I find myself more attentive to the distinct Islamic influence in the city. It is just one of many things that makes our trip to Tanzania such a unique experience.

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