The Extraordinary People of Zanzibar

On her third article from her journey to Zanzibar, Jelena Zoric highlights the incredible people of the island and how many cows she's worth.

Pole – pole.

The words you will hear a lot. The way you will learn to live.

Once you are trapped by the enchanting vibe of people from the spicy pearl of Indian Ocean – Zanzibar.

The best translation would be “take it easy” or “no rush”. 

One thing is for sure – with whatever troubles or problems you land on this island, they will almost completely fade away (at least while you are there). But, why?

Because the enigmatic laid-back attitude of locals and their positive laziness will captivate you, forcing you to become just like them – thinking differently and acting slowly.

Also, you will see so many shocking things and different problems these people are facing on a daily basis that some of your issues will seem ridiculous.

And what struck me the most was how their modest way of life never stops them from being happy and fulfilled with little that they have.

 

Easy Living in Jambiani

Meet Jambiani village and its people! 

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Jambo: A warm welcome from Jambiani

Our lovely home on the island. The best thing we did was decide to stay here instead in the 4-star beach hotel. 

There were no big iron gates, security codes or a bunch of guards. But there were for sure – lots of kind neighbors from Jambiani, a simple wooden house gate and Tajiri, Josef and Salama. 

Oh, and also loud cows, tiny local stores, cheerful kids with their bicycles and gardens full of seaweed drying out in the sun (together with freshly washed clothing). 

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Cleaning Up: The village’s laundry system

A simple life of a charming African fishing village. We often felt as if someone put in a postcard that suddenly became alive (or in the National Geographic episode).

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Home Sweet Home: The abodes of Jambiani

When you overcome the initial shock of how the real Zanzibar looks, you start to enjoy every single part of it. 

Homes in the village look unique. There’s no village in Europe built like this.

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Village People: Zanzibar at its purest

Most of them are made of stone with metal roofs and poorly done wooden doors. Some roofs are nothing more than piled up palm trees. 

However, all of it serves its purpose as locals know each other so there is almost no danger from stealing.

Mornings in the village can be blissfully peaceful and idyllic. Or not. 

One morning we woke up hearing such a harsh noise we thought someone was breaking the doors of our house. 

It turned out our first neighbour was chopping large coconuts just under our window. Another day, it was his cheerful cow who greeted us with such a loud “moo” all three of us jumped out of bed like crazy! 

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Cow Bizarre?: An interesting neighbour for our adventurers

Village had few local stores with limited supplies but enough for basics – they sell water and juices, teas , fruit and biscuits and things like soaps and toilet paper. 

Some, however, sell only fruits and local sim cards. 

It was a true revelation to find out the fruit store can also be a  post office, too.

We knew we were slowly becoming a Jambiani tribe when we stopped visiting local hotels to have breakfast there and instead couldn’t wait to buy samosas and delicious pastry from women from the village. 

They make different types of pastry filled with meat or veggies and sell it literally in front of their homes (as they can’t afford the store). You pick. 

They pack it in the newspapers. And that’s it  – you are ready to go. On the way back, you greet neighbours who got used to you (and even allow you to take pictures of them with messy hair).

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Routine: A hair appointment in Zanzibar

One of the biggest shocks was to discover people in the village had no beds. The rooms in their stone homes are very simple and they sit and sleep on stone benches usually covered with blankets or some type of fabric.

Also, most people from the village go to bed very early – they don’t have electricity. The ones who have, usually come from financially more stable families, the shop owners. Yet, every single one of them will greet you with the huge smile and be there to help out in case you need it.

 

As Soon as You Say “Jambo” You Are Already a “Rafiki”

Kindness is what makes these people genuine and extraordinary. We had the feeling we knew our Swahili neighbors for a long time, let’s not even talk about the superstars of the island – Maasais. 

As soon as we get out of the bed and walk to the beach with the first morning coffee, here they are to greet and meet us and simply say hi. 

After the second “Jambo” you already become their brother (Rafiki). It’s how they call people they like and consider friends.

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Jambo: The friendly Maasai neighbours

Kids running around the beach observing you with curiosity and playing with their sticks and balls and Salama, the best masseur of Jambiani.

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Making Friends: The local boys of Jambiani

The people from the local restaurant we liked to go to, were so friendly and kind, too. Many come from Tanzania mainland to work during the high season. 

One afternoon, we gathered around the bar and I was teaching them Serbian phrases while they were teaching me Swahili language. 

We will never forget Happy Happy, our dear waitress Furaha, who got this nickname because her name in Swahili means happiness.

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Zanzi-Bar: Making friends on the beach

 

You in a Rush? I Don’t Think So

You have to know one crucial thing about Zanzi. People are slow and chill and they don’t stress out. Remember “pole pole”? It’s their calm philosophy of living. And you won’t beat them.

All you can do is to join them.

Service in the restaurant (in Hotel, on the boat, in the club) can take ages and you’ll get used to it after day five. 

Our guide even told us they are secretly happy if there are not too many people in the bar, they simply don’t like crowds. 

That doesn’t mean the service is bad. Sometimes, it will just take time. But who cares, you are in Zanzi, right? 

I am thankful they actually taught us to slow down.

The city has a different, more lively vibe, full of bustling energy where there’s always something going on in the streets – this even includes preparation of a full Sunday lunch.

However, pole pole lives in every city corner. Just look at this wonderful old man enjoying making his little earrings.

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Jewellery Collection: An earring seller on the island

Or locals selling food but also drinking their afternoon coffee and chit chatting in front of the store.

 

One Pen at a Time – School Visit

The most striking contact with Swahili people was our visit to local school.

I will remember it with joy and all of those precious little neighbours will stay in our hearts forever.

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Lesson Time: The schoolboys in class

They welcomed us with the Hakuna Matata song, clapping their hands and smiling. Then we started singing along and dancing although we had no idea what we were singing about in Swahili. 

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And the girls too…

I insisted on handing out the presents I brought all the way from Serbia, personally to each child (none of us had presents for all of them but all of us covered more than two classes). 

They understood basic English and they responded with giggling and wanting to take photos.

We donated some pens, pencils, sweets, notebooks, whatever we heard they liked or needed. 

But what I will never forget was the moment I asked a teacher how to pick a child to give a big package of markers. 

She explained my gift was so precious we can’t do it like that. Then she asked me to unpack every package of pens I brought, so each kid can get a different colour. 

Most kids in schools are Muslim Swahili and rarely anyone goes to school after the age of 17. Those who are well off continue their schooling in the Capital, Dar es Salaam.

The elementary school and high school are part of the same building and it all looks like numerous classrooms in a square shaped building with an inner backyard. 

They have bars on the windows, modest wooden chairs and tables and some classes are held in classrooms with carpets only.

 

Life is on the Beach

Once the classes are over local kids and teenagers flock to the beach to swim, play football, hang out with their parents or help them with chores.

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Fun In The Sun: Life’s a beach for these youngsters

People in the villages live from fishing and seaweed farming. You will see women, walking and fishing in groups, or checking the seaweed crops. 

Seaweed is a great source of income – after it is collected, they dry it and use it to make cosmetic products and in food preparation, too.

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Working Hard: Seaweed is a well sought after commodity on the island

Kind-hearted local sailors will greet you on their way to repair their dhows and fishermen will chat about their catch of the day.

When the sunset hits the white sand of the island, everybody is out to play football! Locals mix with tourists to have fun and enjoy sports – one team of rafikis against the other.

 

Allergy Day or Short History Lesson With Tajiri

So, what do you do when you get an allergy from the cruel equatorial sun? You spend the morning at home with your Maasai friends, of course. 

This is exactly how I got an unexpected Maasai life lesson from our lovely guards. You won’t find this on Google.

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All Smiles: Josef, Jelena and Tajiri (right)

Maasai people don’t live in Zanzibar, they live in Kenya and Tanzania mainland and only visit the island during the peak season. 

They earn money by selling their lovely handmade jewellery. You will see them wearing the iconic Maasai garment mashuka – a thick red cotton blanket usually with black or blue stripes, wrapped around the body. 

They don’t go anywhere without their sticks – they use them often because they are cattle tribes, so it’s part of their identity. 

Don’t give them tips if they take a photo with you, they do it because they are friendly – support them by buying their jewellery.

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Massai: Three of the tribesmen on the island

After the short Maasai jumping session (I wasn’t that bad but Tajiri crashed it), we sat down to enjoy our African instant coffee and that is when Tajiri told me some mind-blowing facts about his people. This is Tajiri – our dear friend who looked after our home.

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Portrait: The travellers’ guard and historian, Tajiri
  • Pay attention to the faces of Maasai people – you will see marks on both cheeks and forehead. They stamp the skin of children with hot irons, when kids are five or six. Each stamp has a different shape so you know which tribe they belong to.When I asked Tajiri if he cried, he said:

    With each ceremony you have to prove you are a warrior. I wanted to cry but I couldn’t, you lose honour. They hold  both of your hands and you have to stay calm.

  • They are proud of their tattoos – what actually are scars from the fire marks (Ilkipirat ceremony) Josef showed me lovely dots on his shoulders in an unusual shape. He said he made it by himself and called it a tattoo. Each dot was a scar.It was hard for me to understand that someone can do that to their own body without screaming or suffering. Still, they say it hurts but you have to stay quiet. Skin stays swollen for more than 2 weeks before it heals.

     

  • They had to kill a lion at the age of 18 to celebrate adulthood. They used to do it by using only iron spears to prove they are morani (warriors). Luckily, this tradition is now banned and Maasai can kill lions only if they are a threat to their livestock. 
  • Maasai don’t go to the doctor. When I asked Tajiri when was the last time he took a blood test he looked at me as if I was crazy. I had to ask three times before he explained.They barely use modern medicine and use only their plants and tree roots to cure themselves. He was never sick in his life. One of the key reasons he claims all of them are so healthy is the fact they regularly drink raw cow blood.

     

  • I found out I was worth 30 cows. For Maasai, cows are everything. They believe God created cows for them only. The cows are their main source of income because they trade them for products or cash. Or – to buy a woman.This is how I was told an average looking woman is worth not more than 15 cows. But in a Maasai village I would be a superstar – Tajiri said a man would have to give 30 cows to my parents to marry me!

We spent our last afternoon on the island chilling with the locals around the pool and swings eating fresh seafood. It was really hard to say goodbye to our Maasai friends. In spite of their lack of education, technology and resources they taught us we all connect in ways that make us human.

If you are ever lucky to visit this magical island, talk to people. Greet them. Help them. Pick a beach house, not a fancy resort. Their goodness will remind you that even though we live different realities we are part of the same world – we are the same tribe. “All together as one” – TUKO PAMOJA. 

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Zanzibar: All Together – a fitting end to their trip

Special thanks to: Tajiri, Salama and Musa for taking care of us, Gari and Petra for being Superstar guides and Ljubce for making this adventure a reality!

Photo credits: Jelena Zoric, NY Minute Magazine, M. Kopczynska


Check out Jelena’s first and second parts of her trip now, if you missed them.

Zanzibar – In the Carefree Paradise of Laughter, Joy and Spices Part Two

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