Zanzibar Culture: A History of Crossed Influence


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Zanzibar is an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, about 30km off the mainland coast. It’s composed by several islands, the main of them being Pemba and Unguja (the biggest one, the one we usually call “Zanzibar”).

But you already know this. What you may not know is that we’re part of Tanzania, so speaking of Zanzibar culture implies speaking of Tanzania as a whole… and what a wonderful mixture of cultures Tanzania is!


2 zanzibar birdview


A brief history of influence


Let's make a quick checklist of the land.

  • First humans to set foot on Zanzibar came from the coast 20,000 years ago (as far as we know).
  • The Bantu-speaker population arrived with the first millennium C.E., and they established a coastal maritime culture between the 5th and 8th centuries, where agriculture, fishing and trade were the basis.
  • About 130 languages are spoken today in Tanzania… but Swahili became the leading Bantu language on the coast, and in Zanzibar.
  • But trading widens the world, and soon we got great influence from Persian, Indian and Arab merchants. Arab language lent a lot of loanwords and structures to our Swahili!
  • Portuguese, Omani and English rule were brought to our island during the next centuries, until the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964. Then we merged again with Tanganyika (the mainland) to create the United Republic of Tanzania.

A nice mixture, uh? And all these different cultures have left their print in our society. Today, Swahili is the lingua franca of the area and our official language. English is also extensively used, along with Arab, and even French or Italian. 

And our gastronomy also reflects those influences! Swahili recipes, the Indian-Arab love for spices, European touch… you’ll find very familiar flavours in our food markets, but also many new ones!


3 zanzibar swahili food


Our economy


We’ve been trading since the Ancient times: probably the Assyrians were our first international partner!

Our economy base has always been fishing and agriculture, and we’re mastering aquaculture with our seaweed farms (which also empower our women, who rule most of the farms).


4 zanzibar seaweed


But the trade came basically from spices. We've got the perfect climate and the perfect soil for most of them. Portuguese made good business with them (we were called for some time "The Spice Islands", same as The Moluccan Islands!) and Arab & Indian traders introduced new ones, such as clove.

Today, spice trading is still important, although not so much as it was in the past: it's tourism what brings today a big part of our GDP.


5 zanzibar spices


The result of this historical exchanges transforms Tanzania and Zanzibar into a unique African culture, with unique Swahili people: we respect tradition while we look to the future, and our country has become one of the safest and most free places in Africa.

The truth is we’d love to show you in person! There’s so much to learn and enjoy here… Book now your room at the Dhow Inn and let’s make it happen!

And stay tuned to the blog: in the next post we’ll continue explaining our culture with the Art, Religion & Traditions of Zanzibar!

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