Zanzibar: Paradise in Peril (Take that CNN!)

After a long day of touring ruins of royal palace, spice farms (in which most of the time I felt so damn touristy despite this being an educational tour as part of my study program) and a local NGO, I was more than happy to just sit and watch a festival movie. But before I could sit and watch a movie, I had to fill my stomach with some spicy food; in this case, a Zanzibari pizza and sugarcane juice sold outside the festival venue. Seafood dominates the long stretch of food vendors in front of Beit El-Ajib (or House of Wonders) and Old Fort (where most of the films in competition are screened). Here, one can find any (I do mean ANY) kind of poor sea creatures on display – ready at your disposal – to be prepared and eaten mercilessly. There are variety of foods to satisfy everyone but I settled for the Zanzibari beef and vegetable (one) and a vegetarian (one) pizza (yes, I did write a post knocking down vegetarianism last year….oh well!). It tastes great, yet it is cheaper than those mind-numbingly expensive restaurants that cater to mzungo (European) tourist, plus the opportunity one gets to have a good conversation with the indigenous population that reveals much more than the guides and tours. In fact, while waiting for my vegetarian pizza I managed to have an interesting conversation with the chef (who, after finding out that I’m Somali, tried to say the only two Somali words he learned while living in Mombasa, Kenya in the early 1990s) about the state of the island.

In particular, the positive and negative effects tourism has had on the island – a question that has been bothering me quite a lot since I have arrived on the island – over the years. Indeed, the answer he gave is exactly what I have observed myself; mainly that tourists come here, “have fun” the week or two weeks they’re here by exploiting young men or women eager to earn some money. Perhaps I should be more explicit about the nature of the exploitation tourists bring here. The disturbing fact is that many tourists (mainly from Europe – I don’t want to generalize but this is a consistent occurrence unfortunately) come here and rent “guides” who are nothing more than sex workers. Most of the sex workers, believe it or not, are young men, who have no good education or job prospect. And it is the women from Europe (mostly) who come here to have fun with these young, hungry men. If pedophile men from Europe and North America go to Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam to have sex with children, women from Europe and North America come here to Zanzibar to do the same (although technically consensual) thing. You know that shy woman (perhaps her name is Cheryl) sitting in the next cubical workstation who seems to avoid humanity is not so shy when she takes her vacation in Zanzibar.

If Zanzibaris don’t find a way to preserve their island’s uniqueness from tourist’s thrash, they are in a deep shit.

Zanzibari pizza being prepared

Zanzibari pizza being prepared

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Categories: Africa Related, East Africa, tanzania, Travel | Tags: , , , , | 11 Comments

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11 thoughts on “Zanzibar: Paradise in Peril (Take that CNN!)

  1. JD

    That stuff looks very tasty. I’m up for one of those next time.

  2. Om

    You should definitely try it, man. It is delicious!

  3. Johannes Langer

    check out our analysis to sex tourism: http://globalviewmagazine.wordpress.com/2009/07/05/no-stereotypical-sex-tourist/

  4. Om

    Thanks Johannes! It is a great article…

  5. Om, sex tourism is rotting so many places in this world. Europeans and North Americans need to tone some of their shidh down, damn!

    Pizza looks yummy!

  6. cigaal

    sounds like zanzibaris have returned to a state of utwana. what you describe used to occur in the Gambia, i.e. mature-women+beachboys. i last visited this island more than a decade ago and it’s sad to hear the charm has gone.

  7. Maya

    Interesting post and website– I am also very interested in the effects of tourism on Zanzibar and wish that there were some regulations so that the island would not become destroyed by the effect of tourism. In terms of sex tourism, I am curious to know whether other relations are common, for instance is it possible for locals and foreigners (let’s say non-european) to have genuine relationships? I have seen a few on the island, but I always wonder if they are genuine and how to tell. If the transfer of money is not involved, if both speak kiswahili and if attachments form, could one call this genuine relationship, or somehow still exploitative? What do you think?

    • Om

      Maya,

      Thanks for the insightful comment. To your first point, I too wish there is some kind of regulation to curb the effects of tourism but the sad fact is Zanzibar is heavily reliant on tourism so the chances of legislation being implemented is very low. However, there are some lodges and other places catering to tourism that are trying their best to keep the negative effect of tourism at a minimum. For instance, there are ‘eco-friendly lodges and accommodations. On the other hand, the sex tourism that I’ve seen in the island is a strange phenomenon of the overall tourism trend in the island. First, most people don’t call it sex tourism because the predominant tourists who engage in the exchange of sex for benefit (whether money, food or other gifts, or a combination) are women. If the majority of the people that were doing this were men then you would have already seen the outrage in the press and government crackdown. Second, since these tourists “rent” beach boys (again, it is very hard for men to get away with this as easily as the women) as a local guide, the sex part isn’t obvious but is an acknowledged fact. Thirdly, the majority of these men are outsiders i.e. from the mainland, being with a beach boy and using a beach boy is not a big deal anymore. It is just something that happens and has that feel of “if it is not my brother, son, uncle, etc doing then it is not my problem” attitude.

      To your final and most intriguing question: sure, there are some genuine relationships that are developed by tourists and locals. I’m one of them. I have three very good friends who I keep in touch with. Like you said, it is easier for a non-European person to have a genuine relationship than a mzungu person would, just because the idea that Europeans are generally seen via the economic lenses, thus making the relationship more of services exchange than anything else (again, this is for variety of reasons – language barrier, cultural and religious differences, etc). But I know this is more of a generalization but there are definitely genuine relationships but I’d say this is more common between local men and tourist women and almost no interaction between tourist men and local, Zanzibari women because of the socio-religious and language barriers.

  8. Pingback: Zanzibar: Where women come to buy sex « Quick Take – As It Happens

  9. It is stranger! zanzibaris to have sex relation to other people! it is difficult! ithink mainlanders can do because of their social behaviour!

  10. kizunguzungu

    some very cynical and narrow views expressed here..basic fact wherever men and women or same sexes (!) meet in a social setting there is always a chance of sexual attraction! we are human animals first and foremost..
    the dynamics and phenomenon of casual sex fueled by drink and good times is similar in every holiday destination, bar and club in the world.. who is exploiting who? is this static? why do you (the observer) feel outraged? what is the culture that is being corrupted? the zanzibari culture of multiple marriages, swift divorces, extra marital affairs..where it is perfectly normal and polite to enquire when introduced to a person’s sibling if they are “same mother, same father?”
    zanzibar’s culture is only beginning to admit the existence of child sexual abuse and exploitation of domestic workers but is far from tackling it’s prevalence
    there are many sinister currents to island life
    the economic inequality factor of sexual hook ups may differ from country to country but is most vilified between older western women and young african guys it seems. older women are seen as easy pickings (same as fat/ ugly girls at the end of the night all over the world! distasteful but true ask any guy) and undoubtedly a gravy train..a fast track to opportunities not easily obtainable by more traditional methods of studying hard, working hard.. young guys are hot, fit, attentive and persistant and their motives not necessarily immediately obvious..typically people don’t always see society’s image of themselves.. your stereotypical overweight, unattractive, ‘kibibi’ may view herself as an exhausted intelligent hard working woman seeking some r & r and not feel her authentic interactions are a grotesque cliche. the cliche of the holiday romance is as old as the hills..are the men who pursue women as a full time career very very bad? immoral? perverse? or lazy? not following a particular eveil scheme, just going with the flow, taking the easiest routes, seeing where life leads them?
    but in 15 years of living as a westerner mzungu in zanzibar I see many changes. for example, younger tourists are coming to Zanzibar as it becomes a more affordable mainstream holiday destination for gap year/ volountourism etc. so many young girls now also hook up with young guys or older guys for fun or whatever.. sun, sea, sand, cocktails, sex… on the surface these appear more palatable relationships but usually with a shorter life and less financial gain
    another phenomena is the young zanzibari middle class moving at a swift pace providing another positive example to young people that it is possible to marry a girl from your neighbourhood with similar norms and values and have a successful life together if you are both educated and hard working. this is influencing zanzibar girls.. remember them? mostly absent from discourse of morally corrupt relationships in zanzibar.
    their traditional favoured option was marrying, raising children, aspiring to a fantasised arabic model of family life, with its realities of multiple partners and stifling patriachy..now growing awareness of contraception, benefits of higher education, direct women to seek more suitable husbands, delay childbirth, take more control of their own lives by working outside the home and they are visibly enjoying the rewards of this, driving, eating out in restaurants, building their own properties.. and this dynamic is positively impacting on modern zanzibari society, culture and relationships

    there is always dirt if you look hard enough but cliches are simply lazy, revealing most often the prejudices of the observer more than providing true insight into human interaction.

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