Thursday, August 21, 2014

Learning About Spice Horticulture in Zanzibar

On the evening after the first wedding luncheon, we were at loose ends for dinner and eventually settled on the Abyssinian Maritim restaurant (we took a look at Africa House but the “party” made it too darn loud).  We had a nice meal sitting on a patio near where we were staying in the Vuga neighborhood.  Ethiopian cuisine is a bit different here; not the same array of vegetables set up around the injera, you just get what vegetables you pay for, and the injera seems different; we wondered if it was made with tef or with wheat.  There was a fascinating coffee ceremony that involves smoking the beans before making the coffee, and it seemed to be served with popcorn; but nobody wanted coffee so we did not get a close-up view. 

On the way to Sea Cliff Resort for the final celebration of Sam and Nafisa’s wedding, we took a spice tour, the one nearly obligatory tour for visitors to Zanzibar.  Once again Jojoba Tours -- our reliable mainstay for touring in Zanzibar and indeed for our safaris on the mainland later in our trip -- assigned James as our tour guide, although we learned that his actual name is Juma, which means Friday in Swahili (he was born on a Friday).

Along the way, we learned about about Zanzibar’s socio-economic conditions; over the next fee days this information was supplemented by talking to some others.  Literacy is high and some 50-60% speak at least some English as well as Swahili; but the population  suffers from 30% unemployment.   There is a national minimum wage of 80,000 Tshillings per month, which comes to 4000 per day or about $2.50 per day in American currency.  The wages paid to government employees (and government is by far the largest employer) starts at 100,000 Tsh per month. Juma indicated, though, and one good source confirmed, that Zanzibaris are employed neither by the government nor by private companies, but rather are self-employed, thus placing them outside the minimum wage and social security umbrella.   And the minimum is so low that it gives one pause to quibble over prices for an advantage of a few thousand shillings, knowing what it means to local people (not that my competitive instincts did not take over when in bargaining situations).  During the course of our drive this day and the following day, when we headed up to Kendwa, we got a glimpse of roadside conditions reflecting the degree of poverty in which many Zanzibaris live. 

For the first several miles out of Zanzibar City, the roads were lined with shops of various kinds, with housing behind.  Although there were certainly cars on the road, most people were walking or riding bicycles, sometimes loaded with goods behind

We saw a number of horse carts in use between Stone Town and Sea Cliff,

and as we got further into the shamba, there were more bullock carts than horse carts.

We also got a look of the various ways thatch and corrugated were used for housing roofs, and brick, concrete and dirt and stone were used for the walls

Juma also talked about ethnic relations and, implicitly, racism.  Until independence in 1964, he said, at the top of the socio-economic pile were Arabs; second class were the Indians; and Africans were strictly third-class citizens.  He was quite passionate in taking about how the revolution had overthrown Arab overlords who had held the Africans down, although in truth, he later noted, wealth is still enjoyed in that order.  He felt that many Arabs are still connected to the middle east for their wealth, although Africans are slowly coming to own businesses.

As we drove throught the outskirts of Zanzibar city, we passed through new town areas where, Juma said housing and business structures

have been supplanting the old coconut plantations to the degree that not so much was available for export.  Cloves remain Zanzibar’s main export, and its main source of wealth, rivaled only by tourism.

Before reaching the spice farm that was the main destination for our trip, we visited some ruins of palaces built by the sultans of Zanzibar to house their concubines and provide a place to their dalliances. 

The second sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash, was the son of a concubine and the first Sultan; built the Mahurubi Palace to house his large harem; these ruins were the first place we visited. 

The bottom floor of the ruins was mostly intact, allowing us to visit the baths and the concubines’ living chambers —

The upper floors, now gone, were apparently where the sultan stayed when in this palace and where he was entertained by his concubines

Next, we visited a smaller Persian baths facility, the Kidichi, built by the first Sultan, Seyyid Sayad, for his wife.  The decoration in the baths was more elaborate

Finally, we reached the main destination for this tour:  a spice farm.  The first Sultan to make Zanzibar has capital, Seyyid Sayad, brought spices to Zanzibar in the 1830s.  This spice farm
is a government experimental station; we saw signs along our walkway describing some of the experiments that were being conducted to improve the horticulture of spices and other plants

First we looked at nutmeg trees and their product.  Nutmeg trees can be masculine of feminine; the trees gender can only be determined after three years, at which point the male trees produce only a flower, and are eventually used for their wood; the female trees produce a fruit

whose seed is the nutmeg, encased in a web of mace.  Our guide opened up the nutmeg to reveal its then-soft inside, which was very fragrant

This is a mango tree recently planted by the president of Zanzibar who was visiting the experimental farm; the tree was enclosed with this tree box to make sure that, if the president returns, the farm’s officials do not risk having to admit that the tree did not survive

After passing an Islamic  school for children of the farm’s workers

and a few banana trees

we visited a part of the farm where cassava, or manioc was grown (manioc).  Only the white, non-poisonous version if grown here; much about the cultivation is familiar from our visit to a farm in the Amazon Basin of Brazil.  In this field, cultivars have all been planted with their eyes pointing upward.

The bushes produce roots that form the most edible part of the plants, \

although cassava leaves are also used to make soups and sauces

Next we saw a stand of clove trees

The clove smell is even in the leaves of the plant, but the red husks seen here have already had their fruits; the fruits are picked when green, then dried.

In Zanzibar, clove sales are monopolized by government; private farms may get a government subsidy, but subsidized or not, farmers may sell only to the government, which devotes most of the crop to export

After passing by an orange tree,

our guide plunged into a cinnamon tree

to carve out some bark for us; he had to go pretty deep into the tree to get bark with the familiar aroma, but the aroma of raw cinnamon bark was  very intense.

He also let us smell some cinnamon root, which had a sharper aroma that Juma compared to Vicks.

We passed some mango trees, where we could see the beginnings of some fruits

but mango season in Zanzibar is its summer time, from December to February

The jackfruit grows right on the trunk;

Juma opened up a jackfruit for some of us who had never tasted it before.

Black pepper grows on a creeping vine that uses a tree as support.  The pepper shown here is a string of small green balls; they are picked when they turn red, at which point the peppercorns dry to the familiar black

We passed an area of tasty grasses – lemongrass running riot

and looked at the turmeric root – after carrying this slice around for a few minutes, my hand was dyed a bright yellow

We saw some coffee beans growing; we were told that Tanzania grows coffee only for local consumption.  As we passed the mlangi langi tree, whose flowers produce a perfumey substance, we were approached by a vendor selling sweet-smelling soaps and small vials of perfume. 

I confess that I tend to see soap in strictly utilitarian terms and never buy fancy soaps at craft fairs, but the attraction of buying a zanzi-bar was too much to resist;  I made a small purchase along with several others.

We were shown several ginger plants growing; in addition to its use for flavoring food, we were told that it is excellent for tenderize beef as a marinade, and has folk medicinal uses as well, to ease chest pain.

These are empty pods of vanilla beans

We saw these annatto plants in Brazil as well, but there they were called hurucum; they are used to produce a bright red color for painting lips and the like

We also saw a cacao tree and were told that, like coffee, cacao is grown only for local consumption.  The sight reminded me of our trip to Costa Rica a few years ago, when we visited  small cacao farm, and were educated about the details of growing cacao and preparing chocolate.


Cardamom: grows in a most unusual way – it is on this large plant, but the useable seeds grow along the ground, almost like a root.  There are a chain of white flowers that turn into green fruits, which are picked when yellow and dried.

cardamom plant

The spice growing at the bottom of the cardamom plant

As we neared Sea Cliff, some of our party opted to head for their rooms to rest before the wedding, while others decided take in one last sight – some coral caves where slaves had been kept for transhipment after the formal abolition of the slave trade in Zanzibar in the mid-19th Century.  The Coral Caves were a bit of a letdown – basically a big hole in the ground, with steps into a dark chamber composed of coral rock.  It required a fair amount of imagination to figure out what had been going on – if, indeed, ANYTHING had been going on there because Juma acknowledged that it remained uncertain whether the use of the caves for the illegal slave trade was merely a matter of local legend; the marker sign, indeed, says only that it is “alleged” that the caves were used for that purpose

Stairs entering Coral Coverns at Mangapwani

Innermost accessible part of the coral cavern at Mangapwani

Detail of wall at Coral Caverns, Mangapwani

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