Finding Craftsmanship Among the Kitsch in Zanzibar

“Please. Come into my shop. Let me show you what I have. I will make you a good deal”.  This was the constant litany that accosted us as we wandered the narrow lanes and tried to do some last minute shopping in Stone Town, on the Island of Zanzibar.

Stone Town is a UNESCO site preserving its unique mix of architecture and culture which combines Arabic, Persian, Indian and European influences into a distinct African mash up. The narrow web of lanes and the controlled decay makes the town feel hundreds of years old, though the current version is only from the 19th century.

Where spices and slaves were once the major currency, today it is the mighty tourist dollar (or pound or euro) that keeps the shops going and the sales pitches flying. And the streets were lined with one shop after another, all vying for our attention.

It was the last day of our vacation in Africa, and I was on the hunt for unique souvenirs and gifts to take home. But after walking a few blocks through the maze like alleys it became clear that most of the vendors were all selling pretty much the same goods – mass produced African themed paintings, wooden masks, fabric bags, beaded necklaces and other paraphernalia that was probably all made in China or Vietnam. We had seen at all these same tourist trappings at the road side vendors throughout our tour of Kenya and Tanzania.

Shop selling typical tourist souvenirs

I was looking for something more unique – something distinctly Zanzibarish. Eventually, after learning to ignore the persistent used-car-salesman-like mantras and looking past the kitsch, I discovered a few jewels of quality craftsmanship.

Shopping in Stone town for Quality Craftsmanship

I passed by a small shop that made colorful leather sandals on site.

At another shop, talented woodcarvers cut intricate designs into a small wooden box or a delicate picture frame.

Many of the vendors sold large brightly painted canvases which were quite interesting, but since you could find the same painting in more than one shop, I assumed they were not originals.

colorful paintings in Stone Town
colorful paintings in Stone Town

At a couple of locations though, I could watch the artist at work, so I presume their shops had more unique material.

But the two shops that I appreciated the most were the ones that sold products made by women’s cooperatives. At Sasik, local women hand applique Arabic designs onto cushions covers or wall hangings. The proceeds from this non-for-profit go back to the women and their families.

At MOTO, you can find beautiful and stylish bags and baskets which are handwoven using traditional methods from wild date palm fronds. MOTO works with over 200 women from local fishing villages that work in small cooperatives. The women are able to do the work at home which allows them to continue to take care of children and elderly family members. A fair price policy gives the women the opportunity to earn an income and to become financially independent.

I especially liked that at both Sasik and MOTO I could walk in and browse without being hassled by a shop owner. Also, the prices are set so no need to worry about haggling for the best price – a game I do not enjoy playing.

Discovering Zanzibar’s Famous Doors

As we walked up and down the twisting lanes, I realized that I really did not have to look very far for more unique craftsmanship. It was literally right next “door”. Part of the heritage that is preserved under the UNESCO mantle are hundreds of hand carved wooden doors that decorate the entry into the homes of the residents of Stone Town. Most of the doors are from the 1870’s to 1890’s during the reign of Sultan Burghash bin Said who was responsible for building much of the infrastructure we see in Stone Town today.

The doors were the first thing to be built for a new house and acted as a visible declaration of the wealth, status and occupation of the owner.  I learned that the doors in Zanzibar were primarily influence by two design styles – Indian and Arabic.

Indian style doors have coffered panels with a thin carved central post. Often, these doors have folding panels which hints at their original use in bazaar shops.

Indian style door in Stone Town, Zanzibar
Indian style door in Stone Town, Zanzibar

Arabic style doors have intricately carved frames and central posts, as well as very detailed friezes above the door frame. They often also incorporate inscriptions from the Koran in the frieze design.

Some doors were clearly a blend of the two designs styles, like the door into the Bohara Mosque.

Bohara Mosque door
Bohara Mosque door

Many of the doors have heavy brass or metal spikes sticking out. This design element came from India where originally, these spikes served a functional purpose – to prevent battering the door by war elephants. Today, they are purely a decorative element on the Zanzibar doors.

Not as common any more are doors that have a smaller opening set within the door proper. This was a safety measure that allowed one person to come in at a time, forcing them to stoop in order to get through the door. This was intended to prevent the larger door from being opened and having a hidden enemy attack while doing so.

Though doors may have had similar styles, each one was different and unique in its own way.

What fascinated me most was the extensive intricately carved details. The majority of the wood used was teak or mahogany – woods that were chosen for their durability and hardness – characteristics that don’t provide the easiest medium for carving.

Carved door detail
Carved door detail

Honestly, I really enjoyed exploring and finding Stone Town’s beautiful doors more than I did the shopping. Getting hassled by the shopkeepers as we walked by got annoying very quickly. So what did I end up buying? I did purchase a small bag at MOTO (luggage space did not allow me to buy a larger one even though I wanted to), and since this is the “Spice Island”, I did also go home with a collection of the local spices.

Spices for sale in a Zanzibar market
Spices for sale in a Zanzibar market

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Zanzibae Doors
Zanzibae Doors