If you travel anywhere in East Africa, you’ll become acquainted with the women’s garment known as kanga: a bolt of cloth worn any number of ways and featuring a Swahili proverb printed along the bottom. Zanzibari kanga are well-known all over the world. In Stone Town’s House of Wonders museum, there’s even a room dedicated to their sayings. Kanga with pleasant words (“Upendo ni tunda la moyo”: Love is comfort to the heart) are given as gifts. Kanga with warnings (“Upelelezi ni sumu ya mapenzi”: Spying is poisonous to love) can be worn as a subtle message from the wearer to another. Kanga are sold all over the island. Depending on the size and the quality of the fabric, expect to pay between 10,000 and 30,000 Tanzanian shillings (between $8-20). The kanga above was a gift to my mother and translates roughly to “Thank you, mother, for your good parenting.” BE WARNED: Speak with the shopkeeper, or a translator, to make sure you know what you’re getting. I bought a pretty kanga that I thought had something to do with love. It actually had more to do with promiscuity, which I eventually learned after forcing a reluctant and horrified friend to translate it for me.
Suicide Alley, Zanzibar, Tanzania
The crumbling architecture of Stone Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the town’s carved doors are one of its most recognizable features. I spent a lot of time searching for the door of Swahili merchant Tippu Tip, a notorious 19th-century slave and ivory trader who grew fabulously wealthy from his exploits in the interior of Africa. He showcased his wealth by slapping Stone Town’s most elaborately carved door on the front of his mansion in the mysteriously named Suicide Alley. If you can find Suicide Alley (it’s unmarked, near the Shangani Post Office in Stown Town), keep your eyes on the ground: the alternating black-and-white tiles of Tippu Tip’s front stoop might be the first thing you see. The house is now inhabited by several families, so be respectful when taking pictures and exploring the area.
The east coast of Zanzibar is known for stunning beaches and fickle tides. When the water’s out, it’s way out; when it comes back in, arrange a sailing trip on an outrigger canoe to skim along the shore. The lower tides reveal the hangouts of the ocean’s monsters (only about as gruesome as particularly spiny starfish); but as the tides push you higher above the sand, the jewel tones of the water become even more spectacular. It’s win-win. Any hotel will be able to put a traveler in touch with a boat or captain, and prices are negotiable; expect to pay around $15 for an hour.
Each evening as the sun sets, Stone Town’s Forodhani Gardens park transforms into an open-air food market. Skip the fish kebabs and head straight to the vendors selling urojo, a thick mango-and-tamarind soup served alongside chickpea fritters, boiled potatoes, cassava flakes, chutney, and as much hot sauce as you dare. Follow it up with hand-pressed sugarcane juice with ginger and lime.
Sokoku St, Zanzibar, Tanzania
If you step off the ferry in Stone Town and don’t know anything about Zanzibar, the House of Wonders (or Beit al-Ajab, as it’s also known) has you covered. Just a few steps away from the ferry terminal, you’ll get a crash course in Swahili history. The House was built by Sultan Barghash bin Said in 1883 and now that he’s gone, it houses the Museum of History & Culture of Zanzibar & the Swahili Coast. The inner courtyard is the unlikely home to a huge Swahili sailing vessel and an old car that belonged Zanzibar’s first president (didn’t know Zanzibar had a president, other than the Tanzanian president? Yeah, neither did I. This is why you’re in the right place to learn about these things.) Despite the many cool - even, I daresay, wondrous - items in the museum, it was actually known as the House of Wonders because it was the first building in Zanzibar to boast electricity and the first building in East Africa to have an elevator. Now that those things have become commonplace and boring, you can do a scavenger hunt through the building to find other wonders. Search for David Livingstone’s medicine chest (let me just say - I do not think he ventured into central Africa adequately prepared), a Christmas-themed kanga, and a centuries-old charm that reportedly contains the nose of a dog. As if that weren’t enough, the gift shop is pretty well-stocked with interesting curios, too.