88 – Soaking in the Swahili Culture

Mon 22nd Feb, Ferry to Mainland Dar, Tanzania
I woke up early and spent a great chunk of the morning walking around Stone Town and taking in the architecture. The streets and alleys were in close proximity of each other, and each one of the buildings had intricately decorated wooden doors, some of them seemingly too grand for the humble houses they lead into.

Then i sorted out my ferry tickets back to the mainland. I decided to stay only 2 days here since I want to reach Lamu before the 26th, and also because it was a bit silly walking about the city with no electricity. Staying in a hotel without light and fan was one thing, but as i was later to discover, visiting musuems and squinting at exhibits because they were not lighted up as they were supposed to be, can get annoying. Hence, i decided i would probably enjoy myself elsewhere along the coast, where hopefully it is not too hot!

Next, as mentioned, i made my way to Beit Al-Ajaib, which is the museum “of wonders”. The entry  was 3500 TSH and well worth it. I realised after Egypt’s museum that i like museums, and can easily spend hours in one. This one was no different. The inside had a large replica of an old Swahili boat, mtwempe (or something), that was reconstructed in the middle of the building. Elsewhere, the Swahili history, culture and travels were recreated as exhibits and informative entries. The first floor was all about the dhow routes, travels up and along the indian ocean, as well as the swahili dress, lifestyle, festivals, food. I especially liked the bit where the link in history between cultures meant that 25% of the Swahili language is of arabic origin, mostly modified, and even some comparisons with Swahili and portugese. Like flag is bendera in swahili, and bandeira in portugese. I add mine mentally to the list: Bendera is flag in malay as well! There’s something to learn from here. Others: Pump is bomba in both Swahili and Portugese, while in malay bomba is fireman/fire brigade. Table is mesa in Swahili and Portugese, and meja in Malay. Fascinating indeed.

The other thing of note are the doors and plaques in the building. Inscribed with the names of God, the doors were really grand and a sight to behold. These wooden doors were carved in exquisite detail on every available space. And since it was not a boring flat door, but layered with arches, there was arabic inscriptions on the inner wall and the underside of the arch as well, which i only noticed when i took photos in the light.

Upstairs on the 2nd floor was an exhibition about Sayidda Salme, a Zanzibari princess who wrote a books about her experiences as a princess living in Zanzibar, and later about letters home, when she moved to Germany with her husband. Her point of view was interesting because it was the first from a local perspective, since all other accounts of the island prior to that were those of European visitors.

The third floor lead to the balcony, upon which i could see brilliant views of the sea, the forodhani garden, and the old fort below. I then made my way to the impressive Ijumaa Mosque, renovated many times in history, most recently with Dubai contribution. Being muslim helped and i remained in the mosque after commual Asar prayers, taking pictures of the mihrab and the interior.

After grabbing some street food for dinner, i wasnt’ sure what it was. Looks like grilled satay meat in hot potato soup, but it tastes delicious (1000 TSH), i picked up my bag and made my way to the ferry terminal (tix was 20 USD). This time though, the VIP lounge had air con on, and dimly lighted. I slept well on the couch, even though i was blighted by the noisy tv blaring over the speakers directly above me. It was a night boat, we got in at 8pm, i got comfortable and slept, probably the boat left around 9.30pm, and somehow we reached mainland only at 6am. How this was possible, the boat here took 3.5 hours for the same distance, i never knew.

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  • Tan Wee Cheng March 2, 2010   Reply →

    Good to know you are still having a whale of a time and that you like museums. Have you been to the museums in SG? They have many new exhibitions and activities. I go to a few every month. Asian Civilisation Museum and National Museum are among the best in Asia, despite not having world class treasures.

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