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On red soil

7th Heaven, pt. 4

#4 Spices, spices, spices

Zanzibar is known as the Spice Island, and for a pretty good reason. The whole middle part of Unguja is covered in spice plantations, and apart from tourism, it’s one of the biggest driver’s of the economy. So whether it’s fresh cumin, vanilla-flavoured tea or any colour of peppercorn you’re looking for, this is the place to get it. The best harvests are naturally exported, but even for those living in Dar es Salaam, the freshest selection of spices is collected from the island, for example from Darajani market in Stone Town (where some stallholders even manage to sell bright orange ‘real’ saffron to the most absent-minded of tourists, who marvel at the cheap price, while everyone else knows it’s just a nice trick from the hat).

As drivers of the economy though, spices and tourism basically go hand in hand. In fact, one of the most popular off-beach tourism activities on the island is to go on a spice tour, and I’ve been on a few too. The things you didn’t know about spices..

First thing our guide gave us was a piece of root from the ground. I took it in my hand, smelled it, couldn’t figure it out. Took a picture, looked at my camera and noticed it was stained yellow and wouldn’t get off even with water. Thanks a lot turmeric. We walked around the spice plantation, green sprouts, bushes and trees everywhere. Without the guide equipped with a little knife, we would’ve for example missed the fresh smell of cinnamon bark carved off a nondescript tree. Or we would’ve never known that green, black, white and red peppercorns all grow on the same tree but are picked at different times in the ripening process. Or we wouldn’t have got a taste of the super-sour Zanzibar apples, which seem to be the best hangover cure. The fresh ginger isn’t something I recommend putting in the mouth though – it burns, burns, burns.

Spice tours are like an orienteering competition, at each check point you get handed something to look, taste and smell at, and if you guess correctly what spice it is, you get bonus points from the guide. It’s fun and informative, and you will never look at dried spices off the supermarket shelves in the same way again.

Sad story: Even though at one point in time, the islands produced for example 90% of the world demand for cloves, the spices industry is not a goldmine. Not at least for the farmers. Zanzibari government takes a big chunk of the profit in the global supply chain. The government owns all spice plantations nowadays, buys the best harvests and exports it in bulk. Unless the authorities change their role to help rather than hinder profit generation of the primary producers, there is little (not even tips from tourists) to keep the spice farmers going.

Funny story:
Most spice tours include a compulsory coconut stop. The one I was on, a young accomplice to the guide climbed up a circa 20 meter tall palm tree with only a small rope between his feet keeping him close to the tree. In the middle of the climb, he stopped, started singing ‘
Jambo Bwana‘, swinging his hips, one hand on the tree to support him, a machete in the other hand to prepare coconuts to throw down for us to drink from. While the song is one of the most annoying I know (if you’re Caucasian, you hear it absolutely everywhere on Zanzibar), the absurdity of the show is guaranteed to raise a smile on your face.

This post is part of a series on why Zanzibar is known abroad as a kind of ‘7th heaven’. Missed the last part? Click here to read 7th Heaven, pt. 3.



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