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Zanzibar Finally Reawakening to Tourist Tastes

December 10, 1989|DENIS BOYLES | Boyles is a journalist who has spent many years in Africa. His book, "African Lives," was published last year

ZANZIBAR ISLAND, Tanzania — I have this thing about Tippi Hedren. It's not just that I think she's a good-looking woman; it's that I see her look-alikes everywhere. I'm sure you know the type. You must have seen Hedren in Hitchcock's "The Birds."

But there I was on Zanzibar Island, alone in the Dolphin restaurant, a lonely, sweaty guy struggling through another piece of curried fish, when a cool, composed Tippi-type walked in, sat down, looked at the brief menu scrawled across the wall--grilled this and curried that--looked at me and said in French, "I just can't do it again," and left, disappearing into the island's hot, wet labyrinth of passageways before I even had a chance to say "Howdy."

Wherever you are, lady, I know what you mean. I know that part of the charm of travel in exotic places is eating the exotic food. But here's the truth: In many parts of Africa the food may be exotic because it's African, but unless you're the type of traveler who goes temporarily native, it really isn't very good.

Here's an illustrative scenario: Let's say you're in Zanzibar, and you get hungry. Stranded on a tropical Indian Ocean island 25 miles off the coast of East Africa, you work up a real sweat bouncing around the neighborhood in old taxis looking for political gossip and Persian ruins in the extreme heat and the wilting humidity, then you go back to town hungry and find that your hotel has run out of brown curried solids.

You know that there are other restaurants in town and that if you were in, say, New York, a Zanzibari restaurant would be crowded, that everyone would be happily eating curried fish and reading the Village Voice. But you're stranded in Zanzibar, and your notions of exotic food have become extremely situational. So what do you do?

Until recently this would have been a trick question and the answer would be, "Nothing." Because until quite recently you could have wandered through Zanzibar's dark warren of markets and alleyways, crowded with ornate but neglected Arabic architecture--huge, ramshackle, once-whitewashed buildings built around beautifully carved ancient wooden doorways--only to find that there wasn't an ethnic restaurant on the whole island; that gastronomically speaking, the place was like Toledo, with nothing but hash-brown diners.

After a quarter-century of a kind of political quarantine, Zanzibar is just now reopening for tourist business. The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world's (and the island's) Ismaili Muslims, has announced plans to build a luxury 200-room resort on the northwest coast, and within two years there will be a crop of new hotels; half a dozen already have been announced.

While the tourist population in Zanzibar today rarely exceeds two digits, by the early '90s it will be a major tourist destination and its white, sandy beaches will be decorated with thousands of sunburned Swedes, Britons and Germans plumping like steamed bratwursts in the equatorial sun. But that's then.

Now if you asked somebody in Zanzibar where he or she wanted to eat, the reply would probably be, "On an airplane."

No sense blaming the Zanzibaris. They want a night life, too, just like the one they used to have when the island was, relatively speaking, an oasis of wealth on a continent well acquainted with poverty.

Zanzibar at one time was one of the richest, most important places in Africa, a bustling free port through which most of Africa's resources--including its slaves--were funneled to merchants in Europe, the Americas and Arabia. At one time most of the East African coast was nominally under the suzerainty of the Sultans of Zanzibar.

But the end of slavery and other colonial era reforms cost Zanzibar dearly. When independence caught up with mainland Tanganyika, Julius Nyerere, that ambitious socialist experimenter, took one look at Zanzibar and, employing Zanzibari political minions, swallowed the island nation whole, brutally suppressed dissent, made it dependent on the mainland for electricity and communications and sent an army and a police force there to make sure his rough annexation of Zanzibar into the new nation of Tanzania would stick.

So Zanzibar is an occupied country, and if Tanzanians were white-skinned, the Zanzibaris' situation would generate the hot rectitude of modern morality instead of the head-scratching of old-fashioned geography.

The islanders despise the mainlanders, whom they disparagingly call "Africans," and dream of the day Nyerere goes so they can regain their independence and maybe reopen some of their swell hotels and restaurants, just like back in the good old days when the currency was a little less theoretical.

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