The sights, scents and sounds of Zanzibar include a 73-year-old tale of the iconic late British singer-songwriter.
Dress conservatively when walking the streets of Stone Town,” advises the tourist brochures in the predominantly Islamic society of Zanzibar, yet, the tiny Tanzanian archipelago proudly claims Freddie Mercury, the controversial frontman of British band Queen, as its own.
The singer, born in the windswept streets of Stone Town in Zanzibar in 1946 and one of the world’s most iconic voices in pop-rock, is this tourist town’s biggest currency-spinner.
Stone Town, which is a maze of historic alleys and spice bazaars with timber shutters, an old Arab fort, churches, mosques and 19th-century stone buildings, is a World Heritage Site overlooking the sea. Within its dusty bowels, leading up from its myriad walkways, is Shangani Street, starting with a white-washed, two-storied yellow building that was once Freddie Mercury’s home.
There are countless tours offered to what is emblazoned in gold outside as ‘Freddie Mercury House’, featuring four fully-furnished hotel apartments with balconies overlooking the Indian Ocean.
Outside are framed glass cases with sepia images of the songwriter and vocalist, describing his famous connection with Zanzibar. Born Farrokh Bulsara, Mercury’s family had immigrated to Zanzibar from Gujarat in India. He was born to Bomi and Jer Bulsara who were originally Parsis (a Zoroastrian community that migrated to the Indian subcontinent from Persia). In 1964, the Zanzibar Revolution forced the family to flee.
The island community’s lucrative tourist trade is even today cashing in on Mercury’s global image, with tours offered at the Zoroastrian Fire Temple where the Parsi family once worshipped, and to a restaurant named Mercury offering fresh seafood.
“Imagine, Freddie Mercury played on these white sandy beaches and clear waters at one time,” says my tourist guide, Amour, proudly, before taking me on a two-hour walking tour of Stone Town. He points to the domed white Zanzibar High Court where Mercury’s father once worked as a cashier.
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His house on Shangani Street, where the first settlers arrived, is a hub of activity, with tourists, and touts selling everything from icecream to tanzanite jewelry and African bric-à-brac. Just a few steps up, is the Shangani post office and buildings boasting Indian, African and European architecture, where you discover your own Bohemian Rhapsody.
Amour helps me weave through the heaving mass of human traffic in the busy streets, to a fish and vegetable market in Stone Town that also sells spices in pretty bamboo gift-packs. The fish is sold fresh and the spices overpower the stench.
“Zanzibar used to be the largest exporter of cloves in the world, but from 70 percent, it’s only nine percent now,” Amour rues, thrusting a packet of cloves into my hand, “and that’s sad, because of declining prices, more competitors and the poor encouragement of farmers.”
Earlier, I had visited the spice farms Zanzibar is so famous for, finishing off with lunch in a Swahili home stationed on a peak in one of the scented valleys. It was modest home-cooked fare but with aromas as strong as the spice farms the ingredients came from: a banana dish with coconut milk and cardamom, flavored cassava from the fields, fried tuna, rotis and the most fragrant pilaf (rice dish) I have ever eaten, watered down with lemon grass and ginger tea.
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I had been to the Muyuni village in the south tasting the sweetest mangoes and bananas in all of Africa, passing seaweed-strewn beaches, paddy fields and potholed roads with bullock carts, dala dala taxis and motorbikes.
In the lush mangroves of Jozani, I encountered the endangered red colobus monkeys. In the spice plantations, down slippery forest paths, I tasted nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves off the trees.
The natural treats along the way also included lemons and sweet green oranges. As we passed the red mahogany trees, “beware of the green mambas or pythons”, my host had warned. A vendor in the middle of the forest showed us his wares in a wicker basket: soaps and perfumes made from the Ylang-Ylang trees by the womenfolk.
“In Europe, Chanel No. 5 is made from this. Here, we call it Chanel No. 0, our products have no chemical or alcohol,” he says, pointing to the tiny bottles filled with red liquid. “These farms are so rich in spices that the chicken running around are already spiced, you don’t need to flavor them when you cook them,” laughs Amour, towards the end of our outing. From Freddie Mercury to the farms, Zanzibar beckons the senses.