Travel Guide to Pemba Island, Tanzania: History and Things to Do

13th December 2022

It makes up a smaller half of the Zanzibar archipelago, and yet Pemba lies a full 40km north of its sister island Unguja and feels characteristically very distinct. Unlike its southern sister, Pemba has remained virtually unknown to hordes of beach-bound tourists, and just a couple of distinct niche market options have recently opened up on its rural shores. Pemba has a fascinating reputation among local Swahili and Zanzibaris, not least for its reputation for black magic, but also for being a hotbed of political inspiration; the majority of the island population are supporters of the Civic United Front party who continue to fight for fair democratic representation on these islands.

Travellers intent on discovering Pemba’s charms may encounter unusual reactions from inhabitants of Unguja, who are generally under the impression that travelling the distance to Pemba is far more daunting and impressive than flying halfway around the world to be in Zanzibar in the first place. Actually, Pemba was a focal destination for travellers in past years, when it was known as “Al khudra’, ‘the green island’, and it remains today green and picturesque, coloured by the rich greens of ten types of mangoes in plenty, and many hundreds of clove trees that have traditionally supported the fortunes of this island of spice.

The quiet island of Pemba is renowned along the east African coast for the powers and abilities of its Waganga, or witch doctors. Belief in witch doctors and sorcery remains rife throughout East Africa and Tanzania and remains prevalent alongside and still underlying more recent religious beliefs introduced in the last 2000 years. Tanzanians are known to travel to Pemba, (and also regions of the Usambaras), to find appropriate Waganga to cure, or supposedly also to cause, especially difficult or evil acts of sorcery, called Uchawi.

It is unlikely that the Pembans will be fantastically forthcoming about the local waganga, and they are not often introduced to simply curious tourists. They do however get introduced to the travellers who supposedly come here from Haiti, (as reported by Evelyn Waugh in the prime of the last century), with the prime objective of learning secrets from the Pembans.

The History of Pemba Island

The early history of Pemba bears similarities with that of its sister island Unguja, in the broadest sense of its pattern of settlers. It is thought that Pemba was originally inhabited by migrating African tribes in search of a life away from the growing mele of mainland habitation, that could be sustained by seasonal fishing potential. It is likely that the island was inhabited before the first century AD, and these settlers became a tribe known as the Pemba, much like the Hadimu and Tumbatu people of Zanzibar island, although a small group of the Tumbatu also formed their own small community in a region in the south of Pemba.

Despite the relatively small size of the island, the separate villages were internally governed and developed into mini-monarchies, entirely independent of each other. This lack of unity then provided an easy target for international sailors seeking trade and adventure in new lands; after years of trade with foreign visitors the African population became familiar with newcomers, and perhaps barely noticed as some began to settle. Later the first inhabitants found themselves conquered by a new Arabic colonial regime, evolving a certain grandeur and refinement so ingrained that the Swahili word meaning ‘to be civilised’ is still ‘Ustaarabu’, literally, ‘like an Arab’.

An adventurous sailor and Arab writer called Abu’l Hasan’Ali Al-Mas’udi recorded an account of his travels to Zanj at the end of the tenth century AD and told how the civilisation of Pemba, then called Quanbalu, minted its own coins. When refugees were driven from their homes by religious upheavals and persecution on the Arabian Gulf between the 8th and 11th centuries, they sailed down the East Coast of Africa to settle on various points on the mainland and islands, including Pemba.

Numerous ruins around the island illustrate the illustrious lifestyle of these early settlers, thought to have been mainly of Shirazi origin. They developed a renowned port and community on the international trading route; the ancient site at Ras Mkumbuu has pillar tombs inlaid with china, and ruins of other palaces nearby show intricate irrigation systems, wells and mosques, now silted up and sinking into the sands. Yet only a little detailed information about these settlers has been passed on through history, beyond a handful of bizarre legends and tales.

More is known about the Portuguese invasion in the 15th century, after they rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1498, and returned in 1502 with twenty extra ships, now fully prepared for invasion. After numerous threats of destruction and determined efforts at domination, the Portuguese conquered the Sultans and Sheikhs of Pemba in 1505, three years after their accession in Kilwa. They became tyrannical masters of Pemba and Zanzibar, leaving evidence of their military rule cast in stone, such as the fortress at Chake Chake, which is thought to have been originally constructed by the Portuguese, then later rebuilt by Mazrui Arabs. The fortress became a jail after independence, and then a police barracks, but in the last years of the twentieth century a donation of European Community Aid built a new hospital on the site, knocking down much of the old ruin and incorporating the standing remains in one wing. (see below)

Their domination earned so little popularity that the Imam of Muscat responded to pleas from the East African Coast in 1698 and sent a naval force against the Portuguese, successfully recapturing Mombassa, Kilwa and Zanzibar and Pemba in 1699, and finally ousting the Portuguese administration.

Subsequently, these regions fell under the jurisdiction and control of the Imam of Oman, who sent his liwalis (governors) to all towns and settlements. Once again the locals found themselves strictly governed, so much so that by the 1740s communities were begging the Portuguese to come back and rid them of their Arabic counterparts… But in 1744 the Yorubi dynasty in Oman was overthrown by the Omani Busaidi dynasty, which would soon give way to the succession of Seyyid Said bin Sultan (1806-1856), the first Sultan of Zanzibar and the man responsible for redeveloping the fortunes of Pemba Island.

During the late 19th century Sultan Said was working on developing his trading potential across Zanzibar, and implemented a massive clove-planting initiative with great emphasis on Pemba; an undertaking that would transform the character of this previously forested island forever. There are now an estimated 3.5 million clove trees across Zanzibar, with the majority in Pemba, where the air is scented with their spice and most families lay their crops to dry in front of their houses in colourful array.

Although Zanzibar has slipped position in the ranks of world trade and their annual tonnage for export has fallen considerably, the cloves from these islands are still considered to be of the highest quality and finest aroma. The Pemba Essential Oil Distillery at Chake Chake was established in 1982 to extract essential oil from cloves locally and increase local revenue. Guests are welcome to visit the factory, which also presses lemon grass and cinnamon oils.

What to Do on Pemba Island

The island pace on Pemba is gentle and refreshingly rural, and activities are not generally too high-adrenaline inducing. Instead, these tend to be more focused on the natural surroundings, especially in the Forest Reserves such as Ngezi Forest, and Kigomasha Peninsula in the north of the island, and around the coral reefs and marine life. Other attractions include a number of stone and coral rag ruins of ancient Swahili and Shirazi (check again) settlements dating from the 11th century onwards.

The evolution of this unusual ancestry continues to thrive on the island, and visitors experience a smiling welcome from each of the three main towns and all the villages, which are awash with a vibrant hubbub of daily activity and colour. For fun alternatives, negotiate boat and island excursions on traditional ngalawa outrigger sailing boats (although be sure to take nothing that will be water damaged!), or piki piki motorbike, (although be sure to take out adequate insurance, and drive carefully!).

Wildlife on Pemba Island

Pemba is a fantastically green and natural island, with masses of unusual and endemic wildlife to excite nature lovers. This tiny island has four endemic bird species, the Pemba White-eye and the Pemba Sunbird are common throughout the island, and Ngezi Forest Reserve, (see below), a tall tropical forest filled with slanting sunlight and unusual wildlife action, is the best place to try to spot the Pemba Green Pigeon and Pemba Scops Owl. Here also you can see the unusually squat and characteristic endemic Pemba Palm Tree (Cressolido Dibsis Pembanus) and might catch a glimpse in the gathering dusk of the island’s endemic fruit bat, also known as Flying Fox, and their endemic Galago Bush Baby.

The whole island is surrounded by magnificently unspoilt coral reefs, and both shallow and deep water, allowing for some of the best snorkelling and diving opportunities on this east African stretch of coast. Offshore islands such as Misali Island in the southwest, accessible from Chake Chake, are surrounded by reefs and have excellent remote beaches for day trips to enjoy them.

For many people, the attraction of Pemba is often more focused on the coral reefs and waters that surround it than the coral rag island at the centre. The incredible depths of the Pemba Channel, which shelf off to depths of more than 2000m between the island and mainland Tanzania, have made all the aspects of Pemba famous.

It is a paradise playground for experienced divers, who will discover that the waters around Pemba provide some of the most fantastic wall dives and drift dives, fine soft and hard coral formations and open water diving opportunities that this East African coastline has to offer. There is a variety of dive spots to suit all levels of experience or interest. In general, the West Coast of Pemba faces onto the deep shelving depths of the Pemba Channel, and here is the best place for all kinds of excellent wall dives, and fantastic coral formations. The channel is sheltered from the Indian Ocean Swell, and provides masses of good anchorage spots over coral at different depths, with diving options for all abilities.

Spinning dolphins have often been spotted off the northwest peninsula, and the diving is especially good around the offshore islands here, such as Njao and Fundo Island. Two humpback whales come back and forth along the Pemba Channel each month. Whale sharks are rare, but occasionally seen in this region in February and March, and in July and August the seas are awash with hundreds of Manta Rays.

Sailfish and similar fish can be found further north, and greenback turtles still swim in these seas. There are a couple of good dive sites off the southern coast, where the wreck of an old steam cargo ship has attracted plenty of soft coral and marine life, and there is a couple of attractive coral garden drift dives with mainly excellent visibility. The best time to dive on the south coast is during the north monsoon, between December and April. The east coast should mainly remain the preserve of experienced divers, who are fit and ready to brave the swell of the Indian Ocean. This is the true domain of the big fish, and those that wish to find them should be certified to dive depths of at least 30 metres.

Keen birdwatchers have every chance of catching a glimpse of endemic Pemba birds such as the Pemba Scops Owl, Green Pigeon or White Eye, or the Pemba Sunbird, or masses of other colourful equatorial species such as the Cisticola, Violet-breasted Starling or Crowned hornbill. The lake area at the centre of the forest attracts a range of water birds, such as the Broadbill Ibis, mangrove kingfisher, white face or whistling duck, pygmy kingfishers and pygmy geese, while red-eye doves, sparrow hawks and harrier hawks fly the air between.

Pemba Island Beaches

Although Pemba is surrounded by fine coral reefs and pristine seas its shores are also fleeced with dense mangrove forests, and the best beaches take a bit of finding and getting to. Zanzibari beaches in general are subjected to tidal extremes, and many of these around Pemba expose coral patches and sea grass at low tide. These reefs can then be explored on foot, but suitable footwear is advised!

There are wonderfully clean and translucent clear beaches on the north of the island. The best and biggest expanses of shores stretch for 3km at Vumbawimbi, just north of Ngezi Forest, and the more sheltered and shining sands of Tondooni and Verani to the west of the peninsula and Panga ya Watoro further north. On the opposite side of the peninsula, you can find distant secluded sands that are inaccessible by vehicle – with some respite for a bicycle or a well-driven ‘pikipiki’ or motorbike. These are the beaches of Mbuyu Kambaa, Ras Kiuyu and Mbuyuni.

There are three small bays just east of Vitongoji that are easily reached from Chake Chake, past the essential oil factory. These provide good swimming when the tide is high, and reef walking when it is low. ‘Liko la Ngezi’ is the southernmost of these and is also known as the site of the ‘lonely tomb of Vitongoji. On the opposite western coast, there are long stretches of golden sandy beaches at Wambaa, the site of the delightful and smart Fundu Lagoon Hotel, which is a real distance from the main road, and presently the only transport recommended is with some form of bike or boat.

Where to Go on Pemba Island

Some of the best beaches to make an effort to reach are those surrounding Misali Island almost parallel to Chake Chake in the South West. Swimming here is a real pleasure, especially for colourful snorkelling and diving over beautiful coral reefs straight off the beach, and walks all around the island can be made at low tide. The island has a shiver-me-timbers reputation for having been the hiding place for Captain Kidd’s treasure since he apparently buried it here in 1698.

The island forest is home to a dazzling green forest bird, the rare Fischer’s Muraco, vervet monkeys and ‘flying fox’ fruit bats. The waters around the island are a marine conservation area, specifying controlled fishing, and no fishing at all on the Western Reefs, and there remains a long-term hope that it will become a fully recognised National Marine Park.

Trips to Misali can be arranged from each of the three central ports, Mkoani, Chake and Wete, and through the larger hotels. The Jondeni Guesthouse at the top of the hill at Mkoani can arrange a boat to Misali, and at Wete boats can be arranged through the Sharook Guest House.

On Kojani Island, near Chwale, there is a long stretch of beach on the northern peninsula. You can drive to Likoni on the east coast and then hire a boat to ‘Fumbi la Kiua’, just a 1km walk from the beach.

How to Get to Pemba Island

All visitors to Pemba either arrive by sea or by air, and most will tend to land at Mkoani Port in the south of the island, or at the airport just south of Chake Chake in the middle.

Those arriving at Mkoani will find themselves on a quietly bustling street corner where a few dala dala buses, a couple of taxis and a few private 4×4’s wait to take people in either direction at the single fork in the road here. To the right, the route leads to Chake Chake town some time distant along the extremely bumpy and deteriorated tarmac road between the main town and the main port, and to the left the road curls upwards around the cliff to reach the best budget accommodation in Mkoani.

Exploring Pemba Island

Wholesome walks and fun days out can be spent on the northernmost peninsula, where the distance between Ngezi Forest Reserve and the endless sands of Vumawimbi Beach can be covered on foot in less than an hour. This region is rural and unspoilt, with a maze of pathways and tracks leading through fields where locals are tending their seasonal crops, or piling the fruit of their labours onto ox-carts to take them to market.

As with all of Pemba, it is often worthwhile to negotiate a guide. These can be arranged through individual hotels and guesthouses, or with local tour companies.

The superbly peaceful and unusually rich tropical rain forest at Ngezi Reserve remains one of the last pockets of the original Pemba landscape as it was just a few hundred years ago, before the population growth and the 1850s clove planting project transformed much of the fertile island land. Visitors pay a meagre $5 charge at the warden’s hut at the entrance for the pleasure of exploring the Ngezi Nature trails, one of which covers around 2km and can be easily covered in an hour, although longer walks can also be arranged. The office is open between 7.30am and 4pm, but after hours and if the office is closed you should be able to find a ranger at the first house south.

The guides, Juma Tanfik and Suliman, are fluent and enthusiastic about their charge and provide helpful and informative walking companions. Their quick and familiar eyes are good at spotting unusual wildlife action – the flicker of a cicada, the trail of an ant – although chances of spotting a ‘flying fox’, the endemic Pemba Fruit Bat are rare. Anyone wishing to stake out the forest for fruit bats or the mini, rather shy Scops Owl should negotiate with the guides for an evening or nighttime walk, who will charge around $10 per person, although less for a group. They will also keep a beady eye open for any local amphibians and reptiles, such as the Mozambique spitting cobra, boomslangs or spotted wood snakes, and all manner of different geckos, and speckle-lipped skinks.

Ngezi Forest is especially unusual in that it is made up of lots of highland species such as Olea Oleanna and Tifandara (Madagascar), and yet it is a lowland forest. Orchids are blown to seed in any nook and tree arm or among the highest branches come into flower in December and January, and, also during December, the sunlit glades are filled with butterflies dancing. One hundred and thirty tree species have been identified in the forest, although there has been very little study on the local flora generally, and visitors can hardly fail to notice the tall, skinny features of the 35m high Bombax tree, with seed pods full of kapok.

Important species endemic to Pemba, such as the Pemba Palm Tree (Cressolido Dibsis Pembanus) can be seen along the road through the forest, as can the odd endangered species of wild banana palm, which provide the favourite food for resident Galago bushbabies, vervet monkeys and flying fox fruit bats. Most of the forest mammals are quite undersized, among the largest is the tiny, shy and very rare Duiker Antelope, which is known to flit through the forest paths, and Zanzibar tree hyrax and marsh mongooses are common. Jevan Civet cats also live in the forest, although these are not endemic but were introduced by Arabs who bred them for musk for perfume. Red Colobus monkeys were also introduced at one stage, but so far no study has been undertaken to see if they still exist here.

All around this area you will see houses which have built vast covered ovens outside, to dry coconuts for copra. Beyond the forest, the road leads through wild old rubber plantations, hardly used anymore, and left to seed, but the still orderly arrangement of their smooth trunks is a peaceful sight in the sun.

This region of Pemba is rural and fresh, with startling clarity of sunlight. There are a number of country tracks through rolling coloured grasses and surrounding shamba fields, mainly used by local farmers collecting crops for sale at the market with the help of an ox and ox-cart. These also lead up to the northernmost Kigomasha Lighthouse whose kerosene lamp is lit nightly by the diligent lighthouse keeper and his family, who will also sometimes allow you to climb the scary stairs to the top (for a couple of dollars).

Nearby, on the eastern side of the peninsula, there are small, sheltered beaches, which are good for swimming although subject to extreme tides. Slightly further south, Vumawimbi Beach (‘Vuma’ for sound plus ‘wimbi’ meaning waves means ‘sound of waves’ beach), curves elegantly around the lower end of this eastern side, extending for an impressive 3 or 4 kilometres of unspoilt sands. This is also a renowned market point for local fishermen, who can often be found gathered in a close huddle here while the catch is dragged up the beach and auctioned to the highest bidder.

Exploring North East Pemba

Continuing eastwards around the Northern aspect of Pemba brings you to Tumbe, predominantly a farming and fishing village along sandy paths lined with coconut palms, just off the main road between Konde and Mapufo. This region has become a central port for fishermen to sell their fish and women harvest seaweed, (see extra box somewhere on seaweed farming – prob around Nungwi on Zanzibar). The market here is more central and accessible than the auction at Vumawimbi and attracts a crowd of locals from around Tumbe and nearby Mbali Island (opposite). Mornings around Tumbe are especially busy. The people here hold a popular annual boat race to celebrate the New Year.

Further south, just off the road beyond the tiny village of Chwaka are seven Mazrui Ruins that again illustrate the elaborate living standards that continued in Pemba between the 15th and 18th centuries. A guide can usually be found among the nearby cassava plantations to lead you southwards along a sandy path to find the remains of a large Mazrui Mosque and six tombs, all abandoned in the early 19th century when Sultan Seyyid bin Said and the Busaidi Arabs overthrew the Mazrui rule. These ruins are in an advanced state of decline, with numerous paw paws and roots determinedly dilapidating what is left.

A narrow pathway continues through the cassava plantations to the edge of a valley and a second, older site of a 15th-century town. This was thought to have been ruled by a harsh prince called Harouni bin Ali, who remains immortalised in one of the ten glazed and decorated tombs that surround the largest mosque here. The town seems to have been quite substantial in its day, covering 20 hectares and including a fortress, iron works, at least two mosques and grand reception halls all arranged around a small harbour.

Legend tells how Prince Harouni was known as ‘Mvunja Pau’, ‘the breaker of the pole’, and his reputation for ruling with violence bears such similarity to the tyrant Mkana Ndune at Pujini, just south of Chake Chake on the east coast, that many suggest that Harouni was his son.

Another nature reserve is defined on the North Eastern peninsula, called Msitu Mkuu. Antelopes and monkeys are said to live among the forests here, although sightings are rare.

Exploring East Pemba

At the central intersection in the middle of the island, the village of Chwale is famous in Pemba for being the site of their favourite annual bullfights, the Mchezo ya ngombe, or ‘game of the cow’. These are a source of great amusement and excitement and are held at very distinct times of the year when the weather is hot and dry and the cloves have been harvested, and the farmers have no urgent jobs to attend to. So before the short rains in October and November and sometimes in July the islanders of Pemba gather in the empty fields and bet on their favourite bull. They require three bulls for each fight, each tethered at the end of a very long rope.

The following action generally involves local boys posing as matadors in front of a moody-looking bull, until the animal charges and the ‘matadors’ jump aside. It can also involve local wide-boys racing around hitting the animals with sticks, and lots of loud shouting, squeaking and general encouragement from the women. The bulls always win and are finally led through the streets in triumph and often decked with flowers. A popular favourite in recent years has been ‘Resasi’, a name meaning ‘bullet’. Bullfights also take place in the villages of Pujini, Mchangamdogo, Ole, Wingwi, and Kengeja.

The people of nearby Kojani Island are renowned for being fishermen of considerable repute. They work in groups of ten or so men, with a traditional technique known only to them. They traditionally leave Pemba and fish commercially around Mombassa and Kenya, then return home to support their women and families. It is thought that Kojani Island has a population of as many as 80,000 people, and onlookers from the Pemba mainland will see a number of fine-looking houses clustered together on the opposite shore.

Still thriving and well-tapped sun-dappled rubber plantations extend inland along the Chwale-Mzambaraoni Road, and you can stop to visit the processing factory at the side of the road. The rubber is tapped and trained during December, and during this time the sap is collected from the trees and poured into a giant outdoor bath. From here it is weighed and dried and squashed and squared, and then pressed and hung out to dry.

Rubber squares are taken into a smokehouse, with huge coal burners beneath each, where they are heated to vast high temperatures to become malleable and easily manipulated. (Unwitting small creatures that crawl inside can also be found belly-up on the cooking rack). The factory has the capacity to produce approx. one tonne or between 5000 – 6000 kg per day, and the final material is exported for latex bandages and other uses. The factory is presently going through a period of crisis, as workers seem to be under the impression that the owner is giving up his trade.