March 11, 2013

The Indian Ocean Coast – Bagamoyo

Filed under: Bagamoyo — Tags: , , , — Tanzania Odyssey @ 4:01 pm

Bagamoyo has a pervasive atmosphere of past glory that is coloured with the knowledge that much of it was built on an era of success that grew mainly from the cruelty, hardship and suffering that were the bedrock of the slave trade. It is now a curiously thoughtful and peaceful town, its white coral sand beaches deserted but for a few fishermen, and huge plantations of palm trees dating from the industrious days of the Zanzibari Sultans are left to grow old in peace. The shores of Bagamoyo are pounded by the frisking waves of the Indian Ocean, and at its centre a fascinating – although dilapidating – collection of historical buildings from the days of Arab and German settlement. Many of these are now empty, but remain but hauntingly powerful images subjected to the continual weathering of a ruinous sea breeze. This is the site of the first Christian Church on this stretch of coast, and also of one of the first mosques at Kaole. This now charming ancient town may have lost its old supremacy as a trading port, but retains a superb beachside location with good nearby natural areas, such as the Ruvu Delta and offshore coral reefs, that make it a worthwhile trip even beyond its strange and fascinating historic interest. This is easily made from Dar es Salaam, just 65 kilometres south and about one and a half to two hours drive, with good roads at least half of the way.

Bagamoyo History

The history of Bagamoyo really dates back to the 9th century when coastal trade was first established with the interior. Then the local population was sustained on collecting salt and drying fish to trade in exchange for ivory, rhinoceros horn, leopard skins and timber, and then their trade goods expanded to include tortoise shells and slaves. Muslim settlers brought new wealth to local Bantu settlers, and the interaction between them developed a new language of the coast that was to become KiSwahili.

Until the early 18th century the original mainland port was a couple of kilometres south, called Kaole, the oldest and closest site to Bagamoyo. The settlement at Kaole was overshadowed by the growth of Bagamoyo, and was moved up to Bagamoyo, maybe as a result of encroaching mangrove swamps, or lack of good water. But Kaole remains of great historic and spiritual importance as it is widely regarded as among the first sites for formal Muslim worship, and the earliest mosques. Bagamoyo is surrounded by fertile soils, and its close proximity to the rice producing areas of the Kindgani or Ruvu river delta could therefore support a larger population. It therefore became a main coastal port settled by Omani Arabs and their families and slaves during the 18th century, who finally formed a formal financial alliance with the resident Zaramo and Doe tribes at the turn of the 19th century when their new town came under threat from marauding Kamba tribes. But Kaole was not entirely abandoned, as it was later selected as an administrative and military base by Sultan of Zanzibar, who resettled the area with his Baluchi troops.

The importance of Bagamoyo town came as a result of its inimitable position as the beginning and end of important caravan routes into the interior, and so it developed as a crucial coastal port, and a flourishing centre for commerce and culture, and religion. The French Holy Ghost Fathers negotiated with the Shomvi Arabs and Zaramo tribe for the right to land to establish a mission, granted by the diwans in 1868, after the intervention of the French Consul for Zanzibar and the Sultan. So history paved the way for the building of the First Church, which would then feature in the lives and accounts of later great travellers who would pit their wits against the harsh realities of these northern caravan routes.

In 1880, the resident population was estimated to be only around 1000 residents, but the town continued to sustain a substantial population of travellers and traders, returning from and preparing to embark upon their caravan journeys. And so Bagamoyo achieved great prosperity, with a bustling marketplace that became a centre for expensive commodities such as slaves and ivory, and also continued to trade dried fish and salt, and copra and gum copal, and the local boat-building centre continued to grow in size and reputation. The customs house was constantly busy and the town revelled in good food, clothes and conversation, as vivid tales of the caravan trails were endlessly recounted.

Discussions of etymology of name continue to fascinate, most common is ‘Bwaga-moyo’, translated as ‘Be still my heart’, or ‘lay down the burden of my heart’, most often interpreted to have been the lament of slaves reaching the last step of African soil before hope of remaining was stripped away and they were shipped to foreign lands, leaving their hearts forever on their homeland. Another interpretation is that the name arose from the caravan porters and traders who considered the port a final release from their journeying, and for whom the sentiment to ‘lay down the burden of the heart’ was the relief of returning and the work being done:

Song of the Caravan Porters

Be happy, my soul, let go all worries,

Soon the place of your yearnings is reached

The town of palms, Bagamoyo.

Far away, how was my heart aching

When I was thinking of you, you pearl

You place of happiness, Bagamoyo.

There the women wear their hair plaited

You can drink palm wine all year round

In the garden of love, Bagamoyo.

The dhows arrive with streaming sails

And take aboard the treasures of Uleias

In the harbour of Bagamoyo.

Oh, what delight to see the ngomas (dances)

Where the girls are swaying in dance

At night in Bagamoyo.

Be quiet my heart, all worries are gone

The drum beats and with rejoicing

We are reaching Bagamoyo.

The Arabs, Zaramo and Doe worked out an understanding based on the premise that they were inhabiting land under the sultanate, governed and managed by a system of the Sultan’s government officials who were diwan, liwali and akida. The system managed to work fairly smoothly until 1888, when Sultan Seyyid signed a treaty with the German East Africa Company to allow them to collect customs duties on his behalf. Naturally his officials had been collecting a few duties until this time, whenever a large fish was caught or a cow was slaughtered, and they had been doing quite nicely. But when the East Africa Company devised a much greater system of taxation and showed their allegiance to the Sultan by cutting down his flagpole, the townspeople began to unite on an undercurrent of unrest. When a crowd gathered to complain at the East Africa Trading Company House at the end of 1888, troops were despatched from the SS Moewe, and at least one hundred protesters died. Such events were a precursor to a greater, organised rebellion, the Bushiri Uprising, described below in the chapter on Pangani, where the successive events were set in motion.

As a result of the Bushiri revolt Major Herman von Wissman was posted to this northern coastal region as German Commissioner for East Africa, accompanied by a sizeable force of Zulu and Sudanese infantrymen. Von Wissman transformed the face of Old Bagamoyo on his arrival when he set about building a number of fortified houses from which to quell the rabble. When a party of European travellers reached Bagamoyo in 1889 they found it to be renovated as a ‘neat German colonial town’, a succession of new two-storey houses with tin roofs.

This rather fractious and exhausted caravan party included Henry Morton Stanley, Jephson his aide, and the eminent Jewish, German born, Turkish or Egyptian blooded, and all international intellectual – Emin Pasha. The Pasha had been ‘rescued’ at the hands of Stanley from a fine life of carousing and fun defending the empire as governor of Equatoria, present day southern Sudan. Stanley’s extremely arduous mission beset with suffering in the jungles of Zaire had been to ‘bring back the Pasha’ from Sudan on behalf of the British government and the Belgian King Leopold, but it took 11 months to persuade the Pasha to gather up his men and families and possessions and leave. Von Wissman greeted the group cordially, and arranged a triumphal salute and banquet, which took place in the new double storey officers’ mess. The welcome greatly cheered Emin Pasha, especially when it was compounded with a cable of congratulations from the new German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II. His spirits rose amid an abundance of speeches, congenial conversations and drinking, until the awful news was brought that Emin had somehow toppled off the balcony and fallen through the palm covered roof below, to land at ground level with concussion. The most damning element of this episode came when Emin awoke, and decided to rejoin once more with his fellow countrymen the Germans.

Bagamoyo – What to see and do

Bagamoyo is fun to explore on foot, searching for clues and relics to its unusual past. Plenty still remains to be seen, and there is an excellent Mission Museum in the Sister’s building at the centre of town to help fill in the gaps.

Remnants of the earliest days of Bagamoyo can be found just beyond the town centre on the road from Kaole ruins. The Old Fort and Provision House (near the turning to Badeco Beach Hotel), were the first stone buildings built in the area in 1860 during the Arab era, although they were later taken over by the Germans and then became a police post until 1992. The Old Fort was originally used to hold slaves before they were shipped to Zanzibar, and rumours tell how an underground passage to the shore once used to herd the slaves onto waiting boats. Further along the path to the Beach Hotel, on the right hand side, is a small German Cemetery contained within a neat coral wall enclosure. This is the site of about 20 graves of Germans killed during the first official uprising of Arabs and locals against the colonials in 1889 and ‘90, led by Bushiri, the Arab responsible for the ruckus in Tabora. A German deed of freedom for a slave is reproduced on a tree that is rather oddly referred to as a German Hanging Place.

Continuing on this route into town along India Street the next building of historic interest is Liku House, an old two-storey building on your left, its shady awning supported on slim iron columns around the central front door. This was the first colonial administrative centre, used for about a decade while the Boma was under construction between 1888 and 1897. This was built just a short distance closer to the town centre, also on your left as you continue along India Street. The Boma is an elaborate U-shaped double storey construction crowned with crenellations, showing pointed arches on the first floor and a tunnel of curved arches below. This became the grand centre for administration after it was completed in 1897, and now continues to function as the Head Quarters for the District Commissioner of Bagamoyo, directly in front of the Uhuru monument and bandstand.

Crossing Bomani Road and continuing north brings you to Customs Road, past grand elevation of the Post Office at the intersection, with its beautifully carved door and smart painted veranda on the first floor. Next door, heading east down Customs Road towards the coast, the old fish market has a number of heavy stone tables shaded from the heat of the sun. These are still used to sell and gut the day’s catch, but until the boats come in the market provides a cool respite for locals who play games on the table tops and while away the hottest hours.

Continuing eastwards brings you to the Customs House, on the right hand side at the end of Customs Road. This was rented to the Germans by the eminent Sewa Haji, who had it built in 1895. Sewa Haji was the son of a merchant trader from the Hindu Kush, present day Pakistan, and his family established impressively successful trade posts in Zanzibar and Bagamoyo. He went on to prove himself as a philanthropic sort, and donated the rather grand three-storey first school with filigree ironwork balustrades in the centre of town to be used for mixed-race education, and established the first hospital which still stands as part of the present hospital building today. When he died in 1894, his will requested that posthumous earnings from his property be used to support the hospitals and help lepers.

The two storey Caravanserai on Caravan Street would have once been the focal point for all activities and excitement at the centre of old Bagamoyo town, as it was here that all equipment and supplies for long excursions into the interior were prepared. The central building is two storeys, the ground level flanked by wide verandas to assemble supplies. These are then surrounded by a broad courtyard and a front row of single storey outbuildings.

The First Church was built in 1872 by Father Antoinne Horner of the French Holy Ghost Fathers, after permission was granted by the Sultan of Zanzibar and French Consul in response to a growing outcry against the slave trade here. Then on the 24th of February two years later the body of Dr David Livingstone was brought here from Ujiji, over 1.5 thousand kilometres away, by his loyal assistants, Sisi and Chuma, before it was shipped home to its final resting place in Westminster Abbey. A small cemetery marks the graves of early missionaries, and a small shrine built by freed slaves in 1876 has the words ‘Saluminus Maria’ picked out in flowers. Many of the famous explorers and missionaries that made their names travelling this land visited The First Church, including Burton, Speke and Grant. It was also near the site of the rescue of a rather less admirable character, the German colonialist Carl Peters, who fell exhausted, starved and half-dead into the arms of a German mission here in 1884, following his preliminary madcap rush around the interior near Zanzibar, raising his national flag and securing numerous ‘treaties’ on behalf of Bismark.

The Livingstone Memorial Church was built in the late 20th century to commemorate the missionary and explorer who had played such a pivotal role in publicising and so putting an end to the misery of slavery in this part of the world. The memorial church has a simple corrugated iron roof with arch windows and wooden benches within. A small path leads from the church to the sea shore, where a green marble cross commemorates the spot where Father Antoinne Horner first stepped ashore from Zanzibar in 1860, before he went on to create the first known Christian church on the mainland.

Father Horner lived at the Holy Ghost Mission, shrouded in trees at the shady end of Mango Tree Drive. The Mission was established in 1871 and a statue of the Sacred Heart was then erected later in 1887. The Mission museum in the sister’s building shows a collection of exhibits that recount the unusual history of Bagamoyo. The mission was used to buy slaves their freedom, although few attempted to return to their homes, often thousands of kilometres away, and they settled instead in Freedom Village, close to the Mission.

Major Herman Wissman, the German Commissioner posted here to quell the awkwardly raucous rebels constructed The Dunka Block House on Bunda Road at the end of the old caravan route in 1889 as a means of defence during the Bushiri uprising. The flat mango and coral stone roof has an outdoor ladder onto it, from where troops could fire on rebels below. This marked the end or the beginning of the caravan track from Bagamoyo to Ujiji, 1,500km away on Lake Tanganyika.

Bagamoyo – The Ruins of the settlement at Kaole

Five kilometres south of Bagamoyo are the ruins of the 13th and 14th century settlement of Kaole, the original town that was abandoned to make way for the new port. The ruins of two mosques and a series of about 30 tombs on a sandy site occasionally shaded by an ancient palm. The ruins here are widely considered an especially sacred site, and the larger of the mosques is thought to date from the 3rd and 4th centuries, making it one of the earliest examples of Islam in Africa. The other mosque and tombs probably date from the later settlement, around 12 to 1300s, and similarities have been noted between this mosque and the Great Mosque at Kilwa, with whom Kaole would have had strong trading connections. Kaole remains an important site for Muslim prayers, and offerings are frequently left inside the tombs. A guide can sometimes be found on the site and will show you around, for a tip.

Refreshing natural history and interest can be found further north of Bagamoyo on a boat trip into the Ruvu River Delta, to find hippos wallowing merrily and spot numerous resident birds including kingfishers, heron, Ibis and bee-eaters, weavers, shrikes, migratory pelican, flamingos and many more.

The Indian Ocean Coast – Intro

Filed under: The Indian Ocean Coast — Tags: , , , — Tanzania Odyssey @ 3:58 pm

xxxIf the history of the Indian Ocean Coast of Tanzania could have been video recorded with time lapse photography from the beginning of this millennium it would show an extraordinary pattern of visitors arriving, departing and settling on its shores. This coast has attracted sailors, merchants, adventurers, explorers and migrating tribes for thousands of years, and Arabic, Portuguese and European settlers have built and abandoned their commercial capitals here depending on the longevity of their control.

For today’s travellers, just the nature of the land is often treasure enough, and they discover a coastline of clean coral sand beaches as white and soft as riceflour shaded by palm trees and lapped by shimmering blue-green waves of the Indian Ocean. A string of different historic towns slumber in this idyllic setting, often as a curious and crumbling reminder of a once more prosperous past. The individual towns of Tanga, Pangani, Bagamoyo and Dar, Kilwa and Mtwara all provide a range of options for accommodation and opportunities to enjoy the bright pace of Swahili coastal life in unusual and often magnificent surroundings. From here you might arrange to discover nearby coastal game reserves or make underwater explorations into the world of coral reefs, or explore natural lagoons, islets and sandbanks on the wide and peaceful deck of a traditional old dhow.


The history of this Indian Ocean coastline is one of many centuries of sea-trading commerce and trade links to great civilisations such as the Egyptians, the Sumerians and Phoenicians and the Roman and Islamic Empires, who relied on overseas trade for wealth and acquisition of luxury goods and raw materials. It is thought that this East African coastline, known as Azania, formed a part of international trade relationships for more than 2000 years, although the earlier millennium is harder to verify with historical accounts. However it is certain that trading connections were well established by the first or second century AD, as recorded in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a guide to the trade and ports of Arabia, East Africa, India and their connections with China, written in the first century.

It is thought that some merchants settled along the coast, marrying and intermingling with local people during these early days, but these newcomers barely affected the cultural, social or political sensibilities of the day until the birth and growth of the Islamic religion and empire in the early centuries AD. The greatest immigration to the East African coast from the Arabian Peninsula occurred as a result of great religious and political upheavals after the death of the prophet Mohamed between the 8th to 10th centuries AD. Large numbers of families then emigrated to settle along the Azanian coast, which they called the ‘Land of Zanj’, and they founded settlements that developed into powerful thriving centres of Islamic culture.

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 10th century AD. He describes the ‘villages of Zanj’ stretching for ‘700 parsangs’, equivalent to 2,500 miles, which would cover the distance from the Red Sea to a point on the mainland opposite Southern Madagascar. This coast became a focal point for Indian Ocean trade, the land to which the monsoon winds blew from the Arabian lands in the East. Their wooden dhows would sail the ocean laden with textiles, hatchets, daggers, awls and types of glass, as well as wine and sometimes wheat. They would set sail when the winds changed direction to take them home laden with cargoes of gold, tortoiseshell, ambergris or crammed with African people bought from the trading ports and taken as slaves. So this land of plenty earned an attractive reputation around the Arabian Gulf, and when political and religious strife made life hard in the Persian Gulf and Southern Arabia, many were inspired to leave their homeland and rebuild their communities in the sunny and palm-fringed land of Zanj.

Legend tells how many of the settlements along the Tanzanian coast grew from one spectacular emigration led by Ali bin Sultan Hasan of ‘Shiraz’, the capital of Fars in then Persia, now Iran. Some stories tell how in 975AD he had a dream that a rat with iron jaws was gnawing though the foundations of his palace. He interpreted the dream to be a threat to the very foundations of his family and rule, and resolved to move them all away to somewhere safer. This would also have coincided with the religious and political upheavals synonymous with the growth of the Islaam. The Sultan then organised himself and each of his six sons and their entourage into seven separate boats, and they all set sail for Zanj on the monsoon winds. Somewhere in the midst of the Indian Ocean they were separated by a storm which caused each dhow to land at different points along the coast and islands, including Mafia, Kilwa, Pemba, Tongoni (Tanga), and the Comoros. This coincides with tales of the Shirazi Sultan of Kilwa, who arrived in the islands of Zanj and bought Kilwa Kisiwani for a length of cloth, and then sent his son, Bashat to the Mafia Archipelago to govern his sultanate there.

The story of Ali bin Sultan Hasan was a good tale for newcomers to ensure their welcome as the descendants of a valiant and wise Shirazi king, but the likelihood of its validity is slim. It is more likely that during the 9th and 10th centuries AD émigrés from the Arabian Gulf first settled further north on the Azania coast, in the present-day land of Somalia, and then moved south to finally settle along the coast of present day Tanzania between the twelfth and fourteenth. Many of these settlements achieved prosperity resulting from Indian Ocean trade, and then suffered an often devastating decline following the arrival of the Portuguese in the 17th century.

March 10, 2013

The Indian Ocean Coast – Pangani

Filed under: Pangani — Tags: , , , — Tanzania Odyssey @ 4:08 pm

Pangani is a sleepy little town on the banks of the Pangani (Ruvu) river, 66km south of Tanga. A ferry service shuttles to and fro between the ancient old town of Bwemi with its crumbling mosques and Arabic houses on the south bank and the quietly dilapidating ‘new’ town where a number of grand ruins from all its eras of government act as a reminder of a once more glorious past. These slow wooden motor boats wait at each shore until they are filled, and a loud general banter bubbles up between the gradually increasing cargo of colourfully swathed passengers. No one is hurrying, and time seems to drift as if on the lazy ebb and flow of the river and sea beyond. But there are signs of quiet industry at the old warehouses and factory sites along the river, where groups of men congregate to work on mending nets or gathering baskets of coconuts or husks. Beyond, clusters of single storey swahili houses are variously painted and coloured with signs and women sit under shady verandas in their coloured kangas selling bundles of delicious honeyed rice cake.


There is a possibility that little Pangani Town once featured more impressively in the realms of history, if indeed it was the site of the ancient Market town of Rhapta, as described in The Periplus of the Erythraen Sea, the 1st century guide to trade ports of Arabia, Eastern Africa and India. This book described the coast of Azania, and told how the trading port of Rhapta was situated at a great river mouth, south of the ‘Mountains of the Moon.’ It is generally agreed that Rhapta must have been in present day Tanzania, but no remains have been found. The likelihood is that the great river mouth has finally swallowed up the old town, amid the silt deposits either here at Pangani, or alternatively further south near the great Rufiji River Delta.

The old mosques on the southern banks of the Pangani river suggest that there was a very early Muslim settlement here, and local stories tell of ruins of a great palace that has since succumbed to the wiles of nature, wound with the roots of great fig trees and crumbled to dust with the erosion of the cliff. There area a number of graves and ruins of ancient Muslim settlements in villages around Pangani that all date from the 14th century and later, although none have been found to be earlier.

It is known that Pangani was occupied by the Portuguese for a time, and that thereafter more Arab traders began to settle here throughout the 18th century. They made a certain amount of business and trading with the resident local Zigua tribe, selling belts and beads in exchange for food. Arabs and locals developed a good understanding and mutual reliance on the other, and the town remained a fairly quiet and low profile dhow port until the mid-1800s. Once again the writings of explorer Richard Burton shed light on the exact situation at this time, for when he visited in 1857 he recorded the annual export trade as being 35,000lbs of ivory, 1,750lbs of rhinoceros horn and 160lbs of hippopotamus teeth. All this alongside a day to day trade in mangrove poles and maize.

Around this time, life in Pangani began to alter dramatically, as ‘Shirazi’ residents began to increase trade links along the Pangani River until the port developed into a major terminus for trade in ivory and slaves, the last stop for the overland caravan route from Lake Tanganyika. The Arab population developed a smart white-washed town beneath the minaret of a central mosque, and the town was surrounded by successful tobacco and sugar plantations. But the social structure was then most dramatically altered when German colonialists shouldered their way into command the Sultan’s domain on the mainland immediately after the death of Sultan Barghash in 1888 and their subsequent agreement signed with his poor brother Khalifa. The German colonialists called Arab residents to positions of government in exchange for fine stone houses that they had built in the area, and then demanded that the Sultans officials, called akida, levy a mass of new taxes, including on burial, inheritance and property. Anyone who failed to register his property and situation was liable to have it confiscated. Locals tell how the early colonial methods of discipline relied heavily upon the force of a beating stick, and relate (with a certain awe), how one colonial administrator developed such a talent with his stick that he was even able to defend himself from the jaws of a man-eating lion. Legend relates that he came out the victor in a fatal combat with a man-eating lion.

The ‘Bushiri’ revolt

In 1888 Pangani was chosen by Sheikh Bushiri ibn Salim al-Harthi as the centre for the infamous rebellion against German colonial rule, after a young German official named Emil von Zewlewsky, known as ‘Nyundo’, the hammer, in Swahili, heavy-handedly threatened the Sultan’s officer, insulted the Muslim religion and ‘sneered at the Sultan’. In order to quell any possible dissension against his rule, Zewlewsky then ordered 100 marines onto the beach to smash property and pull down the Sultan’s flag. Bushiri was incensed. He was a proud, high born Arab, immaculately and expensively dressed and vehemently held his own al-Harthi community to be equally as rightful to the land as the Sultan. The Sheikh organised a group of militant dissidents against the German occupiers, digging trenches and fortifying their houses, including blockading Zelewsky in his headquarters, and he raised a rampant army of about 20,000 wild tribesmen, Arabs, Muslims, non-Muslims, slave traders and slaves.

There was evidently some confusion over the exact purpose of the army. While some thought they were defending the lands of the Sultan, Bushiri himself had plans to prove himself as an independent warlord. The only unifying theme was a certain uncontrollable anger against the German colonialists. His army was successful in keeping their foe from their beaches for a time, but the supremacy of Bismark was not to be mocked, and before long greater forces were despatched from Europe. The unrest was quelled by May 1889, when a new imperial commissioner, Major Herman von Wissman was appointed in Pangani to placate the already slightly cooling rabble with the force of seven warships, extensive modern weaponry and numerous Sudanese and ‘Zulu’ troops. By June Wissman had recaptured Saadani and then Pangani, and in December Bushiri was captured as a result of the huge reward money on his head, and he and his collaborators were publicly executed.

The German powers were victorious, and thereafter continued to stake their claim on Tanganyika territory with a daring amount of warfare and village burning. Not all survived the attacks however, and suffice it to say that young Zelewsky ‘the hammer’ met his fate at the hands Chief Mkwawa’s Hehe warriors near Iringa.

The Pangani residents were still reeling from the violence of the German methods of administration, and consequently felt a welcoming response to the less draconian regimes of the new British government after WWII. Although the British were more communicative and intuitive to the local people, they continued to rely on the Arab chiefs created by the Germans and strictly enforced tax payments with a penalty of imprisonment on those who did not pay. The British era saw an emphatic growth of schools and education, free to all whom wished to attend, although influenced by the crucial caveat that those who took advantage of these should follow the Christian religion. The divide between Muslim and Christian is quite even in this region, and depended on the receptive attitudes of families and tribes to this stricture for potential education. The old people of Pangani remember the latter years of the colonial era with fondness, as a time of good business and wealth emmanating from the sisal (mkonge) plantations. Four large estates around Pangani, at Sakura, Kibinda, Mwera and Bushiri did very well, and continued to do so for a while after Independence. But as the price for sisal began to drop and salaries were reduced, people began rather despondently wishing for a return of the old protectorate. As the sisal harvests lost their value the people planted coconut plantations, which were profitable for a while. But the trees have aged and the crops decreased considerably. There is now little work for Pangani locals beyond a basic subsistence reliant on coconut, fish and small seasonal crops, and the employment level has officially dropped to 10%, compared with a rumoured nearly 100% under the British government. Worse is a widespread memory of better times, and many Pangani youth are forced to move away to Arusha or Dar es Salaam for work.

The Indian Ocean Coast – Saadani Game Reserve

Filed under: Saadani Game Reserve — Tags: , , , , — Tanzania Odyssey @ 4:06 pm

Is a curious little nature reserve stretching for 30km along the coast north of Bagamoyo, covering a small but unusual natural area contained within its 500 square kilometres. It remains underdeveloped and offers little alternatives for accommodation, but the wildlife population is varied, and includes small numbers of elephant lion, leopard, buffalo, reedbuck, hartebeest, wildebeest and eland, and also rare red duiker and an unusual subspecies of ‘Roosevelt’ sable antelope. Take note that these are not always in evidence, and it is worth considering Saadani as a good coastal region in which to get away from the hubbub of the city and enjoy some fresh air with the potential of spotting some very wild wildlife while perhaps taking a river safari along the crocodile and hippo filled Wami River, or enjoying the beaches. The beaches are quite deserted but for the odd local fisherman lugging or selling his catch, and there are good opportunities for swimming, although the shelving is quite shallow and the water may be murky on account of the nearby river swirling up sand and sediment. The southern boundaries of the park border on this, WamiRiver, presenting good opportunities for scenic boat safaris, and in the north the shady canopies of ZaraningeForest makes for a cool region to explore on foot and discover a wealth of endemic plant and animal species within. You can also visit a small turtle sanctuary that has been established to save the green turtles lay their eggs along this sandy shoreline, and see young rescued turtles swimming blissfully protected in their pond before they come of age and are released back to the perils of the sea. The local village of Saadani at the centre of the reserve is also interesting to look around, and to search for signs of its once historic past. Like many of these coastal towns, Saadani was once a fairly important trading port and another terminus for slaves brought through the inland caravan routes, and then subsequently became a coastal town during German occupation, resplendent with a colonial fortress.

The Reserve makes an easy overnight or weekend excursion from Dar es Salaam, 45 minutes flying time or four or five hours driving time via Chalinze.

March 9, 2013

The Indian Ocean Coast – Kilwa

Filed under: Kilwa — Tags: , , , — Tanzania Odyssey @ 4:17 pm

300 km south of Dar es Salaam and 105km north of Lindi, Kilwa sits almost half way along the coast between the capital and the Mozambique border, accessible by some of the worst and even seasonally impassable roads imaginable. As a result, the historic town of Kilwa has become notoriously hard to visit, and something like sleeping beauty in her castle surrounded by a forest of thorns. Yet it is a region of extraordinary historical interest with abundant archaeological ruins and remains that chart coastal Swahili culture over 1000 years, and as such is listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site.

Kilwa – History

The strange history of Kilwa has led it its evolving into three distinct areas, distinguishable as the ancient island settlement, Kilwa Kisiwani, ‘of the island’, the old colonial town called Kilwa Kivinje, ‘of the casuarina trees’, its central and modern port town known as Kilwa Masoko, ‘of the market’. The latter functions as the present-day district headquarters and although lacking intrinsic historical interest of its own, the central position and proximity to the airport make Masoko the best base for accommodation while visiting the surrounding area, with the added benefit of being in easy reach of good beaches.

The most ancient and so historically important of all of these is Kilwa Kisiwani. This was the original Kilwa settlement, dating from as early as 800AD, and it is relevant that remains of some original structures, particularly mosques, predate the first Arab settlement and indicate a Muslim Swahili culture existing as a result of influential trade links. Most archaeological research was discovered by Neil Chittick in the 1960s. An excellent exhibition of the discoveries from Kilwa is on display at the National Museum in Dar es Salaam, and is well worth visiting before seeing the ruins to understand the extent of lavish cosmopolitan luxuries that were once prevalent among these ancient stones.

Kilwa means ‘fishing place’, and the island settlement grew from a small fishing village into a flourishing and world renowned port town, perfectly situated to handle a boom in global Indian Ocean trade. Just north of Sofala and south of Zanzibar, Kilwa became a key port for the import of textiles, china and all the goods brought in though the Arabian gulf, and for the export of African slaves and, most sought after, gold. The resultant prosperity inspired some of the grandest buildings in pre-colonial equatorial Africa, and sparked a wrangle for power and control that eventually proved the downfall of a now legendary civilisation. The ruins at Kilwa show a recurring pattern of rising and falling fortunes that were endemic to coastal trading and dependant on global demands for gold, but eventually the ancient city lost prominence and fell into disrepair. These days a population of around 600 inhabits Kilwa ‘on the island’, and the ruins are skirted by a neat rural East African village copiously surrounded by small stick fences to keep rampaging warthogs from the vegetable gardens. And yet you may still come across one or two extraordinary-looking families with pale skin and strangely pale eyes whose names and features indicate their connection with the original Shirazi settlers.

Legend of foundation of Kilwa and its first Sultan

Legend tells that in the late 12th century the island was bought for a length of cloth by a self-proclaimed Persian (Shirazi) sultan named Ali bin al-Hasan. Four hundred years later it was recorded that he provided enough material to stretch all around the island. This is possibly an exaggeration as it would require nearly fifteen miles of cloth. During his reign, the wealthy sultan issued a vast number of copper coins in his name, and these continue to be unearthed by grubby handed children with a precocious eye for tourist dollars clutching well-worn handfuls or slivers of these relics. Sultan Ali bin Al-Hasan’s family ruled for 3 generations, but finally had the power wrested from them in 1300 by the established and powerful Mahdali family.

Kilwa experienced a surge in wealth and prominence from trade and shipping when gold demands were at their peak in the early 14th century and this is reflected in the number of stone buildings that were built at this time. In 1320 the Great Mosque was enlarged to four times its size, and domes were added to the Mosque and the historic Husuni Kubwa palace. A profusion of town houses were built in the town centre from quarried coral and lime, although this style remained the preserve of the wealthy and clay, wood and thatch homes continued to be constructed around the outskirts. These stone houses were designed in a regular, measured, but less grand style with flat roofs on wooden rafters supported by pillars. There is now little evidence of these original buildings on Kisiwani since many of the older domestic buildings were robbed for stone during a successive phase of affluence during the 18th century, although the ruins on the nearby island of Songo Mnara still show this early style. Thankfully the mosques escaped this demise, as even their stones are considered sacred.

Kilwa developed importance as a mid-point port between Zanzibar and the gold and slave-trading port of Sofala at the mouth of the Zambezi in present-day Mozambique. The town would have been a key point of trade for timber and ivory, gold and slaves brought along well-worn caravan routes from the interior and exchanged for goods to and from South Arabia, Persia and India. The wealthy merchant inhabitants certainly lived in a grand style, with opulent lifestyles reflecting their worldly connections. Descriptions of the island in its hey-day, while the Shirazi Arabs were controlling the gold trade from Sofala give an evocative impression of its charms. A fourteenth century report by Ibn Battuta, a devout, wealthy and educated Muslim with a reputation for travelling that named him ‘the [sheikh] traveller of the age’, described Kilwa when he saw it first in 1331as being ‘amongst the most beautiful of cities, and elegantly built…’. Ibn Battuta held the status of a qadi, judge of Islamic shar’ia law and was invited to visit Kilwa by the Sultan, al-Hasan ibn Sulayman, who had himself spent two years in Mecca. At this time, the Sultan also would have held dominion over the grand developments on the nearby island of Songo Mnara.

This beautifully organised settlement at the centre of the gold route so impressed the Portuguese that over a century and a half later they forcefully wrested control and claimed power of the island for themselves. It was not taken without a struggle, and when the fleet commanded by Pedro Alvares Cabral arrived in the early 1500s they were greeted with such suspicion by Sultan Ibrahim of Kilwa that there was a standoff at sea for two days, with neither agreeing to go to the other. Finally the fleet gave up and sailed away from Kilwa, who had refused their demands for a Portuguese trading port under Christian dominion. But they had not failed to notice the elegance of the island port, with its vast palace and courtyards, fountains, orchards and mosques.

Vasco de Gama returned to take a much stronger line with the Sultan, offering to bombard the town entirely to dust unless the Sultan bowed to the Portuguese occupation and paid them an annual tribute in gold. Their desire to overthrow this irritatingly resistant stronghold and thus control the flow of all of the gold should not be underestimated, and finally they attacked, looting and plundering the town, which the Sultan had deserted in the night. Finally the Portuguese flag was raised in Kilwa.


With little regard for their own input, the new dominion was even more eloquent about their inherited stronghold, and in 1503 Dom Francisco d’Almeida wrote, ‘Kilwa, of all the places I know in the world, has the best port and the fairest land that can be…In it are lions, deer, antelopes, partridges, quail and nightingales and many kind of birds and sweet oranges and pomegranates, lemons, green vegetables, figs of the land, coconuts and yams and marvellous meats and fishes and very good water from the wells.’ Unfortunately, the Portuguese were subsequently responsible for the most devastating decline of this ‘fairest land’, as the dispossessed Arabs then had no fortune to maintain the town and it fell into disrepair. Just ten years after Dom Francisco’s proclamation, the Portuguese abandoned their blissful island home and centred their control on the more manageable islands further north. Kilwa’s luck was not yet to improve, as shortly after this time, in the late 1500s, the island was subjected to a surprise attack by the Zimba tribe from Zimbabwe, who are reported to have arrived and eaten a large proportion of Kilwa’s inhabitants.

Later Omani Arabs took over Kilwa at the beginning of the 1700s, but Kilwa regained its independence in 1770. Trade saw a brief revival in the 18th century, as international commercial trends dictated an increased demand for ivory and slaves, and again Kilwa experienced a knock-on surge of building. The mosques were renovated, and a new and fortified palace was constructed. So big and so impressive in fact, that it was known as Makutani, The Big Walls. This phase of prosperity was sadly shortlived, as in in 1784 the Omani Arabs loomed back into prominence and once again wrested political control and with true conquering verve the Omanis claimed jurisdiction by building over the Portuguese foundations

A walk around Kilwa Kisiwani

Visitors to Kisiwani tend to arrive on the shore beneath an impressive ancient fortress generally called the Gereza. This monumental stone edifice is a typical coastal fortress, added to by successive generations of empowered governments. The Portuguese originally constructed the fort, reportedly in less than three weeks. They were evidently satisfied by their efforts, judging from the proud report from Francisco d’Almeida to the King of Portugal in 1505, offering ‘years of [my] life for the King to see…it is so strong that the King of France could be awaited there, and has lodgings in very fine houses for twice as many people as are left there now.’ The structure as it is today is mainly the handiwork of the Omani Arabs who built over the old Portuguese remains when they took over Kilwa in the 18th century. When explorer John Speke visited in 1857 he recorded that the inscription above the door was still legible showing that the gate was in built in 1807, some time after the Arabs had regained control. Today the rooms in the north-east corner are in the best condition, although the entrance hall with its stone benches and arrow slits provide an eerie sense of the buildings original function. Musket bullets and beads have been found in the preserved rooms, and two German canons remain rusting in the central court.

Now the only battle the Gereza faces is the continual encroachment of natural forces. Wind and sea have eaten into its once-powerful stone substance, its courtyards are turning to grass and high on its tower a baobab has taken root.

A short walk brings you to the monumental and remarkably well-preserved remains of The Great or Friday Mosque. When the Great Mosque was built in the eleventh century it would have been a small typical Swahili coastal design with a flat roof, supported on nine sixteen sided wooden columns in rows of three. This is now the open-air northern portion of the standing mosque, and the remains of the original open-air washing area are evident on the western side, with a small sunken courtyard and sandstone blocks for rubbing the feet dry after washing. The growing demand for gold in India and Europe and resultant prosperity of the port three centuries later in 1320 saw the mosque dramatically enlarged to reflect the increased status of the town, and crowned with its charismatic domes. These would have been influenced by the growing awareness of international architectural styles practised on the opposite shores of the Indian Ocean, and the finished design became the glory of the coast. Unfortunately the elegant eight-sided pillars were not strong enough to support an ambitiously large dome on the south-east corner, and after the roof began to crumble these were reconstructed with slightly less refined coral limestone blocks.

Neil Chittick’s excavations in the 1960s revealed the foundations of ‘The Great House’ behind the Great Mosque.

An interesting link between all of the important buildings on Kilwa is the intricate underground passage system, that was probably used to carry water between the Gereza, mosque and palace which extend to 12m deep in places.

Nearby is The Small Domed Mosque, a miniature reproduction of the Great Mosque. This tiny ruin has a fascinating and unusual charm, with a neat symmetrical nine domed square flanked by a tiny washing room. The ceiling inside is carved with small roundels that were once filled with colourful eastern ceramics, still evident in some areas, and the roof is crowned with an impressive stone obelisk although the top portion has broken off. The small mosque was based on the remains of a much older building, and would have originally been elevated on a platform above the level of the street. To the south and south east of the central mosques are three cemetery areas, one of which is said to contain the tombs of the Kilwa Sultans, and another is known as the ‘graves of the forty sheikhs’; apparently the result of a protracted argument that resulted in all forty of them dying on the same day.

Beyond the mosque at the western end of town are the remains of a lofty construction known as Makutani, ‘The Place of the Great Walls’, thought to have been a residential palace for the sultans in the late 17th and 18th centuries. The western aspect is designed as a network of grand reception rooms, courtyards and kitchens, and long stone tunnels from floor to floor that would have served as an early and elaborate form of indoor pit latrine, and cause great consternation among most of the guides that show you around.

But a mile from the centre of town stands lasting evidence of a far more opulent and elaborate culture of sultan rule that predates the Makutani settlement at least three hundred years. At the height of Kilwa Kisiwani’s wealth and prestige an exceptionally grand and fascinating Palace, the Husuni Kubwa, was built a mile from the town centre on the island coast. The palace is a fine architectural spread of open and arched courtyards, three-storey elevations of rooms and an elaborate octagonal bathing pool that shows a style and expertise quite unlike anything else on the Zanj coast at this time. This fantastic stronghold was positioned to command views over Kilwa harbour, and benefit from the coastal breeze. Visitors generally first enter the palace through the Domestic Court, climbing a series of worn stone steps that reach a high platform at the end of a long courtyard with open porticoes to either side. The next door room on the West side is the Pavilion, where sultan would carry out his public office, commanding views of the coast from a pleasant cool and shady arena. To the West again is the Audience Court, where the Sultan would also have received his visitors. The lower half of the coral wall is carved with small square niches, which are thought to have perhaps contained flickering gas lamps or were otherwise just for decoration. This area is likely to have been used for entertainment such as dance performances, with audiences seated on the steep flight of steps at the Eastern end. A foot-tank is built into the stairs at the entrance to the Pavilion, so that all visitors attending the sultan could be certain to come with fragrant feet.

The strangest thing about Husuni Kubwa is the knowledge that the palace was only occupied for three generations, at most. The exceptional opulence of a palace so grand could not sustain its own momentum. Even filling the pretty little octagonal swimming pool would have required scores of slaves hand carrying water buckets enough to fill its 17,500 gallon (80 cubic metre) capacity. The sheer enormity of the manpower required, slaves or servants, and the logistics required to run the beautiful palace on the cliff top were just incompatible with any change of fortune, and now the ruins represent the mesmerising peak of power, grasped and then lost forever.

Kilwa Kivinje

Kivinje developed as a prosperous mainland port town during the reign of Sultan Seyyid, and then continued to feature as an important trading post for the German colonialists. Most buildings were built in the early to mid 19th century, and some German buildings in the late 19th Century.

The stone buildings along the waterfront are from the German colonial period, notably a boma, customs post, and 2 large houses in Mjengera Road. Also off Mjengera Road is an old Islamic building complex, a walled open space containing a house, small mosque, ‘bikira’ (washing facilities) and a cemetery.

It has been noted that there are surprisingly few mosques in the old quarter of town. A rumour persists that the German District Officer complained bitterly about the noise of the daily hazzan, the muslim call to prayers close to his residence. This brought about a swift construction of a new Friday mosque outside the old town centre, and forced the abandonment of the old.

The German monument of 1888, flanked by four up ended canons, is now mostly submerged by drifting sand piles

Kivinje operated as a clandestine slave trading port until the late 1880s, until a British initiative in 1884 placed their vice-consuls at the three major ports along the coast to monitor and quash the last vestiges of the trade.

In 1956 the District HQ was transferred from Kivinje to Masoko which had a deeper harbour and closer to the airport strip.

Kilwa Masoko

The new main town of Kilwa Masoko sits astride the main coastal road with an air of sun-baked sleepiness and wild-west quiet throughout the daylight hours. It comes alive when night falls, and a large market gathers in the sandy streets parallel to the beach. The streets are then illuminated with small fires cooking fish and maize, and crackling sound systems crank into action from the surrounding collection of small bars and restaurants.

During the day, the beach is pleasant to walk, with some more secluded areas for swimming, although it is a rural area and it is worth keeping any valuables safe.

Where to stay in Kilwa

Masoko is the best place for accommodation in Kilwa, and although there are no upmarket choices, The New Mjaka Guesthouse on the main road provides decent enough rooms with en-suite bathrooms and even a ‘sitting room’ in detatched bungalow bandas. These are blessed running water, fans, nets and electricity and kept clean and hospitable. The establishment is family-run and meals tend to be limited to whatever is available that night. There is little english spoken in Kilwa, and it is worth keeping a phrase-book handy for all kinds of negotiations. If you are having communication problems at Mjaka it might be worth asking if Dula is around. Rooms are available for around $10. There is a pleasant atmosphere next door in the Masoko by Night Bar, or across the street at the Memory Bar.

The Masoko Hilton Hotel is also good, with clean and well kept accommodation for Tsh3000 for a self-contained double. This friendly little guesthouse is closer to the beach near Masoko Primary School. The next door restaurant is also immaculately kept and a good choice for wholesome and inexpensive plates of local cooking.

Edit: Brand new Fanjove Private Island is an incredible beach lodge just off the coast of Kilwa.

The Indian Ocean Coast – Tanga

Filed under: Tanga — Tags: , , , — Tanzania Odyssey @ 4:13 pm

The wide and shady avenues of Tanga are the first clue to its past. It is evident within minutes of arrival that Tanga was once a popular colonial and industrial centre, complete with strict town-planning, immaculate roads, a fine looking hospital, police posts and an imposing gaol. But the huge steel hulks of old ships have turned to rust in the old harbour, and paving stones are loose and sporadically sprouting weeds. These are signs of a far greater misfortune that has befallen the once fine town that thrived here, but which has since suffered harsh economic decline. It hardly feels large enough to classify as Tanzania’s third largest city, or its second most important port, but it is extensive enough to have developed several distinct areas. Row upon row of small swahili houses and shops extend southwards behind the railway line reminiscent of purpose-built workers accommodation dating from the Industrial Revolution, and the thousands of people who live here are a generous mix of the numerous main regional tribes, with many others besides. Exploring the town a little further brings you to the looping coastal road around the peninsula called Ras Kazone. Here a number of large, detached residential houses sit sleepily in the sunshine, soaking up a salty air of bygone beachside elegance that this waterfront with its sailing club and swimming club and grand old hotels once nurtured.

Tanga – History

When the British explorer Burton visited the settlement of Tanga in 1857 he described a collection of ‘thatch pent-roofed huts, built upon a bank overlooking the sea.’ He estimated the local population to be between 4 and 5 thousand people, including around fifteen Baluchis and twenty Indian merchants, all held in check by the Sultans troops under his appointed ‘Wali’, or governor. So, when the German East Africa Company came here in 1888, following their success in persuading the Sultan to lease them a 16km wide strip along the coastline of Tanzania, Tanga was a relatively small fishing village that would have sustained a certain amount of commercial trade with Bagamoyo. The town sent annual caravans into the Usambara, Pare, Kilimanjaro and Maasai regions to return laden with ivory for sale. There were a handful of Omani residents who chose a quieter life here north of the central port town, but in essence this was a rural region occupied by a number of distinct and different tribes. These include the Digo people and the Bondei, whose name means ‘of the valley’, originally from Kenya but each squeezed south by their neighbours, and the Shambaa and the Pare people from the nearby Usambara and Pare mountains, also extending southwards. Another migrant group was the Segeju, who are less in evidence today, probably as a result of intermarrying, but they are considered responsible for building a number of protective walled enclosures around the Tanga region, thought to have been built during the 19th century as a defence against the Maasai. Some of these, however, have angled spy-holes similar to those at the ‘Gereza’ at Kilwa and Fort Jesus in Mombassa, which may indicate Arab influences in design and construction.

The Zigua people remained on their turf just south of Tanga, perhaps the original people of the Tanga region, and developed an impressive reputation for keeping themselves to themselves but responding with violent aggression when challenged. They have become a large tribe, taking many wives and remaining generally resistant to missionaries pushing for schooling in return for taking on the Christian faith. All of these people and other neighbouring tribes were familiar with the commercial exchange provided by the proximity of the caravan routes, but perhaps none were prepared for the advent of the new German port. At the end of the 19th century the first colonial power had begun work to develop the small port of Tanga to accommodate their steam ships after the port of Bagamoyo proved too shallow, and soon after, in 1893, they completed a railway line from Moshi to Tanga.

In the same year the first school in Tanzania was built and run initially by the German Colonial Society, and then soon after it was taken over by the government. The school developed quite a reputation for rigorous discipline, to the extent that it was meted out with canes and chains, but was evidently successful in organising a structure of education that focused on learning the German language, reading, writing and craft skills.

The fertile lands around Tanga and up into the Usambara mountains were very soon cultivated and proved profitable. Extensive sisal plantations were laid out, but further progression was thwarted by the outset of World War One. Tanga was then the site of one of the most infamous military blunders in East Africa. Thousands of Allied Troops were dispatched to lay a surprise attack on the Germans along the Tanga coastline, although the surprise was theirs when they arrived to find the dense mangroves along the beaches almost impenetrable, and the German troops fully prepared for their arrival. They were repulsed further by an aggressive swarm of disturbed bees, and were forced to abandon crucial supplies and weapons in retreat. An estimated 800 men died, with almost as many injured, in various ways. This episode and other events of the First World War on Tanzanian soil are excellently, if imaginatively, recounted in William Boyd’s novel, The Ice-Cream War.

In the years following the war, the population of Tanga was curiously altered as the German settlers moved away and the sisal plantations were taken over by a feisty contingent of Greek farmers. These developed a wild reputation for popular gambling sessions, during which entire estates might change hands, and enjoyed enormous prosperity from their sisal crops until the mid 1950s, when sisal prices crashed. The crop has never really recovered as a result of the proliferation of manufactured fibres, although it is still worthwhile for many of the smaller, recently privatised farms, but the population of Tanga today is largely dependent on local dhow trade with the Tanzanian and Kenyan coast, and the cement and brick factories that are situated just west of the town.

Tanga – Around town and local activities

The Tanga Ropeworks near the Post Office at the centre of town has examples of the various ropes made from sisal, once the lifeline for the town’s prosperity. This is opposite the old German-built Court House, which remains an imposing and good-looking structure that still functions as a ministration of law and order.

A walk along Independence Avenue, parallel to the sea front, leads past the Clock Tower erected in 1961, towards the Library, a substantial building in front of a pleasant arched courtyard that was opened by the British Governor Sir Edward Twining in the mid-1950s. Just west of the Library along Independence Road brings you to the Old Boma, large, heavy and imposing, and situated in a prime position overlooking the old harbour. A more curious and attractive legacy of this colonial era can be found a couple of blocks directly south, where the quaint and seemingly entirely unchanged railway station seems to have been lifted straight from a picture book of European country stations a century ago. Sadly this route is no longer functioning for passengers. To get here, walk through the Uhuru Park and follow Station Road south. Tanga School is situated on the eastern aspect of the park.

Tanga – Out of town

Just 8km north of Tanga, Amboni Caves are a good and exciting diversion if you have a little time to spend in Tanga. These are a protected portion of over 207 km of limestone caves dating from the Jurassic age, which have inspired a number of mystical legends in their time. Local people have traditionally regarded the strange formation as being supernatural, and call them Mzimu wa Mabavu, the dwelling of a powerful deity. For this reason people come from all surrounding areas to offer prayers and sacrifices, seeking cures from sickness, suffering or lack of fertility, and in certain areas you will find dusty bottles of oil, perfumes and charred incense. History tells how these caves proved a formidable sanctuary for certain individuals during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, particularly the now legendary Elias Samuel Oselloetango, who continually thwarted the British attempts to capture him. This evasive anti-hero used these caves to hide with Paulo Hamisi between 1952 and 1956, and during those years managed to spread all manner of tales about his exploits vanishing from prison cells and living in this underground maze. An unappealing description of his scarred, dark, heavy complexion and lock of curly hair hanging low on his forehead brings the legend to life on yellowing ‘wanted’ posters hanging in the guide’s hut.

The caves are under the protection of the Antiquities Act of 1964, and it is possible to take a guided tour through many of the caves at Amboni. These exceptional natural rock formations are distinctly impressive, but do not expect more from the ‘guided tour’ than a man with a torch leading through the maze and pointing out odd stalactite formations that seem to have the appearance of the Virgin Mary, or a roaring lion. Finally he points out ‘Kilimanjaro’, while you are standing at the bottom of a very steep pile of rocks, from the top of which the path continues. Nevertheless, it is absolutely imperative to take a guide, as fatalities have been incurred when individuals have gone in alone. The tour is great fun, but not recommended for claustrophobics, vertigo-sufferers, or anyone nervous about climbing, squeezing and scrambling through often quite small dark spaces. The honeycomb cave maze is liberally inhabited by bats and absolutely unlit. Entrance with a guide is Tsh 1000 per person.

Tanga – Tongoni Ruins

Near the village of Tongoni, 20 km south of Tanga town off the Tanga-Pangani road, there are ruins of a much older settlement of the same name that date from the 13th to 16th centuries, as well as mosques, tombs and defensive walls from the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of these older sites are now thickly overgrown, and access to many is difficult or impossible. ‘Tongoni’ is a Swahili term meaning place of ruins, or more literally ‘forsaken place’, although it is said that more recent inhabitants called the place ‘Sitahabu’, meaning ‘better here than there’. These were ancestors of some inhabitants of present day Tongoni, remembered as ‘Shirazi’ migrants from Kilwa who found the ruins deserted and occupied some of the old houses. Perhaps a few generations passed before the earlier alternative was forgotten and their home was re-christened Tongoni.

Remains of the most ancient settlement at Tongoni is mainly found to the North and East of the ruined large central Mosque and tombs, which notably include a number of 14th to 15th century pillar tombs. The pillars have scalloped indentations that would have once been decorated with glazed porcelain saucers, as seen at the domed mosque at Kilwa, but none of these pieces remain intact. Many have extensive frieze work carved around. A plain, double walled tomb near a fallen pillar tomb that rests on the east wall is considered significantly spiritual, as local tradition tells how this is the tomb of a Shariff, a descendent of Prophet Mohammed. People still bring offerings here, especially women hoping for children.

Tanga – Getting Around

Tanga is largely navigable on foot, although this can mean covering a fair old distance if you are keen to explore the town centre, the Raskazone peninsula and more. It is possible and worthwhile to hire a bicycle, especially if you are energetic enough to cover the kilometres to Amboni Caves as well, and these can be rented for around Tsh100-200 per hour from the roundabout between the bus stand and the train station on Taifa Road.

March 8, 2013

The Indian Ocean Coast – Mikindani

It is an extraordinary experience to arrive at Mikindani at the end of a long, bumpy and extremely dusty drive from Kilwa or Dar es Salaam. After mile upon mile of rural distances with often no sign of human habitation, (with exception to the rows of shops and restaurants in the efficient but rather characterless town of Lindi), the final bend in the road that reveals Mikindani town can seem to be a fairytale encounter. Nestling between mountains and sea on a large circular natural lagoon, this tiny town has the historic atmosphere of quiet quaint that attracts visitors to tiny villages in the English Cotwolds or Italian hilltops in Umbria. The winding streets are flanked with a hotchpotch combination of thatch and mud, or stone work with balconies and carved wooden doors from the Arabic and colonial days. It is not as ancient as Kilwa Kisiwani, and was never as important as Bagamoyo, and it has experienced a similar sudden downfall of fortune that changed it from a thriving port town to a quiet backwater almost overnight. But over the years Mikindani has received small doses of much-needed nurture that have kept the profile and character of the town distinct.


As with most of the port towns along the coast Mikindani suffered a succession of rising and falling fortunes with the turning tides of trade. Its perfectly protected bay provided naturally sheltered anchorage and it was the closest seaport for trade caravans coming from Lake Nyasa, and from Zimbabwe, Zambia and present day Congo. Arab trade and settlement at Mikindani is thought to extend from the 9th century through to mid-19th, evidenced by some remains of ruined mosques and graves, although there was previously a settlement of Makonde from Mozambique at Mvita, to the north west aspect of the lagoon where some interesting tombs with carved plaster decorations with porcelain bowls inset can still be seen. By the late 15th century trade from Mikindani was traced through Zambia and Malawi as far as Zaire and Angola. Ivory, tortoiseshell, animal skins and copper were exported and manufactured goods such as clothes and weaponry were brought in. Demand for the export goods lapsed in the early 16th century with the disruptive activities of the Portuguese all along the coast, but picked up again in the middle of that century when the whole coastal region came under the jurisdiction of the sultan of Zanzibar, and slave trading became better business. But trade continued to fluctuate until the next boost in business occurred around the 1850s, when Arab trading peaked once more and this little southern town became a major trading centre. If you were to arrive in Mikindani at this time, two centuries ago, you would have encountered a busy port town settlement over a spectacular ocean lagoon. Most of Mikindani town as it stands today dates from the mid-19th and early 20th centuries after it regained prominence as a trading centre for Arab dhows purchasing ivory and slaves. Many of the ruins seen in the old town were homes or trading posts of these first foreign traders distinguished by their carved doorways and flat roofs, while wealthier merchants built themselves two storey houses with intricate balconies above their shop front below. Mikindani then came to the attention of the Europeans towards the end of the 19th century when Dr David Livingstone recorded his stay here early in 1866 before embarking on his final expedition inland, and just a couple of decades later the town became subject to German Colonial rule. Livingstone’s double storey house with superbly carved wooden doorways was renovated by the ministry of antiquities in 1981, when a commemorative plaque was added and an unprepossessing corrugated iron roof. The Germans made Mikindani the District HQ, and constructed a number of impressive two storey coral rag houses with fretwork balconies on the upper level, and some of their more elaborate constructions have recently been subject to extensive restoration work. The old German Boma sits high on the hillside overlooking the town and bay with 1895, the date of its completion, inscribed over the door. It was designed as fortress, (‘boma’ is the swahili for fort), but included an administration office and an officers’ residence and mess that included the luxury of a tennis court on the Eastern side. It later became a police station, but was abandoned during the 1960s and fell into disrepair. The Boma has recently undergone extensive and stunning restoration at the hands of an interesting new charity called Trade Aid, who are working to develop the local potential for eco-tourism in Mikindani. The German colonial government also renovated and rebuilt the old 19th century slave market with heavy classically styled coral columns and looping open arches to convert it into a public market close to the waterfront to commemorate the slaves who were shipped from here. This has recently undergone a colourful restoration, also masterminded by Trade Aid, who have filled in the open arches and painted the exterior. Nearby, the Old Prison on the waterfront (near the main bus stop) is in a very poor state of ruin after being bombarded in World War I and could do with some similar attention.

The first colonial government implemented large scale farming schemes for crops such as sisal, rubber, coconut and oilseed, but as business boomed and the trade ships grew larger it became necessary to build new deepwater port. Or to opt for a cheaper alternative, and move the port 10km south to Mtwara, where there was already a naturally deep channel to support the trade. This fell into the hands of the British colonial government, when they envisaged even greater farming schemes, such as the infamous Groundnut Scheme (see below), and moved the district headquarters from Mikindani to Mtwara after the First World War, so sealing the economic fate of Mikindani.

Nowadays the families of Mikindani rely mainly on fishing and traditional dug out boats and dhows are used to bring home a subsistence catch. But this tiny town still harbours a few surprises, and a walk around its historic centre reveals a smart and well-maintained Hindu temple at the heart of this otherwise Muslim population, and a number of interestingly carved wooden doors and doorframes similar to the ‘Zanzibari’ style. For a more modern addition to the town, find the ‘Hot Mik Bar’ a lively landscaped bar facing the bay beyond the mainroad, a good spot for all refreshments and a resoundingly popular satellite tv.

The story of Babu Banda and the German Treasure

The hillside behind the town is pleasantly wooded, and a not-too-steep track from behind the Old Boma leads up through sunlit glades to a superb viewpoint and the site of a rather unusual industrious task. This is the domain of Babu Banda, a stringently built local witch doctor who has been subjected to a number of instructive dreams by ancestral and Arab spirits. The essence of these has been to tell him of German treasures buried at this summit behind the Boma, and for the past 8 months he has dogmatically undertaken the task of unearthing them. As he works his figure casts long shadows against the carefully dug wall of a crater-like hole about six metres deep, with just a thin bridge of solid earth running around the circumference before dropping off into a second previously abandoned crater beyond. He tells how seven treasure seekers had been here previously, but were plagued with dreams of an Arab instructing them to leave and finally frightened off or killed by a huge snake. Babu Banda also has dreams of the Arab, but is instead informed to dig seven paces from the biggest baobab tree, and he employs magic to keep the snake away. His treasure so far includes an immaculate bronze ½ kilogram weight, and he claims to have discovered a cache of guns, but has decided not to dig deeper around that site in case of disturbing unexploded arms. His dedication to unearthing the wealth of his dreams is impressively revealed when his simple spade is set to rest beside the cavernous depths he has carved into this red earth hillside. Meanwhile his family perch against the skyline, cooking ugali and sheltering under the snaking branches of the precariously rooted trees with the family rooster happily ensconced on Babu Banda’s wife’s head. They have promised that when they find the treasure the rooster come to know the cooking pot.

The Indian Ocean Coast – Lindi

Filed under: Lindi — Tags: , , , — Tanzania Odyssey @ 4:19 pm

The small town of Lindi is an uneventful and quietly dusty port town that makes a welcome stop if you have approached it in a southerly direction on the long hot road from Kilwa. There is little to immediately indicate its once more glorious past, now just discernible by its scattering of unusual and diverse ruins among the overall grid of dusty low-level housing and shop fronts, but there is an overall atmosphere of self-sufficiency and quiet industry that give the town a curiously dignified atmosphere, despite its fall in fortunes during the 20th century. The town has at least two large mosques and a fine Hindu temple at its centre, and overall a distinctly Asian and Arabic character, with many Indian merchants based here for their port of trade.

There are a few restaurants in its main street providing options for some good food and there are a handful of alternatives for cheap and decent budget accommodation. The surrounding natural areas include clear beaches to the north of town and nearby areas of rainforest such as the Litipo Forest Reserve near Rutamba village, both of which are worthwhile excursions.


Lindi was first settled during the 18th century by Omani Arabs, who left a legacy of a number of carved door lintels and an old stone tower on the harbour front that was once used as a prison to stand as witness to their once powerful era today. The port then became an important and bustling centre of the slave trading caravan route between Lake Nyasa and Kilwa Kivinje when it fell under the jurisdiction of the Sultan of Zanzibar in the 19th century, and during this time the clock tower was built, now standing at the town centre near the market. Then it was central seaport for Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi) and later, during the German era, Lindi was made the administrative centre of the entire Southern Province, and developed the coast to include a custom house and store house for the German East Africa Company. The dilapidated and overgrown Boma north of the Arab tower overlooking the sea and immaculate parallel line town planning remains evidence of the German era. Seafront benches and ancient old hotels suggest that Lindi was once a popular resort for hot expatriate farmers to spend time at the coast in a degree of comfort, but the town was abandoned during the years of the British protectorate in favour of the deep natural port town of Mtwara and then their intended scheme for making a fortune from groundnut crops proved an absolute disaster. Injury was added to dismal fortune when the town then suffered cyclone damage in the 1950s.

What to do

There is little of specific interest around Lindi town centre to provide adrenaline inspiring entertainment, but a walk up the seafront and into the market is a pleasant diversion and will reveal most of the landmarks mentioned above.

The best beach is Mtema beach, about 5km north of the town centre, and it is possible to take a ferry from the port at the end of Amani Street to the village across the bay, where it also possible to stay in good, cheap accommodation.

Another good excursion that is worth taking as an overnight is to Litipo Forest Reserve, some distance out of town, near the village of Rutamba. This last remaining patch of rainforest is a wonderfully peaceful and natural area, with a couple of small lakes to either side and quiet forested region at the centre, alive with hundreds of birds. Buses leave twice each morning from Lindi town centre, and take around 3 hours, travelling at an average speed of just over 10km per hour.

March 7, 2013

The Indian Ocean Coast – Mtwara

Filed under: Mtwara — Tags: , , , — Tanzania Odyssey @ 4:25 pm

Mtwara is a delightful and unusual town awash with charisma and charm. The colonial influence in its conception is plainly evident with one glance along its wide main street, Tanu Road, where an orderly avenue of flame trees cast some shade on the pavements and neatly frame a whitewashed church tower at the nether end.

Wide streets and vibrantly painted buildings, now known as ‘maduka makubwa’, ‘the big shops’ off Uhuru Road date from the days of the British protectorate and form part of a pleasant town environment that is well maintained by the regional government. Schoolchildren were brought here during the 1940s and 50s to show them the effects of ‘modernity’, and Mtwara retains a pervasive pride and sense of independence despite the dire state of the surrounding infrastructure. Lack of tourists to this southern corner means there are pristine stretches of glorious beach and a fantastic number of coral reefs that have not previously been explored by anyone other than scientists. The region also has a number of historical sites nearby and its proximity to the Makonde plateau provides opportunities to meet and watch Makonde carvers at work.


When the British Administration developed Mtwara Port after WWII they did so to accommodate the vast new trade ships they envisaged would be required for their infamous groundnut project, and had not yet discovered that their lack of planning for would soon cause them grand-scale embarrassment. The ‘groundnut scheme’ was conceived to replenish the shortage of edible oils after the war, and implemented in a grand style near Mtwara in Nachingwea as well as Kongwa north of Morogoro and Urambo near Tabora. Although this was enforced with generous financial backing and modern farm equipment, they failed to carry out proper pilot tests to establish the soil and climatic suitability for groundnuts. Crops were planted out over thousands of hectares but the expensive machinery imported to benefit from modern farming methods proved totally inefficient on hot African soil. Much of the work was finally carried out by hand and a total of £36.5 million was written off as a huge administrative farming error.

But perhaps the widely perceived folly of the British ‘groundnut scheme’ will finally prove to have been worthwhile if the deep water port at Mtwara is finally developed to sustain sizeable trade from Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Mtwara port can presently handle a capacity of 700,000 tons of cargo, and although this is now sorely under utilised it could be increased to 1.5 million tons if plans come to fruition to develop the ‘Mtwara Corridor’ as a viable trade route. The local fishing trade, presently on a small-scale level, could also be increased to an industrial level. The most popular export crop from Mtwara is presently cashew nuts, a cash crop whose fluctuating value on the world market makes for a fraught harvest time in late October, and recently there has been a reintroduction of oilseed crops such as castor which proved successful in this area when the groundnuts failed.

What to do and see

Around town

Mtwara is a pleasant town to hang out in, but with little intrinsic entertainment other than that which can be found by simply exploring the shopping potential. The market forms a maze of shops and stalls around the bus station, with a number of local medicine men with stalls outside the main covered market with a wealth of lotions and potions to cure anything from impotence to unrequited love. (The latter comes with a warning to be certain that the love harnessed is truly desired, as it is said to be so powerful that the recipient may resort to suicidal despair if their affection is not reciprocated). A selection of Makonde carvings can be found for sale at a small hut on the side of Tanu Road, near the Catholic Church, or otherwise a much larger selection is exhibited for sale every Wednesday at the Benedictine St Paul’s Church east of the market in the Majengo area. This church is also well worth visiting on its own merit, to see its walls painted with an excellent collection of narrative paintings by Father Polycarp Uehlein. His vibrant biblical representations have a whimsical, dreamlike quality, perhaps influenced by Kandinsky, and form part of a larger collection in churches throughout Tanzania, including on in Dar es Salaam, although they greatest concentration is in the South. The Shangani area has a relaxed sandy atmosphere, with a decent enough beach beyond the Finn Club for swimming after a hot day in town. The Finn Club itself is equipped with a table tennis table and small swimming pool in addition to a well-stocked bar and covered restaurant. They have changing rooms with showers if you are heading to the beach, and may be persuaded to keep an eye on your bicycles. A man-powered ferry runs between Msangamkuu Peninsula and the dock in Mtwara Bay where fish is bought and sold, cooked or freshly caught at a shanty style bustling market on the beach. The sunsets from here are superb. The peninsula is rural and sandy, with a local village and site of the Frontier Project camp. Sheltered areas can be found along its northern beaches for walking or swimming, whereas the view facing back to Mtwara port is frequently adorned with the bulky mass of vast cargo ships.

The town makes a good central location for exploring the surrounding area, with frequent local transport back and forth from Mikindani, and possible excursions to Msimbati, the Makonde Plateau and Mozambique. (see below)

The Makonde Plateau

Mtwara is the best base for making excursions into the region around and including the Makonde Plateau, which rises up to 900m above sea level and has become widely regarded as the Tanzanian base for the Makonde Tribe. The Plateau remains an essentially rural area, made more difficult to explore as a result of extremely poor road connections. The best form of communication and local knowledge is through the local Anglican and Catholic church organisations, who have developed a wide and popular parish network here since the early 19th century. But each of these towns somehow manages to thrive despite all the odds of their cut-off southerly situation, and there is great hope that the potential advent of the Mtwara Corridor trade route from Malawi will improve the local infrastructure here and provide even more opportunities for these impressively self-sufficient communities.

The Makonde

The Makonde are one of Tanzania’s most populous tribes, famous throughout East Africa for their distinctive ebony carvings. The tribe originated in Mozambique, where many still live, although as they have migrated and scattered the tribe has devolved into a multitude of separate villages governed by hereditary chiefs and elders. Specific collective names have developed to refer to the situation of different Makonde, such as Makonde ‘by the sea’, or ‘of the plateau’, and sometimes ‘of the tattoos’ when referring to the Makonde remaining in Mozambique. The tribe traditionally made small scarring cuts on the faces of women at different stages of life in conjunction with the introduction of an ebony lip plug through their top lip.

Although some suggest that this was to dissuade slaves from stealing their womenfolk, it is likely that the tradition went back further, but the Makonde of Tanzania are fading it out altogether. Apart from forcing the top two teeth out of kilter, sometimes necessitating their removal, the practice is generally considered to hinder the Makonde girls seeking education and work in the new republic. It is also widely held that the Makonde who have moved northwards into Tanzania are more progressive in terms of developing their carving styles and many have continued to move northwards from the Makonde Plateau in the Mtwara region of Tanzania to sell their carvings and work throughout the country.

The fundamental history of the Makonde tribe involves carving. It tells how originally there was one being, who was half-man and half-animal but remained neither. One day he took a piece of wood and carved a tall and wonderful sculpture, then set it outside his house that night as he slept. The next morning the sculpture had grown into a woman, and she was the first Makonde.

The tribe is traditionally matrilineal, meaning that Makonde women own any inheritances and children and men might move to a new wife’s family after marriage. All the tribal women are afforded great respect, whether they are old or young, or alive or dead, and have a wide reputation throughout Tanzania for their sexual expertise. The family is a structural central unit, with housing built up in two concentric circles as it expands. Their carvings reflect their most important values, mainly following themes of ‘ujamaa’ meaning family, or ancestors, spirits and dreams. It is also more common to find Christian religious imagery now, especially around the Mtwara region, where many Makonde have converted. Most Makonde Christians have chosen Roman Catholicism, and only a tiny number have converted to Islaam, although the larger proportion remain true to their traditional beliefs. Family sculptures are often represented by groups of abstract figures joined in a circular design, and ancestors may take a literal shape or otherwise be translated into very abstract spirit forms, which then moves into the popular realm of the dream carvings. These are carvings inspired by powerful dreams, or sometimes cloud patterns and structures that suggest images. These will often evoke quite disturbing images of spirits called Sheteni, representing ancestors or evil spirits.

Makonde boys learn to carve properly around the age of ten, although they may have played with tools and wood before this time, and then later they decide whether their talent will lead them into figurative carving or to create domestic utilities such as bowls, plates, etc.

The first major town directly west of Mtwara is Newala, a remarkably upbeat and independent town considering its hopelessly remote location on the southern border with diabolical untarmacked roads in each direction. The town is raised up on the hillsides overlooking the Ruvuma Valley, with impressive views south that seem to reach all the way to Mozambique. The road from Mtwara wends its way ever upwards through wild woodlands. The slight altitude and wooded surroundings create a pleasant cool and breezy climate, with a propensity for clouds and mists. Local building in the centre of town is mainly concrete and stone, even with internal fireplaces and chimneys to keep out the cold.

It is worth making the trip out to the Shimu ya Munga, ‘Hole of God’, an impressively steep drop off the Ruvumu Valley side with views of the wild mountains beyond. More impressive natural surroundings can be well appreciated from the German Castle.

Continuing west from Newala brings you to the the town of Masasi, the local district capital and another remarkably feisty southern centre for administration. Masasi sits at the end of the long tarmac road from Songea at the junction for the round route to the towns surrounding the Makonde Plateau. It sits snugly surrounded by the Masasi Hills, with are good easy walking tracks to impressive outcrops of rocky granite kopjies and caves, one of which has rock paintings. The town developed from the Anglican Universities Mission to Central Africa settlement for freed slaves in the late 19th century, and it continues to thrive as an important missionary centre. The foreign influence has given the town a reputation for being ‘kama Ulaya’, meaning like Europe, which can be taken more as an indication of the quantity of Western goods imported by the missionaries than as a real lifestyle comparison. The present President Benjamin Mkapa grew up in Masasi, and still has a house in town.

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