STORY BY CARLY GELDERMAN
Stone Town is an ancient city that was influenced during the 19th century by Arabs, Persians, Indians and Europeans. Rightly named, Stone Town is full of old stone buildings and small alleyways. The island of Zanzibar is 99 percent Muslim and in Stone Town alone there are more than 50 mosques. The call to prayer can be heard several times a day. Surrounded by the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar is home to sandy white beaches and vast coral reefs, and thus has recently become a popular tourist attraction. For 16 students from across the U.S. it will also become home for the next four months.
The first thing us wanafunzi (students) learned was how to dress. Unlike in the States, I cannot walk around town in shorts and a tank top. Even when the temperature reaches the high 80s, Muslim women in Zanzibar wear a hijab, which is a headdress that also covers the shoulders, or a bui bui, which is a black dress worn over clothes that covers everything except the eyes.
To gain respect, and avoid trouble, the female students in my program wear long skirts and baggy t-shirts, and the males wear pants and a shirt since shorts are not allowed. Since we are studying marine science, we are allowed to swim in our one-piece bathing suits. Normally a Zanzibari woman has to wear a swim dress, or leggings and a long shirt under her suit.
Our host families have also taught us how to properly wrap a headdress so it doesn’t come undone. How we dress is very important for maintaining a respectful relationship with our host families, community and for students in the future.
The quickest way to learn a new place is to get lost in it — or so our academic advisor thought.
Our first assignment was called “The Drop Off.” In groups of three or four, we were lead into the heart of the town, with no map, and told to complete a list of tasks. The goal of the day was to immerse ourselves into Swahili culture. A large component of our program is related to the importance of the culture — we will have three weeks of intense Swahili lessons, two different home-stays and several trips to local villages to study their ways of life. So, for “The Drop Off,” we had to go find the best spiced coffee and find the local jewelry maker, see how much a taxi cost, learn how to ask for directions and, of course, practice our beginner Swahili.
With the Indian Ocean surrounding us, my group began to uncover our new home. After four hours of wandering through the town, somehow we found our headquarters. My new rafiki (friends) and I managed to complete all of the tasks. Although our feet were tired and our faces sunburned, we were still laughing and smiling when we told the rest of the group our adventures.
From meeting an herbal medicine doctor to bargaining for spices, we had a very successful first experience of Zanzibar.