Zanzibar Old Town Market

Zanzibar, Tanzania

Submitted by: Joseph Heathcott

A thriving market with an incomparable mix of architecture and cultures.


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Why It Works

The Zanzibar Old Town Market is a classic Swahili public space, mixing architectural and cultural influences from East Africa, Arabia, Persia, and India. Rather than the open-plan "plaza" of Western societies, descended from the Forum, the heritage of the Zanzibar market is the "Casbah" or "bazaar." Thus, the market winds along dense city streets bracketed by the tall sandstone and white coral-wash mercantile buildings indigenous to the Swahili coast. The market is daily thriving with people seeking supplies for household board, from equatorial fruits to grains, fish, vegetables, and the famous spices. In a Muslim culture, men traditionally do more of the shopping. This has changed somewhat, of course, but you still find a preponderance of men at the market, unlike in much of sub-saharan Africa where women predominate at market.

What Makes Zanzibar Old Town Market a Great Place?

The market is rooted in the structure of Zanzibar household economies, and therefore proides an indispensible function in daily life. Actually, there are several different markets nestled throughout Zanzibar Old Town: some specialize in fresh-caught seafood, others in household wares, used clothes, local and imported cloth, jewlry, crafts, and tourist goods. But every market will carry basic household needs.

The impression to the outsider is of chaos, confusion, noise, bustle, and frenetic activity. Pedestrians contend with one another, Vespa minibikes, bicycles, and errant donkeys. People are shouting out their wares and prices, customers are haggling, street vendors hawking, pickpockets scanning. Of course, as in all markets, there is a dense layer of social organization underneath, with all of the rules, customs, ideas, and protocals that one finds anywhere. The market remains remarkably cool during the day, thanks to brilliant Swahili architecture and urban design, which creates "breeze channels" from the sea through the streets, shaded by the closely packed tall buildings. The market is not a "comfortable" public space, but public spaces do not need to be comfortable to be great. The market is a superior public arena because it is busy, industrious, purposeful, and valuable to people in the everyday conduct of life in the town.

The markets see continual daily use, except for the midday "siesta" hours. Typically, markets open early in the morning, shut down around lunch time, and re-open from around 4pm until well into the night--even midnight. The hot equatorial days ensure that Zanzibar town supports a lively night life. The markets of the town all wind through dense population centers. Since few people have refrigerators, most town dwellers must send a household member to market every day--or even several times per day--to purchase necessary board. Moreover, the narrow city streets do not admit automotive vehicles. Consequently people walk everywhere, and residences tend to crowd in tight proximity to markets. Given the premium for space in the Old Town, every square inch is mobilized into support of business transactions.

The market defines civic sociability in a culture with very firm separations between private and public spaces. The Swahili are a very private people, and the architecture of their homes reflects a high degree of interiorization. The mosques, meanwhile, function as quasi-public space, where people devote and exchange religious ideas and views. The markets, however, and the small squares that open up nearby, are the seat of civic culture in Zanzibar. The market is a space traditionally and currently designated for commercial exchange and transactions, and it therefore promotes a robust form of civic life. People attend the market alone and in groups, and gather to drink coffee, talk, exchange news, and discuss local and world events. Zanzibar is a highly politicized society, and the markets and squares provide the most important spaces for the airing of political ideas.

History & Background

Zanzibar Old Town should immediately be declared a World Heritage Site, and provided with funds to engage in conservation work of its magnificent architecture.

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