Population & Settlement

The population of Zanzibar was 984,625 in 2002, the date of the last census, with an annual growth rate of 3.1%, which has remained fairly steady for some years. Of this, around two thirds of the people – 622,459 – live on Zanzibar Island (Unguja), with the greatest proportion settled in the densely populated west. Zanzibar’s largest settlement is Zanzibar Town (sometimes called Zanzibar City), on Zanzibar Island, with 205,870 inhabitants. Other towns on Zanzibar Island include Chaani, Bambi, Mahonda and Makunduchi, but these are small. Outside these towns, most people live in small villages and are engaged in farming or fishing. 

On Pemba the overall settlement pattern is similar. The largest town is Chake Chake, with a population of 19,283; other smaller towns are Wete and Mkoani. Mafia’s total population was 40,801.
There is considerable disparity in standard of living between the inhabitants of Pemba and Unguja and between urban and rural populations, which are split roughly equally. The average annual income of just US$250 hides the fact that about half the population lives below the poverty line. Despite a relatively high standard of primary health care and education, infant mortality is still 83 in 1,000 live births, and it is estimated that malnutrition affects one in three of the islands’ people; life expectancy at birth is 48. While the incidence of HIV/AIDS is considerably less in Zanzibar than in Tanzania as a whole (0.6% of the population, as against the national average of around 8%), it is a growing problem.


It is thought that Zanzibar’s original inhabitants came from the African mainland around 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, although this is not certain and no descendants of these early people remain, having been completely absorbed by later arrivals. 

Over the last 2,000 years, the records get a little clearer. Historians know that Bantu-speaking people migrated from central Africa and settled across east and southern Africa during the first millennium AD. Those who settled on the east African coast and offshore islands, including Zanzibar, came into contact with Arab traders who had sailed southwards from the Red Sea region. The Bantu adopted some customs of the Arabs and gradually established a language and culture which became known as Swahili. 

From the 10th century, small groups of immigrants from Shiraz (Persia) also settled at various places along the east African coast, and especially in Zanzibar, and mingled with the local people. Over the following centuries, small groups of Arab and Persian peoples continued to settle here and intermarried with the Swahili and Shirazi. The largest influx occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries, when Omani Arabs settled on Zanzibar as rulers and landowners, forming an elite group. At about the same time, Indian settlers formed a merchant class. 

Today, most of the people in Zanzibar are Shirazi or Swahili, although clear distinctions are not always possible. They fall into three groups: the Wahadimu (mainly in the southern and central parts of Zanzibar Island), the Watumbatu (on Tumbatu Island and in the northern part of Zanzibar Island), and the Wapemba (on Pemba Island), although again distinctions are hard to draw, and in fact, often not made by the people of Zanzibar themselves. The islands’ long history of receiving (if not always welcoming) immigrants from Africa and Arabia has created a more relaxed attitude to matters of tribe or clan than is found in some parts of Africa.

Zanzibar is also home to groups of people of African origin who are descendants of freed slaves, dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. In more recent times, a large number of Africans have immigrated from mainland Tanzania. Additionally, some Arabs who were expelled after the 1964 Revolution have returned to Zanzibar. 

Other people on Zanzibar include small populations from Goa, India and Pakistan, mainly involved in trade or tourism, and a growing number of European expatriates and volunteers, many working in the tour industry, with others employed as teachers, doctors and engineers.

Music & Dance

As you wander around Zanzibar Town, you will hear calls to prayer from the many mosques but you will also hear the sounds of American rap music and Jamaican reggae. Around the next corner, however, you are also likely to hear film music from India or the latest chart-toppers from Egypt and the Gulf States. Thankfully the islands have not entirely lost their own cultural traditions, and equally popular in Zanzibar are local musical forms, in particular the style known as taarab. 

Some of the local music that you might hear whilst exploring Stone Town include:

Zanzibar has been at the crossroads of trade routes for thousands of years. People of Africa, India, Iran, China and other parts of Asia and the Arab world have all played their parts in influencing the this form of traditional music.

Born in the suburb of Ng’ambo, a lower-class living area where poorer families live – is the home of kidumbak, which is a less refined and more upbeat version of Taarab.

This brass band music originated around the end of the 19th century as a mockery of colonial style military bands. 

Ngoma literally translated means ‘drum’ and is a term used to encompass all local African traditional forms of dancing, drumming and singing.

Bi Kidude
Bi Kidude is one of the islands most famous singers. Now well into her 90s, she has performed with Siti bint Saad, toured the world and has sold thousands of cassettes. 

Modern taarab 
Undoubtedly a pop-phenomenon, (and therefore ephemeral) this is a modern style of taarab, called rusha roho.

Visual Arts

Among the visual arts, by far the best-known contemporary Zanzibari style is Tingatinga (or Tinga-Tinga). Paintings in this distinctive style can be found for sale at souvenir stalls and shops all over Zanzibar, as well as at tourist centres on the Tanzanian mainland, and in Kenya. The subjects of Tingatinga paintings are usually African animals, especially elephants, leopards, hippos, crocodiles and gazelles, as well as guineafowl, hornbills and other birds. The main characteristics of the style include images which are both simplified and fantastical, bold colours, solid outlines and the frequent use of dots and small circles in the design.

The style was founded by Edward Saidi Tingatinga, who was born in southern Tanzania in 1937 and came to Dar es Salaam looking for work in the 1950s. After doing various jobs, in the early 1960s Tingatinga became unemployed and looked around for a way to earn money. At that time, carvers and sculptors, notably Makonde people, were producing some indigenous work, but most local painters favoured pictures based on European representational styles or Congolese styles from Central Africa. (In fact, in the 1950s and 1960s many painters from Congo and Zaire came to Kenya and Tanzania to sell their work to tourists and well-off residents.) Legend has it that Saidi Tingatinga decided he could do what the Congo artists did – paint pictures and sell them for money.

With no training, he produced pictures that were initially simple and straightforward. Subjects were the animals and people he remembered from his home in southern Tanzania. He used just four or five different colours (actually house paint – and the only colours available) and painted on wooden boards. But despite this humble beginning, Tingatinga quickly sold his early paintings, mainly to local European residents who admired the original, ‘naïve’ style.

Within a few months, Tingatinga’s paintings were in high demand. He couldn’t keep up with the orders which flooded in, so he employed several fellow painters to help him produce more. There was no concept of copyright, and Tingatinga encouraged his colleagues to base their works on his style. As their success grew, soon the artists were able to afford to use bright enamel paints (the type used for touching up paintwork on cars and bicycles) and painted on canvas so tourists could take home pictures more easily. By the end of the 1960s, Tingatinga painting had become recognised as truly original contemporary African art.

In 1972 Saidi Tingatinga died, but the artists he’d encouraged formed a group named in his honour, and continued to produce and sell works in his style. Today, demand from tourists is still high, and vast numbers of Tingatinga artists produce paintings on cloth, wooden boards and other objects such as trays, plates and model wooden cars. There’s even an aeroplane at Zanzibar Airport with its tail decorated in Tingatinga style.

With so many Tingatinga paintings available in Zanzibar and around east Africa, the quality of the work varies considerably; many pictures for sale in the streets have been bashed out quickly with little care or attention to detail. But if you search hard among the dross, or visit a shop where the trader has an interest in stocking better quality stuff, you can often find real works of art (and still at reasonable prices) which do justice to the memory of Saidi Tingatinga – the founder of a fascinating, entertaining and quintessentially African style.

Zanzibar Doors

Around Zanzibar and particularly in Stone Town, you’ll come across massive, carved and decorated doorways, some on imposing frontages and others tucked incongruously down narrow alleys.

When a house was built in Zanzibar, the door was traditionally the first part to be erected. The greater the wealth and social position of the owner of the house, the larger and more elaborately carved his front door. The symbolic designs and quotations from the Koran were intended to exert a benign influence. Patterns include waves of the sea climbing up the doorpost, representing the livelihood of the Arab merchant to whom the house belonged, and frankincense and date-palms symbolising wealth and plenty. Some designs are thought to date from before the Koran: the stylised lotuses could be associated with Egyptian fertility symbols, and the fish could possibly represent the Syrian protecting goddess Atargatis, or the ancient fish-god of the Egyptians.

Many doors are studded with brass spikes and bosses. This may be a modification of the Indian practice of studding doors of medieval castles with sharp spikes of iron to prevent their being battered in by war elephants. In ad915, an Arab traveller recorded that Zanzibar Island abounded in elephants, and around 1295 Marco Polo wrote that Zanzibar had ‘elephants in plenty’. But the elephants must have been extinct long before the Arabs built houses in Stone Town, and the studs and bosses seen today are purely decorative.

The oldest carved door in Zanzibar, which dates from ad1694, is now the front door of the Peace Memorial Museum in Zanzibar Town.

Traditional Games

Stroll casually around any village or town on the islands of Zanzibar, and eventually you’ll be sure to come across two hunched, intent figures seated on a baraza bench – their grunts of satisfaction or derision accompanied by the click of counters on wood. Sometimes a crowd of spectators will have gathered, pointing and shouting garbled instructions. Look closer and you’ll make out the object of all this excitement – a flat wooden board, 32 little round holes, and a lot of brown polished seeds. This is bao – Zanzibar’s favourite pastime. 

Games of bao – the name simply means ‘wood’ in Swahili – can go on for hours or even days at a time. Experienced players develop little flourishes, scattering the counters (known as kete – usually seeds, or pebbles, or shells) expertly into holes or slapping handfuls down triumphantly at the end of a turn. Bao is played, under various different names and with many rule variations, across Africa, western India and the Caribbean. Swahili people are proud of their version, known as ‘king’ bao, and claim it as the original and purest form of the game. Tournaments are held periodically in Zanzibar and on the coast of the mainland – as in chess, one grandmaster eventually emerges. 

The object of the game is simple: to secure as many of your opponent’s counters as possible. Bao masters (usually old men) are said to be able to think strategically five to seven moves ahead, a level comparable with professional chess players. Children learn bao as soon as they can count, scratching little holes in the ground in lieu of a board and using chips of wood or stones as counters.

The African love of carving has produced a proliferation of bao boards of many different sizes, shapes and forms – the board can be represented as resting on the back of a mythical beast, grows human heads from either end, or is smoothed into the shape of a fish. Bao boards make excellent souvenirs and are sold in almost every curio shop, often along with a badly photocopied set of printed instructions that are guaranteed to bamboozle even a maths professor. Far better to find a friendly local to teach you – the game is actually surprisingly simple to pick up.

Keram is the second most popular game in Zanzibar, and probably first arrived here from India. It’s a fast-paced, raucous game played on a piece of wood carefully shaped into a small, square snooker table with cloth pockets at each corner. The game is similar to pool, with nine black disks, nine white disks, one red ‘queen’ disk and one larger white striker. Players flick the striker from their side of the board in an effort to get their own-colour disks into the pockets. Boards are kept smooth and speedy by liberal applications of talcum powder.

Bao and keram, like their Western equivalents chess and pool, have very different characters. While bao is traditionally a daytime game, played in shady village squares by elderly, dignified men, keram is popularly played at night in bars, often in the midst of a noisy and tipsy crowd of jack-the-lads.

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