What Guide Books Won’t Tell You About Zanzibar

By Kay Newton

I have lived in Zanzibar, East Africa, for over two years, and I learn something new each day. I am often asked for Zanzibari information from my peeps; everyone sees my photos on social media and wants to come on holiday! But the guide books won’t tell you everything.

Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous island in Tanzania, has a growing tourist trade and with it come issues that are tolerated yet simmer below the surface. Whenever you go to a new country you notice cultural differences. Unguja, the main island, is a fascinating place and there are many juxtapositions. Here are some of them.

Poverty and Wealth

As a tourist staying at a hotel or beach lodge, you will see luxury paradise. There are many hotels dotted along the coast, from five-star resorts to backpackers’ hostels. Most of these hotels employ some local staff, yet the majority of their profits do not go back into the local economy.

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Kay teaching Tai Chi on the beach to local children

The majority of the island’s population of 1 million live below the poverty line, surviving on less than $5 per day, living in basic housing, without running water or electricity. Step a few hundred metres behind the hotel complex and you will see this. (Expect to be accosted by the local kids begging you for dollars too!)

How you deal with this is a difficult and personal dilemma. To give or not to give? That is the question. There are also many charities looking for donations.

My recommendation: Pass on some piece of knowledge, rather than give money.

Beach Boy Sex

Here in Zanzibar, there is a growing trade in beach boy sex, where older foreign women buy the services of younger men. It is a socially taboo subject, just as homosexuality is.

Beach boys or touts are known in the local Swahili language as Papasi (ticks). They are frowned upon and tolerated by the locals. Many come from the mainland; some have issues with drug or alcohol abuse.

As on the beach, you may find the Papasi at Stone Town ferry port awaiting the arrival of the Mzunguus (white people). Some have numerous past girlfriends who send them money regularly. (I am sure these girlfriends don’t know about each other!)

Not all white single women of a certain age arriving in Zanzibar are looking for sex, and not all beach boys want sex, yet that is becoming the reputation of the island. With Hepatitis B and HIV prevalent, it is worth doing your own due diligence before arriving on holiday and getting more than you bargained for.

Most beach boys do offer some type of service in exchange for payment. Whether it is to show you around their local village, entice you to buy trinkets and gifts, go on a boat trip or snorkel-dive. Whatever service you decide to go for, make sure you do not pay in advance! Touts are insistent and many tourists feel they spoil their holiday, often being rude to these people who at the end of the day are only attempting to make a living.

My recommendation: Smile and say no politely if you’re not interested.

Appropriate Clothing

Ninety-eight percent of the local population is Muslim. There is an expected ‘Muslim’ dress code for foreign visitors in Zanzibar, which many female tourists refuse to take note of. It is not law, yet if you don’t want attention, it is best to follow. Thank goodness it doesn’t include having to wear a burkini on the beach!

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Colourful cloth for sale in a Zanzibar market

Bikinis are fine by the hotel pool or beach. Everywhere else, women are expected to cover their shoulders, backs, arms, and above the knee. In 35ºC it may feel uncomfortable to wear so much clothing, yet pack light cotton long trousers and carry a light shawl.

My recommendation: Buy a gorgeous kikoy or a traditional Swahili dress when you first arrive.

Where ever you go in the world, there is always something you can learn and something you can share. If you’re visiting Zanzibar, drop in and say hello!

Follow Kay on www.Kay-Newton.com. This article was first published in the August issue of eShe magazine.