Zanzibar is hot and sticky. It is the prelude to the long rains. In the evenings, I find myself looking to escape the stuffiness of my hotel room. Within a short walk, past the madrasa, are the Forodhani Gardens, a seafront sanctuary filled with walkways, benches and food stalls.
This rehabilitation project spearheaded by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture has restored a variety of sites that mark Zanzibar’s rich history. Only men in white aprons and chef hats manage the many stalls of the night market, known for its shellfish, meat kebabs, fruit, freshly pressed sugarcane juice and, of course, the local Zanzibar pizza.
Young and old, local and tourists gather here every evening to enjoy the views across the aquamarine Indian Ocean on the one side and the House of Wonders on the other.
The atmosphere is relaxed, or hakuna haraka (no hurry). It’s a wonderful place to sit on a bench and watch the world go by. As a woman alone in Stone Town, the place is safe. In general, spaces between men and women, especially in public, are defined as distant. However, it is not uncommon for a stranger to strike up a conversation. Warmth and hospitality remain a strong brand.
The green lawn, trees and children’s play area gives it the look and feel of a real park. Juma, a trader selling Zanzibar pizza, is happy with the location. He particularly enjoys the cool breeze of the ocean and access to water for cleaning, though he’s disgruntled with the exponential increase of kodi (rent) when moving from old and shabby to new and expensive. He feels the government doesn’t care much about retention – there are plenty of others who can take his place.
Rehabilitation projects can be ugly and out of sync with the local environment. These gardens blend in well with the local architecture and culture and seem to be appreciated by all.
My colleague, Steve from Malawi, goes there most evenings to eat roasted mhogo (cassava). After endless meetings, the gardens offer respite. Luckily, the culture of malls with walls and electric fencing remains distant. And for now, the Forodhani experience – a meal with a drink and a great view – can be enjoyed for less than $3. These gardens may also offer a formula from which other urban centres could glean a lesson or two.