By Paul Moraga
Zanzibar, Tanzania, Mar 7 (EFE).- Historians in Zanzibar are racing against time to preserve the 19th-century historical buildings in the capital of the Tanzanian semi-autonomous region after weather conditions, as well as neglect, have taken a toll on them.
From indigenous African peoples, Chinese and Indian traders to Arab emperors and Portuguese explorers, this archipelago has been a cultural meeting point for 2,000 years.
The profits of slave and ivory trade, as well as clove production, enabled Seyyid Said, the Omani Sultan who transferred his capital from Arabia to Zanzibar in 1830, to build narrow streets and many buildings that still exist in the Zanzibar City, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.
In 2020, a part of the House of Wonders, a landmark building in Zanzibar City’s capital Stone Town, collapsed and resulted in the death of four people.
“I was sitting right here and one of my classmates came up to me and said, ‘Said, the House of Wonders just collapsed’ I couldn’t believe it,” Said al-Gheithy, the director of the Princess Salme Museum, located near the building, tells Efe.
“We ran there and we could hear the screams of some people who, unfortunately, were trapped,” al-Gheithy adds.
The authorities rescued the injured, but this incident was a warning sign that Zanzibar’s historical heritage may crumble.
“The iconic building touched the hearts of many people, not only in Zanzibar,” says al-Gheithy.
“After accepting the accident, we realized that we had to work together to fix this. I think that the collapse had a lot of potentials to attract more people, support and investment.”
This old town is in danger, Zanzibar’s historian Abdul Sheriff warns.
“If buildings collapse, it will never be the same. I am sure that the same materials will not be used. In addition, other architectural models will be followed. Our historical heritage will disappear forever,” says the expert.
Tourism is the top industry in Zanzibar as it generates around 30% of gross domestic product (GDP).
Thanks to the territory’s mix of tropical beaches and rustic culture, around half a million people used to visit Zanzibar each year before the the coronavirus pandemic.
Al-Gheithy explains that a more equitable distribution of the benefits of tourism could boost the preservation process of historic buildings.
“Let’s be honest, people will accept conservation projects if there is any economic relevance for them. Sometimes it is difficult for citizens to appreciate the importance of our historical heritage. But if they get practical advantages, economic benefits, people will want to protect it.”
Sheriff agrees with al-Gheithy but warns that tourism could also displace the people who live in the old Stone Town.
“We have to preserve Zanzibar City. But I don’t intend for it to become just a place for tourists to sleep or visit. Tourists must coexist with local communities. I want the historic center to be a living place.” EFE