Zanzibar has been described as an exotic and idyllic romantic destination, an African paradise and the birthplace of Swahili hospitality. Also known as the Spice Island – its famous Stone Town is a Unesco World Heritage Site – it lures tourists to its white-sand beaches with the promise of laid-back island life and an air of permanent pleasure.
With almost a million annual visitors before Covid, official data from January 2022 shows that over 65% of all tourists to Zanzibar were women.
Yet despite this, female tourists, especially those traveling alone, experience a good deal of physical and sexual harassment, verbal abuse on the street, and even theft.
Complaint from a Nigerian tourist
Recent allegations of sexual assault on social media by Zainab Olehinde, a 23-year-old Nigerian tourist, sparked bad experiences from other travelers in this paradise and made me relive my own share of bad experiences in Zanzibar, in as a local tourist.
While the Zanzibar Tourism Commission’s investigations into Olehinde’s allegations are still ongoing, the question of how tourists, men and women, local and foreign, black and white, are being treated is on everyone’s lips. Not just in the case of Zanzibar, but all over the world. Tourism is the backbone of many economies around the world, but are visitors having a worthwhile experience?
On a recent visit to Zanzibar, my friends and I set out to find out if the rhetoric about foreign female tourists receiving ‘different’ treatment was true. We had had this conversation among ourselves for some time and also heard it from mutual friends.
“Let’s speak English from now on, pretend we don’t understand Swahili,” suggested Lilian Ndilwa, a close friend and my traveling companion, as we disembarked the ferry that brought us to Zanzibar from the mainland. last year.
We are both Tanzanians and were here to go to the boat party.
Pretending to be non-Swahili speakers was to protect us from the apparent mistreatment of local mainland tourists who are called names for dressing differently from local Zanzibar women. We wanted to experience international tourist treatment in our home country, after all we were paying, local tourists or not.
I was not surprised by Lilian’s remarks as I have been to Zanzibar several times, alone and with a group of friends – men and women. And each time I had a different experience on the island.
As a solo tourist, I am normally mistaken for a Kenyan or a Rwandan and the taxi drivers and boda-bodas were whispering to each other, “Huyu wa Kagame in Kenyatta? Swahili for ”Is she from Kagame or Kenyatta” meaning I am Kenyan or Rwandan and either way I would be treated with courtesy as a foreign tourist throughout my stay on the island.
This however was not the case when I am accompanied by fellow Tanzanians who have chosen to let it be known that we are from the mainland.
And it’s not just me. Happy Lyimo, a Tanzanian girl I met in Paje, Zanzibar told me; “It’s always difficult to find a hotel, or even get a hotelier to look after you as a local tourist.”
She further confessed that the first time she traveled to Zanzibar as a student, she had to venture outside her accommodation to find street food as it would take hours before that no one in the establishment takes care of her.
“They assume all women come here to ‘hunt’ men,” she said. Now, this is not unique to Zanzibar. It is a fate suffered by all black female travelers around the world.
“I’ve been to several restaurants actually near Forodhani where as expected most of the visitors are white tourists. Restaurant workers were taking care of them, even when I was waiting in line, and I just couldn’t understand why,” Lyimo said.
And she is not the only continental to have had this experience in Zanzibar.
“I remember I went to Zanzibar for work and the company I worked for recommended me to stay in a four star hotel somewhere in Nungwi, very expensive you would say. At the reception, the person who looked after me was hesitant to say how much the room costs. I was accompanied by a taxi driver and he asked her why this hesitation, and she said that women [of] my kind, i.e. black tourists, normally don’t pay,” Sarah William said in a phone conversation with East Africa.
She said the comment was so insulting that she walked out for a moment before she could respond to the hotel receptionist.
Another local tourist, Irene, had it worse. “I was staying at this hotel, in Stone Town near the seafront. I arrived in the evening with no problem, but the next day at breakfast, I asked for scrambled eggs as per the package, but to my surprise , the cook made fried eggs for the other diners who came after me and ignored my order,” Irene said.
It was not lost on her that she was the only black guest in the hotel. And all the other guests were in groups of three or four, while she was alone.
“When I approached the cook and asked why, he gave me no explanation, so I decided to stand at his workstation to make sure I had my eggs scrambled. When I finally returned to my table with my scrambled eggs a fly had crawled into my glass of juice I politely called one of the waitresses to serve me another portion but she pretended not to hear me or even seeing me wave to get his attention,” she said.
Not just the locals
Irene says she didn’t and she thought the girl didn’t see her. “I finished my breakfast and continued to read my book for a little while. But the waitress totally ignored me as she cleared the breakfast tables, skipping mine. I Was shocked that she even chatted with guests and asked if they enjoyed their breakfast and if they needed anything else.
But hotels are not the only establishments mistreating local tourists in Zanzibar.
So, on my trip, I decided to do some sightseeing at Stone Town market and the beach. I wore an above the knee dress, sandals and a floppy beach hat. In the streets, I noticed how some locals gave me weird looks. I didn’t understand why. Almost all the other tourists were dressed like me.
Irene said they were laughed at in the streets too. “I remember I was with a friend who was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, just like her. were sitting in. They laughed at us and told us that Mainlanders used to walk naked and we weren’t even half naked,” Irene recounted.
She said what shocked them even more was that behind them was a group of white tourists, male and female and all in shorts as well. “The women wore bathing suits as tops, and some had t-shirts, just like my friend. The women did not make the same comment about them.
But sometimes harassment doesn’t just happen to black women.
“Last year in August, we sent our project coordinator to Zanzibar to look for hotels that we were going to book for our tourists, and she was supposed to stay there for a whole month. Unfortunately, during her second week, she was robbed and was nearly sexually assaulted,” said Juliet Samuel, who works for a travel agency.
Mrs. Samuel added that the Spanish coordinator who requested that we not release her name, wrote a final report for the travel agency and said; “Watch out for pickpockets in tourist areas, don’t walk alone at night, don’t get in a taxi if you don’t know the driver. Go to the police in the city where you were assaulted and file the report.
She added: “I think it’s not the safest place in Tanzania because people are more desperate in terms of earning money so they might mug and rob tourists, but I I never heard of sexual abuse while I was there.”
Although the authorities in Zanzibar ensure the safety of visitors and Stone Town has CCTV cameras on every corner to ensure the safety of locals and visitors, the mistreatment of tourists is a reality.
“Tourists visiting Zanzibar are guaranteed to be safe because apart from police patrolling tourist attractions including beaches, there is a diplomatic police unit to maintain the safety of people visiting the island and tourist attractions as well,” said Mohammed Nassor Bajuni, an officer. of the Zanzibar Tourism Commission.
But most public appeals in light of Olehinde’s claims concern the dignified treatment of local tourists and those of African descent from the rest of the continent, regardless of gender.
“Do a better job of protecting all tourists, whether domestic, regional or international, as they all bring income to the country. Tourists are not just white people,” Joshua Agukoh commented on the Tanzania Police Facebook page following Olehinde’s assault allegations.
The most troubling issue is that women face challenges that male travelers don’t even think of when leaving their country. With half of the world’s travelers being women, some solo, tourism stakeholders have many lessons to learn.