Whether you’re in the market for T-shirts, spices, kangas, furniture or hand sewn pillow covers, Zanzibar is one of the last places
left for fun shopping and bargain hunts. You will find the inevitable ashtray carved out of a coconut shell, but there are enough Tinga-tinga paintings, woodcarvings and woven goods to keep almost everyone in the market for a tasteful souvenir. Gizenga Street, off Kenyatta Road by the Post Office is an excellent street for finding all the things mentioned above plus postcards, stamps, skin-covered drums, spices, and antiques. Sasik, a store representing a women’s cooperative, is highly recommended for locally sewn pillow covers in traditional Arabic and Persian patterns. Some of the fabrics are even dyed on the island from local plant dyes. Throughout town there are several shops (called dukas) that sell everything from groceries to fuel. There are also some antique stores that, although they may have more of a junk store appearance, have some interesting pieces that may bear historical importance and almost all of them sell the ceramic bowls leftover from the colonial era (50 to 60 years old). Look for stamps, coins, currency bills, furniture, ceramic bowls, wooden frames, metal signboards advertising Simba Chai (Lion Tea), antique wall clocks and copper and brass bowls, pans and tea kettles. Coconut massage oil with lemongrass, bitter orange soap and other locally-made products are affordable and unavailable at home so consider stocking up. Spice baskets are available all over town, they travel well, make easy souvenirs for friends and they’ll clear customs in no time.
Kangas, the local cloth worn by women over their dresses and covering their heads, are available next to Darajani and in town near the majestic cinema, by the market. Kangas are sold in a pair and most often you’ll have to cut the fabric yourself but sometimes they are already separated. They are about three feet by five feet and are available in every possible color and print ranging from humorous to somber. For designs, pictures some kangas have ears of corn, others may have ships or cars and still others will be traditional local patterns of rosettes, paisley, and polka dots. All kangas, without exception, have a message written in Swahili. Sometimes the Swahili is written phonetically in Arabic script, but it is a Swahili proverb not an Arab one. The kanga sellers generally don’t have the English capacity to translate the proverbs so ask someone from your hotel to translate for you but be aware that there can be many interpretations of one proverb.
Kangas are named after the guinea fowl whose dark feathers with white spots reminded people of the busy patterns of the local cloth. They are thought to have originally come from Portuguese handkerchiefs sewn six-together in a rectangular pattern and then developed over the years to become the single most popular cultural garment for women on the east coast of Africa. All Kangas have a message or proverb on it and the kangas are sometimes used for non-confrontational communication. The different patterns and colors on the kangas also have meaning. Kangas have significance in every major event in a Swahili woman’s life from childhood to marriage to motherhood and more. It’s a good idea to know what your kanga says because the messages can be strong, for instance one message says, “I may be ugly, but I’m not for sale.”
And don’t forget stamps! Maybe you thought that the only items people were still collecting as a hobby were old lapel pins and loppy disks but there are still enough philatelic maniacs in the world to keep the Tanzanian Post Office very busy. What could be a better novelty item than a Bruce Lee postage stamp issued in Tanzania and available for only TSh 75 (about US 13 cents)? You like bats? Collect the whole set of Tanzanian bat stamps. A person doesn’t have to be dead to get a stamp here; Whitney Houston, Joan Armatrading and Tina Turner all have their own. A pride of Tanzania, the stamps here are widely varied and a kick to look through ranging from beautiful to kitsch. Don’t forget to take a peek and pick up some souvenirs for the folks back home but try the gift shops first – they have better stamp selections and better hours than the Post Office, and they give you more time to browse.