May 24, 2021
4 Min. Read

48 hours in Bagamoyo

By Rudolf Blauth

From colonial heritage to artsy hideaway: Coastal Bagamoyo is well worth a visit.

There is love at first sight and love at second sight. When you fall in love with Bagamoyo, it's mostly the latter. For first-time visitors, it is not uncommon to walk across the dusty roads of the coastal town and mumble disappointedly about 'crumbling old houses from a bygone area…” But in 48 hours, and with a knowledgeable guide, you will easily conquer the heart and spirit of Bagamoyo.

My friend Nkwabi, 66, has lived here for 40 years. Originally from Mwanza, Nkwabi is the leading actor in a popular TV series; almost everyone in Bagamoyo knows him. He completed a degree in pantomime in Sweden, and his three daughters Misoji, Nshoma and Sami took 1st, 2nd and 3rd place in a national talent show called “Bongo Star Search Competition”. Nkwabi laughingly confirms my impression that you have to spend at least two days in Bagamoyo to "lay your heart down" in the historic city. 

He tells me the name of the city dates back to the time when caravans of explorers and traders moved from here  towards Lake Tanganyika and the porters had to leave their families behind on the coast for many months with a heavy heart. Slaves brought from all over also left “their hearts behind” in Bagamoyo: They were irrevocably deported to the slave market in Zanzibar at night with dhows.


Today the Old Caravanserai and the Catholic Mission Museum in Bagamoyo give testimony to this dark time. Ransomed slaves helped Bagamoyo to gain papal recognition as a place of pilgrimage by building a holy grotto on the mission site.

Day 1: A stroll through the past

Strolling down narrow India Street is like walking back in time. But without a guide, visitors will hardly understand the cultural value of the coastal town 60 kilometres north of Dar es Salaam. According to international experts, Bagamoyo is on a par with Lamu, Mombasa, Kilwa and Zanzibar in terms of historical importance. The town with around 50,000 inhabitants is still a sleepy town, a long-planned construction of a mega container port currently on hold. But a new overland road to Pangani, Tanga and Mombasa in Kenya will  almost certainly pull Bagamoyo out of its isolation, construction is to start this year. In no other city in East Africa the testimonies of Islam as well as of Christian missionaries, the influence of Persians and Arabs, the reminders of slavery, of European explorers such as Livingstone, Speke or Burton and the traces of German as well as British colonialism accumulate as visibly as in Bagamoyo.

Abdallah Ulimwengu is one of the few qualified city guides in Bagamoyo. He needs at least three hours only for the almost one kilometre long section of India Street from the Old German Fort to the Old German School. The Old German Boma and the first German Post Office in East Africa are right here. Abdallah makes short, worthwhile detours such as to the German Colonial Cemetery, the national monument "Hanging Tree", a small dhow shipyard or the fish market, which awakens to an incomparably lively and colourful life every day when the dhow fishermen arrive.

Abdallah, Nkwabi and I take a short break at the “Poa Poa” Restaurant. With its cosy inner courtyard, pizza, curry dishes and grilled fish it’s a welcome stop-over for us. Delicious milkshakes refresh us for the onward journey with a bajaji  - as tuk-tuks are called her - to the Bagamoyo College of Arts.

Day 2: Arts and beach

It is not without reason that Bagamoyo is called the “home of arts & history”. The College of Arts (TaSUBa) located on the southern edge of the city center, where my friend Nkwabi worked as a theatre lecturer, has the largest covered theatre in East Africa with 2000 seats. Their ensemble, the Bagamoyo Players, have performed worldwide over the past few decades. The International Bagamoyo Arts Festival, held annually in October/November, is considered the most important festival on the Tanzanian mainland. The college is available for a tour or for small music and dance workshops by prior arrangement.

In the afternoon, I decide to relax on the beach in the big bay of Bagamoyo. Swimming is best just south of the College of Arts or towards the northern end of the beach near Traveler’s Lodge. Most of the hotels are located here. 

Before I say goodbye to Nkwabi, his musical daughters and Abdullah after two days, I take the time and let myself drift through the town again without a guide. And it's worth it: Bagamoyo has not lost its charm as the home of fishermen, traders and funders to this day.

The author Rudolf Blauth, 67, has visited Bagamoyo more than 30 times. He is chairman of the Bagamoyo Friendship Society/Germany, founded in 1992.

BOX

Exploring Bagamoyo

How to get there:

From Dar es Salaam, 1-3 hour car transfer ([email protected]). Charter flight with Coastal or charter ferry from Zanzibar to Bagamoyo (especially interesting for groups: [email protected]).

Accommodation:

Traveler’s Lodge (on the beach, large botanical palm garden), Fire Fly (in the village with pool), Ella's Swahili House (Swahili-style holiday home in the village for max. 9 people)

Guides/Boookings:

Abdallah Ulimwengu: [email protected] (can also book bicycles and Bajajis in advance). Colleg of Art TaSUBa: http://tasuba.ac.tz

Event: 39th International Bagamoyo Arts Festival, 25 - 30 October 2021

Information:

Discover Bagamoyo sights, a complete hotel directory and news on the very useful website of the Bagamoyo Friendship Society e.V. The NGO supports cultural and social projects since almost 30 years. www.bagamoyo.com

Buying freshly caught fish on the market

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