June 19, 2023
3 Min. Read

Vintage Setting, Modern Care

Aga Khan hospitals enjoy a top reputation in East Africa. Now Zanzibar can count itself lucky to have the first state-of-the art polyclinic run by the community - moreover in one of the landmark historic buildings which is finally being put to good use again.

In a last-minute attempt, only days before the opening, the antique floor had to be redone and polished: “We need an absolutely even and clean surface where the tiniest drop of blood is visible”, explained Dr. Judith Mwijage when taking THE FUMBA TIMES on an exclusive tour of the recently opened Aga Khan Polyclinic, the newest healthcare facility in Zanzibar.

On three immaculate floors, with art on the walls, a new glass elevator and neat waiting areas, a dozen or so specialised micro-clinics from emergency care, to eye care to physiotherapy are located in beautifully restored wood-panelled rooms and sections. Equipped with cutting-edge technology such as a CT scanner and dialysis machines, the new outpatient clinic behind 130-year-old walls is an enrichment for Zanzibar in medical terms. But also in conservation terms: Remaining a listed protected monument, the Old Dispensary has finally been put to good use again.

On a third try, so to speak, the Aga Khan Network, one of the largest private development networks in the world, rebranded and re-possessed the elaborate historical building. Since the collapse of Zanzibar’s foremost monument, the House of Wonders, the eye-catching structure with its blue double-decker balconies opposite the Malindi port has become the most photographed attraction on the seafront. Tourists may now combine sightseeing and medical advice, Minister of Tourism, Mohamed Simai, stressed during the opening earlier this year. It was a historical moment for a historical building.

Symbol of a twisted history

The Old Dispensary’s rebirth is a longwinded story, typical of Zanzibar’s twisted history. The foundation stone was laid in 1887 by Tharia Topan, a rich Ismaili merchant of Indian origins, to mark Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in far-away Britain. But Topan died before its completion, the dispensary was acquired by other merchants and indeed used as a charitable pharmacy of sorts until it fell into complete disarray after the 1964 revolution, when Zanzibar was merged with Tanganyika to become Tanzania. During our visit we enjoyed the breeze on the newly restored balconies which have partly become waiting rooms. It has taken the Aga Khan and its many trusts and services, who also restored the Forodhani seafront area, a lot of patience, funds and painstaking rounds of repairs to bring it back to life.

Although loving attention was given to many details from brass sign boards to a stuffed owl in the eye clinic, the recent make-over cost “only” $800,000 including new medical equipment, it was disclosed, The engagement comes with symbolism: Zanzibar is “almost holy ground” for the Aga Khan, as once noted by the late historian Erich Meffert. It was here that the Ismaili with 20 million followers first set foot on African soil - in the entourage of Sultan Said’s African conquests. The Aga Khan Health Services operate 14 hospitals and 400 health centres from Pakistan to Uganda. In Zanzibar they have now aptly demonstrated that one can revive a heritage site with a contemporary function not by ruining but carefully preserving it. One would wish that principle to be applied more often in Stone Town.

A. Tapp

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