March 14, 2023
3 Min. Read

“We must save our history now”

EXCLUSIVE: New Director of Museums and Antiquities speaks out during walk-about in Stone Town

More than 1000 years of vibrant history. World Heritage status. Stone Town is a unique treasure, a priceless tourism jewel. Maryam Mansab, the new young director of all museums in Zanzibar, is set to save the “living museum”. Her office, for now, is aptly housed in one of the most stunning buildings in Stone Town, the “tunnel house” in front of Forodhani, formerly part of the Sultan’s palace, later an orphanage. Hundreds of museum assets, from oil portrayals of 11 Sultan dynasties to tiniest conserved butterflies, have found temporary shelter here while Zanzibar’s museums are undergoing repair. Four of five state-owned museums – usually heavily frequented by tourists – are presently closed after decade-long deterioration made them a safety hazard. When Maryam Mansab, 45, steps out of her director’s office onto the elegant balustrade of the oriental-style Saracenic building, the Indian Ocean and a sea of 2000 historical Stone Town dwellings lay at her feet. But the magnificent view does not warm her heart. “I could cry when I look over to the House of Wonder”, she says.

New hope for House of Wonder

But now there might be a solution for the collapsed former Sultan’s palace to be restored to former glory. Tourism Minister Simai M. Said just returned from Oman sealing a deal for the resurrection. Oman will spend an estimated 21 million dollars to rebuild the monument. A Tanzanian firm, Nandhra Engineering and Construction, was awarded the contract. Zanzibar has new hope. Mansab’s portfolio covers 86 historical sites and six museums in Unguja and Pemba, the two main islands of the Zanzibar archipelago. Since taking over the crucial government department – part of the tourism ministry -, the computer scientist, heritage expert and astute woman leader, who lived in London most of her life, has begun to renovate the dilapidated museums of Zanzibar. She already made her mark by opening the Kibweni Museum in Bububu north of town. And she placed street lanterns in the dark Forodhani tunnel – a shining symbol of her new reign in the antiquities department.

A walk through the past

When THE FUMBA TIMES asked Mansab to join us on a frank, investigative and soul-searching walk-about in Stone Town, she did not hesitate a minute, leading the way in a white summer dress, a safran-coloured blouson and a white head scarf. “We have to make sure there is a story to tell for the next generation”, she said, first directing us to some workers digging just outside the historic Old Fort built by Omani Arabs in 1698. “Any underground repair or building in Stone Town has to be reported to our department”, she explained, holding up some glistering porcelain splinters against the sunlight, “we scan the ground for archaeological traces”. Every square metre of Stone Town, inscribed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2000, is historical ground, “and history comes in layers’’, explains Maryam Mansab, adding, “there was life here before the Arabs”. Historians estimate that the ancient Swahili settlement, forming a one-square-kilometre triangle on the western shore of Zanzibar City, is at least one thousand years old, although most of the remaining buildings stem from the 18th and 19th century. „The whole of Stone Town is a protected national monument“, points out Maryam Mansab.

Stone Town for sale?

Is Stone Town being sold out? As we navigate narrow alleyways providing shade, Mansab defends the current wave of sales of properties to hotels and other tourism businesses. “We would not sell, if we did not have to”, she says. It’s a muddled situation: Some Stone Town tenants still pay as little as TZS10,000 (less than five dollars) rent in the antique quarters, “nobody can help them with renovation”, Mansab pointed out. “But new regulations are being worked on to ensure and enable participation of local buyers and local renters in Stone Town”, she assured. One innovative scheme aims to publicly fund the renovation of 30 buildings to be rented out to middle-class tenants. It would be a game-changer for Zanzibar. The whole process – nothing less than a re-definition of how to deal with history – falls under the Stone Town Conservation Authority. “The most important is that the old quarters remain inhabited and lived in”, says Mansab while we carefully forge our way under huge wooden support pillars. History professor Sheriff, 83, one of the most acknowledged conservationists of Zanzibar, could not agree more. “Stone Town is not a number of buildings, it’s the people who live here.”

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