Tales & images from life as me…

Shopping in Zanzibar

Last week was quite an adventure so I’m going to share it in two parts. The first installment being an antiques hunt in Zanzibar!

Damien and I had decided it was crazy that we live here, in this beautiful country but owned none of the incredible furniture that the Spice Island is so famous for – teak wood carving, brass work, glass lamps and mysterious old items brought in on the endless cargo ships from Persia, Arabia and all sorts of exotic sounding places. It was time to explore the other side of shopping in Zanzibar.

One long-suffering friend (Nina) volunteered to come with me – It may not sound too tough being asked to go shopping in Zanzibar for two days, but this wasn’t just any shopping trip! Plus it was definitely not going to be a boys’ trip! We hopped on planes and crossed the country to reach the magical, weaving streets of Stonetown.


This bustling town is a well known tourist spot and there are several main streets full of curio shops selling carvings, art, kangas, masks and much more, but we glossed over those this time and made our way into the less well known areas with our friend who owns one of the shops, and – as it turns out – several warehouses! As we began to dig around in the endless rooms of dusty furniture, dangling lamps and giant old doors the rich and elegant past of the island came alive in the gloomy light. It was a mad treasure hunt of peering through piles of items trying to imagine what each piece might be restored to once it was polished here and fixed up there and all the while being told tales of each item – where it came from, why it’s decorated like that, what the materials are and how it came to be in Zanzibar.


This was all encompassing, captivating and completely exhausting! It was actually hard work! On day one it was 4pm before we realised we needed to eat! We headed to the House of Spices, a place Damien’s family used to own and he had spent much of his teenage years. It seemed only right that the history of my new family and the furniture we were buying should intertwine.

At sunset we headed back to our hotel only to be greeted by the world’s worst band! Not only were they singing the ‘Jambo, jambo bwana…’ song which anyone who has visited will know, but it was out of tune out of rhythm and had us chortling into our gin and tonics as we tried to keep straight faces! Luckily the sunset more than made up for it.

photo 3

photo 2

That evening we were exhausted and, after dinner at the hotel, we fell into bed, psyching ourselves for another big search and some decision making the following day.

Day 2 saw us up early (we’d forgotten to close the shutters in the room, but – more importantly – my brother’s twins had been born in the night!) and back in the warehouses (‘I just need to see that one again’ and ‘can we measure this?’ and ‘how much did you say that was?’). After a lunch of crab spaghetti and discussions with Nina as we reviewed iphone photos of hundreds of items, my decisions had been made and we trotted back for total price negotiations.

Now you’d think we’d be all shopped out by then wouldn’t you? But no, there were still back streets to explore where the real artists work and I wanted some photographs of the amazing doors and little nooks and crannies of the town this time – I have avoided taking them in the past for fear of seeming too much like a tourist! How ridiculous!

It was here we discovered a little shop filled with master carvers, making miniature Zanzibar chests as jewelry boxes and striking dark wood frames in swirling patterns; found a man painting tinga tinga art in a quiet little corner; and listened in on guides as they explained the history of Zanzibar’s great doors. Everyone wanted to talk, to help, to share, especially when they discovered we spoke Swahili, and we found kind and generous characters at every turn.

The kindness even extended to force feeding me cake! My pregnant bump is now quite obvious and the mama in the café couldn’t believe that I wouldn’t want to eat whilst having my smoothie!

All shopped out, Nina and I hit Livingstones for a sundowner, a wander around the famous fresh seafood market at Farodhani Gardens, photo 4 …and my favourite restaurant for dinner – Beyt al Chai, or ‘house of tea’. Anyone would have thought we’d been drinking heavily, but it must have been the shopping high because we laughed ourselves silly all the way through a delicious sea food dinner!

The following day there was time for a swim and a final wander before we returned to Mwanza feeling thoroughly rested and all shopped out. I bought a crazy amount of things, all within the budget, and can’t wait until they’re shipped to Mwanza! I can’t believe we didn’t do this sooner, it’s such a great place to spend time and we have come away with unique pieces of furniture that each tell a story and which we will own for the rest of our lives.


9 responses

  1. Nina Hjortlund

    It was a fantastic trip! Lots of laughs and giggles, and lots of curio, antics and interesting finds! An adventure climbing around the warehouses where chairs sits upon cupboards upon coffee tables upon old zanzibar chests (which actually had been in use on the ships). Old cameras, ash trays, watches, toys, tea pots, tools, keys, music instruments, old gramophones – everything stacked upon each other!
    Amazing! 🙂

    October 30, 2013 at 9:51 am

    • Manolito

      Heyyyy we are just in zanzibar
      Where can we find those warehouses
      Manolito and natasa

      July 14, 2016 at 9:10 pm

      • Hey I’m so sorry but I have now been asked not to share this secret! I hope you find what you are looking for 🙂

        July 15, 2016 at 9:28 pm

  2. Brooks Goddard

    Great blog on Zanzibar where I was in 2005 (where the music at Emerson & Green’s for lunch was spectacular). I now want to buy a Z chest and would love to know the names of the folks you shopped from while in Z.

    July 29, 2014 at 10:52 pm

    • I am so sorry for my incredibly slow response on this – how awful of me. Sorry, I am no longer the efficient professional I once was – baby has taken over everything! Do you still need the info?

      September 18, 2014 at 1:43 am

  3. Laura Hartel

    I was reading your post and I currently live in Dar. Wanted to know if you could give me some info on the warehouses. It is hard to find things in Stone town past the tourist shops and I would love to buy some nice pieces (I love that screen you posted a pic of). Can you connect me to someone or mark on a google map the streets of the warehouses you mentioned. Also, if you met any of the craftsmen please forward some details. Thanks!

    October 12, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    • So sorry Laura I’ve been so busy with baby I’ve totally ignored my blog. Do you still need this info? Let me know and if you do I’ll dig out all the contacts.

      February 14, 2015 at 12:15 am

      • Katya Nani

        yes! please do share!

        March 2, 2015 at 5:59 pm

      • Hi katya, my email address is melissa@igeek.co.uk I promised I wouldn’t publish the info so can you email me and then I’ll respond?

        March 2, 2015 at 6:20 pm

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