Zanzibar: A Fragrant Journey
A few facts...

Zanzibar, locally called Unguja, but known to the 50,000 tourists that visit annually as the "Spice Island", is the largest of several islands some forty miles off the coast of E. Africa, and 6į south of the Equator. The island is 85 Km. in length and varies in width between 20 and 30 Km. A sister island called Pemba lies to the north, and it is here that much of the Clove industry resides - in fact it now accounts for three-quarters of the areaís total production. This has occurred because Pembaís climate is more suited to Clove cultivation. Zanzibar has an interesting past, which tells tales of the large-scale cultivation of Cloves and spices, and of Ivory and Slave Trading, the latter finally ceasing in 1873. Its association with witchcraft (many say Pemba is the home of Voodoo) is not a subject for easy discussion between tourists and inhabitants. Zanzibar is now a semi-autonomous part of the United Republic of Tanzania but has its own seat of government in Stonetown, the islandís capital, and amongst other things, is responsible for Health, Industry, Tourism, Agriculture, and Judicial matters. Zanzibar tries to uphold Muslim sensibilities on matters such as dress codes in public places, it is a pity that through ignorance or defiance, so many tourists offend by showing bare flesh.

 The island is fairly flat with only a few hills in central and western parts. Rainy seasons are usually regarded as being from March to May, with the small rains  in November, but many locals say the November rains are not worth mentioning, as the changing climate means that rain can fall virtually at any time. It is very hot and humid! I was warned several times by locals not to rush around, and to slow down to the Zanzibarian laid-back pace to avoid over-exertion! Vegetation is lush, the island originally being covered in forest. Coral rag and sandy soil covers much of the island, but red fertile iron-rich earth seems to be a feature of the central parts. Mangroves, lagoons and coral reefs are all to be found in Zanzibar. What the tourist guides may not tell you is that there is an algal problem in the shallow seas, off the sea northern coast at least, and local people have been told not to catch and eat the fish, to avoid becoming ill. Of course, little notice is taken...

Flora and fauna
The rare Red colobus monkeys Procolobus kirkii are now protected in Jozani forest reserve, which lies a little South of the islandís centre.  Their diet includes the introduced tree the Red Mahogany, better known by its botanical name Calophyllum inophyllum, the extracts from which, ironically enough, are much in demand by phyto-aromatherapists word-wide. This tree remains unexploited in Zanzibar for trade purposes however. Civet cats are also said to roam the reserve, but I was not lucky enough to see any! 

 Other introduced plants include the Neem tree Azadichirachta indica and the Caribbean pine Pinus caribaea, as well as two Eucalypts Eucalyptus camaldulensis and E. terricornis, but it is another introduced Australian species Causarina equisetifolia which can be seen successfully growing all over the island. This species has the appearance of a typical pine tree, and its red wood is cut and used for poles and roofing materials. The Soapberry tree, Sapindus saponaria  grows to 15m. and is native to tropical America, but you find it growing throughout Zanzibar. The berries are collected by local people, for trade and for personal use, as they produce a frothy lather when macerated with water, and can be used to wash the body or clothes. 

Cloves (Syzygium aromaticum) have a long history of association with Zanzibar, being considered the finest quality from this origin. Introduced in 1818 from the Seychelles & Mauritius, Sultan Said (Sultan from 1804-1856), of Omanís Abusaid Dynasty, is credited with making Zanzibar the worldís major clove and spices producer, setting up clove plantations which produced 35,000 metric tons in 1834, and controlled 90% of the world market. It is interesting to reflect that at this stage, island generated so much wealth, riches, yet today its peoples live largely in abject poverty. Returning to the theme, today only seaweed farms (largely worked by local women, and growing Euchema spinosum and E. cottoni to produce gel products for food & cosmetic uses) and tourism compete with the clove industry as a money-earner. 

Clove buds are hand-picked when green, separated from their stems, and can be seen (and smelled!) drying out and turning brown in the sun on mats by the roadside in many parts of the island; however there are some problems with the industry. The government monopoly which buys cloves from local farmers (The Zanzibar State Trading Corp.) pays a low price, and coupled with the problems of viral diseases which have blighted crops in certain years, many farmers have chopped the trees down to sell for firewood, or actually burnt them to the ground in disgust. Smuggling cloves to Kenya & Tanzania can realize twice the value which the State Trading Corporation will pay, but there is often little in it for the farmers, who see little of the extra money.
Clove stems are separately collected and sent to Pemba for distillation, following closure of the stem oil distillery in the docks area of Stonetown. An sample of this oil brought back by the author, was found to have the following composition:

 Clove Stem Oil Zanzibar
Clove Stem Oil Components The influence of some of these above components on the odour profile of clove oil can be found in Natural Aromatic Materials: Odours & Origins written by the author advertised elsewhere on this site.
Other Spices
Other spices that are found on the island include the Cardamom Elletaria cardamomum and False cardamom Afromomum angustifolium, the Pepper Vine Piper nigrum and Turmeric Curcuma longa

The Curry-leaf plant Murraya koenigii was especially fascinating to me: being incredibly pungent (in contrast to the only mildly spicy essential oil). It is used as incense, the smoke apparently reputed to keep devils away from children. 

Cinnamom (Cinnamomum camphora) & Nutmeg trees (Myristica fragrans: whose products are occasionally used as psycho-active agents by the Zanzibarians, are not uncommon on the island. [As a rider to this, in my conversations with farmers, many males privately professed worries about the fact that nutmeg taking (to get high) was a particular problem amongst local women on the island]. 

Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) from plants brought over from Africa also thrives here, and is used locally to flavour dishes and beverages.  

Fragrant flowers
Pandanus, or Screw Pine Pandanus kirkii is a tree that is often seen on the coastal margins of the island, above the high-tide mark. The trees have thin sword like leaves up to 1m. long, sprouting from the branch-ends, and roots hang down from various parts of the trunk to anchor the tree against storms. It is the fragrant male flowers, which are on separate spikes from the females, which are fascinating, being much sought after for their perfume. In N. India the sweet distillation water from male flowers of P. odaritissimus L. is used to flavour confectionery, and an attar is made by condensing distillation vapours into cooled sandalwood oil. Other fragrant flowers include frangipani trees, many of which can grow to a considerable size and whose white flowers tinged with orange-yellow appear when the tree is not in leaf, making an amazing site against the black-brown limbs of the tree in the capitalís streets. My attempts to take pictures of the green or yellow petalled Mkilua fragrans plant came to nothing, but garlands are made form flowers of these plants to be worn by guests at wedding ceremonies. Together with Jasmine, Ylang-ylang and Frangipani, and the red flowers of the naturalised Flame tree Delonix regia, a perfumed paradise is present here!  

Useful Plants
The Iodine Plant Jatropha multifida (syn. Adenoropium multifidum Pohl.)  is a shrub (which can exceptionally grow to the dimensions of a small tree, up to 7m.) which is native to Central America but has become naturalised on Zanzibar. It is used medicinally by the local people, who use it to disinfect and help heal wounds, by snapping off the leaves from the main stems, and dripping the latex which issues out, onto the affected area.
Imagine a citrus drink which tastes like oranges and passion fruit, but comes from the fruits of a liana named the Rubber Vine (!) Saba comorensis (Bojer) Pichon. The local name for the drink is Mbungo, (tourists corrupt this to "bongo juice"!) and many bars on the island will sell you this delicious drink! Unfortunately I wasnít able to sample a decoction of the bark, locally famed as an aphrodisiac! Other fruit available on the island includes Mango (Mangifera indica) from trees that are widespread on the island, the tree also being used for its wood, Star-fruit (Averrhoa carambola), Shaddock (Citrus maxima), Soursops (Annona muricata), jack-fruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) and bananas (Musa paradisiaca). I am sure I have missed others!  

It was fascinating for a UK dweller like me to see the tall Kapok tree Ceiba pentandra, the products from which are used to stuff mattresses & pillows. This tree is related to the "upside down tree" or the Boabab Adansonia digitata which also dramatically enhance the landscape, and a leaf decoction from this tree is used to treat malaria, which is rife in this area. It is estimated that one third of the local population will succumb to this terrible disease, and talking to the local people it is obvious that there is little knowledge of the mosquito as the vector of the disease, or how to eradicate it from its breeding grounds. Nor need we Westeners feel superior either, since I discovered that the anti-malarial tablets that my UK medical practice had prescribed for me (chlorquine) had not worked against local strains of the disease in Zanzibar and Tanzania for the last 20 years! Unfortunately this fact had not filtered back to our medical community. Mosquitoes also spread filariasis (elephantiasis) which sadly has affected many people in the south of the island. 

Coconut oil from the trees of Cocos nucifera, which are often planted in between rows of clove trees, are used by locals to make soap, and very small local businesses make this item to supply shops and markets in Stonetown. In particular I purchased some very good clove soap (used as an insect repellent) and some beautiful Ylang-ylang soap from a Stonetown stall-holder, made by a womenís group from locally collected flowers just west of the northerly tip of the island. It would be very satisfying to be able to trade with these small producers, but I was informed that the reality is that any whiff of export success would be met with punitive taxation by the authorities... Finally the lipstick plant Bixa orellana (Annato) was another thrill for me to see: splitting open the red fruits reveals waxy seeds from which a red pigment issues forth, which is used world-wide as a food colouring.  

I left Zanzibar with mixed feelings. For the privileged it is a relatively unspoiled paradise. It clearly will not remain that way for long, and tourism will not benefit the ordinary people and the smallholders. Many hotel jobs go to better educated Tanzanians rather than people born on Zanzibar or Pemba, and hotel-lobbies are full of American, English and Dutch entrepreneurs organizing package tours on the hoof. Because of the outcome of the last two elections, where according to news reports, boatloads of people were bought over from Dar-es-Salam to rig the voting, foreign aid has been denied. Whilst this may be seen as a grandiose retaliatory measure against certain corrupt officials, the only people it really hurts are the endemic population, who have done nothing wrong, and still remain largely uneducated, battling disease, and in abject poverty.
In 1994 Amir A. Mohammed wrote a very moving book1 about the plight of his people. I am going to quote a small piece from this book without permission, but I believe he wonít mind because we are united in a common humanitarian purpose:  

"There is an urgent need for the island to establish a research centre in order to exploit the vast potential of our herbs, leaves, fruits, barks and roots of our trees and shrubs top produce a variety of medicines.. I believe if this idea is put into action, we may one day come up with new ways of building health of our people through our own effort".

The above is a very fine idea. Zanzibar isnít a trendy producer of natural products like Corsica or Madagascar however, but it does have fine quality products to offer, and it needs the trade. If someone reading this out there in cyberland has any ideas on how to help to improve the lot of the peoples there, please contact the author!    

1Amir A. Mohammed Zanzibar, Facts Figures & Fiction  Alkhayria Press Ltd., Zanzibar (1994).

List of illustrations in descending order:

  1. Boat buidling at Nunghi.
  2. Fresh fish market at Chwaka on the east coast.
  3. Cloves drying by roadside on mats.
  4. Picked clove buds.
  5. Pepper vine Piper nigrum
  6. Screw thatch pine Pandanus kirkii at Nunghi.
  7. One of several Boabab trees pictured in the North of the island.


Copyright © 2000 by Tony Burfield All Rights reserved