This weekend our ACM group went to Zanzibar—the famous island off the coast of Tanzania, reached by a 2 hour ferry ride. I saw (and tasted) a lot of incredible things—a night market featuring the day’s seafood catch, a spice farm, markets on the maze-like streets of the old Stone Town, a gorgeous orange sunset over palm trees and the Indian Ocean, the diverse sea life of a coral reef through snorkeling goggles, endangered Red Colobus monkeys in a tropical forest, and more Europeans than I’ve seen cumulatively over the past month.
In addition to appreciating the beauty, history, and culture (plus some uncommon comfort foods such as coffee from beans, cheese, and cereal with milk!), I was confronted with my role as a tourist. In Stone Town where we stayed, there were about as many tourists as locals, and most of the locals I saw were owners of shops or restaurants that catered to tourists. Everywhere I went I was greeted with the same phrases—“Jambo” and “Hakuna matata”—which I know to be tourist catchphrases that locals wouldn’t use to greet each other. I don’t think that being a tourist is inherently a bad thing, but it did raise many questions in my mind. What do they think of me? The woman who painted my hand with a black dye that was definitely not the henna she advertised; the man on the spice tour who climbed to the top of the of palm tree to get us coconuts, dancing and singing in exaggeration for our entertainment; the children in the street saying “Jambo, give me money”; the many Muslims attending routine prayer at the Mosques as tourists revealing an offensive amount of skin take pictures of the pretty Arabic doors.
The sales pitches, entertainment, shops of cultural art, jewelry, cloth, and music are resourceful adaptations in response to an influx of curious foreigners, and many people make their living off of tourism—in fact it is the number one industry in Zanzibar now. I am not unhappy to support this economy. I am however, perplexed and intrigued by the phenomenon of cultural tourism that is quite apparent here.
It’s a strange cycle of stereotypes. They are trying to sell me art, jewelry, cloth, music that fit a stereotype I apparently have, based on the stereotype they have of me, a tourist. It’s kind of a chicken or the egg phenomenon, and I’m not sure what is represented in the tourist marketplace—a real culture that people are living, an African stereotype that foreigners hold, some combination thereof, or something else entirely, created by this cycle of stereotypes and expectations.
In this setting, surrounded by many other Wazungu (white) tourists, I was proud to know at least a little Swahili. Look, I am interested in more than Zanzibar spices, Maasai wood carvings, and seafood. I can take the time to conjugate my greeting words and ask you how your day is going in the language you speak with your neighbors. This is my way of fending off whatever assumptions I fear that you are making based on the way I look. Please, let’s interact as human beings, and forget about stereotypes.