Stone Town, Zanzibar in 48 hours

Tanzania, Travel Tips

Approaching Zanzibar for the first time I almost cried. Right below me was an expansive coral reef with ocean water so clear I could practically see straight down from my window seat of the plane. I was in one of those tiny, probably decades old airplanes, with the insanely noisy propellers, which just happened to be right in my line of phone taking making every photo blurry. But that didn’t stop me from trying. Trying to hold my mouth from dropping open in awe, I sat there, coming to the realization that this tropical island was going to be my home for the following two months. I felt at home before the plane even touched land.


Once I landed I was shuttled off the airplane onto the tarmac – I got to walk down those royal steps like you see in old movies, I think I was way more excited for that than I should be, but whatever — judge me. The “airport” looks like a doctor’s waiting room where I picked up my suitcase and searched through the crowd of locals waiting for my friend Ulrica. Tip: Don’t let locals carry suitcase unless you want to give them some money, it only has to be like 500-1000 shillings (less than $1), but don’t fall for their friendliness if you want to hold onto your cash!

Just a little background on the breath-taking island that is Zanzibar. It is a small island off the coast of East Africa and it is an autonomous region of Tanzania. It’s a tropical island known for it’s spices, fruits, and beaches. Zanzibar is a mix between African and Arabic culture, making it a really unique destination. The population is split between Tanzanian nationals and people from Oman. Ninety-nine percent of the island’s population is Muslim so make sure your wardrobe is ready for that. May to August is the best time to travel, during their winter, which is fairly convenient for many tourists as that’s summer in many parts of the world and time for vacationing. November to Feburary is the hottest time of the year during the dry and summer season. The rest of the year is still hot, but it marks their wet season in which it rains for days at a time. Almost everyday of the year you can be guaranteed temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, because if it went any lower than that every local would be wearing a winter coat (which they still do even at 80).

Stone Town is the biggest and only city on the island making it the ideal location for any tourist. Many honeymooners head off to the remote beaches on the east coast where everything really looks like it could be on a screensaver, but I highly recommend Stone Town as the best spot especially for backpackers.


Alright now for the fun part —– What to do in Stone Town, Zanzibar:


Day One – Things start really early in Stone Town as it is an Islamic city so everyone is up at dawn for prayer, so finding things to do early in the morning is not hard. If you’re an early riser this is a good place for you. My favorite thing to do when I woke up early was go to the main square, Forodhani Gardens, and enjoy the view with an omelet and a masala tea. Forodhani Gardens overlooks the ocean offers a wide array of small food stalls and free wifi. These mini-restaurants are a step up from street food and usually open at around 8:00 a.m. I’d go there regularly for breakfast and for my breaks during my school day (as stated in previous blog posts I taught English in Stone Town).  One of my favorite parts about being up and around that early was that I really got to know the locals as no other tourist was awake during that hour. The waiter and I got to know each other very well to the point where my omelet and tea were already there waiting for me at opening. I got to watch all the local Zanzibari women sweep the streets before all the tourists fill the streets.

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After an hour or so of taking in the early morning sights and of course a full breakfast a trip to the beach is a must. Luckily it is only about a two-minute walk from the main square. The Stone Town beach is small in comparison to the rest of Zanzibar’s beaches, but is still equally gorgeous on my standards. I’m also a city-girl at heart so I like the idea that I can walk to civilization if needed. The beach is an advertising hotspot with every local in town wanting you to get on their boat. These boats are generally safe and reliable, taking hourly trips to and from the other nearby islands namely Prison Island (I’ll get to that later). For now, ignore all those tourist traps and set your eyes on the prize – swimming in the Indian Ocean.

A great spot to relax is at the Tembo Hotel, they have chairs free to use for the public except during tourist peak season, which is mostly just June and July (although Zanzibar’s tourism is way down so you could lucky). I used their chairs probably forty times over two months and only had to pay maybe ten times, probably less than that. Of course it is always polite to purchase something – they have a great selection of different drinks, but I do not recommend eating there. Their food is very overpriced and from my experience not very good. Stay there as long as you so please because odds are it will be beautiful all day long. Tip: I recommend lying on your bag (using it as a pillow) especially if you plan to take a nap because there are some sticky fingers of young locals around.

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If you’re looking for more of an adventurous beach time there are some beautiful sights if you keep walking down the coast line mostly old stone walls that barricade the city from the ocean. There are no chairs going this route, but still a great place to spread your towel out and relax.

By this point you’ve probably spent about $5 on breakfast, $6 if you had to purchase something to use the chairs. Now it’s time to roam around. The streets of Stone Town are really something out of this world. They’re the perfect place to get lost because no matter where you end up eventually you’ll recognize something and be able to get yourself back. Right off of the beach and Forodhani Gardens is the main shopping area for tourists perfect for any souvenir shopping complete with the town’s only liquor store (this is important if you plan to drink, although I don’t really recommend it – the liquor store has extremely random hours so plan ahead). Truly exploring these streets can take hours and with some really beautiful handcrafted items except to throw down some cash if you want some of the classic tourist items. Still, compared to anything in the Western world, souvenirs are extremely cheap and if you know what to say they can be even cheaper with haggling.

Let’s say you spend about $10 on souvenirs, so now you’ve spent about $15. Shopping is tiring and in effect you may have worked up quite the appetite. There are so many delicious places to eat, and I recommend sitting down for lunch over a sit-down dinner. Check out Lukmaan’s for true Zanzibari cuisine.

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On average you’ll spend about $8 on lunch, but let’s say you spend $10 so that brings your total cost for the day to $25. After lunch head back to the beach and this time take one of those friendly locals up on their offer to take you to Prison Island. A boat ride should only cost about 20,000 shillings (approximately $12) and they will wait for you at the island. Once on Prison Island head over the main visitor’s center to purchase tickets to see their world-famous turtles, they’re huge and worth the cost to see them. This “cost” is only about $2, but watch out because they do sometimes overcharge tourists. I had my resident permit with me so I got in everywhere dirt cheap, but even without that the tourist attractions are still extremely cheap. Prison Island is completely self-guided and has a presently un-operational hotel so the pool is up for grabs, as far as I could tell (no one told me not to…). Prison Island also features a gorgeous beach that overlooks Stone Town. I was on the island during peak tourist season and I think there were maybe four other people on the island. It’s very open and a delightful little island.

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By now it should be about 4:00 p.m. as you’re coming back to the main island. To round up your touring activities for the day head over to the House of Wonders and the Old Fort for tours of both. House of Wonder’s has a small fee to enter, but the Old Fort is self-guided and free. If you want a real adventure to end your first day of tourist activities walk over to Mkunazini (a seven minute walk inland) – note: this is where I lived – and squeeze your way through the market place. How long can you stand in the fish market? I think I made it twenty seconds. Smells horrible, looks really cool! This a real local place making it an awesome attraction to check out. Be prepared for stares though, make sure you’re really covered up when going through areas like this. At this point you should have spent about $45.


If you get hungry stop for some street food – my favorite snack is what I call “mango fries” – essentially mangos shaped like fries. They’re probably like $0.50 so I’m not even going to count this in my total…

Head back over to Forodhani Gardens in time for the sun to set. All the local boys do quite a performance off the stonewall into the ocean – flips and backwards somersaults. On the other side of the park, while the sun is setting, all the food stall operators are getting ready for dinner leaving the park smelling delishly fishy. Get ready for dinner. Go all out with seafood anything; I’ve never had a problem eating any of the street-food here, but definitely be precautious. Everyone comes out to Forodhani for dinner in the square, especially during Ramadhan – it’s one big party. Street food will cost you about $3-5 depending on how much food you want. Now you’re at about $50 for the day.

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To end your day do as the locals do and walk around a lot, just be cautious once it starts to get really dark particularly if you’re a single female. If you’re not tired by that point there’s a couple options. One – go to a hookah bar or two – go to a bar and smoke hookah. The nightlife in Stone Town is centered around hookah, or shisha in Arabic, as Muslims traditionally don’t drink alcohol. Because of Stone Town’s status as a popular tourist destination, there are still plenty of places to grab a drink, but I do not recommend ever being publicly sloshed. It’s technically a crime there. One of my favorite hookah bars and also one of the most expensive places in town is the Livingstone Bar. The hookah waiter, I call him, there is super friendly. You might spend $10 here, but if you share with other people you may only spend $2, so let’s say you share because us nomads tend to be fairly social.

You may ask where do I sleep? I stayed in an apartment for the summer, but I had plently of friends that stayed in guesthouses/hostels and said they were all clean and affordable. For backpackers you can get a decent room in a hostel with a private bathroom in some cases for $30, even cheaper for a shared bathroom (that’s usually $20). So let’s say you spring for your own bathroom. That brings your grand total for the day to $82. Not too shabby for a day jam packed full of stuff.


Day Two – You can’t go to a tropical island without snorkeling! Snorkeling in Africa is even cheaper than anywhere especially in Zanzibar, where they’re actively trying to boost their tourism. Safari Blue is the highest rated and most popular tour out there, and also the one I took myself. It was top notch I must say. Because it’s so highly rated, the price is jacked up to about $100 per person varying slightly based on the season. This price includes basically a full-day excursion snorkeling the coral reef, lunch, tropical fruit tasting, drinks (beer included), and relaxation. I’d say well worth it. The tours start at 9:30am so as far as breakfast goes I’d just snack on a granola bar and drink plenty of water because the tour will provide lots of food (trust me, you want to save room – some of the best seafood I’ve ever had!). The takeoff point is in a small town called Fumba and that taxi ride is also included in the cost (from Stone Town).


By the time you get back to Stone Town (the takeoff point is about 30 minutes away from downtown) it should be around 3:30p.m. so I’d recommend doing an excellent slave trade tour at Saint Monica’s, which includes a town of the adjoined Catholic church  (one of the few Christian places of worship on the island) and a former slave market. Just a couple bucks for entry and you get your own tour guide! This should take about an hour or so.

Following the slave market tour, which is in Mkunazini, you should check out the surrounding area – Mkunazini as I stated earlier is home to the market. In addition to the market it holds all of Stone Town true local stores; they have a store for everything – clothes, hijabs, jewelry, tuxedos, watches, DVDs, etc. It’s a really cool site to see. Essentially Mkunazini is one big outdoor mall hidden amongst Stone Town’s narrow alleys.


After some shopping/people watching head to the Green Garden for dinner, which is just a few blocks away, also in Mkunazini. This is my all-time favorite place to eat in all of Stone Town. I went here so much that I started getting free stuff! The owners and the waiters are some of the friendliest people I have ever met. The whole restaurant is outside, but there are covered parts in case of rain. They also have free wifi and delicious freshly squeezed juices, which everyone needs to try once in their life. So amazing. My favorite thing to order here was any of their curries —- literally to die for. Also their tomato soup is spectacular if you’re looking for something on the cheaper side. I’d say an average meal here costs $8, but the juices can be a little pricy so maybe you’d pay $10. If you didn’t spend any money while shopping that brings the total to $113 for the day so far, and $195 for the weekend.

I’d suggest taking another walk around town after dinner and definitely treating yourself to some dessert for your last night in Stone Town. For dessert I recommend either Mercury’s for some ice cream that is not made with powdered milk (yeah… all the other stuff is gross, don’t buy the ice cream unless you like the taste of fake milk, which I gotta say I kind of got used to) or head over to “Mr. Nutella’s” pizza place in Forodhani. First off, the ice cream at Mercury’s is expensive because it’s really the only place in town with real ice cream, but they have some really cool tropical flavors – worth $3! Then “Mr. Nutella’s” pizza is basically a crepe stand where they’ll make the crepe with whatever you want on it. This is about $3 as well. Whichever you chose it’s going to be great. Or go for both — I won’t judge ;).

Lastly you have to pay for another night in the hostel so add $30. Your final total for two days and two nights in Zanzibar is $128! If I would add anything to this itinerary, especially if you’re into nightlife I would take a taxi to Kendwa Beach because this is where the tourist party is every weekend. It’s a fun time, but also fairly expensive – probably costing you $50 for the night if you didn’t go too hard with the drink purchasing, $70 if you did.

Above all have fun and do what sounds good for you. If you want to just soak up the sun all day long, for 48 hours straight – cool, live it up. I love Stone Town and I hope you do too!


Sandy Toes in Zanzibar

Photography, Tanzania

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Undeniably Zanzibar’s beaches are my favorite. The sand is soft and almost has a milky consistency which glides over your feet and toes like butter. Zanzibar’s velvety coasts also feature year-round warm waters thanks to the Indian Ocean and tropical climate. Although I was in Zanzibar for work, I still got time on the weekends (and after classes) to enjoy the tourist hotspots.

Even on the most popular beach there was still space to breath. It wasn’t like Ocean City, Md in July – there was open space and self-catering services. This is not necessarily a great thing for Zanzibar’s economy as it has seen a dip in tourism recently, at least in Stone Town – according to my hotel manager friend Ulrica, but it feels like paradise for me.

One highlight of my beach excursions was going to the East Coast beach and The Rock restaurant, which lives up to it’s name as the restaurant is literally on a rock and requires a boat to get to during high tide. What an experience. The food was also to die for and surprisingly affordable (in American standards). I got home-made tagliatelle with lobster mixed in – I’m drooling thinking about it.

Not only beaches in Zanzibar pure paradise, they’re also fun. Local kids will come play frisbee with you and you never know who you’ll meet! Going to the beach by myself was so fun because I’d meet all these other tourists/volunteers, mostly from Europe, and we’d all talk about our experiences and where we’re from. Zanzibar is mostly a tourist destination for Europeans because for much of Europe there’s little to no time difference whereas from the US (mainland) there’s anywhere from 6-10 depending on day light savings time.

The best time to go is definitely during their winter, as during Zanzibar’s summer it is unbearable hot and humid. Their winter usually lasts from May to September, but July is definitely the peak of tourist season. Make sure though before you go for a relaxing beach vacation you know the area in which you’re staying. For example it is never appropriate to show your knees on the streets of Stone Town, but it is perfectly ok to lay out in the sun wearing nothing but a bathing suit once you hit the sand. On the east coast of Zanzibar you’ll have much more privacy and the beaches are apparently more pristine, although I’m not a huge beach snob. All I need is warm water and soft sand, and just about every beach in Zanzibar (I went to at least) had that.

“Half the fun of the travel is the esthetic of lostness” – Ray Bradbury

Photography, Tanzania

Getting lost gives you the opportunity to really see an area. Leaving the guidebook at home and just exploring is my favorite thing to do when traveling. I find myself being more observant and so I see what the locals really are doing – what restaurants they’re eating at, the shortcuts they know that no one else knows, even something as basic as greetings.

All my tour books in Tanzania said that “Hello” was “Habari” or “Jambo”. Little did I know until I started pulling my head out of the book that I sounded like a ignorant tourist when I said things like that. It makes sense if they think about it because how often do we say “hello” in America? It’s always hi or what’s up or hey. Same in Tanzania. Instead of “Jambo” you say “Mambo,” which is basically like saying “Hey, what’s up?” With exploration and getting lost in the culture that I’m living in I would have knew that. It’s important to not just “get lost” physically, but also to get lost figuratively. Devour that culture while you can because you will miss it dearly once you’ve left.

Oldies but Goodies


On Prison Island, a popular tourist attraction in Zanzibar off the coast of Stone Town, is home to some really old turtles. These guys have seriously been through a lot. The oldest turtle on Prison Island is 189 years old, when America was only on its fifth president and Beethoven was still alive.


This grandpa has seen a lot of history. He’s seen slavery in America. Both World Wars. The dropping of the atomic bomb, hundreds of revolutions and wars, and a time before blue jeans.

Throughout international crisis after crisis this oldie has remained on the same island enjoying the hundreds of tourists who come through daily. He gets a nice neck massage in return for a few pictures. His life has been the same thing for almost 200 years now. I cannot even imagine living in the same poop covered enclosure for that long…

While so much has changed in the world around him since this elder’s birth, nothing has really changed for him. And I think he is totally ok with that.


This is a BABY turtle….

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Scrambled Thoughts


Walking out of Dulles International Airport came with a rush of many emotions.  First was happiness because after two months I got to be with my best friend and mom.  Second was sweatiness. I forgot how the humidity on the East Coast makes you feel like you have to chop down the treacherous jungle of air with a machete while drowning in your own perspiration.

Now after almost a week of being home I’ve adjusted to humidity and to living with my little brother who insists on singing every other sentence. I’m happy to be home. I’m happy, but not completely content. Now that I have stepped so far out of my comfort zone I feel a little bored with the mundane tasks of my everyday life in the states. I am already thinking of where I will travel to next.

I am also constantly thinking of the amazing friends I left behind. I have already been imagining ways in which they could come visit me in the states. I would love to show them around my corner of the globe.

The young adults that I taught at Tumekuja Secondary School have left such a huge impact on me. They have taught me just as much, if not more than I taught them. They taught me that I do not want to study the world from behind a book and then get a job “solving” the problems of the world from behind a desk. All I can do (and want to do) is lend a hand.

They taught me that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. Growing up I saw girls dressed in belly shirts and thought, wow they are beautiful. I saw girls wearing hijabs and dressing conservatively and thought, wow that sucks! They must be so hot. They did not fit in my molded view of beautiful.

On the first of Ramadan I wore a hijab for the first time. I walked into school with a continual stream of compliments following me.

“Oh teacha’ Emma, you look so beautiful.”

I felt so awkward in the hijab, definitely not beautiful. I was completely covered with no hair; how could I look beautiful?

Just as I grew up seeing beauty as showing more skin and having long hair, my female students grew up seeing beauty as the complete opposite. They looked at someone’s eyes to see her beauty. Beauty was defined by how much a woman was covered – not by how much skin she was showing.

Sure I have read about the many cultures of the world, but seeing it first hand is completely different than just reading about it. I have learned so much from my students. They have helped me figure out what I want to do next as far as my academic career goes and they have given me more confidence in my own beauty.

Lashes During Lunchtime


Every Monday through Friday I take my lunch break around 10am, which may seem early but I’m famished by then after being awake since 5:45am. This lunch break was a little unusual as I overheard a screaming match between an intimidating Swahili teacher and a 16 year old boy with guilt written all over his face. After much debate, the teacher ordered him to balance on one foot and squat – it was almost flamingo like, but the look on his face did not show serenity and relaxation like the rosy birds usually have. His face did, however, have a luminescent pink glow similar to a flamingo, but his red face was more as a result of stress as opposed to mother nature.

Five minutes later he was commanded to switch, but in the process of switching his feet he tipped over to one side, resting his body momentarily on the concrete slab flooring. Instead of giving him another chance, she giggled with the Geography teacher and held up a stick. The stick looked weak, but the teacher looked strong. After playfully practicing her swing the teacher directed the student to put his palms on the edge of the desk.


The first one took me by immense surprise. I was dumbfounded that such a weak-looking stick could make such a piercing sound. I was not completely naive to the system of corporal punishment in Tanzanian schools up until this point, but I imagined slaps on the wrists not a public whipping. The teacher took two more swings, both landing in the lower back region of the student, between her lighthearted laughs. After listening to three lashes I was relieved that it was over. I was relieved at least until I saw the teacher toss the stick across the room to her friend. They joked about who could hit harder (at least that’s what I gathered through the language barrier).

The next lady took a couple strikes before declaring defeat and passed it over to the Geography teacher from earlier. He walked confidently up to the student’s backside and began tapping the students rear with the stick just like a hitter would do before swinging at a baseball. The teacher chucked and mid-laugh threw the stick so hard against the student’s back; the stick flew out of his hand landing across the room. Four strikes later and I can barely lift my eyes off my grading, but I do so that I can continue furiously taking notes on my trusty notebook next to me.

I wanted to ask the teacher so badly what he did to be punished so severely but I couldn’t. Not gonna lie, I was a little worried about what my punishment would be if I questioned the authority..

I’m not one to question the culture of a country so distant from my own culture. I do not think that Americans have a superior culture where we have figured out the perfect formula for educating children, because we haven’t. I do, however, feel like beating a student publicly during school time is counterproductive, not to mention wrong. Watching the teachers take the whipping as one big joke was even more heart wrenching. To me, all teachers must genuinely care about their students to be effective educators. I feel like a teacher who will joke so carelessly while beating their student cannot possibly care about their student enough to truly provide them with an adequate education they so badly need.

Interrupting Success


Classes “begin” every day at 7:15am, Africa time, so this essentially means that students won’t even sit down until around 7:45am. It’s hard to blame them when their own headmaster strolls in around 8:20 every morning.  Even when I do finally get to teach, other administration will arrogantly march into my classroom when I am mid-lesson. The constant interruptions and lack of time-management just reinforces most students’ belief that their education is a waste of time.

One day, in particular, I was mid-sentence when a senior Swahili teacher knocked on the door. Before I could even see who was at the door he pranced in and announced he had an urgent message. I reluctantly agreed to let him speak, basically having no choice. At that moment of agreement his whole attitude changed from a cheery, but tired disposition to one of infuriated drill sergeant. He shouted at my class of generally obedient teenagers, “All of you stand up!”


He walked around the room flaunting his stick while half my class nervously laughed, while the others wore faces of genuine fear. Most of the side conversation was in Swahili so I’m unsure if they knew what was to come, but by the looks of their faces this incident was a common occurrence.

The teacher then ordered the students to show him their badges, like they were all enlisted in a boot camp for troubled teenagers or they were inmates at a prison. Their badges had the school logo on them and apparently were necessary to learn. He walked around the room whacking the squirming male students who had not remembered their “badge”. All the boys in the classroom to the quick beating generally well and even laughed it off amongst themselves a little bit.

Then the teacher got to the first girl who had forgotten her badge. She was a fighter. She wriggled her way to the floor to avoid the lash, which only made him madder. The entire class was giggling except the girl’s best friend who looked at me with eyes full of worry.

After finally getting a firm grasp on the girl, the teacher hit her back once and then slammed the stick against the back of her neck. She fell into her seat and sank her face into her shaking hands. Five minutes of silent crying later, I brought my stash of toilet paper from my wallet over to her as a makeshift tissue. She quietly responded, “sank you” as she wiped her tears and went back to work.

It was not easy to continue teaching after watching that unfold. I kept looking down at the girl somberly taking notes in the front row, thinking about what a good student she was and the lack of compassion the teacher had. I understand why these schools use corporal punishment, because it is the same reason America used it when we were still a developing country. (In fact corporal punishment is still legal in 19 states!) But what I don’t understand is how he can do it. I teared up watching that girl fall to the floor staring up at the looming stick threatening to beat her. Compassion is required for effective educating and I just do not see that with the majority of teachers in my school.

Pulling from my past anthropological studies, I understand that compassion can vary from culture to culture, which is in part why I did not put up a fight against the teacher with the stick. It is their culture and I came here to learn about it so I cannot keep a closed mind about their various traditions. I just hope that one day, with development and compassionate teachers, the education system in Tanzania and all around the world will improve so that every student has an equal opportunity to succeed.

I would like to point out however, current Tanzanian Laws limits teachers to hitting a child four times with a stick. I have personally watched a child get hit ten times.


The Terminal Test


As much as that sounds like a catchy title with the whole alliteration thing, it’s not. The students at my school in Zanzibar actually have to take a biannual exam called the “Terminal Test”. And the name isn’t just for the intimidation factor. For students in secondary school, if they fail the national exam, they are cut.

Terminal. That makes me think of terminal cancer or the terminator. I’m picturing Arnold Schwarzenegger rampaging through my school after exams are graded and slaughtering the ones who failed. For those who have dreams of becoming doctors and lawyers this exam is the end all be all. If you fail this, there is little hope of ever continuing your education. For the few students who make it to the end of Secondary School at a level of Form 6 only about 35% of them pass their exam (According to The Guardian in 2009). This outlook on education – that there is a pass or a fail option and students who fail will be doomed to a life selling souvenirs on the street is the problem. Because of the dire importance of this exam faintings have been “reported” (and when I say reported, there weren’t actually any reports made.. just a hear-say type of thing that apparently a lot of faintings occur around exam time). I myself have seen three girls faint now within a week. That third girl definitely pushed me over the “coincidental limit”. My guess is that all the stress from those looming terminal exams is what has driven females especially to being completely overwhelmed.

Students, from what I’ve seen, are very hard working. I’ve seen sentences like “If I fail my exam I am very stupid” and “I am foolish if I do not pass my exam”. They want to be here and they know that education can be their key out of poverty. In 2 hours and 15 minutes this key could be snatched away from them if they do not perform well on their exams. That’s a lot of pressure.


Maybe They Aren’t Fine?



Every morning at 7:15am I am welcomed into my classroom by a mob of good morning teacha’ followed by a cloud of chalkboard dust from the one reliable student cleaning the 

board for me. I respond to my class with the same greeting plus a three-word phrase so common in America, I findmyself stunned with how unique and droning their reply is. I ask, how are you? expecting the typical good that I know I used to monotonously retort to my dad when I was their age. Instead of good, they respond with we are fine. But are they really fine? Is everyone on this island really just fine?

I have learned that in Kiswahili greetings that when someone asks habari, or how are you, you must respond with nzuri, which essentially means good. In America I feel like people have a habit to just complain when they are posed with that classic question even if the person asking really does not care. In Zanzibar even if you are really not fine you are trained to always say I am fine or nzuri.

Walking into my classroom I feel like my students surrounding me are all being fed a teleprompter script morning after morning. Then I remind myself, if my school doesn’t even have running water they definitely don’t have a teleprompter.

After a few days of getting the same colorless greeting I decided to teach one of my classes emotions. I brought in pictures of people laughing and people crying to represent the many different feelings a person can have. I told them it was ok for them not to be fine.  At first they gave me a perplexed blank stare until I began going around the room asking them personally how they felt.

I got answers varying from happy to headache to excited to hungry. Their responses provided mixed emotions for me. I felt like maybe I was defying their culture by asking them to actually share their feelings, and that maybe I was not ready to hear almost half the class tell me they were hungry. At the same time, however, I felt accomplished to have at least made a small impact on allowing them to feel heard. I, even just for a few minutes, gave them a chance to express how they felt instead of them just repeating the same required greeting like a robot.

In this generation of Americans – nicknamed Generation “Me” – children feel entitled to speak their feelings and generally get their way. There is certain your wish is my command type of attitude in America, which is completely unheard-of in at least the environments I have been in in Zanzibar. Children and all Zanzibarians for that matter don’t expect much here. They just claim to be “fine” or “nzuri” all the time.

Looking at their bland responses from an outsider perspective, I just find it so unnatural and oppressive to always respond in a positive manner. After a full week of teaching I was able to remove my critical lens and see this as simply their way of life. Although I have come to accept this cultural shortcoming (in my opinion), I will continue to ask my students how they are actually feeling. They are not always fine. They are hungry and tired and happy and surprised and glad. They have a multitude of emotions that deserve to be heard and not masked behind their school’s restrictions on how to greet a teacher.