Exploring the Colorful Markets of Zanzibar

July 15, 2015 by

City Tours & Sightseeing, Middle East & Africa, Places to Go, Things to Do


Zanzibar, Tanzania is a small white sand island in the Indian Ocean, surrounded by turquoise waters. The island is almost synonymous with spice and it was a major part of the spice trade in colonial times. We got to explore the island’s heritage and local crafts as part of the Handmade Zanzibar and Market Workshop tour while staying in Stone Town.

Fabric workshop in Zanzibar

Handmade fabric making at the local textile shop in Zanzibar.

The first stop on our handmade tour of Zanzibar was to a local textile shop where everything is done as it has been for centuries, by hand. The group that runs the shop makes their textiles from spools of thread all the way to the finished product. The owner lead us through the workshop to see the processes involved in making the traditional fabrics. First the cotton thread is woven into to sheets using a wooden loom operated by hand and foot. The antique machine clacks and clunks along like a horse at a gallop, spurred along by the expert weaver.

Old-fashion weaving machine Zanzibar

Antique wooden loom used to make traditional fabrics.

After the cotton is woven into a usable piece of fabric it’s time to make it uniquely Zanzibar. Artists sketch designs onto the fabric which will be the blueprint for what it will look like after being dyed. The sketched outlines of fish and other patterns are painted with wax to keep the dyes from that part of the cloth. This step of waxing and dying is repeated until the final colors are reached. The result of all the hard work is a colorful sarong or table cloth that will be brought to one of Zanzibar’s vibrant markets.

After browsing the shop of the fabric makers, we head to where the fabrics will be later sold, the market. Once at the market our guide took us through the busy stalls of a local market. Around every corner there were fresh colorful fruits, vegetables, and of course spices. The spices grown on the island are what made Zanzibar the important trade center that it was centuries ago.

The colorful spice market in Zanzibar.

The colorful market in Zanzibar.

Tables were full of blistering red peppers, bags overflowing with beans, and enough spices to stock an entire kitchen. We stopped in the market to cool down with a coconut cut open by hand. The cool coconut milk was perfect on the warm Zanzibar afternoon.

Our final handmade stop of the day was to the maker of the beautiful carved wood doors. The intricately carved doors can be found throughout the island of Zanzibar. The doors are particularly detailed in the historic city of Stone Town. Nearly every door in the old city has a massive door and frame painstakingly carved by hand. Inside the shop, four carpenters had hammers and chisels in hand, pounding designs into the wood. A single door takes about one month to make and will cost around 2,000,000 Tanzanian Shillings or $1,000.

Skillful woodworkers on the job.

Skillful carpenters on the job.

The amount of work and skill that goes into the doors is incredible. First pieces of wood are selected carefully to ensure a quality door. The customer then selects the style of carving and the pattern is sketched onto the wood using pencil and rulers. From there the rest is done by hand, hammer, and chisel.

Carpenter's making detailed, handmade doors.

Details in the handmade doors.

We left the carpenters and made our way toward the sea in the early afternoon. We finished the tour in a small restaurant near the beach with a Kilimanjaro beer in hand. Seeing how the crafts of the island are made and how much work goes into them made for a great way to spend a day in Zanzibar.

An ice-cold Kilimanjaro beer to end the day!

An ice-cold Kilimanjaro beer to end the day!


Contributed by Hannah Lukaszewicz

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