Tales of travelling while black and female in Zanzibar

Saturday April 23 2022

The island of Zanzibar: The archipelago has been trending after a tourist alleged sexual assault at a hotel. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


Zanzibar has been described as an exotic and idyllic romantic destination, a paradise of Africa and the cradle of Swahili hospitality. Also known as the Spice Island -- its famous Stone Town is a Unesco World Heritage site -- it draws tourists to its white sandy beaches with a promise of a laidback island life and permanent air of fun.

With almost a million annual visitors pre-Covid, official data of January 2022 shows that over 65 percent of all tourists to Zanzibar were female.


The waters of Zanzibar are always inviting. PHOTO | POOL

Yet despite this, female tourists, especially those traveling solo, experience a fair share of harassment both physical and sexual, verbal abuse on the street and some even robbery.

Nigerian tourist's complaint

Recent social media claims of sexual assault by 23-year old Nigerian tourist Zainab Olehinde brought forth bad experiences of other travellers to this paradise, and made me relive my own share of bad experiences in Zanzibar, as a local tourist.


As investigations by the Zanzibar Commission for Tourism on Olehinde’s claims are still ongoing, the question of how tourists, male and female, local and foreign, black and white are treated is being asked all round. Not just in the case of Zanzibar, but the whole world. Tourism is the mainstay of many economies around the world, but do visitors get an experience worth their money?

Speaking English

On a recent visit to Zanzibar, my friends and I decided to find whether the talk about female foreign tourists getting ‘’different’’ treatment was true. We had been having this talk among ourselves for a while and also heard it from mutual friends.

“Let's speak English from now on, pretend we don’t understand Swahili,” suggested Lilian Ndilwa, a close friend and my travelling companion, as we were disembarking from the ferry that brought us to Zanzibar from the Mainland sometime last year.

We are both Tanzanian and were here for the boat party.

The pretence of being non-Swahili speakers was to protect ourselves from the apparent mistreatment meted to local female tourists from the Mainland who are called names for dressing differently from the local Zanzibari women. We wanted to experience international tourist treatment in our homeland, after all, we were paying, local tourists or not.

I was not surprised by Lilian’s remarks as I have been to Zanzibar a couple of times, on my own and with a group of friends – male and female. And each time I had a different experience on the island.

The turtle sanctuary in Zanzibar.

The turtle sanctuary in Zanzibar is a big attraction. PHOTO | POOL

As a solo tourist, I’m normally mistaken for being either a Kenyan or Rwandan and taxi drivers and boda-bodas would whisper among themselves, “Huyu wa Kagame au Kenyatta?” Swahili for ‘’Is she Kagame’s or Kenyatta’s,’’ meaning am I Kenyan or Rwandan and either way, I would be treated courteously just like a foreign tourist throughout my stay on the island.

This however was not the case when I am accompanied by fellow female Tanzanians who chose to let it be known that we are from the Mainland.

Local tourist

And it is not just me. Happy Lyimo, a Tanzanian girl I met in Paje, Zanzibar told me; “It’s always hard to find a hotel, or even get a hotel attendant to attend to you as a local tourist.”

She further confessed that the first time she travelled to Zanzibar as a college student, she had to venture outside her accommodation to find street food because it would take hours before anyone at the establishment would attend to her.

“They assume all women come here to ‘hunt’ for men,’’ she said. Now, this is not unique to Zanzibar. It is a fate suffered by all black women travellers around the world.

“I went to several restaurants actually, near Forodhani where as expected most visitors are white tourists. The restaurant attendants would attend to them, even when I am front of the queue, and I just failed to understand why,” said Lyimo.

And she isn’t the only Mainlander who has had this experience in Zanzibar.

“I remember I went to Zanzibar for work and the company I was working for recommended I stay in a four-star hotel somewhere in Nungwi, very expensive you would say. At the reception, the person attending to me was hesitant to say how much the room costs. I was accompanied by a taxi driver and he asked her why the hesitation, and she said that women [of] my kind, meaning black female tourists, normally fail to pay,” said Sarah William in a phone conversation with The EastAfrican.

She said the comment was so insulting that she stepped outside for a while before she could respond to the hotel receptionist.

Another local tourist, Irene, had it worse. “I was staying at this hotel, in Stone Town close to the waterfront. I got there in the evening without any trouble but the following day during breakfast I asked for scrambled eggs as per the package but to my surprise, the cook fried eggs for other diners who came after me and ignored my order,” said Irene.

It was not lost on her that she was the only black female guest at the hotel. And all other guests were in groups of three or four, while she was alone.

“When I approached the cook and inquired why, he didn’t give me any explanation so I decide to stand at his work station to make sure I got my scrambled eggs. When I eventually walked back to my table with my scrambled eggs, a fly had got into my glass of juice. I politely called one of the waitresses to get me a fresh serving, but she pretended not to hear me or even see me waving to catch her attention,” she said.

Not just locals

Irene says she didn’t make anything of it and thought the girl had not seen her. “I finished my breakfast and continued reading my book for a little while. But the waitress totally ignored me as she cleared up breakfast tables, skipping mine. I was shocked that she even went round chatting guests and inquiring if they enjoyed their breakfast, and if they needed anything else.’’

But hotels are not the only establishments mistreating local tourists in Zanzibar.

So on my trip I decided to go sightseeing in Stone Town market and the beach. I was wearing an above-the-knee dress, sandals and a floppy beach hat. In the streets, I would notice how some of the local people gave me weird looks. I didn’t understand why. Almost all other tourists were dressed like me.

Irene said they were mocked on the streets too. “I remember I was accompanied by a male friend who was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, just like her. We happened to pass by a street where a group of local women dressed in the black Buibui (traditional full body cover) were seated. They laughed at us and in our hearing said that Mainlanders were used to walking naked and that we weren’t even half-naked,” narrated Irene.

She said what dismayed them even more was that, behind them was a group of white tourists, male and female and all in shorts too. “The women had swimsuits on for tops, and some had T-shirts just like my friend. The women didn’t comment the same about them.”

But sometimes harassment doesn’t only happen to black women.

“Last year in August we sent our project co-ordinator to Zanzibar to research on hotels that we would book for our tourists, and she was to stay there for a whole month. Unfortunately, in her second week she was robbed and almost got sexually assaulted,” said Juliet Samuel, who works with a tour agency.

Ms Samuel added that, the female co-ordinator from Spain who asked that we don’t disclose her name, wrote a final report for the tour agency, and said; “Careful with pickpockets in tourist areas, don’t walk alone at night, don’t go inside a taxi if you don’t know the driver. Go to the police in the town where you were assaulted and file the report.”

She added, “I think it is not the safest place in Tanzania because people are more desperate in terms of gaining money so they risk themselves assaulting and robbing tourists but I never heard about sexual abuse while I was there.”

Although authorities in Zanzibar assure visitors' safety and Stone Town has CCTV cameras on every street corner to ensure both locals' and visitors’ safety, bad treatment of female tourists is a reality.

“Tourists visiting Zanzibar are guaranteed safety as besides police patrols in tourist attractions, including beaches, there is a diplomatic police unit that is tasked with maintaining the safety of people visiting the island and tourist attractions as well,” said Mohammed Nassor Bajuni, an officer of the Zanzibar Tourism Commission.

But most calls by the public in light of Olehinde’s claims are about dignified treatment of local tourists and those of African origin from the rest of the continent regardless of their gender.

“Do a better job of protecting all tourists, be they domestic, regional or international as they all bring revenue to the country. Tourists are not only white people,” commented Joshua Agukoh on the Facebook page of Tanzania police following Olehinde’s assault claims.

The most troubling issue is that women face challenges that male travellers don’t even think about when they leave their countries. With half of all travellers around the word being women, some solo, tourism players have many lessons to learn.