View from our small plane landing at Zanzibar's modest airport, Spring 2011.
I was one of the relatively few Americans among 200,000 (mostly European) foreigners who spent time in Zanzibar and Tanzania last year, so the recent security issues of this East African island is saddening to hear. Even the UK, the largest source of tourism to Zanzibar, has issued a travel warning to its travelers in reaction to two separate incidents--four tourists who were mugged in the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam, while growing political protests on Zanzibar have "vagabond youths" torching churches and threatening tourist bars and grocery marts.
Police teams have been released on the streets after hotels and businesses demanded some extra support. The nationalities of the mugged tourists have yet to be released.
Most residents I met in Zanzibar are Muslim, and criminal acts--even petty theft--are considered extremely wrong in their community. Despite a strengthening tourist industry, most locals remain quite poor and lack even basic necessities such as running water and electricity. As such, an act of thievery is considered a highly gross insult.
Upon arrival in Tanzania, I was advised that if anybody tried to pickpocket or mug us, to yell out, "Simama, mwizi!" This means "Stop, thief!" in Swahili and apparently it isn't uncommon for a large group to form around the suspect, oftentimes killing or seriously injuring them. Theft in Swahili culture isn't questionable at all; this is based upon the group mentality of being in poverty and how no individual person deserves to have material possessions above others, especially through the act of stealing.
But perhaps some of this traditional belief is swaying now, as so much is changing in people's sensibilities about the world. We see protests growing in all corners of our planet, so in an impoverished yet connected land like Tanzania perhaps we should expect to see citizens express their own discontent in rather anomalous ways. Tourists from wealthy nations are easy targets because the message will get through to the the media, perfectly demonstrated by the UK's travel advisory and even this blog post.
That said, we still plan to return to East Africa sooner rather than later. The first time was right when the Arab Spring burst, perhaps next time will be even more dramatic.
Tuonane baadaye, Zanzibar!