Robert Keable's walk through Stone Town, Zanzibar, 1913

Robert Keable's walk through Stone Town, Zanzibar, 1913

June 25, 2022

Robert Keable lived in Zanzibar for over a year, before the First World War, working as a missionary for the Universities Mission for Central Africa. Whilst there he wrote, and had specially printed, a series of letters which he sent to friends and family. Later he collected these together and published edited versions in his book City of Dawn. It was in this book that he developed his reputation for descriptive writing. The Church Times wrote in their review:

Mr Keable has the two great gifts of the imaginative artist: the eye to see, and the gift of words to describe what he has seen. The impression is extraordinarily vivid.

In the third chapter of the book, he describes a walk he took around the main town.


You turn out of the Mission enclosure into a very narrow lane which departs into the tortuous maze of the city to the left and right of our wall. Straight in front are a line of Indian shops, such shops as are a common feature of the city this side of the creek. Some of them are very little more than the enlarged entrances of a row of white-walled, corrugated-iron roofed houses in each of which an Indian woman sits most of the day, commonly in scarlet trousers and silver anklets, with a yellow, brick-red or green shiti about her head and body. She squats tailor-wise behind a small spread of miscellaneous articles usually the green leaves and other necessities of betel-nut chewing, and some small piles of oranges, cigarettes and Indian chillies; and at her back, blocking your view of the house, is a kind of pigeon-holed barrier containing nearly always boxes of matches, dolly blues, soap, candles, and paper twists of tea. She is a grave and busy personage on the whole, and is usually engaged in mending bright clothes or stringing beads when she is not selling two pice worth of goods with the enthusiasm of a transactor of heavy business. In the mud of the street play her children.

As you pass, … down the lane, here is a mosque at once, on your left, the wide open door showing its bare interior, matted floor, and shallow alcove on the Meccan side, before which you can catch a fleeting glance of men, prostrate or bowing in prayer. Round by the left we go towards the Hostel, and you see at once what makes the city so picturesque. A palm hangs over the way, and the green of its leaves, the brown of its nuts, and the white of the wall over which it leans, are thrown up against the vivid blue of the sky beyond. Often it is the one splash of colour in the blue and white of sky and street, unless some gaily dressed natives are coming to meet you.

Here is one. He is a Banyan Indian merchant in bare feet, white trousers, white shirt hanging outside his trousers, and round black ' pill-box ' cap. In his arms is his son and heir dressed for some state visit. The boy wears rich silk or cotton clothes of flaring colours, anklets and bracelets of heavy gleaming silver, and a cap ornamented with a zigzag pattern in green and gold and set with a plume of white feathers. His baby face is stained with henna, and his finger tips are bright red with it too. He is very proud of himself, I think.

But our lane has wound round to the right, and for a few yards you are passing another typical street scene. On the left is the inevitable mosque, and by it a litter of unkempt graves over which fowls and goats are wandering. On the right, heavy cocoa-nut thatches project over raised mud platforms before wattle-daub huts, and the way is narrower yet. Here squat some Arabs, all in white with white turbans, the richest of them with a jewelled and silver crooked dagger in his belt, all looking incorrigibly lazy, very polite, and rather inscrutable. To them a street-merchant is selling steaming hot coffee from a hand urn with hot charcoal beneath it, and in a few minutes he will pass on, clinking his cups to obtain fresh customers. If I could bring myself to face those cups I should rather like to drink his coffee, but as it is I save my pice.

Under the shadow of the eaves, too, a Swahili woman is stirring a copper pan full of brown treacly-looking syrup over a small fire, and that also I am curious about. It looks as if it might be the father of all the ' hard-bakes,' or the grandfather of all the ' jumbles,' but I am certain that if one stopped to inquire one would never get through the city.

Now, however, we are passing between high Arab houses of two or three stories, the ground-floor bare and deserted and dirty-looking, except for a lazing Swahili servant or two on the raised stone bench at the door. Smells delight to linger here, but we are out in a minute and among the bazaars. This is Piccadilly Circus in embryo, with a khaki-clad policeman on duty. His truncheon hangs down visibly, but he will probably go and look for reinforcements if there is trouble. His main duty is to watch the traffic direct itself, or so it seems, and when a string of donkeys meet half a dozen straining labourers, naked to the waist and pushing a heavy trolly-cart, there is sometimes good fun for a minute or two. As there is also a continual stream of people in a road not more than three or four yards wide, and also a good sprinkling of goats and fowls, there is often plenty of noise and a beautiful mixture of smells.

That excellent Banyan gentleman of the shop yonder will sell you anything. He and his fellows are venerable old men with white beards, European coats, and a peculiar skirt arrangement tied up with a wonderful twist that exhibits a varying length of haply honest brown leg. Their shops are rather dark and very stuffy, but you can indeed buy most things here. The only thing you cannot buy is the thing you want at the moment, but after all you need not come six thousand miles for that experience.

But wait a minute. Let us turn sharp to the left past the high iron gates of the Roman Catholic Cathedral, whose twin towers, with their short spires, have been showing ahead of us between the houses for some time. Here is the row of silversmiths. In fascinating cases are piled really beautiful silver goods, and on the floor squat men in their white cotton garments, sand-papering, filing, hammering and polishing. To the right is a shop you can trust, its walls hung with a strange miscellany of ancient swords and guns, embroidered Arab belts and powder-flasks, necklaces, carved wooden spoons, whips of hippo leather, and twisted iron rubbish that is not thrown away simply because a Banyan … cannot do it. The glass case is full of ebony and silver walking sticks, and they are not expensive either. But I must on; I could stop any day buying sticks. It adds to the zest of life to have to choose a walking-cane with care before one's daily constitutional, and I keep a score for the purpose.

But this is the glory of the High Street. On the left is the Post Office ; and, right opposite, are two big shops full of Indian, Burmese and Japanese goods, with men selling them in skirts and black hair done up in a ' bun ' behind like the good Singalese that they are. These are the really great shops who live on the mail passenger and empty his pockets with great regularity. Up this street lie the Court House, the English Club, the Bank of India, the shady Victoria Gardens, and the Consulate, a big, white, spreading house with a wide drive and a real lawn and an outlook over really nice gardens to the sea. But we turn the other way; the street narrows; we pass the entrance to the Customs and the way up from the landing beach ; men are squatting on the ground here, with rolls of pice and rupees to change all foreign money that comes their way ; and at length we are out on the open square before the Sultan's old palace which is now used for Government offices, with the sea glittering before us, dotted with a steamer or two, a fleet of dhows under bare poles to the right, H.M.S. Pandora round the corner of the Old Consulate pier, and two or three green islands of the reef behind all. Across the Square, the seven-mile Bu-bu-bu railway ends, its open trucks packed as a rule with clamouring crowds of black and brown skins, and its engine clanging a big bell as it moves down the centre of the street. Just by its terminus is the yellow wall and palm-planted garden of the old Sultan's palace, now being fitted for the residence of Sayyid Halifa and his wife. With luck, we shall see him in his car, wife and child beside him, a courtly smiling gentleman, very picturesque in his rich Arab dress, who shows the reality of his European culture by not wearing European clothes.

We follow the railway, and in a little plunge into the native quarter. I do not know how to describe it. The white houses have given place to cocoa-thatch, mud walls, and corrugated iron; the Swahili you meet are much darker than the Arabs, the men usually dressed in rather ragged, white, native dress, suggestive of a shirt and skirt, and the women in blue shitis, outlined with patterns of the weirdest design motor-cars, clocks, household furniture, or even balloons of which one is wound closely round the body from the armpits to the knees and the other worn like a kind of veil. Very many have something on their heads, balanced with a skill a juggler would envy, either a tin can for water, or a bundle of firewood, or even a soda-water bottle, upright and very tempting as a new species of Aunt Sally! Here the sun is intolerably hot on the dusty, sandy, dirty track, and you must pass a good distance before the native city quarter gives place to the native suburb, and that in turn to the

open country. A wide creek separates city and suburb, and instead of passing over the bridge we will turn hard to the right down the creek road, shady with cocoanut-palms and almond-trees. First come the new markets, red-tiled, and interesting in the early morning when the country folk have brought in their goods fruit, fish, livestock, and pottery for the most part. Past these a tall spire lifts itself against the sky, and you are back in Mkunazini.

Let us walk down under the wide-spreading African almond-trees to the edge of the creek, before we turn in at the gate. Across a few hundred yards of water you see a really African and not an Eastern scene, for here the brown huts come down to the water's edge and a fringe of palms behind closes them in. A red roof shows conspicuously in the foreground, a mission property in which a Christ Church student lived in days gone by and did much translation work. A constant stream of dugout canoes with outriggers, poled by sturdy natives and loaded with women returning from market, are busy at work, while a crowd of children are at play in the water across the flow. You can see the sun glinting on their brown bodies as they jump up. Those two little chaps in the roughest of dugouts are members of a semi-aquatic brotherhood who visit all the mails and dive for coppers.

Turn, and look up the creek, to where, a quarter of a mile away, the water ends against the Nazi Moja road, which leads to the German Club, Kiungani, and Mbweni. You can just see the wall of a Hindu cemetery beyond it; the cemetery itself touches the sea again, for the city stands on a perfect peninsula. Down the creek is the bridge, with the brown water racing under it as the tide goes down; ancient dhows are stranded on the banks here and there, and the medley of the huts in Malindi push out almost into the stream. And yet, in the prospect, there is greater interest than any these afford. Round that bend is a white house, distinct from the huts in the sun, where Dr. Livingstone lived for some months before the interior swallowed him on a march that ended by a lonely bedside at Ilala.