Walking around Zanzibar’s famous Stone Town is an architecture buff’s delight – the variety of building styles on view provides a whistle-stop tour of the island’s long and varied history. Arab mansions with high, blank white walls sit next to the lacy wooden balconies and colourful stained glass windows of grand Indian residences. If you look hard enough, you’ll even be able to glance further back in history and find some remnants of the heyday of the Swahili civilisation, which ruled supreme in this part of Africa as long ago as the 10th century.
But as you stroll around, spare an eye for the smaller details as well as the overall historical picture. Some of Stone Town’s most commonplace architectural features have fascinating stories to tell.
Barazas, or benches, have been a focal point of community life in Zanzibar for centuries. Benches run around verandahs outside traditional Swahili homes, or flank the heavy doors in more distinctively Arab-style townhouses. The long, narrow streets of Stone Town have baraza benches built on each side instead of pavements, while in the villages a palm-leaf shelter, flanked by wooden seats, fulfils the same function.
Baraza evolved as a way for Islamic men to receive visitors in their homes without compromising the privacy of their womenfolk. Coffee and sweetmeats would be served on the baraza to anyone who arrived, with only the closest friends or family members being invited into the innermost recesses of the house. The Omani sultans held public meetings, also known as baraza, outside their palaces to receive petitioners or give visiting dignitaries a public audience.
Today, baraza are still a meeting point for all sections of Zanzibari society. Every urban baraza is lined with people lolling on the warm, smooth cement benches, gossiping, playing games of bao or cards, drinking sweet, thick Arabic coffee or simply idling away a long afternoon with a nap. Draughts boards are scratched in chalk on the stone surfaces, ladies sit comfortably to plait each others’ hair, and for traders with no market stall of their own, baraza provide a flat surface on which to pile their tiny pyramids of oranges, tomatoes and mangos.
In the rainy season, when torrents of water, sometimes laced with rubbish, make waking down the streets of Stone Town uncomfortable and even hazardous, the baraza provide a useful elevated walkway, and pedestrians jump from one to the next in an attempt to keep their feet dry.
The baraza as an architectural feature is an idea that seems to have caught on in a big way among the designers of Zanzibar’s posher hotels, and almost every courtyard, nook and cranny and even bathroom now boasts its own baraza bench, whitewashed to match the coral walls or inlaid with mosaic tiles.