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"A dream in Zanzibar", by Flo Montgomery










The afternoon was hot and humid and flies buzzed inches from my nose as we drove along a rough track that petered out at a tumbledown stone gateway. A wooden pole barred the way, half lying across the entrance. Tall trees draped with creepers created a thick canopy and in the darkness below them a shadowy silence lay thick and dense. Leaving our car, we ducked under the barrier and edged along the overgrown driveway, only the occasional glimpse of sky and blue sea in the distance lighting the way. Suddenly massive crumbling walls towered over us and I craned my neck to gaze up at moorish arches filled with leafy vines and fig leaves.

Maybe it’s Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, I joked under my breath to cheer myself up as a sturdy thorn pierced my shoe. Ahead of me others, including John Da Silva, a friend and artist from Zanzibar, bashed his way through the undergrowth. John had brought us to a place called Mbweni - pronounced imbwaynee - which apparently means “the place of shingles” in  Kiswahili. He told us that over the last 70 years, no-one has lived here and the buildings have gradually turned into ruins, generally thought to be of a Sultan’s palace.

Falling behind, I turned in a different direction and soon their voices faded until I was alone. There was a steady hum of crickets buzzing in my ears. A dim doorway beckoned and I stepped into cool darkness. A bell was ringing insistently overhead and the air rippled past my face. Suddenly I could hear young girls singing in harmony. They were kneeling around me on woven palm mats and the music rose past tall columns topped by arches. Nuns and teachers knelt on either side in dark wooden stalls and black and white marble steps led up to an altar at the end of the room. A blaze of light flooded  white marble inlaid with greenish mother of pearl. Gold candlesticks and banks of flowers stood on the altar, fronted by a white cross. Overhead the ceiling was flat, of white plaster interspersed by dark poles and every so often a huge buttress spanned the room.Out of the corner of my eye I saw two girls whispering and giggling. They froze as a dark shape loomed over them. An elderly woman in a black dress with a flash of white collar came close. As she leaned down I saw her lined face and kindly smile. The girls, subdued, adjusted their red headscarves and white embroidered caps and straightened their neat red dresses.

“We know of course that these buildings were not a Palace, they were a Christian Seminary”, John’s voice intoned. Startled, I moved out into the sunlight and walked through a long narrow building with arched cloister-like verandas facing the sea, which lay below us in a blaze of shining turquoise. On the shady side was a garden with two enormous cycad trees. Their thick trunks were over a metre in diameter and branched at about the height of a man. Shiny narrow dark green leaflets feathered and cascaded every which way, shading two cows who had wandered into the garden and were cropping the rough grass.

We made our way down to the beach below the ruins and just before we reached the shining white sands we found ourselves wading through a deep layer of clam shells. Could these be the shingles after which Mbweni was named? The tide was out, leaving  flats interspersed with pretty green mangrove trees. I watched people walking, some of them quite far out near the coral reef which surrounds all of the islands of Zanzibar. They were bending down and digging in the sand - when I went to look closer, I could see that they had found “chaza”, a kind of baby clam. Back on the beach, two old ladies sat in the shelter of the coral cliff, boiling a pan full of the shellfish. When they were ready, they picked them open and ate them with gusto, flinging the shells over their shoulders afterwards.Looking up from the beach I saw the grey walls of the ruins rising from a cliff above the sweeping bay.

To the north the bay came to a rocky point and in the distance was the Stone Town, surrounded by anchoring ships. The atmosphere of the place was serene and friendly.Returning to our car we drove down the road to a mellow coral stone church with bell tower and steeply sloping red roof. In the cemetery was a forest of crosses. The sextant proudly showed us the grave of Caroline Thackeray, a cousin of the British novelist. John told us that the Anglican “Universities’ Mission to Central Africa” - usually known as the UMCA - had bought a large piece of land at Mbweni in 1871, and built a mission for freed slaves there. There was a village where families lived and the orphaned children boarded at boys’ and girls’ shools. The ruins we had visited were of the latter, and had been called St Mary’s. Caroline Thackeray had been headmistress for about 25 years.

As we left, I looked over my shoulder at the crennellations overgrown by fig trees and felt a pang of pity for the neglected place.Two years later we found ourselves buying the piece of land just to the south of the ruins. We made plans to build a small hotel and as we worked, excavating the foundations and watching the walls take shape, I glanced from time to time at the lonely pile next door, draped with clambering vines and vegetation. One day our neighbour asked if we were interested in buying the property as he didn’t have the time to develop it and the ruins were disintegrating daily. At first we were reluctant to take it on but eventually we went ahead and added it to the land we already had.

In 1992 I began to plant palms near the lovely old cycads. Now the total species of trees and shrubs in the gardens numbers over 800, including over 150 types of palm - more than in any other botanic garden in Tanzania. As it is forbidden to bring plants into Zanzibar, I had to send for seeds from all over the world and raise them painfully slowly. Palms can take from 3 to 12 months to germinate and after that it’s years before they reach a substantial size. However, all the seedlings and cuttings we planted at Mbweni seem to thrive in the good soil and pleasant atmosphere so that after only five years we have plenty of good jungly patches. Botanic name plates were added and have proved to be of especial interest to visitors. Zanzibar has many exotic fruit and spice trees, which were imported by the Sultans and by Sir John Kirk, British Consul General and adviser to Sultan Barghash. Kirk had a house down the road from the church and when he left Zanzibar in 1887 Caroline Thackerary bought it from him and retired and eventually died there, after 50 years’ service at Mbweni. The exotics which Kirk brought into Zanzibar from Kew Gardens in England and from the far east and South America, are nearly all represented in the Mbweni Gardens.

I planted two royal palms in the courtyard of the ruins and these have done best of all - possibly there may be an underground water tank that we have not yet found! At first, as I wandered around, inspecting every wall and arch, I felt frustrated because I knew so little about the history of the Mbweni Mission.

One day I went to the Zanzibar Museum and found quite a lot of references to it as well as two very small Brownie Box Camera black and white photographs of the facade of St Mary’s. I was directed to the Archives, which are in excellent shape under a charming, academic scholarly gentleman called Hamad Omar. I was allowed to spend as much time as I liked studying the history of the UMCA and saw handwritten logbooks from St Mary’s, letters from Stanley, Livingstone, Kirk and many others. In the Archives were the three volumes of the UMCA History.

This book, started in Victorian times and continuing on until 1957, revealed the fundamental secrets of our ruins and at last I found out what daily life had been like there when it was a school for freed slave girls. In the Archives there were some wonderful photographs of missionary gatherings - of ladies in tightly corsetted white silk dresses and black-suited, waistcoated gentlemen with stern expressions - and of mission buildings and groups of emaciated slave children freed from dhows. I found out that the land at Mbweni was bought in 1871 and St Mary’s opened in 1873 as a school for girls. The chapel was added a little later and the long “Industrial Wing” beside the cycads was finished in 1887 and used to teach the less academic girls skills so that they could support themselves. In 1911 the Anglican Sisters of the Sacred Passion moved in and in 1920 the property was sold by the church, partly out of despair because despite the best efforts of the missionaries, Mbweni was apparently a centre of witchcraft second to none - and partly because after the abolition of slavery in 1896 there were fewer children coming in to the school.

When we bought the property in 1991 we puzzled over the various buildings, trying to work out what had happened there. When we dug the foundations for the hotel rooms, a little south of the ruins, we found we were cutting into layers of coral buildings going deep down into the soil. About one metre below the surface was a six inch layer of black ash, which seems to be quite extensive. We supposed that there must have been a major fire in the area. The coral rag and pottery we were digging up had to precede the Christian mission, it was far too deep. There is no doubt in my mind that Mbweni has been a settlement of some kind for a very long time.

In December 1994 we opened Mbweni Ruins hotel, which has only thirteen luxurious suites, a swimming pool above the sandy beach and a restaurant and bar opposite the rooms, on the top of the cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean. Many of the staff were part of the labour force which built the hotel. It has been fun working with them over the years and today almost every visitor comments on the friendliness of staff at Mbweni. When we are asked why we don’t add more rooms, we are surprised. It’s so much fun having only a few people to look after in the airy and spacey environment of the hotel, why would we want to crowd it? We are not cheap, though we feel we’re giving fantastic value for money. There are plenty of hotels - in Zanzibar and elsewhere - that have large numbers of rooms, lower rates and a less special service. We are different. We will develop further, restoring the ruins and adding just six more luxurious hotel suites in the Industrial Wing. The main buildings will be part of the hotel, restored as they were, and used for the main entrance and reception. The rest of the rooms will be used for a library, museum, coffee shop, conference centre, aromatherapy centre and other services. It hasn’t always been easy, getting the paperwork right, overseeing the building, training staff and learning what makes people happy in a hotel. But today we are pleased and proud to have a reputation for hospitality and friendliness, a haven for visitors to Zanzibar, beside the dreaming ruins of an almost forgotten era. Our management are a happy partnership of Europe with Zanzibar, as in the past times of these beautiful old mission buildings.

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