The Truth About Zanzibari Men
It’s a hot afternoon in Zanzibar, and I am dying for something to eat. Trying to remember where the supermarket is hidden within the labyrinth of alleyways that make up Stone Town, I dive into a chorus of greetings.
“Jambo. Mambo. Poa. Habari. Nzuri.”
Then I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn to see a young man walking beside me. He starts a long, hopeless attempt at flirting, ignoring my many hints that I’d rather walk alone. Minutes later, desperate to extricate myself from his advances, I wave goodbye and turn down a random street, pretending I know where it goes. I’m free. And also hopelessly lost. It takes me another 30 minutes to find my way to the supermarket.
What makes you think you have the right to say that to me? Because I’m a woman, so I should feel blessed by your passing affections? I am a human being and I deserve respect!
I never got catcalled much in the U.S. In my younger, more self-conscious years, I assumed this was because I wasn’t attractive enough—as if catcalls have anything to do with real desirability and not the desperation of evolutionarily challenged males. More likely, it was because I grew up in a small Michigan farm town and didn’t spend much time walking around crowded city centers. When I moved to Philadelphia for college, I noticed a little more interaction with these kinds of men, most often when walking home with a group of my female friends. Trusting in the safety of numbers, it was easy to ignore, and that’s what I did.
Before I came here, I knew that Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania with a majority Muslim population, had a highly patriarchal culture. But I didn’t really know what that meant. As an American woman, I assumed it couldn’t be all that different from the patriarchy at home, and that I would be able to ignore it. I was wrong.
Despite the challenges the patriarchy has presented in Zanzibar, it has not stopped me from forming connections with local men. In fact, dating a local man has taught me more about Zanzibari culture and how to live in it than any number of hours walking through the city streets could. However, I still sometimes struggle to perceive the balance between friendly and creepy when interacting with men here. Here are the most frequent (and they are frequent) comments you can expect to hear from Zanzibari men.
The Truth About Zanzibari Men
Greetings in Zanzibar are not the same as in the US. Walking through Philadelphia, the proper etiquette when passing a stranger is to avert your eyes and step to the side. To smile or say hello would be inappropriate for East Coast US culture. In Zanzibar, you are expected to greet literally every person you meet. Even people inside their homes call out to me through their windows. Usually, this is a friendly part of daily life. But for some men, a response to their eager “Jambo” is an invitation for them to walk with you for the next 10 minutes, ignoring any and all hints that you’d really rather just find your way to the supermarket in peace.
2. Can you teach me English?
Generally, Zanzibari students, especially boys and young men, are extremely eager to practice their English with the foreigners who visit Stone Town. For them, English is the key to success. However, for some men, it is also an excellent strategy for finding an American girlfriend. I’ve found that these conversations often start out innocently, exchanging a few friendly English greetings. Toward the end of the conversation though, he reveals his true intentions. If he’s simply studious, he’ll thank me and walk away. If not, he’ll pester me for my number for another five minutes, insisting that we have to chat on WhatsApp all hours of day and night in order for him to truly master the language.
3. I love your hair
Perhaps this line applies more to blondes than to others. The fascination with blonde hair is by no means limited to Zanzibar. During my travels in China and the Philippines, my hair was admired, photographed, stroked, and grabbed—never with my permission. The influence of colonialism in Zanzibar has led to the adoption of European standards of beauty, in which being blonde and white is an indication of power and money. As soon as I hear the words “I love your hair” yelled at me in the street or market, I flinch, expecting a painful tug on my sensitive locks. This doesn’t happen as often as my fear would suggest. However, this line sends a clear message that my best course of action is to keep walking.
The Truth About Zanzibari Men
4. Are you married?
Marriage proposals to foreigners in Zanzibar are quite frequent. The first time I visited the local market, I was followed by a Maasai man who was eager to win my hand by showing off his lion bone bracelet, taken during his manhood ceremony. To this day, I’m not exactly sure who is joking and who is serious about entering into holy matrimony with a girl he met approximately two seconds ago. Muslim men in Zanzibar practice polygamy, so most propositions are for a second, third, or fourth slot in the household hierarchy. Naturally, most local married women resent these types of interactions, and the conversations can become very awkward very quickly. I’ve found the best course of action is to laugh and explain that in American culture, I am still too young to consider marriage.
5. I love you
There is only one man in Zanzibar who can earn my smile with this line: my boyfriend. The others who yell it across the street or accompany it with vulgar kissing noises earn only my keen loathing. Usually, I stifle the surge of anger I feel on hearing such a deeply meaningful English phrase reduced to a hopeless catcall. I walk on, channeling all of my rage into what I hope is the most powerful death stare they’ve ever encountered. There are times I would rather turn around and confront the man: “What makes you think you have the right to say that to me? Because I’m a woman, so I should feel blessed by your passing affections? I am a human being and I deserve respect!” But Zanzibari culture—not to mention my own personality—is rather non-confrontational. So while the men who throw these words around would probably benefit from a lesson in basic feminist principals, I keep my own safety and prolonged prosperity in mind.
The Truth About Zanzibari Men Photo credit: Bradclin Photography // The Truth About Zanzibari Men