Living in Zanzibar: Seven Things We Didn’t Expect

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A guide to what we learned about living in Zanzibar.

If you like running, hiking or walking, you'll love Zanzibar for its many trails and empty roads.
The gorgeous back-country of Zanzibar and the backdrop to every run or walk I have.

Living in Zanzibar is really fun. Of the places we’ve been to so far, it’s one of the most welcoming, beautiful and uncrowded. We came here with almost no knowledge of what to expect, and with no plans other than to figure it out via learning Swahili (see us speaking it here after a month, telling you to come to Zanzibar!), so we want to share what we’ve learned for people considering moving to Zanzibar.

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Part of the reason why it’s hard to know what to expect is that few people write about living in African countries for short periods. Many people do move to them, and live long term all over Africa. There’s also a lot of internal migration across the continent, particularly within regions of sub-Saharan Africa (e.g. between countries of East Africa).

But there’s a gap between people writing about a) living in a place for a very long time, and b) those who swing through for a few days, shoot a few photos and leave. We’re trying to fill that gap and explain: What’s it like to move to East Africa for a short period? You might be a digital nomad who works remotely, a language learner or simply someone who wants to try something different and East Africa calls to you. We’re a combination of all three of those.

We’ll share a full review/guide to “Living in Zanzibar” a little later, covering many more things (like money, internet and food). But first, here’s the first seven things we learned, all of which caught us by surprise.


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“Swahili time” literally means six hours late… or early

No, really. Swahili time has an offset of six hours to your watch.

This isn’t like “Persian time” or “Island time” or whatever other (non-German) culture you’re familiar with that has a comically lax attitude towards punctuality.

If someone says “I’ll come up at 1” in Swahili (nitakuja saa moja)… they’re coming at 7 pm. Or maybe 7 am.

The reason for this is that in Swahili (referring to “coastal African”, not just the language) culture, the day starts in the evening. A lot of traditions follow this rule, like for example in Jewish and Muslim culture. For them, the day starts at sunset.

But for other non-Swahili cultures that follow this tradition, they do it only for the most important things like festivals. For the time of day, they stay in sync with the rest of the world.

Not the Swahili people. In Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia (and maybe elsewhere in East Africa), people go by a “daylight clock” that’s 12 hours long but that starts at 6am in the morning. In Tanzania and Kenya it’s called “Swahili time”. In Ethiopia they call it “Ethiopian time”.

So if you normally wake up at 6 am, you say “I normally wake up at 12 in the morning” (Mimi huamka saa kumi na mbili asubuhi). If you’re meeting someone at 2pm, you say “We’ll see each other at 10 in the afternoon” (Tutaonana saa kumi adhuhuri).

So

  • Saa moja asubuhi = (literally) “1 o’clock in the mornign” = (interpreted) 7 AM
  • Saa nane mchana = (literally) “8 o’clock in the afternoon” = (interpreted) 2 PM
  • Saa kumi na mbili jioni = (literally) “12 o’clock in the evening” = (interpreted) 6 PM
  • Saa tano usiku = (literally) “5 o’clock at night” = (interpreted) 11 PM

The craziest part is nobody changes their clocks to make life easier. They just look at their watch, that says “10:00” on it, and think (in Swahili) that “OK it’s 4 o’clock now”. They’re constantly doing arithmetic, adding or subtracting six.

We’ve nearly gotten used to it. Apparently it just takes… a while.

You don’t need to bargain at Darajani market in Stonetown

You can bargain at Darajani markets, but they’ll just say “no”. For most things, anyway.

The Darajani market in Stonetown is the biggest market on the island.

It’s where sellers bring produce from all over the island — fish, fruit and vegetables, egg, milk in recycled bottles, and dates during Ramadan in Zanzibar — and sell them to wholesalers and individual buyers like me.

So you’d expect, in a hectic environment like this, that there’d be bargaining. Nope. Almost none.

“No bargaining” in a market was a shock for us. A market in a non-Western country where you can’t bargain??

We tried at first. “30 Eggs for 8,000 [$4]? No way! I’ll give you 5,000!”. No dice. Went to the next three people and it was the same price: 8,000. So we went back to the first one and wondered what we had done wrong.

Next we tried bargaining for bread. “A piece for 500 [$0.50]? OK… how about five for 2,000?” He didn’t even take that sweet bulk deal. So we just bought the bread at sticker price.

It turns out you don’t bargain for anything except a) fish/meat, or b) if you’re buying a lot (like bulk volumes).

At the fish and meat stands, it’s regular to bargain. In the mornings it’s harder, mind you, and you’ll usually pay full asking price. But in the afternoons, you can typically pay 2/3 to 3/4 of the asking price. I.e. if you want a piece of fish and they say 10,000, you should know you can get it for 7-8,000. The more you buy, the bigger discount you’ll get.

(By the way, fish is cheaper than chicken or other meats! And it’s caught on the same day so it’s always a good deal.)

But again, the amount you can bargain for fish or meat is limited. It’ll never get close to half price, for example. Three quarters seems the right amount.

If you’re buying a lot of vegetables/fruit, you can get a slight volume discount, too. I mean upwards of 10,000 (about US$5). Below that and you just pay a standard price.

One major caveat is tourist stands selling spices. A lot of tourists get roped into buying (super expensive) spice packs from the merchants out front. These are purely for tourists. They’re very over-priced, and you can bargain them down, and still pay too much. Up to you if you want to go down this route.

You can get regular non-tourist spices for 500 (about $2.50) a bag though, inside the market. But it depends if you really want spices, or just want to buy gifts.

People in Zanzibar will help you for no reason

Coming from the Middle East, we were highly sceptical of everyone’s motives for approaching us.

We just assumed everyone wanted a tip, to take us to their shop, or to maybe mug us (hasn’t happened yet, though). (Sorry, Egypt. But on the other hand, you made us a lot tougher!)

But in Stonetown, the “downtown” (and also “old city”) of Zanzibar, people would just approach us and offer to take us to places we were trying to find.

It was pretty hard navigating the labyrinth of Stonetown. We didn’t get great GPS signal on our phones with which to navigate, so we had to learn to navigate visually. On the first day, though, we were pretty happy that someone decided to help us!

Of course, some people do want you to go into their store, or to sell you a tour trip. Their sales pitches are very casual though, almost half-hearted, and can end up being a conversation. But apart from people on tourist boulevards, most people just want to help.

Plastic bags are illegal in Zanzibar!

We had heard single-use plastic bags had become illegal in Zanzibar but didn’t expect the degree to which this was an everyday reality.

At the markets and little shops, nobody gave us plastic bags. Even though they’re available for hygienic purposes (e.g. buying meat), they’re hard to come by. So much so that in the fish market, people were selling plastic bags for 100 TSh (about 10c) a pop, just so I wouldn’t drip fish juice all the way home!

The ban extends even to rural areas, where we could buy a week’s worth of food and not be given a plastic bag. Sometimes we’d be given a free canvas bag.

It’s quite inspiring. We look forward to similar bans on other single-use plastics like bottles, which still litter some of the back beaches outside Stonetown.

Zanzibar has quite a strong conservation focus. A smaller thing we learned incidentally: you can’t take organic matter out of the country, including shells. So don’t buy them at the many stores that sell them. They’ll likely be confiscated, and you might get fined. (Or worse, coerced into paying a bribe by a scammer posing as security at the airport.)

A conversation can be 75% exchanging greetings

This will come as a stark contrast to a typical big city experience, where one might not even say “how are you” to the morning barista.

Here’s how a conversation might go when buying oranges:

  • Hodi! (May I come in?)
  • Karibu! (Please do!)
  • Salam aleikum (Greetings)
  • Wa-aleikum as-salaam (Greetings to you)
  • Habari yako (How are you)
  • Nzuri, asante. (Good, thanks) Na wewe, kila kitu safi? (And you, all good?)
  • Safi kabisa. Karibu. Habari ya kazi leo (Really good. You’re welcome. How’s business toady)
  • Njema. Na wewe, habari ya asubuhi (Fine. How’s your morning)
  • Salama. Asante (Great. Thanks)
  • Karibu (You’re welcome)
  • (looking around)
  • Karibu sana (You’re very welcome [to order])
  • Asante. Machungwa kilo moja shingapi? (Thank you. How much are the oranges?) <– WE ONLY JUST GOT TO THE POINT WHERE SHE’S BUYING ORANGES

It’s totally normal for the exchange of greetings to take this long. I’ve heard longer, eavesdropping. The more you stick around, the longer these get. It’s nice, but it definitely slows things down.

Which is also nice. After all, “hurry, hurry has no blessing”, as a common Swahili saying goes.

There’s just as much Malaria in Zanzibar

We’ve heard dubious claims that there’s “less” malaria in Zanzibar by people who hadn’t gotten it yet. Intriguing, but we found no basis for these rumours.

There’s just as much as anywhere else in Tanzania or East Africa. A few people get away with not vaccinating, but this would happen in any well-vaccinated community. The claims of “less Malaria in Zanzibar” are unsupported by any evidence.

Unless you’re pregnant or under five (in which case, stop reading blogs and go play outside! In fact, do this irrespective of age, after you read this sentence), you can travel to malaria-infected zones safely, provided you take regular precautions. See a travel doctor, get the right medicine, take

A few quick facts about Malaria to help you have arguments about whether Malaria is prevalent in Zanzibar:

  • Most people get between 1-4 weeks from infection. After infection, Malaria can be dormant in your system for a long time. Typically months, and often up to a year, and occasionally more than a year. So stories about someone who went and didn’t get it at the time you had a conversation with them are not useful.
  • Medications are only 98% effective in preventing an infection, but usually make an infection less severe.
  • You should use medications AND other prevention methods, like insecticide-treated nets and repellents. Not just one or the other.
  • Malaria can kill if untreated, but it rarely kills if it’s caught (i.e. if you as a foreigner have access to good medical care). In that case, it’s just being extremely sick for a little while, like a bad flu.
  • The local population develops a partial resistance (not an immunity by any means). This just means they get Malaria less often. But ask anyone in Africa if they’ve had Malaria before and many or most will say yes.

It’s hard to find statistics on that last point, but one anecdotal piece of evidence:

“I once asked a question of the group at a large meeting in Tanzania, “How many of you have ever had malaria?” Every hand went up.

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Here are some more Malaria facts (as opposed to rumours) from the WHO.

Nobody says “Hakuna Matata” unless you’re a tourist.

Saying hakuna matata is technically correct, just like it’s technically correct for someone to tell you in crisp, well-enunciated English: “There are no problems!”

But in the same way, it’s very rare to hear someone say hakuna matataunless you’re a tourist. In which case they’ll say it all the time, thinking it’ll make you feel special for knowing a little Swahili because you googled it before arriving and realised oh yeah! You’ve seen The Lion King!

A few ways people actually say “no problems” or “no worries” in Swahili: hakuna shida (no problem), hakuna matatizo (no worries) or bila shida (without problems).


We’re still learning a lot about living in Zanzibar, and doing it by way of learning Swahili. Swahili is really fun — check out our free resources page if you’re thinking of giving it a shot.

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