As we stayed in Zanzibar for nearly the entire month of Ramadan, we learned a lot about how it affects life on the island. Some people might think they should avoid Zanzibar during Ramadan. But since Ramadan is such an important part of Muslim life, if you avoid it, you’d be missing out on a huge piece of Zanzibari culture.
As background, while Tanzania overall is a diverse society with a Muslim population of 30%, the islands of Zanzibar are nearly entirely Muslim — over 98%.
This is a higher percentage than you’ll find in many Middle Eastern countries, like Egypt, which is “only” 90% Muslim.
As Ramadan moves around during the year with the lunar calendar, Ramadan can be during high season (the dryer, cooler season) as well as low season (rainy season). Check the calendar (just Google it) if you’re planning a stay to see when Ramadan and Eid are.
Here’s a guide to how Ramadan affects Zanzibar.
A Quick (Secular) Overview of Ramadan for non-Muslims
Most religions have a tradition fasting of some sort, whether abstaining from some foods some times (like pesach in Judasism), some foods all the time (like pork in Islam and Judaism, or beef in Hinduism) or from all food for a period of time (fasting). (As far as I know, no religion prohibits all food all the time.)
People summarising Islam will often say there are five pillars: 1. Declaration of faith, 2. Prayer, 3. Fasting, 4. Tithing, and 5. Pilgrimage to Mecca. So fasting is right in there as one of the most important parts of being a Musliim.
In addition, observant Muslims don’t eat pork (or various other banned meats that are classified as haraam, or forbidden) or drink alcohol. The ban on pork is taken seriously almost universally, much more so than alcohol.
Ramadan lasts one lunar month (Islam uses a lunar calendar). This is usually 30 days. The rules vary by specific tradition and geography, but generally it means Muslims don’t eat food and drink between sunrise and sunset.
So yes, Muslims check weather forecasts and know the sunrise and sunset times to the minute!
Muslims usually eat well before dawn in their homes, and eat as a community together after sunset.
Ramadan is more than just food and drink, though. Ramadan is actually more than just a physical fast. Like most religions/traditions, fasting involves a change of mental state. People dress more modestly, meaning covering up more (if you’re in a place where men don’t always cover up as much, like the tropics). They’ll generally be modest in their behaviour, and be generous to strangers, e.g. giving out dates and water around the time of sunset.
Islam generally requires that Muslims pray (five times a day). It’s one of the “pillars” of Islam, along with fasting, as mentioned above. For many Muslims who sometimes might miss prayers, they take prayer more seriously during Ramadan. It’s normally mandatory, but it’s even more mandatory during Ramadan. Especially the morning, noon and evening prayers.
Finally, the party at the end of Ramadan: “Eid”, as it’s known (which just means “festival” in Arabic) is a celebration at the end of Ramadan. Even if you’re thinking of avoiding Zanzibar during Ramadan, Eid is a specifically great time to visit. There’s food everywhere, including sweets, street celebrations and more. Check it out if you have the chance!
OK, that’s the formal part of Ramadan.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s see how Ramadan affects everyday life, and how it would affect you as a visitor.
Greeting Muslims in Zanzibar during Ramadan: A few phrases
Because Swahili’s vocabulary has some Arabic influence, you can use a few Arabic phrases here and there and get a warm reception.
The best of these are:
- Salam aleikum (“peace be upon you”): The standard Muslim greeting, used everywhere in the Muslim world. You use this when you roll up to a shop, a random person you want help from — anyone. It doesn’t matter how “Muslim” they seem, it’s good with anyone. If you say this to anyone in Zanzibar any time, they’ll respond with the standard wa aleikum es-salaam (“and peace be upon you, too”). This greeting isn’t Ramadan-specific, but I’m mentioning it anyway because it’s the best place to start.
- Ramadan kareem! (“Happy Ramadan!”): Think of this as somewhere around the same level of intensity as “Happy holidays!” in the West, except without the awkward political correctness. This is a great greeting to use if you see someone eating food around the evening. From a foreigner, it’s like saying “Wow, good on you people for fasting all day. You deserve to be having this break and eating. I’m not fasting, but seriously… respect.” All in one tidy little greeting. Again, this works anywhere in the Muslim world.
- Chakula chema! (“Bon appetit!”): Not Ramadan-specific. But you’re welcome to say it if you see people eating a well-deserved meal during Ramadan. Say this after “Ramadan Kareem”!
- Eid mubarak! (“Happy Eid!”): You say this on the last day of Ramadan, or in the days following. Eid is the festival after Ramadan where everyone parties for days, and is a time you should definitely visit Stonetown. Interestingly, it’s the only time in Islam when fasting is forbidden! (I presume this means you can fast any time, but that’s not a thing I’ve heard anyone does.)
Use any of these phrases and you’ll get a smile. It’ll ease your way into the rest of the conversation. People might ask if you’re a Muslim, or if you’re fasting etc. I personally find it slightly embarrassing to admit that I am not… but it’s still worth it.
Eating in Zanzibar during Ramadan: Don’t eat, drink or smoke outside!
You’re probably not a Muslim (if you are, then tell me what you think of this guide!). So like the other 2% of Zanzibari residents, you’re free to eat whenever you want.
However, unfortunately, most local places in Zanzibar are closed during Ramadan. Even a lot of larger restaurants and cafes are closed. For example, the iconic Zanzibar Coffee House was closed for renovation during the entire month of Ramadan for us.
So if you’re looking for a traditional meal of wali na maharagwe (beans and rice), ndizi na samaki (plantains and fish) or just some sambusas, you’ll be hard pressed to find many places open — apart from larger restaurants and eateries near hotels.
Yes, there are some exceptions. If you find a place near where you’re staying that’s open, that’s likely to be the place you eat at for your entire stay. If you’re at a hotel, plan on eating at that hotel! And if you want a morning coffee, you won’t be able to get it anywhere out — take care of it at home.
On the other hand, you can definitely buy snack food at night time. Sometimes really late at night, like 1am! So if you’re a midnight snacker, this is your time.
You can also buy snack food in packaged form at supermarkets like chocolates, soft drinks and cookies (or “biscuits”). And you can buy bread and all kinds of amazing fruit at Darajani Markets.
But a word of caution: don’t eat your snacks outside during the day! Nobody is going to throw the book at you as a foreigner, but it’s very disrespectful to locals. If you’re with a local guide, that guide will stop you because other locals will give him (or her) grief about it later.
And because Ramadan is more than just about eating, also don’t drink (any liquid) or smoke* outside during the day.
* This is a huge side benefit if you’re not a fan of cigarette smoke… you won’t catch a whiff during Ramadan!
Alcohol in Zanzibar during Ramadan: You can get it, but it’s harder to find.
Even though Zanzibar is mostly Muslim, alcohol is far from illegal. Alcohol is actually legal in most Muslim-majority countries, but remember — Zanzibar isn’t a country, even though it’s a major province (the “zan” in Tanzania).
During most of the year, many Zanzibari do drink Alcohol. The more conservative Muslims don’t, but they don’t judge others (too much) if they do. And of course, nobody judges visitors.
That said, it’s harder to buy alcohol during Ramadan. The only places where you can get alcohol during Ramadan are hotels, including the restaurants that are part of hotels. Bars that don’t have places to stay (i.e. a regular bar) can’t serve alcohol.
Alcohol is not cheap, either. So if drinking is important to you, plan accordingly. You might want to avoid Ramadan altogether.
Zanzibar Ramadan Dress Code: Dress slightly more conservatively in public
If you’re a man, you can still wear shorts and a t-shirt that covers your shoulders. In Stonetown, consider wearing trousers at least. But don’t wear something sleeveless.
Definitely don’t just wear your swimming gear walking back through Stonetown to your hotel.
If you’re a woman, you should cover your legs and definitely your shoulders. This just means a long dress and a t-shirt. It’s a little warmer than most would want to be, but it’s far less covered up than most parts of the Muslim world would prefer you to be. And as for your t-shirt, make sure it’s not one too revealing. Unwelcome stares will remind you of that rule.
The rules for covering up are more important in Stonetown, or in the villages (if you’re walking down the back streets).
If you’re out on a diving boat or in a resort, or in your own home, nobody will care what you’re wearing.
Work hours during Ramadan: Less, except for tourists
Because people are so exhausted from fasting, there’s a general practise of working fewer hours during Ramadan.
This varies between organisations, but it’s generally
- Private sector: One hour less (e.g. a place that’s normally open until 5pm will close at 4pm)
- Public sector: Two hours less (e.g. a place that’s normally open until 5pm will close at 3pm)
For tourist services (hotels, tours etc.), it’s business as usual during Ramadan — there’s no change to work hours.
Things that continue operating as usual include
- Hotels plus their restaurants
- The Darajani market, and probably other markets… I think they’re open every day of the year
- Tourist services, like tour guides and their enthusiastic hawkers
- Shops selling memorabilia and art and seashells*
You’ll find lots of small shops in the island that sell basic supplies. These are open, but as they’re usually one-person operations, they’ll be closed during prayer times (most especially evening, when people duck out to eat their meal).
* Don’t buy seashells in Zanzibar. Even if they’re selling them everywhere. Even if the shopkeeper says “it’s fine, these are legal”. Customs will confiscate them at the airport if they find them.
Zanzibar night life in Ramadan: Expect parties and noise through the night
During Ramadan, a lot of the Muslim world becomes nocturnal. This includes Zanzibar.
People get very tired during the day due to not eating and drinking, and often work shorter hours. They also get to eat less, because they’re eating fewer meals. Eat less? No deal!
So what do people do? They stay up all night! The evening meal is just the beginning of a night of hanging out with friends, playing games, watching football (soccer) games at all hours of night, and eating and drinking. There’s a general tradition of a midnight meal, between the evening iftar and the morning suhoor meal.
You’ll know this, too. Because sometimes people will bang drums and sing loud songs as they walk down the streets AT MIDNIGHT to remind everyone it’s time for their midnight snack.
If you’re a fan of night life, you might enjoy Zanzibar during Ramadan. To do it best, make sure you find some locals to hang out with.
If you’re not a fan of night life, make sure you’re not staying dead centre of everything. The further out in Stonetown you are, the quieter your stay will be.
Visiting Mosques in Ramadan: Do it, but outside prayer times (think morning)
You can totally do this. You can visit mosques any place in the world. They’re generally welcoming places unless they’re the holiest ones in the world (like in Jerusalem), which are Muslim-only.
During Ramadan though, more people pray. Mosques can get packed. They get really packed in the evening. So if you’re planning on visiting a mosque to check it out, go in the morning, between prayer times.
There’s no reason to avoid Zanzibar during Ramadan. No part of it! Stonetown is a great place to visit for a few days to soak up some culture and see how urban Zanzibari live. Ramadan is such an important part of the year that it doesn’t make sense to avoid it. So if you’re planning on visiting Zanzibar during Ramadan, just read the above tips and make the most of it, and see something special!