Zanzibar – Documenting the Intangible Heritage Value of Stone Town

Mapping the Open Public Space of 


 Stone Town, Zanzibar
“…I’m not going-to-cook-it, but I’ll order it from ZANZIBAR!!!”
Jack Black, 2005

Two weeks after completing my masters dissertation I received the news that my fragile leftover self would be able to join the University of Pretoria’s research expedition to Zanzibar‘s Stone Town.

The trip was planned over the December break and would have us in Tanzania for three weeks over Christmas. With no other way to say no and the possibility of an East African adventure I happily agreed to help in the search for:

 ‘…the intangible values that makes Stone Town a World Heritage Site


The trip was funded by the Flemmish Government and the University of Pretoria with support from the Stone Town Conservation and Development Authority and the Department of Urban and Rural Planning.

Credits taken from the 2011 report (UP,2011)

Our mandate was to document and identify the intangible elements that gave Stone Town its World Heritage Status, and from the documentation make recommendation how to preserve these elements in the face of current development. 


Stone Town is located on the South Island of Uguja, known as Zanzibar. Formed as a major port city on the East African trade route, Stone Town stands as an Architecturally social reserve for the Swahili culture.

Location map taken from the 2011 report (UP,2011)

Our first day was spent taking in the intimate spaces that made the street ways and public open spaces of Stone Town.

The UP team exploring Stone Town
A portrait of street life
The major public spaces are found in the beaches
The famous hand carved Zanzibar doors
Jaws Corner, one of the most well known squares
Bicycles, motorbikes and scooters play havoc as one moves through the narrow streets
The accommodation we were given – on the right
Culture within development
The peace memorial within Stone Town
Our hosts from the STCDA, leading the tour
Street cleaning
Maintainence being performed on a coral stone buildings
An entrance to a mosque
The Forodahni night market
Private square beyond the street
The romantically placed upper levels of living
what happens when you get lost in Zanzibar taxi trying to get home
Various elements of street life in Stone Town
What we discovered was one of the true elements that made Stone Town – the barazza’s.

The Research

The process of documenting the squares was our main task. We worked closely with the departments involved in Stone Town’s cultural preservation and urban development.

Our briefing from the authorities
Our home base was located in the STCDA’s offices. Part of the former palace grounds to the House of Wonders, we were set up in the former library of the East Wing.
Our Zanzi-Offices

Preparing for the documentation process
View from our Zanzi-Office’s library window to the House of Wonders
The inner courtyard of our Zanzi-Office, the STCDA building

In the field

Cover to the 2011 UP Report (UP,2011)

The plan was to work from the University of Minnesota’s outline of the 114 public squares of Stone Town, and document the aspects of each square that made up the intangible heritage values.

Due to time constraints the STCDA identified squares of importance (30) and we strategised as to how to capture the required information.

The team in the field

We settled on a methodology of capturing the nature of the square objectively through a panoramic view, noted elements of ‘importance’ and took several interviews from square users and passer bys.

Methodology taken from the report #1  (UP,2011)
Methodology taken from the report #2  (UP,2011)

We split into several groups made up of STCDA staff members, volunteers from the local University and University of Pretoria students.

My team and myself in the field #1
My team and myself in the field #2
My team and myself in the field #3
My team and myself in the field #4
This information was then painstakingly captured and documented into a graphic report to UNESCO.
The Square register (UP,2011)
Example of captured square #1 (UP,2011)
Example of captured square #1 (UP,2011)
Example of captured square #2 (UP,2011)
Example of captured square #2 (UP,2011)

South Island

During this time, on the first weekend, our hosts treated us to a day trip of the South Island.

The trip took us on a dow sail to a bizzarly remote tidal island made up of only sand and hundreds of faux Italian swimsuit models.
Island of the Italian swim suit

Here we spent the day snorkelling, sun bathing and relaxing. Later, as the tide drew in, the Dow returned to take us home.

Mbweni Ruins

During the week, we sought to escape the hustle of Stone Town. After meeting a group of expat locals, they told us of the Mbweni ruins hotel. Just south of Stone Town, it’s definitely one of Zanzibar’s secret sunset locations.


After two weeks of toiling in he streets of Stone Town, we presented our findings to a panel of local authorities and the STCDA in the halls of the palace building.

Impromptu meeting hall
Preparing for the speech
The presentation under way
Standard post research trip group photo

North Island

A very much needed break was taken after the research work. The team hopped onto one of the infamous Dallallas (Basically a taxi on the back of a flatbed truck) to the North Island, headed to Nungwe.
No space in the dallalla after 37 people are squeezed in
A local gathering we came across on the way north

Arriving at the picturesque North Island at Nungwe, we took a water taxi to the Kendwa Rocks resort

Nungwe Resort, paradise?
Water Taxi
And as all tourists in Zanzibar, we took full advantage of the photo oppurtunities in the poetic sun sets of the East African Islands.

Using all the connections we made in Stone Town, we arranged a dow cruise to a snorkelling reef on the far end of the North Island.

Our last afternoon in Zanzibar was spent relaxing on the beach while we watched the North Islanders performing on the beach.

A very conscious and restrained effort has been made not to mention in detail the nature of Zanzibar’s ‘Beach Boys’ and the phenomena of the Jungle Safari that takes place all over Sub Saharan Africa… Lets just say apparently if your a pale African, your not really African…

Zanzibar – land of sunsets?
Heading home

Research into foreign context

During the trip, we discussed at length the notion of foreign research’s aiming to quantify intangibles in unfamiliar contexts. Is it fair to claim we understand the value of Stone Town, a 500 year old settlement, in two weeks of research?

While the team felt frustrated at the time frame we were given, it forced us to make quick decisions and realise our limitations. In the end we agreed on an honest depiction of what we saw, captured as objectively and clearly as possible. We aimed to let this exercise set up the framework for further research by documenting the process as much as the findings we identified.

Surely a fresh perspective should add value to any subject? Perhaps, but from our side we felt that our own perspectives were broadened in regard to looking into identifying ‘elements of value’ in our own cultures back at home.

Tail piece