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Africa Featured Area Features Photo Essays Zanzibar

Boat Builders of Zanzibar

February 6, 2018

By Christopher Wilton-Steer

About four kilometres outside of Stone Town, Zanzibar, near the ruins of the 19th century Arab Sultan Barghash’s palace lies Maruhubi fishing village. Quiet during the afternoons, the village comes alive in the evenings when fishermen set out for 12 hour shifts at sea returning exhausted at around 6 o’clock in the morning. After they bring their catch ashore, their wives and sisters first boil the fish to rid them of their guts and inedible innards and then lay them out in the sun to dry before they are wrapped up and sold at local markets. A rich and potent fishy smell fills my nostrils. Give it a while and perhaps I may no longer notice it.

Amongst the huts and houses where the fishermen and their families live, skilled craftsmen build the boats that support this livelihood. The boats vary in size but typically take about six months to construct with between one and four people working on each boat. They are typically made from mango or mahogany wood of which there is an abundance in Zanzibar. The boats are handmade and constructed with hand-driven drills, chisels and rustic mallets. The sound of sawing and the clattering of hammers fills the air. Here the connection between production and consumption, supply and demand is clear and easy to fathom. I sense a harmonious ecosystem at play between craft, commerce and community and I wish I could stay longer and learn more about this place. The following are some photographs taken from a visit in October 2017, I hope you enjoy them.

A boat builder constructing a small-mid sized fishing boat

A boat builder constructing a small-mid sized fishing boat

A boat builder constructing a small-mid sized fishing boat

Fishermen arriving after a night at sea carrying in their haul

Fishermen arriving after a night at sea carrying in their haul

A fisherman’s haul

After the fish are boiled they are left out in the sun to dry

After the fish are boiled they are left out in the sun to dry

After the fish are boiled they are left out in the sun to dry

The ruins of the nearby Maruhubi palace built by the third Arab sultan of Zanzibar between 1880-1882.

Early morning light hits a nearby tree.


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The Boat Builders of Zanzibar, Tanzania

Christopher is a travel and portrait photographer living in London. His professional and personal work take him to remote locations across Africa, Asia and the Middle East including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, India, Egypt, Jordan, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Kenya and Madagascar.

Through his photography, Christopher is interested in helping demystifying remote and often misunderstood places and re-presenting them as places of wonder with the power to inspire awe. Ultimately, he wishes for his photographs to encourage others to take the road less travelled and explore, experience and encounter these places, people and cultures for themselves.

Christopher’s work has been featured in The Guardian, National Geographic Traveller, Pvttrn Magazine and, Pakistan’s leading daily, Dawn. Christopher had his first exhibition on at the Institut Française in Antananarivo, Madagascar, in November 2016. In April 2017, Christopher won the Guardian Travel Photography Award. Christopher’s second exhibition – ‘The Artisans of al-Darb al-Ahmar’ – will open at the Royal Geographical Society on 23rd March 2018.

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