Savory experience of spice island

AFTER two days of intensive training on climate change reporting, it was time to unwind with a tour of one of Zanzibar’s spice farms.
Zanzibar, also known as The Spice Island, has a spice trade history dating back to the 16th century.
However, tourism is the mainstay of the semi-autonomous Indian Ocean Island, which is part of the United Republic of Tanzania. It is made of Zanzibar, Pemba and other small islands on the Indian Ocean.
The Portuguese and Chinese introduced spices such as garlic, cacao and chili to Zanzibar centuries ago. Some spice plants and seeds were imported from Indonesia, Malaysia and India. History has it that spices and herbs were originally introduced to Zanzibar by Portuguese traders in the 16th century, from their colonies in South America and India.
Since that time, the local people have been growing spices for consumption and export, therefore, the region earning the name, ‘The Spice Island’.
Foreigners that visit this beautiful island make it a point to visit any spice farm just to learn about how they are grown and also to appreciate their nutritional and medicinal properties, among others
The media training on climate change, courtesy of the center for Science and Environment of India, brought together African journalists from more than 10 countries who were as eager as I was to see the spice plantation.
The ‘spice tour’ is one of the most popular excursions in Zanzibar. The island is one of the world’s leading producers of spices such as cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon.
From Maru-Maru hotel where we were accommodated, we were fetched by a bus owned by a tour operator and we drove for about 45 minutes to Kizimbani spice plantation.
The ride should have taken 30 minutes, but traffic was heavy on the material day because it was raining.
While on the bus, Ahmed Husain introduced himself as our tour guide and immediately started sharing information about spice production at Kizimbani spice plantation.
Our tour included a walking safari in the 300-hectare plantation which gave me an opportunity to appreciate the beautiful view of a wide variety of spices.
Kizimbani Spice Farm is not organised into neat, square plots, but rather has adopted an organic farming structure where different types of plantations lie closely on the farm.
Mr Husain shared information on the different types of spices that are grown at the plantation and their unique usages.
We learnt that Zanzibar’s role in the spice trade grew massively at the time the island embarked on massive cultivation of clove trees which had been imported from Indonesia by Sultan Said, at the time ruler of Oman, a country on the coast of the Arabian Peninsula.
At the time, Zanzibar was being ruled by a selected few among the Arab elites until 1964 when the indigenous people revolted and gained political independence.
Then Zanzibar signed a treaty with mainland Tanganyika to form the present day United Republic of Tanzania.
However, the political union between the two states gives Zanzibar some form of autonomy, hence having its own President Ali Mohamed Shein while Tanzania is ruled by President John Magufuli.
Historically, Zanzibar was a trade centre for spices and slaves, way back in the slave trade era.
So, the United Republic of Tanzania, through its Zanzibar Island, was once the world’s largest producer of cloves but natural disasters that hit the island coupled with political factors arising from the liberation struggle, saw the decline of the spice trade in the country.
Cloves were once worth more than gold and the native spice has been a mainstay of Zanzibar’s economy for the last 150 years.
According to the Economic Intelligence Unit, Tanzania is today the third largest producer of cloves with seven percent of the market compared to global leader Indonesia with 75 percent.
As a keen user of spices in most of my foods, I was thrilled to have an opportunity of seeing and touching the spices that I use in my food in their raw form in the farm.
Kizimbani Spice Plantation also produces cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, garlic, chilies, black pepper, nutmeg, lemon grass and vanilla.
I also had an opportunity to savor different scents and taste raw spices.
Being one of the tourists’ favourite destinations on the Indian Ocean Island, the plantation also has exotic fruits, soaps and fragrances on sale.
Stories of how spices were used in the colonial era were quite interesting. Mr Hussain said spices like cinnamon, rosemary, chili pepper and black pepper were used to keep pests away.
“Before refrigeration was discovered, spices such as cloves and other spices were used to preserve meat, while ginger and garlic were known for their immeasurable medicinal properties to treat anything from digestive disorders to arthritis,” Mr Husain said.
Then a challenged was thrown at us to identify and name the spices that we use at home from the fresh plants in the farm. Well, it was not a difficult task – using our sense of smell – most of us were able to identify our favourite spices, though they looked very different in the field.
The farms also produce a variety of fruits such as limes, coconuts, papaya, jackfruit, litches and pineapples.
So, how exactly did the spice trade decline in Tanzania? Most of the journalists in the team wanted to know.
“In the 1970s, Zanzibar saw a rapid decline in spice fortunes due to the revolution that took place in 1964 when the Sultan dynasty was overthrown,” Mr Husain said.
At the time, most of the land was owned by a few Arabs and Indians, but the wind of change saw the government dividing the farms into small holdings and giving them to the local people.
This resulted into a significant reduction of spice production in the United Republic of Tanzania,
However, to a visitor, Zanzibar still seems to be a large producer of spices, with more than 2,000 outlets for spices on the island.
In a bid to increase competitiveness of the spice industry on the world market, the government of Tanzania last year branded their home- grown spices as ‘Zanzibar Exotic Original.
My colleagues and I wrapped up the tour of Kizimbani with a shopping of different spices, including flavoured teas. To this day, I am still consuming the spices and spiced beverages from Kizimbani

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