There is nothing quite like Zanzibar, right down to the way the name rolls off the tongue. It’s a cauldron of African, Portugese, Arabic, British influences, and more, jutting out into the Indian Ocean.

It’s a city that was once ahead of its time. Electric street lights came to this island before London. Geishas once worked their trade under French ironwork and some of the most intricately carved doors the world has known. Stylish places and houses were built next to the pale blue ocean where the breeze keeps it tropical year around.

Today, the old city center Stonetown is a relic of a bygone era. The ironwork looks proud amidst peeling walls of paint, the imposing limestone structures are thirsty and dilapidated, and the city eeks out an existence selling the idea of timeless romance. But the glory of Stonetown was built on dark riches: the exploitation of slavery, the ruinous ivory trade, and colonial investment that privileged a few over the many.

When I walk through the city now, I can feel echoes of dreams that Stonetown was once great, and perhaps it can become great again. But do we ever move forward by looking back? Can we find redemption by searching for answers in what was built on exploitation? I also see in the eyes of the young men and women here a sense of eternal hope. They live close on the brink of day to day survival, but they seem to find joy in everyday life. My hope is that their wisdom is deep enough to chart a future that takes them forward, not back.

Zanzibar is…

…a decaying memory of a glory foregone.

…a moral lesson on the long shadow of past mistakes.

…an indefatigable testimony to hope.

…a promise of a cool paradise within the stone walls of a sweltering hell.

…a blend of spices that becomes them all and none at once.