By Gemma PitcherBaraza
benches, often simply called barazas, have been a focal point of community life in Zanzibar for centuries. These thick benches of solid stone are built into the walls around courtyards or flank the heavy doors of distinctive Arab-style townhouses. The houses which line the long, narrow streets of Stone Town often have barazas outside – and you will also see barazas on the verandas outside traditional Swahili homes, while in the villages a palm-leaf shelter, flanked by wooden seats, fulfils the same function.
Barazas evolved as a way for Islamic men to receive visitors in their homes without compromising the privacy of their womenfolk. Coffee and sweetmeats would be served on the baraza to anyone who arrived, with only the closest friends or family members being invited into the house. The Omani sultans held public meetings, also known as baraza, outside their palaces to receive petitioners or give visiting dignitaries a public audience.
Today, barazas are still a meeting point for all sections of Zanzibari society. Every urban baraza is lined with people lolling on the warm, smooth cement benches, gossiping, playing games of bao or cards, drinking sweet, thick Arabic coffee or simply idling away a long afternoon with a nap. Draughts boards are scratched in chalk on the stone surfaces, ladies sit comfortably to plait each others' hair, and for traders with no market stall of their own, a baraza provide a flat surface on which to pile their tiny pyramids of oranges, tomatoes and mangoes.
In the rainy season, when torrents of water, sometimes laced with rubbish, make walking down the streets of Stone Town uncomfortable and even hazardous, the barazas outside the houses provide a useful elevated pavement, and pedestrians jump from one to the next in an attempt to keep their feet dry.
The baraza as an architectural feature is an idea that seems to have caught on in a big way among the designers of Zanzibar's smarter hotels; almost every courtyard, nook and cranny – and even bathroom – now boasts its own baraza bench, often whitewashed to match the coral walls or inlaid with mosaic tiles.