Festival of the Dhow Countries
Without a doubt, the highlight of Zanzibar's artistic and cultural calendar is the Festival of the Dhow Countries – a 16-day event usually held in early July every year, and touted as east Africa's premier cultural event and among the most significant cultural events in all of Africa. The 'dhow countries' are those of Africa and the Indian Ocean basin, and so include east and southern Africa, northern east Africa, west and central Africa, the Horn of Africa, Arabia, Iraq, Iran, the subcontinent of India, Madagascar and the Indian Ocean Islands, plus what the organisers call 'their global diaspora'.
The festival has grown from strength to strength since its humble beginnings at the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) back in 1998, and now includes theatre, performances of traditional and contemporary music and dance, plus exhibitions of paintings, sculptures, craftwork and photography. However, the central part of this event is still the film festival, with its large, interesting and eclectic mix of films from all the dhow countries and places further afield. Several film-makers are also present, there are prestigious awards for new films (short and long features, and documentaries), and the festival also includes workshops, talks and discussions, as well as an energetic series of entertainments called the Children's Panorama.
On the more serious side, film and media-related workshops included Women Film-makers, Making Current Affairs Programmes for African Audiences, Constructing African History in the Cinema, and Creative Journalism.
The main venue for the festival is the open-air theatre at the Arab Fort, with films and performances on the main stage of the amphitheatre and live music in the adjoining Mambo Club, while other events are held at the Palace Museum, the House of Wonders, and the Old Dispensary (Stone Town Cultural Centre). The Old Customs House, which became the home of the Dhow Countries Music Academy in 2002, is the venue for musical Master Classes. There's also a series of free shows in Forodhani Gardens, just outside the Fort.
Many events are free and admission charges are kept to a minimum (around US$0.50 for Tanzanian residents, US$5 for non-residents) to encourage local participation. There's also an ambitious (but highly successful) programme of 'Village Events', which transports a selection of everything the festival offers in Zanzibar Town (film, music, theatre, women's workshops, children's shows, etc) out to the rural areas of Unguja and Pemba islands. The Festival of the Dhow Countries' organisers are keen to promote July as 'culture month' on Zanzibar, and this is undoubtedly an excellent time to visit the islands, although of course it's likely to be busy at this time. You can get more information from ZIFF, the festival organisers, who are based at the Old Fort in Zanzibar Stone Town (PO Box 3032, Zanzibar; tel: 0 747 411499; fax: 0747 419955; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ziff.or.tz).
In a very different vein, the festival of Mwaka Kogwa is held every year in several villages around Zanzibar, but most famously and most flamboyantly at the village of Makunduchi, in the south of Zanzibar Island. The traditional festival originated in Persia and celebrates the arrival of the New Year according to the Shirazi calendar. This one-day festival normally occurs during July, but it would be better to check this locally as changes are possible. For more details on the festival itself see the box on.