What to see and do
St John's Church
At the heart of Mbweni (on the right side of the small road leading towards the sea) is the English-style St John's Church, complete with tower and surrounding cemetery. It was opened in 1882 by UMCA missionaries and converts, and consecrated in 1904. Descendants of freed slaves continued to live in the area. The church has a marble altar inlaid with mother-of-pearl (colourful shell pieces) and a wooden chair made for Bishop Tozer by sailors from the ship HMS London, famous for its slave-dhow captures. The nearby building, formerly the Inn by the Sea hotel, was originally the old clergy house. Today, the sexton at the church is Peter Sudi, a descendant of John Swedi, one of the first five freed slave boys taken in by the mission. There are Anglican church services at 09.00 every Sunday.
St Mary's School for Girls
Past St John's Church towards the sea, a dirt road leads to Mbweni Ruins Hotel, whose grounds house the remains of the Victorian St Mary's School for Girls. This school was constructed by missionaries on a property known as Mbweni Point Shamba, bought for the church by Bishop Tozer in 1871, and it was completed in 1874 under the leadership of Bishop Steere. An old Arab house on the property was incorporated into the school entrance.
The school was a large square building, based around a central courtyard. The headmistress from 1877 until 1902 was Caroline Thackeray (a cousin of the English novelist William Thackeray). The school educated orphaned girls who had been freed from captured slave-dhows, and daughters of freed slaves who lived at the mission, each with their own house and small garden. Most of the girls were trained as teachers, and were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, geography and sewing. In 1877, Caroline Thackeray paid for the construction of an industrial wing, wherein her less academically inclined pupils were given vocational training in basketry, stitching, laundry and cooking. St Mary's had its own chapel which is still in good condition today, though without a roof. In 1906 the school became a convent and in 1920 the buildings were sold by the church to a consortium including the Bank of India. They slowly became ruins and were never used or lived in until the present time.
Sir John Kirk's House
Along the road which passes northwards in front of St John's Church is the house of Sir John Kirk, British consul-general in Zanzibar from 1873 to 1887. Kirk first came to Africa in the 1850s as the medical officer and naturalist on Livingstone's Zambezi expedition. As consul-general he was very active in the suppression of the slave trade, and is often regarded as the 'power behind the throne' during the rule of his close friend Sultan Barghash. The house was built as a gift from the sultan and was used by Kirk and his family as a country retreat.
Kirk was an experienced botanist and established a large experimental garden here, which later provided the core species of all the botanical gardens of Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania. He imported many new plant species to the islands, and worked on improved varieties of useful and edible crops. Kirk also collected trees and flowers from the mainland of Africa which formed the basis of the then standard work, Flora of Tropical Africa.
In 1887 Kirk left Zanzibar, and sold his house to Miss Thackeray, who opened the grounds for an annual garden party. Although Thackeray retired as headmistress of St Mary's in 1902, she inhabited the house until her death aged 83 in 1926, when she was buried in the cemetery at St John's Church. The house was then sold by the church to a wealthy Arab, who used it until the early 1960s. It is now privately owned and not open to the public.