Giant wooden doors with ornate engravings line the narrow city streets of Stone Town: Each is spotted with sharp spikes, designed to defend them from charging elephants in the former kingdom of Omani nobles.

At first glance, the African spice island of Zanzibar has nothing in common with chilly, humble Nova Scotia.

It’s a narrow labyrinth of twisting concrete and limestone — a city built so hurriedly and haphazardly that it looks like a crushed Chiclet from bird’s eye view. Sugar-white sands and the warm, translucent turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean are home to a conservative Muslim culture that forbids women to uncover their shoulders or knees in public.


As a Haligonian working in Zanzibar, however, I’ve been lucky enough to find out how similar Zanzibar and Nova Scotia truly are.

At the junction of four narrow stone alleys, tri-coloured flags and scribbles on the wall mark the infamous Jaws Corner, where teens defend their soccer club’s honour and circles of elders debate politics over endless cups of scalding instant coffee.

It’s a place to meet with friends or converse with strangers. It’s a place to stop, relax, unwind. It’s a place that, on reflection, looks suspiciously like your average Tim Hortons.

Zanzibar manages to cram its million residents into an island one-quarter the size of P.E.I., but the small-town feel persists and everyone abides by the island’s celebrated Swahili proverb, “hakuna matata” — no worries. It’s common courtesy to greet strangers and strike up friendly conversations, even in the capital city.

There is another secret hidden behind Stone Town’s intricate wooden doors: Despite a 20-year-old thriving tourism industry catering to the world’s most affluent people, most Zanzibaris still survive on less than a dollar a day.

Or, roughly, the cost of a double-double.

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