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Kisiwani Cultural Heritage Survey Excursion

During field research in the Kilwa District of Tanzania, I was invited to tour the island Kilwa Kisiwani. This provided the opportunity to conduct a survey of Kilwa Kisiwani’s natural and cultural heritage resources, and capture in-field data made up of observation, participation, and interview activities. The survey was named the Kisiwani Cultural Heritage Survey Excursion (KCHSE).
KCHSE objectives

  • Survey and investigate the potential establishment of a coastal, archaeological, and/or cultural heritage tour for future visitors
  • Discover a way to utilise the existing cultural heritage resources and practices, and provide new business opportunities for locals
  • Meet, live, and experience the Kisiwani culture with locals
  • Stay the night and experience their accommodation and hospitality
  • Join local Kisiwani fisherman for morning fishing activities
  • Explore the Kisiwani coastline from a snorkelling viewpoint
  • Visit Kisiwani’s heritage and archaeological sites
  • Meet some tourists/visitors to record their observations and opinions

The excursion
Saturday Afternoon
At 3:00pm my Field Study meeting with the Kilwa Kisiwani chairperson/chief was finished, and we were taken back through the Kiswiani village, and into the house of a local man known as Mr Bwanga. Like 90% of the population in Kilwa, he is of Muslim faith. I was told his name meant “football player”, in honour of his reputable sporting talent, and he now resides in the Kilwa District as a part time tour guide. Since my Field Study partner Revocatus Bugumba knew most of the residents (being the recent Kilwa Site Manager), I was able to be respectably introduced to the local residents, who were very welcoming and kind.


Meeting local man in Kilwa Kisiwani

After walking into Mr Bwanga’s house, two men came in and sat down. They ended up being two local fishermen/farmers, one of whom, Abdullah, was very knowledgeable about specialised plants for medicinal purposes, which is of course very similar to that of other Indigenous people’s knowledge of their homeland, such as Australian Aborigines. We talked about their work, such as octopus fishing, which went along the lines of stabbing the octopus, and allowing it to grapple its tentacles around your arm while you continuously stab it in the head, “until it loses all its strength and cannot hold onto you any longer!” Abdullah said.


Inside Mr Bwanga’s house. (Left to Right Revocatus, Abdullah, Mr Bwanga, Abdullah’s friend, Acting Site Manager Paul Nyelo)

They told us that they were not always successful on fishing trips, and that they learned their craft purely from experience and being taught by more experienced fishermen irrespective of age (proven by Abdullah’s friend who had learned how to fish in his mid 20s). Fortuitously, after only a brief conversation, sparked by an idea from the meeting earlier, the men accepted me to join their fishing work for the following morning. I accepted while trying to hold back excitement. Also noteworthy was the service of tea from Mr Bwanga’s wife and daughter. It was made of peppermint, cloves, and ginger, which created a sweet, spicy, and minty taste. We returned to Kilwa Masoka (the mainland) soon afterwards.
Saturday Evening
In the evening I was taken back to island of Kilwa Kisiwani by two local Kisiwani men. crossing the channel on a traditional Dhow fishing boat, and watching the sunset.

View of the sun setting while crossing the channel to Kisiwani

Mr Bwanga, who is also an employee of the Tanzanian Antiquities Division at the Kilwa District level, sailed the boat with his son Abdullah accompanying us. Also on the boat were a group of other Tanzanians from Dar es Salaam. When I arrived I was taken up to Mr Bwanga’s house to drop off my bag, needing little grasp of the native Kiswahili language to understand the direction I was being led. Abdullah then began to usher me around the island, showing me the historic forts, Arabic school and facilities, and some of the many wells in Kilwa Kisiwani. He explained how the houses were built with coral rock and rocky mud that is used like cement. Every person I met were kind enough to say “Mambo” (hello) and “Karibu” (welcome) in Kiswahili. When I said “Shikamo” (a respectful greeting to elders), they replied with the respectful response “Ma-haraba”.
Abdullah continued the tour past the Great Mosque and then towards the German House. He spoke about the house being built in 1879, the time which the Kilwa District was ruled by the Germans for 33 years, and after a long line of different rulers beforehand over centuries. Abdullah lives in the German House as the village “Watchman”, a respectful position in charge of supervising the waters beyond the island, from the advantageous viewpoint that the German House offers. He welcomed me inside for a visit, also showing me the house’s magnificent back porch area. Also in the house was an English to Kiswahili dictionary, which assisted me greatly. I was able to say “Me-zaa” to express having fun, after which he went into an hysterical laughter, even telling his father about it the following morning. On the walk back I showed him the Southern Cross in the night sky, which amazed him, especially when I spoke of the significance of it being used for navigation to Australia by past sailors. I also played the card game “Uno” with him, which he played with complete freedom, making up his own rules on the way.


Local Kisiwani people gathering in the evening

During the night I was sitting outside and was greeted by a very interesting local. He began teaching me some Kiswahili, particularly with the expression “toon-galley-kua pamodye”, which meant two people learning from eachother. He spoke with such animation, with wide open eyes, and an automatic responsiveness to everything I tried to communicate. I felt safe at all times, and they were very patient with me needing to regather my orientation in unfamiliar areas from time to time. The family provided me a dinner of rice, beans, sauce, and vegetables, accompanied by Mr Bwanga’s wife’s tasty tea. Following dinner, and after gazing at the incredibly clear night sky while allowing my food to digest, Abdullah said “Alarmsik” (farewell and goodnight), and went to his home quarters at the German House. I went to bed in my own room (thankfully with a mosquito net) in Mr Bwanga’s traditional African palm-leaved house, feeling an amazing sense of wonder at the very different world I was getting a brief but amazing taste of.
Sunday Morning
I was awoken and collected by Abdullah at 7:00am. At around 7:15, locals began gathering by the Kisiwani port in preparation for the morning’s fishing activities. Even though they knew absolutely no English to ask why I was with them, they seemed unfazed by my presence.

Local Kisiwani people gathering in the evening

Eventually, about 8-10 men had gathered as the sun rose, and a light cool breeze filled the air. I stared in confusion at a man alone on a Dhow boat filling multiple large bags with sand, while cleaning other empty bags. He eventually saw me and welcomed me on board, where I was joined by Abdullah and one other young man.
During the sail out, I was given a plastic container to empty out water leaking into the boat, and after a approx. 10 mins we stopped at a big red buoy. We began pulling up the rope connected to the buoy onto the boat, including the attached anchor. It took about 20 minutes to pull the whole rope up, as it was constantly getting snagged by either the boat itself, or by shells, twigs, rocks, etc.


One of the crabs caught in the net

When the net becomes tangled, one of the men uses a paddle to rotate the boat clockwise or anti-clockwise in order to straighten it. This is where the prepared bags of sand are put to use, as they are all positioned on one half of the boat, so that the lighter half of the boat (without sandbags) can rotate more easily. After the entire net has come up and all the fish have been taken off, they drop the anchor, net, and buoy back in the water, while leaving the captured fish to flap about on the bottom of the boat until becoming still.


Traditional fish trap

When the wind picks up, one man erects the sail to propel the boat forward, while another men either steers with the rudder at the stern, or continues to empty out water from the boat. Afterwards, they sail up and down the coastline monitoring the clear water for any other fish that can be speared (using a metal rod as a spear).


Snorkelling along the coastline nearby a fish trap

While the search for fish is happening up and down the coastline, you are able to begin snorkelling. There are beautiful sights to see, with a multitude of different coral reef and fish species appearing every time you choose to dip down.


Abdullah steering the Dhow boat

The water visibility is very clear, up to approx. 10 metres, and the water is nice and warm, approx. 22-26 degrees celsius. They allowed me to swim for almost 2 hours before returning to the port at 11:15am. On return, young Kisiwani boys can be seen fishing with hand lines from the main wharf.
At around 11:30am Abdullah continued the tour, showing me his personal house nearby the wharf. After 11 years he had almost completely built it, with only the concrete floor, and an added kitchen area to be done later. After leaving his house, we passed his Grandmother and Auntie’s housing area. Outside one of these houses I greeted 5 young boys, who were very shy yet excited to be meeting a foreigner. Abdullah pointed to a stone and demonstrated that it was a cooking tool by whirling his body like a tornado, which was one of the things he remembered us talking about the previous night.


Using a traditional Grinding Stone with local kids

After close inspection he started assembling what was actually a traditional Grinding Stone. He ushered me to try it, and after a few failed practice attempts he brought over the legitimate equipment used for grinding, and his Grandma brought out a bowl of rice. The device was very effective, with two very large and heavy round, circular stones used to smash up the rice, giving it a smooth, powdery consistency for their traditional cuisine (most probably “Ugali”). After giving all the kids high fives, a few of the villagers said “mambo”, including a different Abdullah, who I eventually recognised as the interesting man teaching me Kiswahili the previous night. A breakfast/lunch was then served back at Mr Bwanga’s peaceful little house, made up of delicious tea and cornflour pancakes.
Sunday Afternoon
A change of clothes after lunch was necessary for the afternoon’s walking around Kisiwani. Abdullah led me on a tour of the Kisiwani ruins, seeing: the Great Mosque, Makutani Palace and Ruins, the Dome Mosque, and Gereza Fort.


Inside the Dome Mosque

Abdullah gave a very knowledgeable dialogue on the heritage, history and archaeology, despite having very little grasp of English. This unfortunately meant that the tour dialogue was almost completely rehearsed, hence questioning him about certain aspects of the site was rather difficult.
On further observation, it was clear that the pathways and sites need to be cleared of grass. The sites should also be supervised daily to better direct visiting tourists, and to stop animals getting in and destroying the site. A group of goats had made their way inside the Gereza Fort area, and this should not be allowed to occur. Nonetheless, the tour was very peaceful and interesting, and I was able to meet two Tanzanian tourists at the Gereza Fort, who were happy to discuss my Field Study Project, and Kilwa Kisiwani’s conservation issues. They were also happy to provide contact details and fill out a questionnaire for research purposes.


Outside the magnificent walls of the Gereza Fort

After being provided lunch back at Mr Bwanga’s house, my stay had ended, and I was kindly directed towards the jetty to return back to Kilwa Masoko. I took a Dhow boat again, this time with a large group of older Tanzanian men and women. On arrival, Mr. Bwanga walked with me to a cafe to meet my study partner Revocatus, which officially ended the KCHSE.
Main outcomes of KCHSE

  1. The main outcome of KCHSE is the birth of the “Kilwa Kisiwani Heritage Trail”: a trail highlighted by a picturesque sailing and snorkelling trail, where you have the option to sail with, assist, and/or observe the local fishermen using traditional fishing vessels, techniques, and fishing equipment such as: fish traps, fishing nets, and dhow boats. The snorkel would be followed by a guided journey throughout the island of Kisiwani, enjoying all the cultural heritage it has to offer including Ruins of World Heritage Status. One can also be taken to Kisiwani’s ship conservation area, to receive an interesting explanation on traditional boat construction, Kilwa’s maritime history and culture, traditional fishing techniques etc., and could include the observation of ship building in practice.

    View of Gereza Fort from boat

  2. The beauty of the tour is the ability to include extra heritage tour options, such as: “learn how to use a grind stone”, “take a tour of the archaeological sites”, and enjoying locally grown and prepared consumables such as pawpaw, coconut, juice, fish, etc. There could also be other exclusive experiences on offer such as “Prayer in the Great Mosque”, religious and cultural demonstrations/participation, playing a football match against a local Kisiwani football team, and many more. Such adaptability to visitor’s preferences makes the trail as unique and special an experience as possible.
  3. There can be many useful market research benchmarks to use during further development of the trail, such as Australia’s Great barrier Reef, Cambodia’s “Uncu Vet”, and Rome’s Palatine Hill.


  • Tour guides need better English language skills
  • The pathways and sites need to be cleared of grass so that the trail is more comfortable and visitor friendly
  • Sites need to have daily on-site supervision for increased authoritative status, and to stop animals getting in and destroying the site.
  • However, an increase of visitors to Kilwa Kisiwani from such tourism activities as presented in this document, could necessitate and financially support frequent site supervision, site cleaning, and path clearing of Kisiwani’s natural and cultural heritage resources.
  • It will be a long time before SCUBA diving could be incorporated into the trail and operate profitably due to the scarcity and low quality of: technology, suppliers, resources, economy, and market.

michealMichael Williams, BA in Ancient History, GDip in Maritime Archaeology. Particularly interested in Maritime Heritage of the ancient Mediterranean. I have worked in Indigenous Aboriginal sites around New South Wales and in underwater sites in Port Macdonnell. Experience with archaeological drawing.

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