Rose Marie Beck
Recently in Zanzibar we wanted to buy cigarettes. We were in the vicinity of the harbour, where after two unsuccessful attempts, I asked a vendor at a stall for Dunhills (1). He also didn’t have any, and told me to go to Darajani, the well known central city’s market with shops of all kinds. But he changed his mind and directed me: Down the street, then turn to the right (2), down that lane where I would see a house with counters like mirrors which we should pass (3), then turn right again at the next corner (4). There, opposite, at the left corner we would find a shop, “kwa Tori” (at the tall guy’s), who would sell Dunhills (5). And off we went.
Down the road.
Turn right at the roundabout
Into the street, to the right, into the harbour’s storage area, coming from the bustling of the main street an almost eerily quiet place.
We walked a bit, to where the lane opens to another roundabout, calm, even silent, but no counters of mirror, no bank, nothing resembling the vendor’s description that we could recognize.
At one point we felt we might have lost direction. Hesitatingly we went on, on the lookout, passed a large fish market on the left, and down there, behind it, the Dhow Harbour, as is pointed out on the tourist map, heading towards a more lively area.
We took a chance, turned right again, into that street with small shops and stalls, and finally, at the corner a heavily grilled shop.
We peered into it and there we found our Dunhills.
But, how come we failed to recognize what was presented to us, in our perception, as an outstanding landmark, a house with windows like mirrors, something we likened, in our minds, to a bank or similar? How come we didn’t lose direction?
Curious to find out where we faltered, we retraced our steps. There we found it: quite a large, stately house with entrance doors and parterre windows coated so as to reflect like mirrors. Looking for it we could see that the house is prominent. Indeed, I had seen the house, yet I hadn’t “seen” the mirrors. In hindsight, could I say that it gave me just enough of a “perhaps…” to keep on walking? But why did the vendor man not tell us about the fish market, or the Dhow Harbour? Or the conspicuous official building (the Technical Department of Zanzibar’s Port Authority) at the front end of the lane? The roundabout? We speculated over a cup of (terrible) coffee:
The vendor gave us the easiest and clearest way, not the shortest. We saw it on our tourist map, and when we went back and asked him for a street in the middle of Stone Town, Hurumzi, we found our guess confirmed. He (1) told us to go along the seafront and turn into Stone Town either at the big tree (an Indian Gumtree) (2) or at the “big mosque” (Zanzibar’s Friday Mosque) (3). As our hotel was located very close to Hurumzi, I remembered both tree and mosque. And then the vendor, hearing me speak Swahili with a Mombasa accent, must have assumed some local competency on my part. It was clear to him that I would not necessarily know my way about in Zanzibar, but that I would perhaps be able to remember, for example, the name of the shop, would have some idea of mosques and their importance in the cityscape, or could ask for more directions.
Yet we failed to recognize the landmark he gave us, the house with counters like mirrors, or what we somehow associated with counters, a bank, or something like that.
We think that this man attempted to navigate his space on our terms, building on the anticipation of what our space would look like, of what we, as German tourists, could be expected to see: a big house, counters (a bank-like building?), windows of mirror. It seems he didn’t expect us to take notice of a smelly fish market.
The vendor directed not only our attention but also our perception of the city. Not the fish market and what could be seen as the loud, hectic dhow harbour where large amounts of fish are brought to shore, avidly awaited by long rows of buyers, carriers and errand-boys standing in the shallow waters, trading, haggling, shouting. Not the narrow, crooked alleys for which Zanzibar town is famous to get lost in. It was the broad lane with large, silent storage halls, empty of people – not somewhere tourists normally would be advised to go –, the big white, stately house. How much of his directions were owed to what he figured we were able to see, and how much to his desire to make us see the grandeur, the self-confident splendor of his city? Maybe he has a special relationship to the house?
And the other way around: What exactly did I understand of what he told me? I can’t say, I hadn’t thought of taping our conversation. I was looking for cigarettes, not data. Still, how come I associated “doors like mirrors” with counters and a bank? How come we think a smelly fish market or an official building at the front end of the street would be more prominent and more easily recognizable? And then, looking at Hurumzi street again, and how crooked it is for me, and how people would say, “just go straight”, who says what “straight” is? Yet we found the shop: How much do we need to know to find our ways about?
The experience of failed landmark begs the question of what a landmark is: an artefact that rests on commonly shared imbricated memories, affects and meanings, the material manifestations of urban texture that produce coherence in the city. Walkways that have become pathways. A landmark results from intense social interaction and the subsequent ascription of meanings; it orients and structures the perception and experience of a place, enables processes and directs movements of people, goods and ideas. By learning landmarks, one takes possession of the city because one is able to purposefully navigate it. Landmarks emplace people in a city. Take the example of a street lamp in Kinshasa:
In Mont Ngafula it took years until a FINA-filling station was built in 2002. Few months later the owner installed a street lamp. Because the filling station has its own generator and does not depend on the city’s power supply, the lamp always worked. In next to no time it assembled several bars, an internet café and a telephone shop, and buses and taxis made the place their final station, which poured even more customers into the bars. The neighbouring Fwakin Hotel that had not flourished for years, profited, too. A simple street corner that usually was deserted after nightfall experienced a wondrous transformation into a lively meeting point because of a single street lamp, with activities of all kinds until midnight. This is how Kinois mould their city. Space belongs to the one who uses and takes possession of it. Such a process of appropriation is the basis for the rank growth of such a megalopolis.” (Filip de Boeck 2007. Das Lachen Kinshasas. Lettre International 76: 38-46, p. 41, my translation)
A landmark is a socio-spatially consolidated artifact, it is collectively remembered, known, used, possessed. The vendor in Zanzibar spontaneously invented one for us, taking into consideration that our participation in such processes of densification was most likely minimal. As we see, such ad-hoc landmarking contains the risk that the mutual matching of landmarks, perceptions and imaginaries might fail. Yet this lucky failure provided the opening for a reflection on processes of urban densification in the first place. In our case it gives us a provisional inroad into questions pertinent to our research on wayfinding and social navigation as ways of “doing the city”.