UWZ efforts in improving accessibility in Zanzibar Stone Town

This report by H. Khalfan to the CIB Expert Seminar on Building Non-Handicapping Environments, Harare 1992, relates why Zanzibar Stone Town is inaccessible for persons with disabilities. He presents steps being taken to improve the situation. Internet publication URL: www.independentliving.org/cib/cibharare10.html


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Report of the CIB Expert Seminar on Building Non-Handicapping Environments, Harare 1992


UWZ efforts in improving accessibility in Zanzibar Stone Town

H. Khalfan, DPI, Zanzibar, Tanzania


Zanzibar Town is a small city of about 150,000 people. Within the city there is an old stone town area which is a historic seat of government. The Town possesses very significant old and historic structures. This Old Town is regarded as a national asset as the physical manifestation of the rich cultural heritage and diverse influences which have merged to form Zanzibar's unique society.

The Town has a capacity of accommodating about 16,000 people, also accommodates most of the government offices, 40 per cent of all school classrooms, about 54 religious buildings including about 48 mosques, 4 Hindu temples and two Christian churches. The Town also is a commercial center with numerous shops and workshops and the town's main market and other commercial facilities like banks, hotels, cinemas, etc. The Stone Town has about 2,500 individual structures occupying an area of 2 more than 300,000 m.

Age of the town

Most of the buildings here were built between the 19th and early 20th centuries. Therefore, the average age of the buildings is about 100 years old. For the last 20 years there has been significant social and economic degeneration in the town. Immediately after the 1964 Revolution, many rich business people and craftsmen of Arab and Indian origin left Zanzibar and their nice old houses and bazaar shops. The government confiscated many of these abandoned buildings, turned them into multifamily accommodation units and gave them to poor families and newly arrived immigrants from rural areas. Because of the poor economic status of the tenants, many of these buildings deteriorated in the physical condition - some have even collapsed.


The structure of the Zanzibar Old Stone Town as seen by the street plan, shows, to a greater extent, haphazard development. The streets are merely narrow winding passages among the old houses. This labyrinthine street plan has its structure from the Arab traditions of land distribution and urban developments.

The most impressive residential houses in the Stone Town are the big Arab houses several stories high with a central courtyard. These houses were built originally with flat roofs surmounted by crenellated walls or parapets. After the turn of the century roofs of corrugated iron were built to shade these flat roof terraces: the open space between the metal shed and the flat roof acted as an insulator against the year round heat.

Large Arab houses seem to dominate the skyline of the town, however there are several smaller houses which are residential or residential with commercial activities The residential houses are small houses. They are long narrow houses which face the streets. Normally there is no central courtyard and only sometimes they have a small space at the back of the buildings. Similar two-storey buildings are found along the bazaar streets which have multi-purpose shops on the ground floor with residential functions upstairs.

The most significant heritage of the Stone Town are those structures with outstanding architectural and historical interest, among them are the Old Forte built in the late 18th Century, the House of Wonder (Beitel-Ajaib) and the People's Palace both built in the late 19th Century. These and other big Arab structures form a strong historic-cultural complex along the sea front. Other historic buildings are scattered throughout the town and reflect different cultural influences, for example the Malindi Mosque and Minaret, Tippu Tip House (Nineteenth century slave trader), the Hamamni and Persian baths (Arab architectural tradition), the Roman Catholic and the Anglican Cathedrals.

The cultural heritage contained within the Stone Town represents the accumulation of several centuries. The landmark buildings are the ones which immediately catch the attention. They are now protected by law and are in the process of being restored and conserved. The difficulties in preserving the Stone Town may be thought of in terms of physical restoration, social stabilization, economic revitalization and rationalization of land use.


The Stone Town in Zanzibar has multiple functions. Apart from being the administrative center for the islands, it also has the main port and distribution centers. The Town is also the nucleus of the largest urban concentration in the islands. It provides residences to more than 15,000 people, schools, and other important facilities like shops, places of worship, community activities and entertainment.

Government offices and administration buildings account for 11.5 per cent of the built up area and is second only to residential land use in size. There are two main groups of government buildings. The first includes the historic cultural structures like the Old Fort, the House of Wonders and the People's Palace, which are now used for ceremonial functions, the other includes several government offices. Accessibility to these offices is difficult because of bottle-necked traffic. Warehouses and garage areas associated with the government offices increase the congestion and conflict with residential and commercial activities.

The second group of building is located in Vuga South adjacent to the State House and the High Court. Access to the offices in this area is easy from Greek Road, Vuga Road and Kenyata Road.

Accessibility as a right

The question of accessibility of non-handicapping environment in the Zanzibar Stone Town area as in other parts of the Islands has not received any attention. Almost all residential and public buildings in the Stone Town are inaccessible for persons with disabilities because of the nature of the Town, and because of lack of awareness and consideration on the part of disabled people.

Most of the old buildings have big steps before the entrances and some of the buildings have steps in various areas within the building. This makes it very difficult for persons with disabilities and elderly people to have a degree of independence in using these buildings.

Most of the streets are difficult to use on tricycles because the lanes are either narrow or congested. As for wheelchairs, the streets need a lot of maintenance and the terrain is corrugated and full of pot-holes. This also applies to even new developed structures like the airport and hotels. Almost all hotels and guest houses are inaccessible for people with disabilities. They have steps and their bathrooms have very narrow inaccessible doors.

Why did this happen?

Traditionally, a disabled person has no place in the process of development, and therefore no consideration was made to meet even some of his basic needs. Society's attitude has, to a greater extent, created these handicapping environments.

The other aspect is that there has not been any organization or pressure group to either sensitize the authorities or claim accessibility rights for people with disabilities. This is the existing situation in Zanzibar.

What has to be done?

Disabled people as consumers of services are struggling for equality and full participation as enjoyed by other citizens. In this struggle we want to see that we are part and parcel of the societies in which we live and that our needs are not ignored and disregarded.

Science and technology, which are regarded as important tools for human development, should also be used to serve the interest and development of disabled people. There is an urgent need to consider seriously the needs of disabled people in the new technological advancement in creating non-handicapping environments in the field of architecture, in order to keep pace with modern development. The growth of technology in architecture is quite evident in many societies and it has played a significant role in bringing social and economic changes in our societies.

Our organizations in poor developing countries have more responsibilities to educate not only society, but governments as well on attitude change in order to achieve full participation and enjoy the national development in all sectors of development.

Because of these needs, the Zanzibar Association of the Disabled, which is hardly seven years old, has now embarked upon this crucial issue of struggling for the creation of non-handicapping environments which would allow for more independence and participation of disabled people. Our Association has started to 'knock' the door of the authorities on the issue. We have started with informal meetings highlighting the access needs of disabled people.

Legislation in process

The Ministry of Housing, Construction, Energy and Environment in particular and the Stone Town Conservation and Development Authority (STCDA) have agreed in principle on the need to have a legislation which would also pay attention to the needs of disabled people in using the Town much more accessibly. To that end:

  • An expert is working on a land use plan which would eventually develop guidelines to the renewal of the structures and infrastructures in the Towns. At the moment there is no regulation(s) to control building or renewal of the existing worn out buildings.
  • The STCDA has asked the Zanzibar Association of the Disabled to send their proposals to them and later on would be consulted as to how to meet the needs of accessibility to the disabled people.
  • All future remodelling of buildings will have to abide by the guideline provided.
  • Open spaces and gardening areas to be maintained. According to the Town Planning 10 per cent of the land occupying the building must be left open.
  • Streets and pavements will be properly done. UNDP, UNCH (Habitat), EEC are funding the project of maintaining and conserving the Stone Town. UWZ intends also to contact these agencies to support in all possible ways creating a barrier-free environment in the Town.

So far there is no legislation in Zanzibar on accessibility. This has both been an advantage and a disadvantage. The big disadvantage is that for all the time there was no law to provide this right to disabled people and hence many buildings and structures for quite a long time were done without considering the needs of disabled people. Thus, we have many public as well as private buildings which do not offer any reasonable accessibility to disabled people. Those buildings have a number of steps or one high elevated step in front of the entrance; bathroom doors are too narrow for wheelchairs, recreation and park areas have a lot of obstructions. The advantage lies in the fact that there is an example of opportunity for us as disabled people to provide our input in the coming legislation. We have had a lot of experience in this field which can be used to facilitate different provisions of the legislation to the advantage of the disabled people.

We intend to organize a seminar which will draw participants from top decision makers in the ministries in order to sensitize them on the issues of disability in various areas like accessibility, education, employment, rehabilitation, etc. This Seminar is planned to take place in March 1992.

Cultural heritage

The development of Stone Town resulted from the building of African and Arab cultures and building styles, economic factors which created a rich merchant class and prosperous bazaars and the availability of building materials such as lime, coral stones, and mangrove poles.

Today the unique pattern and structure of the town has been preserved with its environmental quality, charming streets and squares and a human value which encourages a lively social life especially in the late afternoon and evenings when people move out to have a cup of coffee, chat or to play bao or other games.

Building and land use

Many houses in the Stone Town are built to the edge of their plots, thus creating continuous building lines along the narrow streets. In some cases the site coverage is 100 per cent, hence many parts of the town are overcrowded. The buildings have poor ventilation and many are quite dark inside. This situation needs to be changed. One possibility is to take advantage of the open areas created by collapsed buildings. In most cases it would be better to built to the boundary of the plot or on the old building line along the street and to spare one large open area on the plot which could be used as a garden or yard.

Buildings lines

The characteristic narrow streets were created by the buildings following a building line along the streets with a width of 2-3 m. These lines are not straight-adopted to bends, corners, angles and small setbacks of the buildings which give a rich visual impression walking along the street. These narrow streets are very appropriate in our type of climates as they provide shade and make the passages comfortable to walk on especially in the hot midday. Besides, the people are protected from motor-traffic. Widening of the streets should be done only in special streets leading to planned service areas or in areas not characterized by narrow streets.

Public spaces and streets

These are the natural extensions of residential houses and shops to the open air, especially in the Stone Town where most of the streets are for pedestrians and bicycles only. These spaces are used for both commercial and social activities like handicraft productions, kiosks, wedding celebrations, etc.

Private green spaces and gardens

The building density in many parts of the Stone Town needs more intensive use of existing open space and the planting of trees and other plants on a broad scale. Plants and trees give shade and provide relaxation. This can be done in many private gardens and open spaces even in court yards.

The barazas

Barazas are normally built in front of the houses as a resting place. Most Zanzibaris like to sit on the barazas outside one's own house or at some other place where he can have friends. These barazas provide a lot of the social life of the people.


We believe in legislation in this context, because if there is no law, enforcement measures in controlling appropriate construction or renewal to provide accessibility to the disabled population would be difficult; guidelines and consultation procedure would be ignored. The Zanzibar Association of the Disabled is working hard on this issue and is very much determined to see that barrier-free environment is created in Zanzibar. Among the measures followed, one is to initiate a committee to:

  • provide consultation to the STCDA on accessibility needs to disabled people,
  • provide an input on the drawn up accessibility legislation,
  • disseminate information and sensitize not only the community, but also the designers and contractors on the needs of disabled people,
  • discuss common issues on accessibility, and how to provide access to inaccessible structures and places.

I am very optimistic that this Seminar will open even wider the doors of understanding on this matter and provide better solutions especially to our African governments.

Questions and comments

Q:spaceI understand that the Islam is a very practical religion with many applications to everyday life and practical, everyday prescriptions. How does the Islamic religion tie into our cause? Are there any references? Is it a positive environment for disability bill of rights and access legislation?

A:spaceThe people of Zanzibar are Muslims but the state is not Islamic. That is, we follow secular law, we do not follow Islamic law. We are following common law, the law we inherited from Britain. So it makes it difficult for me to comment on that question. It could have an input from individuals but not as a state or as a government.

A:spaceIn Islam people are supposed to support each other, the rich giving help to the poor, non-disabled persons giving help to persons with disabilities. There are some verses in the Koran stating that the blind and the sick and persons with disabilities are excused. That does not mean you would not try them if they have done wrong. But it means that society as a whole should excuse and support them because of their state and their physical health. That is as far as I can explain it.

Q:spaceAs a follow-up question, those verses you referred to it seems are addressed to the individual level, so if you meet someone who is blind you are supposed to act in a certain way, but how does that tie in with in the group? Here we are talking about general accessibility. Christianity for that matter also has these references and as I remember from my Bible studies there was no precept such as "Thou shalt build accessibly". But there is all kinds of references of when you meet someone who needs your help. But this is not what we want, in fact I want to move around without needing that help. So if a particular religion is based on this collusion between the helper and the helpee than this religion in my opinion does not really have an interest in eradicating the situations where the helpee needs the helper and the helper needs the helpee. This critique applies to both Christianity and Islam. Perhaps there should have been an 11th commandment in Christianity "Help to eliminate situations where someone becomes dependent on you unnecessarily".

A:spaceAs I said earlier, I do not have authority in Islam as such, though I am a Muslim and I abide by the laws of Islam. I worship, I fast and I do all that is needed of me to do. But I cannot stand in this forum and state with authority that this is the standard in Islam in the issue of accessibility. For the Koran is a book of old times and it depends upon those who are scholars to interpret it. So it is unfair to say whether Islam or Christianity is for this or for that because I do not think that in this forum we are in the position to discuss those issues of religion as such.

As in any other profession, I do not have the authority to challenge an architect on a technical aspect of the design of a building, because I am not an architect. What I can challenge are my own needs.

Q:spaceIs it true that Islam helps to increase the population of disabled people? I understand that if you commit a crime they cut off your hand. If it's true, well I would not mind that because it means we are increasing in number as disabled people and will end up ruling the world.

Talking about religion, I do not think we can isolate the effects of religion from the whole aspect of disability and all we are trying to achieve because you will find that religion in some ways is doing a lot of damage by reinforcing the negative attitudes the community has about disability. I will give you an example of this new movement in religion. I am not attacking anyone here but I think as disabled people we should be free to express ourselves. The Born Again, before they organize their big meetings, put up big posters that say, Bring the blind, bring the legless, bring the deaf, bring so and so and we will heal them. But when you read the Bible it says that after death, you do not need your body so why worry about somebody's physical appearance if what the church is all about is to attend to this spiritual healing? So there is a contradiction there and it creates a lot of confusion. As a movement we have a role to play even in our religion so we help our priests, be it in Islam or whatever, to have a positive image about disability. So that when I go to church and have no legs, they do not need to look at me and say I am suffering because it is said in the eyes of God we are the same whether we are legless or not. I would like to say that there is a role that we should play, we should not leave religion aside. People are scared to talk about the damage religion can cause in our work, that may be controversial but I think we ought to be fair about these things.

A:spaceI propose that CIB or SAFOD or ZIFOD organize a forum where we could discuss religions. And we should bring scholars who have authority on that, but I do not have authority of religion. What I said was that I believe in my religion, as my belief is, I do not think Islam has anything to do with increasing disability. That is an individual issue, not Islam. Just like in other Christian bibles, you are forbidden to drink alcohol and yet you drink it, so it is going against the Bible as it is going against the Koran. So it is unfair to say that Islam is increasing disability but you can say individuals or individual governments are increasing disability but not Islam. Because once you say Islam you are generalising the field, but that is on an individual basis. But as I said earlier, Zanzibar and Tanzania is not a religious state, it is a secular state so whatever we are doing, legislation, legal, execution are going on a secular way and not a religious way. So I think we should not continue discussing religion.

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