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Zanzibar's women plaster old city

By Daniel Dickinson
BBC, Stone Town, Zanzibar

The women are working to restore Stone Town's former glory

Years of neglect have left many buildings in Stone Town, the historic capital of the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar, close to collapse - but now a team of women builders are trying to put that right.

The Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar is an iconic travel destination, known for white sandy beaches and its capital Stone Town, with its eclectic mix of Arab and African influences.

But what the travel brochures do not reveal is that Stone Town is crumbling.

However, a small army of women are trying to restore its labyrinthine alleys and carved wooden doors.

Among them is 31-year-old Asma Juma, one of six Zanzibari women who have been trained to plaster. She is part of a team restoring a dilapidated old spice house which will be reborn as a tourist hotel.

"When I started out it was difficult - you need to develop a technique, you need to be consistent and if you make a mistake, you need to admit to that mistake and start again," she says.

"Women are perfectionists, we like to get things right and that's why we're better at this job than men."

Women's work?

Asma has been doing this job for 18 months but she talks with the confidence of a master.

All the women have been taught by Vuai Mtumwa, who says that they all like the work because of their desire to renovate Stone Town.

"They work hard, they come every day," Mr Mtumwa says.

Stone Town
Stone Town is the oldest part of Zanzibar's capital

"They are working like men. Some work they can't do - they don't climb the scaffold."

Indeed, it is a physically tough place to work - with heavy lifting, precarious wooden scaffolding and the danger of falling rubble from work above.

And there are some who say women should not be working there at all.

'Women working on site in Zanzibar is not good," says Osumani Juma.

"If she has a husband she should stay home with the family. For men it is good to work here as it is difficult and dangerous.'

Despite the money that tourism brings, Zanzibar is still a poor island where unemployment is high.

"My family are happy that I'm doing this job," says Asha Mussa Ramadhani, another of the women plasterers.

"They think it's good work and I'm earning the same wage as the men. I think the men are annoyed because we are taking their jobs.

"I am the only one who is earning money in the family. It is god's will that I work here.

"I'm also happy because I'm helping to repair Zanzibar Stone Town and make it look nice again."

Beyond repair

Zanzibar Stone Town is a World Heritage site.

It is famous for its atmospheric, labyrinthine alleys, beautiful carved wooden doors, seafront palaces, and historic trading links with the Arab world.

But it is also a city that is slowly falling apart. I remember my first visit here several years ago, being shocked as I walked the back streets by the number of buildings in disrepair and the rubbish which I had to pick my way around.

Plasterer in Stone Town
The women plasterers have met with some opposition

A big problem, of course, is the lack of funding. On an island where most people earn less than a dollar a day, there is little money for restoration work.

Mohammed Mughery, from the Zanzibar Stone Town Heritage Society, fears for the future of Stone Town.

"There is little support we are getting from the government and other donors locally," he says.

"But the houses need to be repaired - most of the buildings haven't been repaired in 30-40 years. It is very strange.

"Most buildings are made of coral stone and lime mortar. So they need to be attended often. Just a small crack if left will become wider and will lead to the collapse of the building."

Although the heritage society is making its contribution by renovating the wall of an old trader's house, there are still dozens of other buildings which need urgent attention.

The women plasterers are ready to help out. They're just hoping that the funds are provided before Stone Town disintegrates beyond repair.



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