Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Cultural Uses of Coconuts in Zanzibar

I welcome a guest post from Sarah Halpern; at the end of the post is a beautiful photo journey of how Zanzibari people craft rope out of coconuts. 

My name is Sarah Halpern and I live in Charleston, South Carolina.  I work for the International Society of Ethnobiology.  I recently spent time studying the coconut palm in Zanzibar, Tanzania.

While traveling throughout Zanzibar, I quickly realized that much of the economy and tradition of the area relies heavily on the coconut palm. It is the most sustainable tree in the world. The coconut palm is used in almost every occupation, domestic uses, cooking, and various traditions.  My study took place primarily in the Northwestern Region of Unguja Island in Zanzibar in the villages of Mangapwani, Bumbwini, Fujoni, and Zingwezingwe.

There are disputes concerning how the coconut palm arrived in East Africa. It is believed to have originated in the Southwest Pacific and introduced in Madagascar by sailors in the 1st century AD.  It is also speculated that it was brought to Zanzibar by Arab traders and other sea faring travelers for sustenance and commercial use. Both travelers and locals have been utilizing the sweet, naturally desalinated, and uncontaminated drinking water of a coconut in the tropics for centuries. Additionally, many wild species have been found on the fringes of the Indian and Pacific Oceans implying that the tree could very well be indigenous to East Africa.  This particular idea is supported in “Perplus of the Erythraean Sea,” written in 60 AD, in which Perplus mentions the town of Rhapta, located off of the coast of present day Tanzania, where coconuts were used for trade.The name of the town, derived from the Greek/Arab word “to sew,” came about because the Arab boats were sewn together using coconut fibers.  In fact, the entire ship, the hull, masts, ropes, stitches, and even sails, was once made entirely from coconut products.  

In Zanzibari tradition, various parts of the coconut are used throughout one’s life cycle.  At the very beginning of life, a new born is blessed with coconut oil to ask God for blessings and property.  Throughout life, coconut leaves are used to make fences for various celebrations, such as weddings.  And finally, the coconut water is used to cleanse corpses before burial.

One of the most profitable professions in Zanzibar is the ownership of a shamba, an area of land covered by coconut palms.  This profession is acquired by Islamic Laws of Inheritance, meaning mostly by men. The men are responsible for hiring people to harvest the coconuts, which are then sold to various markets. Harvesting is done by using small ropes to climb the trees and cut down the fruit.They are known for singing a song about strength while climbing.  I found that most of the shamba owners in that area did little to no planting of trees on their land. 

Stonetown, the main port city of Zanzibar, is also known for its elaborate wooden doors made from the wood of the coconut palm. Therefore, carpentry is a traditional profession, passed down usually within the family. The leftover wood from the carpenters is usually used to make limestone, which can be used for building and painting.

Another traditional practice by men in Zanzibar is the domestic handicraft of upawa (seen below), a spoonlike creation used for cooking.  The coconut palm plays a large role in cooking in general as well.  The coconut is a staple in Swahili diet. It is considered the “soul food of the tropics.” The coconut palm is also used in the actual cooking process.  Trunk and coconut husks are collected and used as fuel, fish is often placed on folded coconut leaves, nyaliyo, rather than directly over a fire, in order to obtain more flavor and to prevent the fish from burning.  The stem of the leaf can be used as a stake to hold fish and vegetables over a fire as well. The leaves from the tree were once very helpful in drying out cassava, however this is not practiced anymore because whole palm leaves are more difficult to find.

The coconut and other parts of the tree are commonly used in recipes. Shredding the coconut meat, mixing with water, and straining multiple times make coconut milk, which is combined with many main courses. Coconut milk can also functions as a replacement for oil because of its high fat content. Kitale, the white coconut leaf bud is eaten like a vegetable and mixed into salads. Mbata, an overripe coconut, is also eaten as a delicious snack. Mbata, however, have become more difficult to find because of the overharvesting of coconuts.

A traditional job amongst women in the villages of Zanzibar is the creation of roofing materials for all homes, hotels, and fences. This is a particularly high paying job, however leaves are in constant demand and the profession is becoming more popular, creating a sense of negative competition among women.  

However many women also have taken part in the traditional ways of making rope. This job brings a great amount of pride for women as it is very physical. Women bury the coconut husks for a year in mud covered plains, then dig up the husks and beat them until they are broken down into string. The string is then carried home on large bulks to be twisted into rope. This process is shown below:
 A shamba owner hires a man to de-husk the coconuts from his land.

 An elderly member of the village makes a living by using a small piece of rope to climb trees 30-40 ft high to cut down the coconuts.
Upawa - a spoon like tool made from various parts of the coconut.  Made by men, but used more so by women in the Zanzibari kitchen.
A Zanzibari woman digging up her coconut husks from the "desert."  This is the first part of the rope making process, a profession done by women.  The husks are left to soak in the mud for a year to soften.

This is the second part of the rope making process where women beat out the soften husks into thin string.

The final part of the rope making process is done from the home. Women carry back the large piles of string and tie specific types of knots to make strong rope. This rope is used for everything from fishing, packaging, etc.


  1. Really interesting stuff. Two questions:

    1) What does it mean to say a tree is sustainable?

    2) It's interesting to think about how the use of an introduced plant can be considered traditional. How long does a plant/tree need to be around and used before its use is no longer considered novel? I guess I am looking for a better understanding of what 'traditional' means.

    Great post.

  2. Thanks for the questions, David.

    1. When I refer to the coconut palm as sustainable, I mean that there is nothing to waste from the tree. Every part of it has social, nutritional, or economical value.

    2. The tall palms are said to be indigenous to East Africa, while the dwarf species may have been introduced later. From my research, it seemed that the coconut palm has been around since there has been human activity on Zanzibar. I believe that traditional in this sense refers to mankind's relationship to a natural resource. Residents of Zanzibar have been utilizing the coconut palm for centuries. It's use has become both a cultural and economic tradition.

  3. Very informative post about the coconut palm, from the mbata as food, coconut milk, desalinated water to the varied domestic applications, you've shown how this plant is used to the fullest It seems shameful the coconuts and coconut palms in Costa Rica and many of the Central American countries are under utilized, especially for food usage. Some of this information in your excellent blog should be spread througout the countries where these coconuts palms are quite populous, and after extractin the juice, most are left to rot or simply burned. wasting good resources

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