While most travellers make it to Zanzibar very few ever make the journey to Pemba Island, north of Zanzibar. It’s perhaps not surprising since, in terms of tourism, the island is in its infancy. It’s not that there are no historic sites to visit or good beaches because there are plenty of these, but it’s very difficult to get to them because there is little public transport off the island’s only main road. Most of the beaches are small, too, due to the extensive mangrove forests which ring the island. Nevertheless, it’s quite a contrast to Zanzibar.
For a start, the island is much more hilly and far more densely wooded than Zanzibar, the result of higher rainfall and more fertile soil. There are no extensive historic sections in the island’s three main towns, though Chake Chake works hard at this with its 18th-century fort.
The island is very laid back, and the people are friendly and interested in where you come from and why you’re there. It’s the sort of place where you make an effort to get to know people and find out what’s going on rather than go to see things in the usual tourist mode.
My one enduring impression of the island is the number of schoolchildren who flock onto the roads twice a day on their way home. There are thousands and thousands of them, so one must assume that education has a very high priority on this island. It’s heartening to see that all these children are taught practical agriculture as part of the curriculum. Indeed, when it’s clove harvest time (about once every five months), the schools close and everyone turns out to help.
Cloves are the mainstay of the island’s economy, and the crop is three times as large as the crop from Zanzibar. There are 3.5 million clove trees on Pemba, many of which date from the early 19th century when they were introduced from the Moluccas. Most are owned by farmers who would typically have between 10 and 50 trees on their plots. There are very few large plantations of the sort you might find on Zanzibar. Everywhere you go on this island, you’ll see the ripe cloves laid out to dry in the sun and you’ll smell their characteristic aroma.
Although Pemba was never as important as Zanzibar or other settlements on the Tanzanian coast, it has had some interesting and remarkable associations during its history. The island’s earliest ruins are those of Ras Mkumbu, on the peninsula west of Chake Chake, where the Shirazis settled about 1200 CE. This site has several houses and pillar tombs and the remains of a large 14thcentury mosque.
At Pujini on the island’s east coast, there is a fortified settlement and the remains of a palace destroyed by the Portuguese in 1520. These were apparently built by conquerors from the Maldive Islands, though some scholars dispute this. It seems they were not particularly welcome, as one of the rulers of this town was known as Mkame Ndume (Milker of Men) because of the amount of work he extracted from his subjects. Later, after the expulsion of the Portuguese from this part of East Africa, Pemba was taken over first by the rulers of Paté in the Lamu archipelago, then by the rulers of Mombasa, and finally by the sultans of Zanzibar.
The trouble with the ruins on Pemba is that most are in poor condition, have never been excavated and are largely overgrown. Perhaps something will be done about them when the government has sufficient money or an international organisation provides the funds.
Come here if you want to see something different but don’t expect historical romance or ready-made entertainment.
This is the most northern of the island’s main towns and has the second most important port, through which most of the clove crop is exported. It is essentially a one street town which snakes up the hillside from the docks. Pickups and wooden-sided trucks with bench seats, known locally as ”daladala” (remarkably similar to the jeepneys of the Philippines) connect Wete with Chake Chake and Koride further north throughout the day. The journey to Chake Chake takes about 45 minutes. The people who use them are garrulous and good fun. The road is sealed and is in excellent condition.
This is Pemba’s principal town and a lively place to wander around in the early mornings and late afternoons. It has a well-defined but small old centre, complete with bazaar and the remains of a late 18th-century fort, and it sits on top of a ridge overlooking a largely silted-up creek into which boats occasionally sail when the tides allow. The site of the fort is now occupied by a hospital and only the eastern and the tower survive. Chake Chake also has the island’s only airport, about seven km from town off the road to Mkoani. If you are arriving at Pemba from the Tanzania mainland or Zanzibar, there are plenty of public transportation which will take you to Mkoani, Chake Chake or Wete.
This is the last of Pemba’s main towns and the most important port. You arrive here if you are coming to Pemba by boat from Zanzibar. Boat connections between Zanzibar and Mkoani are fairly reliable. There is usually boat from Azam marine that operates between these two places.