How to Live on Zanzibar

M. David Doherty knew he was destined to escape the New Jersey suburbs when, as a teen, he picked up his first Surfer magazine. Entranced by the beautiful, far-flung beaches, Doherty finally got a taste of that dream after college when he traveled to Zanzibar to teach English. He fell in love with the East African island's laid-back lifestyle -- and with a local woman. We caught up with the 39-year-old expat to find out how a recording studio, a plentiful supply of sugar-cane juice and a three-day-long, $1,000 wedding add up to a dream come true.

So how did you end up in Zanzibar? After college I began looking for a teaching job overseas. My first response was from one in Tanzania, so that's where I went. I stayed for 1½ years and then returned to the States. But I knew I wanted to move back to Zanzibar.

What was it about the island that made you want to make it your permanent home? It's a really safe and beautiful place. The people are kind and the government is progressive. And I had met my wife, Jamila. While I was a teacher in 1994, she was my neighbor and one of my best friend's cousins. We didn't really date since that's not the way in Islamic countries. So I maintained a friendship with her family. When I returned in 2000, she was more mature, but it still took three more years for her to agree to marry me.

What was the wedding like? To start with, I had to have my "representatives" bring the proposal and dowry to her father and brothers. They were skeptical about my commitment to Islam as an American convert, and they refused me. But I was persistent, and eventually they agreed. The wedding itself was three days long and had several hundred guests. Weddings are one of the biggest social events in Muslim cultures, so ours was just about average. The total cost was less than $1,000, and we had the most famous wedding singer in the country -- Bi Kidude Baraka. Her fee was about $15.

Did your connections in Zanzibar's music industry help make that singing arrangement happen? Yes, my real dream was always to start a recording studio in Zanzibar. I decided that I wanted to leave the teaching profession -- education is a big business in Africa -- and go back to the States in order to get my recording gear. Now I make a living as a music producer for my wife's company, Lulu Nyeusi Records Ltd. It's not easy, as modern music is in its infancy in Tanzania. I also make and sell ring tones worldwide -- they're apparently quite popular in Somalia, so I hear -- and I record poetry for weddings, CDs for hotel bands and basically any other kind of audio recording. I'm thankful that here in Zanzibar I have time to spend on my own music. This is a luxury I never had in the States and is more important to me than commercial success.

So what's a typical day like for a record producer in Zanzibar? Like many Zanzibari men, I often prefer to eat breakfast out at local food vendors. Islamic practice teaches that fate is doled out between 7 and 10:30 a.m., so it pays not to skip breakfast! On days that I'm working, artists show up at the studio after breakfast, and we work on what needs to be done. Sometimes we work right through, but usually we break for lunch. It's the biggest meal of the day -- often some kind of fish, which we can pick up at the market or from vendors who go door to door by bicycle. In the evenings, we usually have a simple dinner of spiced chai, similar to what you find in India, and sweets. We entertain ourselves at home or go visit friends and family in town. We tend to read a lot and listen to the BBC foreign service. Sometimes if I'm feeling decadent, we eat dinner in Zanzibar Town at the night market -- which is mainly for outside travelers.

What's the music like in Zanzibar? There's a famous local music called taarab, which is traditionally played by large ensembles. In its modern incarnation, it's performed mostly by singers backed by Yamaha keyboards. This is the most popular music, and no Zanzibari wedding would be complete without some form of taarab. Then there's zenji flava, which is the local version of the Swahili hip-hop and R&B, the most popular music in the whole of East Africa. But most of what I play is more pure reggae & hardcore hip-hop. It's met with mild success here, and we had a No. 1 hit with a song called "Popo Bawa" -- about a legendary one-eyed incubus. When there's a sighting of the Popo Bawa, our song gets played on the radio.

Is it strange to drive through Zanzibar and hear your song on the radio? Actually, petrol is quite expensive in most of Africa, so I've never had the need for a car. I get around quite a bit on foot and bicycle, but many people prefer to use a Vespa or motorcycle. The island is not so large, and there is a good network of dala-dala, mini buses, and matatu, country buses, for longer journeys. It costs me about 25 cents to get from my house to town.

What's your favorite thing about your life in Zanzibar? I like that moment of sunset when the land glows an iridescent orange-yellow. You hear the muezzins, the people at the mosques who call for prayer. Their calls form a chain reaction across the town, in every village and hamlet. Once the sun is down, we wander out to the sugar-cane-juice vendors and drink till we have our fill.

Facts of Life

  • Climate: Tropical
  • Population of Zanzibar Island: 1 million
  • Population of Zanzibar Town: 250,000
  • House starting price: $10,000
  • Main hospital: Mnazi Mmoja Hospital on the west side of Zanzibar Town
  • Price of a local beer: 95 cents for a Kilimanjaro Premium Lager
  • Languages: Kiswahili, English
  • Ease of Immigration: Difficult
  • Ease of buying a home: Difficult
  • Website: zanzibartourism.net