It’s not really what you think of as Africa, but neither is it the Middle East. The island of Zanzibar, otherwise known as Unguja, is in part its own entity, and the center of Swahili culture in East Africa. In an area of the world where political unrest is not uncommon, it’s a wonder Zanzibar has been in union with the Tanzanian mainland for as long as it has.

The Sultanate of Zanzibar, an archipelago nation off the Indian Ocean Coast of East Africa, merged with the East African nation of Tanganyika in 1964 to form the United Republic of Tanzania, a hybrid name reflecting both countries. Earlier that year Zanzibar, a newly independent state itself, experienced a revolution in which over 12,000 ethnic Arabs and Indians on the island were massacred overnight. In the wake of the revolution most of Zanzibar’s wealthy and educated fled the country never to return. Its president, facing a potential coup by extremists and a devastated economy, had little choice but to join forces with the mainland country of Tanganyika.

Culturally, Zanzibar is almost quite literally oceans apart from its mainland counterpart. The population today is overwhelmingly unhappy with what they see as the destruction of their conservative Islamic culture brought on by relaxed travel rules between the island and the mainland and their limited autonomy as part of the union government. However, each cycle of elections, the results of which are usually disputed by international observers, sees victory for CCM, the party favoring closer ties to the mainland. The union government has survived to this day, but the marriage has never been happy.

These photos were taken over a four-day period while practicing my Swahili in Stonetown, known as Mji Mkongwe to speakers of the language. I intended to get out of Stonetown and photograph a bit more of the island, but the myriad of winding alleyways, hidden rooms and endless cups of fresh coffee brewed over open coals on the street were enough to keep me wandering around in town for more than a week.