Zanzibar Has a Freddie Mercury Problem

By Eleanor Ross

The view from the Freddie Mercury Bar in Stone Town, Zanzibar. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Zanzibar is a semiautonomous island off Tanzania, where the street sellers are in the business of pushing Freddie Mercury instead of crack. Shortly after I arrived, a man with a gleaming gold tooth jogged up the road and stopped in front of me. He asked, “You want these, miss? You want?” while rubbing a package of counterfeit Queen CDs emblazoned with Freddie Mercury's face. 

My guidebook was rammed with information on Freddie’s association with the country. As far as I could tell, it was a relatively loose one. Although Mercury was born in Zanzibar’s capital city, Stone Town, he divided his time between there and India until his mid teens, when his family relocated to England. This was 1964, when the Zanzibar archipelago was in the throes of a political revolution.

Mercury and his family were never to return to Zanzibar, but as soon as Freddie rose to fame the archipelago was quick to claim responsibility for producing him—a practice that endures today, almost 24 years after his death. GetYourGuide.com offers Freddie Mercury walking tours that take in the Shangani area where he grew up and the Zoroastrian temple where he and his family worshipped. Many tours end up in a place called "Mercury’s Restaurant."  

Mercury House in Zanzibar. Photo via Flickr user Brian Heath

A building known locally as "Mercury House" is covered with photographs of the singer in various onstage poses.

But what’s ironic—hypocritical, even—is that locals on the largely Muslim island are so taken with the idea of selling you Freddie Mercury even if they don’t like what he stands for: homosexuality and Western liberalism. I visited Zanzibar and Tanzania in the months following the passing of Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” bill, which criminalized homosexuality, and homosexuality was a raging discussion point in Zanzibar's cafés and bars.

More gay tourists are starting to visit the island, in part thanks to the rise of gay marriage in Europe and the resulting honeymoons. Kirsty, a spokesperson for Gay Unity Abroad, says that she often has couples asking to arrange honeymoons in locations like Zanzibar—“but I generally try to sway them towards more gay-friendly destinations,” she told me.

As tourism in Zanzibar increases, so does everything that comes with it: a more relaxed dress code, alcohol consumption, and (in the eyes of locals, at least) homosexuality. The growing Westernization of the island has been cited as cause for sectarian tensions on the island by East African media, including the Daily Nation. The roads running alongside the beaches display both tank-top-wearing tourists and those clad in billowing black abayas. Two strains of Zanzibar continue to co-exist: the growing tourist industry and the traditional fishing way of life.

Freddie Mercury. Screencap via VEVO user QueenVEVO

Mo* comes from a long line of fisherman from the eastern side of the island. He works with a tour company, ferrying visitors from Zanzibar to Prison Island, where travelers get the chance to gawk at giant tortoises and roll around on pristine white beaches. He’s obsessed with both the Queen of England and the band Queen. But like many people in Zanzibar, he cannot embrace every aspect of Westernization.

“I like Freddie Mercury very much. He brings much money to this island, because many Americans and British people come to visit his birthplace," said Mo. "This is good because it means I can buy my sons a television that they want. But in my religion it is not good to be a man with a man. The new laws in Uganda are right. These people should be punished because what they are doing is ungodly. But my big worry is that these people will come from Uganda and into Tanzania.”

Despite the buzz around Uganda’s anti-gay laws, Tanzania’s legislation against gay people is hardly any more lenient. Zanzibar, the island that celebrates Freddie Mercury’s "flamboyant" personality and music, threatens male same-sex acts with a life sentence in prison. Perpetrators of same-sex acts between women are punished with comparatively light prison sentences of up to five years.

An advert for Freddie Mercury tours 

Toto* is a guide who makes a living taking tourists up Kilimanjaro on the mainland. I took a walk with him, during which we spoke of many things, including Zanzibar and Tanzania’s reliance on tourism. “Me, I like the tourists," he said. "They bring me money and business so I can support my family. I don’t want to be a fisherman because there are no fish. It’s tough in this climate. But although I love the tourists coming, I do worry about the way of life here. Will it become the West? Who knows.”

I asked him how he feels about homosexuality, considering the Ugandan gay bill is still a popular talking point. “Gays?” he laughs. “It doesn’t happen here. If people are gay they are no longer part of the community. It’s not what God hoped for from mankind.”

Our conversation again brought to mind the dichotomy between the entrenched traditionalism of Zanzibar’s conservative Muslim population and the growing tourist trade. If Zanzibar embraces Freddie Mercury and uses his name to make money on the island, then maybe the local government needs to be more transparent about why people celebrate the singer, or else Zanzibari society needs to embrace all gay people the way they do Freddie Mercury.

*Names have been changed. 

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