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Changuu: From Prison Island to tortoise haven

Prison Island, also known as Changuu Island or Kibandiko, is a small island off the coast of Zanzibar’s Stone Town, which served as a holding-spot…

Prison Island, also known as Changuu Island or Kibandiko, is a small island off the coast of Zanzibar’s Stone Town, which served as a holding-spot for rebellious slaves in the 1860s.
About 800 metres long and 230 metres wide, the island is about 20 minutes ride by speedboat from the ancient town, depending on the tide. Another attraction which lured the Arabs to the island was its many coral reefs which were mined.
For many tourists, the first attractions are the different shades of blue on that part of the ocean which make up the island. Our reporter got to know that the deeper blues are the areas where there are coral reefs hence the darkened hue. For an artist or a photographer, this would create the perfect picture even in monochrome.
Named Changuu after the Swahili name of a fish which is common in the seas around it, tour guides informed that the island was bare and uninhabited until the 1860s when Majid bin Said, the first sultan of Zanzibar, gave it to two Arabs. They used it as a prison for rebellious slaves before taking them to the slave market in Stone Town where the Anglican Cathedral now stands, or shipping them abroad.
Not always been used as a prison, the island was purchased from its Arab owners on behalf of the government in 1893 by Lloyd Mathews, who served as the British First Minister of Zanzibar. It was he who constructed a prison complex on its grounds. According to tour guides, the prison was to have housed violent and recidivists from the part of the African mainland which was then under the jurisdiction of Zanzibar.
However, there were no prisoners held on the island at this time; instead it became a quarantine station for people suffering from yellow fever.
The station was only occupied for around half of the year and the rest of the time it was a popular holiday destination. In recent times it has been taken over by the government. It is now a resort from where tourists commute to other parts of Zanzibar.
All around the different sections of the resort are gang chains and chain holders which have been preserved for posterity sake in areas which were once female or male cells. These parts have been repurposed to now serve as lounge areas or rest rooms.
More than being a resort, it is more popular for the several endangered Aldabra giant tortoises housed on the premises.
Several of the tortoises were seen roaming freely on Prison Island with different two or three digit figures written in blue paint on their shells which are updated annually. Their mannerisms reflective of their descriptions by numerous authors in story books; they lazily opened their mouths in reception of the leafy green vegetables which tourists held out to them as they chewed quite faster than they walked.
The tortoises first came on the island as gifts from the then British governor of Seychelles. They have since multiplied to several pieces with the oldest being 191 years old.
When our reporter visited, there were tourists from Europe, South America and Asia who were either visiting the tortoises or just taking a break from their tours to other sites in Zanzibar, including a Masai whom a French couple alleged was the first one on the island being that Masais only go by land and would never go on a boat.
Other tourists simply sat in the open court yards enjoying drinks, sea food and the sounds of the water as the waves slapped the rocks on the banks.
A guide was enthusiastic to show tourists around the nooks and crannies where the female tortoises lay their eggs away from the prying eyes of the male and to prevent them from being squashed.
The guide also explained that when the eggs are hatched, they animals are labelled with their ages written on their shells. Hence the blue numbers on their shells. He said their ages could be identified also by the aging of their shells which begin to crack after a while. “Really, only those who have been with them a while can really tell this because the shells as they grow older begin to look alike,” the guide said.
It was a worthy experience for Peace Emezue: “When I approached Prison Island, the first picture that crossed my mind was of how the slaves where being transported.”
She added that: “I tried hard to picture their faces and how they felt and what the conditions were like on the ships they have been boarded on. These thoughts made me a little sad. But the sound of the ocean made me feel a lot better. The colours of the water, the different shades of blue and green and the different creatures the waves swept on the sand were all o very pleasurable and soothing.”
Emezue, a fitness expert said: “The climax of my trip was the tortoises. I had never before then, seen a tortoise as old as 191 years. I know that tortoises live very long but I didn’t think I would see one that old. It was a great opportunity for me and I made the most of it.”
Another thrill for many first timers to the island is the boat ride getting there; quite scary at some points as the speedboat is humbled by the torrents of the waves and forced to slow down every now and again. But the smiles on the faces of the driver and tour guide calm all worries on the thoughts of tourists who somewhat commit their lives to them.
Residences and dining areas have been relabelled in the memory of Mathews as various tour guides with information on the island are posted all over the premises to further educate visitors.

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