Tanzania is touting slave trade artifacts, including 150-year-old memorabilia of renowned British explorer David Livingstone, to promote heritage tourism in the western Tabora town mired in widespread poverty and economic stagnation.
Heritage tourism is increasingly becoming a growing industry in Africa, attracting a huge number of descendants of the slave trade and tourists who are disenchanted by traditional attractions and are seeking more authentic experiences by visiting historic and cultural sites.
More than 9 million people are believed to have been sold as slaves by Arab traders to the Middle East and other regions through long trips across the Sahara Desert and the Indian Ocean.
Perched on the rolling hills with thin grass straws, Tabora, previously known as Kazeh, was founded by Arab traders in the 1850s and became a center of the slave trade and a junction of major caravan routes from Ujiji-Kigoma on the shores of Lake Tanganyika to the Bagamoyo town on the Indian Ocean coast.
The ancient town is known for its long streets dotted with giant mango trees said to have been created by long lines of slaves spitting mango seeds as they passed.
"Cursed" by the brutal slave trade, the town has for decades lagged behind economically but officials are aggressively working to market its slave trade heritage sites to cash in tourism dollars and attract much-needed foreign investments.
Tabora Mayor Ramadhani Kapela said heritage tourism is not a new phenomenon and part of the government’s broader effort to rekindle forgotten history and woo tourists and investors.
“The idea is to make people remember their history and where they came from, no matter how brutal it was,” he told Anadolu Agency.
From the handwritten scribbling in Dr. David Livingstone’s notebook to the chains used to shackle slaves to the old fort used as headquarters of German East Africa, and to a 150-year-old mango tree used as gallows for sick and tired slaves, officials use multiple slave trade relics to rekindle history of the ancient town in the hinterland.
Tourism is one of the cornerstones of Tanzania’s economy, contributing about 17.2% to the country’s gross domestic product and 25% of all foreign exchange revenues. The sector, which provides direct employment for more than 600,000 people, injected roughly $2.4 billion in 2018, government statistics show.
At the Kwihara village, located 8 kilometers (around 5 miles) from Tabora, the marron-colored, Arabic-style “tembe” house, built in 1857 by an Arab trader where Dr. Livingstone lived during his stay in Tabora in 1872, appears strikingly intact with a sordid history belies its beauty.
Mbarak Saleh, a curator, said a collection of Dr. Livingstone’s personal belongings, including letters, maps, pictures, a diary, and a copy of the daily New York Herald, are a great treasure for future tourism.
“This house was a center of the slave trade at that time. I believe people would be interested to visit and learn more about the slave trade,” he said.
According to Saleh, Livingstone stayed in that house in 1871 and it was later occupied by Henry Morton Stanley, who waited for three months hoping that the Arabs would defeat Mirambo -- a famed king of the Nyamwezi people -- and reopen the trail to lake Tanganyika.
Trail of slave trade
Despite having a wealth of tourist attractions, the tourism industry remains largely untapped in Tabora. Officials are banking on relics of the slave trade and colonialism to woo foreign visitors.
The move to market slave trade relics, touted as silver-bullet to unleash tourism potential in the impoverished town, however, evoked bitter memories among villagers who recall horrors of the slave trade where their ancestors were brutally shackled and forcibly made to work as cheap laborers.
“Slave trade was a very bad thing. It was the worst crime on humanity. No amount of money can heal the wounds it inflicted to our ancestors made,” said Mustafa Kitwana, 91, a resident of the Itetemia village.
To most Tabora residents, the slave trade remains one of the most tragic and disturbing crimes of humanity partly responsible for their miseries.
Hamisi Kaloka, a retired official from the department of archaeology of the Tourism and Natural Resources Ministry, called upon traditional African chiefs whose ancestors colluded with Arabs in the dreadful business to publicly apologize.
“We can no longer blame the Arabs for their cruelty. It would be wise for our local chiefs to say sorry to the victims of the slave trade,” he said.