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Tropical temperatures, mangroves and coral reefs: at first glance, it might be hard to see similarities between the shores of Scotland and the Indian Ocean coastline. However, our recent trip to the island of Kilwa Kisiwani, on Tanzania’s southeast coast with a team from the University of St Andrews, the Nautical Archaeology Society and colleagues from the University of Dar es Salaam highlighted more common themes than differences: fragile archaeological sites are being lost to coastal erosion, the rich historic landscape extends seamlessly from land to sea, and local communities are increasingly engaged in their heritage.
Working with students and training local volunteers, we recorded some of the island’s rich historic landscape. This reflects the wealth of the Kilwa sultans who controlled the gold trade from the 13th to 15th centuries. After a long decline under Portuguese dominion, the island’s revived importance in the later 18th century is part of a darker history, however, when it was a key port in the transportation of slaves.
The commanding fort, sprawling palaces and the Great Mosque dominate, but the cultural landscape of the island incorporates smaller, hidden remains, with archaeological sites strung along the beaches and underwater.
With Kilwa Kisiwani’s longstanding importance as a port, it’s no surprise that the waters surrounding the island are equally rich. Just like Scotland, this maritime culture stretches across and beneath the water.
Part of the project involved training volunteers and local divers in archaeological techniques. This will allow long-term monitoring of underwater sites around the island and add a historic dimension to dive excursions offered to tourists.
The indisputable highlight of the project however was the Kilwa Bonanza day; an extravaganza of games, music and dance bringing hundreds of people from the local community together amongst the archaeological remains to share and celebrate their heritage.
Some of the challenges this community faces are reminiscent of those in Scotland. Questions about how this internationally-important heritage can be used to bring economic benefit to the local rural community are being addressed. The talents of the local women’s group were demonstrated by the skill with which they confidently and impressively took on the daunting task of feeding the assembled multitudes, furthering their aspirations to set up a catering business for local workers and tourists.
The festivities revealed further similarities between Scotland and Tanzania, with familiar games such as the tug of war, jump rope and sack race.
Here the similarities ended however, when staff from St Andrews competed with locals in the traditional sack race.
Suddenly the differences were starkly highlighted by our rather abysmal performance.
Watch this short video to explore more of Kilwa Kisiwani’s heritage and enjoy the spectacle of the Kilwa Bonanza.