If your traveling soul ever finds itself along the coastal shores of East Africa, you are sure to see the traditional wooden boats called “dhows” silhouetted against the horizon. They are especially iconic floating atop the crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean around Zanzibar where tourists can pay for rides or snap pictures from the beaches.
Although the exact history is not confirmed, the word “dhow” is assumed to be Arabic in origin. This is logical due to the strong Arabic influence and trade routes around Kenya, Tanzania, and Malawi, and is a generic term for any sailing vessel. However, there are more specific names to differentiate between the types. Most of the boats you see around East Africa are very small with long, thin hulls and one white triangular sail, making them look very different from typical sail boats. They are called “mtumbwi” and are the oldest type of boat used in the region. Fisherman use these boats for work, and tourists can take sunset cruises for the right price
The jahazi are much larger and can transport up to 100 tourists to Zanzibar or other islands from Dar es Salaam. They can measure up to 20 meters long and sport larger, easily sighted sails.
There are still other ocean-going dhows that are used as trading vessels and can carry a large crew across the ocean to Asia and Arabia along with cargo and trading goods. As technology grows, however, this type is becoming increasingly rare. Most major trading vessels are now powered by motors.
Despite the disappearance of the larger dhows, many communities throughout Tanzania are centered around boat and dhow craftsmanship, like Mafia and Chole Islands. It’s an important part of the culture with much history behind it. From the trade routes of ancient times to the current tourist purposes, dhows continue to be a common sight in East Africa.
Have you seen a dhow in Africa?