Jaws Corner – Coffee and Conversation the Zanzibar Way

By Mark Wiens 25 Comments

It can be compared to a confluence of two canyon rivers, a place where the water combines, uniting in the middle. Within the footpaths and Vespa lanes that maze through Stone Town, Zanzibar, is a courtyard where two lanes collide into an intersection, opening up into a small gathering space.

This unique square is a place where men gather in the early morning to socialize, strengthen their community, bond together and drink cups of black Zanzibar coffee. This simple place is known as Jaw’s Corner.

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The coffee is served black, unsweetened and with a tinge of Zanzibari ginger in the water. On the small home made table in front of the coffee brewer, sit two plastic tubs, stocked with sugary treats.

Instead of adding sugar to the coffee, the philosophy is to rather alternate between a sip of black coffee and a nibble of the sweet peanut brittle, creating that irresistible medium.

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Today I chatted with Rasheed, an elderly third generation Indian man. He wore khaki pants, a loose fitting button-up, and an Islamic knit hat. Rasheed has been an antiques dealer for years, hustling his goods and starting the day off at Jaw’s Corner, hoping for a successful day.

He introduced me to Muhammad, a smiling African fisherman perched on a concrete ledge near us. Muhammad works the ocean at night, sails his boat into town, and sells his catch before dawn. He chooses to wind down the early am at Jaws Corner, spending some time with friends and enjoying a brew before ending the day.

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Sipping our coffee from small communal cups that get passed around from person to person, I notice a few men writing some news on a blackboard on one of the stone walls. “Someone in the community has died, we will go to his funeral,” Rasheed informs me.

These two contrasting men in their diverse fields of expertise might rarely have a chance to chit chat if it weren’t for Jaw’s Corner (or other similar places in Zanzibar). Yet because of the warm Zanzibari culture and the value of spending time as a community, Rasheed and Mohammad are able to share their daily stories.

How to Get to Jaws Corner

Located near St. Josephs Cathedral in the heart of Stone Town, get to the Cathedral and then ask someone to point you in the direction of Jaw’s Corner.

Be sure to check out all the best attractions in Zanzibar.

25 comments. I'd love to hear from you!

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  • r

    8 years ago

    Came across this when daydreaming about a trip to east Africa a few eyars back. I miss Zanzibar terribly, along with the rest of it.
    I had the good fortune of beign with a history prof at the time who had a contact at the Zanzibar Indian Ocean Research Institute (I think), Dr Sharif, a local expert who showed us around. Jaws corner is interesting for a few reasons, other than the lovely community space:
    1) see those red/white/blue flags and the letters ‘CUF’ on the wall? CUF are the opposition to the main (and mainland) political party; Jaws heart is, in many ways, the heart of CUF support. Zanzibar is relatively new to the united republic of Tanzania (it was Tanagyka before Zanzibar was aadded), and the dominance of the mainland in politics is irksome to many on the island, which has long been its own entity (still have to fill in customs forms, actually, and have a passport)
    2) Whilst people are polite if you’re female and you arrive there (especially if you’re politely covered up), it is traditionally a male space (and this is where the heavy ‘male’ discussions of politics can really bloom). The equivalent for women is to visit each other at home, especially between evening prayers – the visiting time. This comes in part at least from the religion (99% Muslim) and from history. When it was an Omani sultanate, Zanzibar acquired bits of architectural style. Omani houses are big, square things, with solid wooden doors (still many lovely examples in StoneTown), built around a central courtyard. You’ll still see some screened balconies. Women were traditionally pretty scluded (female slaves there actually had somewhat more freedom, as they could leave the house, etc). These days you’ll see women in the streets too, but the ladies, we were given to understand, still visit indoors, in the courtyards for example, whilst the men sit on the large kerb/bench found along the outside of many buildings, like in Jaws corner, to socialise. So yes, women have the tiem and space to socialise as well, it’s just different (and frankly, probably not quite as lengthy or relaxing, as they’re still responsible for all the household work!).

    Thank you for your lovely photos, I have really enjoyed them – I am missing it so much right now, and this is a lovely antidote to a wintry day here.

    • Mark Wiens

      8 years ago

      Thank you for sharing all of this information R – I really appreciate it! I didn’t know the extent of the political chat that took place at Jaws Corner, but it really is an important coffe shop in Stone Town. Thanks again for sharing this information with all of us!
      Mark

  • Rease

    9 years ago

    I really like the community feel of the shared coffee cup and black board.

  • Laurel

    9 years ago

    I’m also with Ayngelina and the Drop Out. Do the women have a place where they hang out? I love the idea of a hang out place though and catching up with members of your community.

  • Mark Wiens

    9 years ago

    @John: I fully agree, taking the time to relax and spend time with the community. Yah, sharing the coffee cup or any kind of cup is something to get used to. I know in some of the Arab world if you order water, a bottle will come with 1 communal cup for everyone at the table.

    @The Dropout: Thanks so much! Yes, men at coffee shops around the world always have something to talk about! Right now I’m just using a Canon point and shoot with an upgraded lens and zoom. Waiting for a DSLR soon…I hope! Thanks for the comment.

    @Caz: Very good use of time! I can speak a bit of Swahili, but not a lot. I mostly know Nairobi stylized English-Swahili mix.

    @Renee: Great, I’m with you too! A lot of the normal day to day things that happen around the world are what really make me eager to keep traveling.

  • Renee

    9 years ago

    I agree with Steffy, stories like this reminds me of why I travel. Why I want to learn about other cultures because simply having that knowledge enriches my life in some way.

  • Caz Makepeace

    9 years ago

    Looks like a great way to pass the time. I’ll have to send Craig in to get all the goss.
    Can you speak Swahili Mark?

  • The Dropout

    9 years ago

    I’m with Ayngelina – I’d love to be able to participate in some of these blokey traditions.
    In Greece I’d look at the old guys sitting in the village square and wonder what on earth they could be talking about, especially because they seemed to talk all day every day.
    I love your pics, Mark. What kind of camera do you use?

  • John in France

    9 years ago

    This is a side of western life that would be valuable to re-introduce. I’m not sure about sharing the coffee cup however?

  • Mark Wiens

    9 years ago

    @Steffy: Thanks Steffy! You said that right, learning about other cultures and listening to stories is the “core of traveling!”

  • Steffy

    9 years ago

    What a great post! I love when you hear about the way local people live and their stories, I believe this is the core of travelling. So touching and true- the coffee brings people together! I simply loved it:)

  • Mark Wiens

    9 years ago

    @Adam: Yah, probably a very similar atmosphere. You are right, venturing into some of the less touristy areas to local neighborhoods and just hanging out, is an interesting and beneficial time!

  • Adam

    9 years ago

    Reminds me of chai stands all around India. We loved popping into these little “coffee shop” type places for a nice glass of chai and a snack. I particularly loved when we wandered off the touristy streets and came across places where we were the only westerners. It was always an interesting experience, similar sounding to this one.

  • Mark Wiens

    9 years ago

    @Linguist-in-Waiting: Yah, you are right, it is a similar type of hang out. A great place to learn a few things and drink some great coffee!

    @Scott: That’s right, pretty much around the world!

    @Inka: Wow, I’m sure those letters are extremely interesting, especially if compared with the modern day scene in Zanzibar.
    Though, there were mostly men hanging out, we went with a female and all the locals at Jaws Corner were completely accepting.

    @Ayngelina: Yah, I understand, but here I’m sure you would be welcomed!

  • ayngelina

    9 years ago

    Very cool, but sometimes makes me wish I was a guy so I could hang out too.

  • inka

    9 years ago

    Do they have such a meeting and socialising point for women too? I guess not. Zanzibar had always intrigued me particularly as my great grand dad had a trading point there.He wrote great letters which I still have and treasure.

  • Scott @ Ordinary Traveler

    9 years ago

    I guess it doesn’t matter where you live. A coffee shop is almost always a great place to meet the and share your stories with a friend.

  • Linguist-in-Waiting

    9 years ago

    It reminds me of the Greek kafeneion, which is more of a masculine social institution than a coffee shop. That’s where men hang out and get their daily dose of news. It’s interesting to see regional variations of this rather intriguing idea!