Reuters file
A view of the Old Mosque on the island of Kilwa Kisiwani Oct. 30, 2006. While agriculture is the mainstay for more than half of Tanzania's population, tourism grew by 8.2 percent in 2005 and it contributed 17.2 percent to the economy.
updated 1/2/2007 6:26:04 PM ET 2007-01-02T23:26:04

Like most other men on the tiny southern Tanzanian island of Kilwa Kisiwani, Ahmed Timami spends his days fishing.

He sets out at sunrise in his wooden dhow with its patchwork sail and returns in the afternoon with the catch that will feed his family. He prays at the mosque and goes to sleep soon after dark as there is no electricity.

But Timami has big ideas: he is preparing to trade his nets and dhow for a solar-powered fridge and some drinks, as the proprietor of the “Kilwa Kisiwani Paradise Cafe”.

“Tourism brings development and ideas from different people and that is good for business,” he said with a grin, as young men shifted rubble from a small plot where new whitewashed and grass-roofed sheds will protect visitors from the sun.

Kilwa has not always been sleepy. Pre-eminent among the Swahili city-states of Africa’s east coast, it was the Indian Ocean’s marketplace and eclipsed better-known islands of Zanzibar, Pemba and Mafia in its heyday more than 500 years ago.

Today its opulent palaces, imposing forts and ornate mosques lie in ruins. But if Kilwa’s past prosperity was built on the visits of foreign traders, Timami believes its future now lies in the visits of foreign tourists.

Over the years he has watched the number of tourists visiting his home island steadily rise.

He hopes that when Kilwa’s first cafe opens in a few months time, some of the 1,000 tourists who visit the island every year will stop for refreshment during their tour of the ruins.

Local officials are equally optimistic.

“Every year we are seeing more visitors,” Mohammed Chidoli, assistant head of antiquities for Kilwa, said. “As long as we can keep the ruins from collapse, more and more will come, bringing money and development.”

While agriculture is the mainstay for more than half Tanzania’s population, tourism grew by 8.2 percent in 2005 and it contributed 17.2 percent to the economy.

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Lying in ruins
Kilwa has had more than its share of ups and downs since the arrival of the first Persian Sultan in the 11th century, through the gold-fuelled boom years of the 14th and 15th centuries, until its final collapse after the abolition of the slave trade.

Despite the attentions of archaeologists since the 1950s, a 1981 listing by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and a three-year renovation project funded by the French and Tanzanian governments, Kilwa’s decline has continued apace.

A mosque begun in the 11th century and extended over the next 400 years retains many of its domes and vaulted archways, but walls and ceilings have caved in and a large fig tree has grown through one wall.

Although the mosque now lies in ruins, Islam remains strong on Kilwa and in the late afternoon, young Swahili-speaking men can be found huddled in the nooks of what is left, devoutly reciting Arabic verses from the Koran.

In another smaller mosque are remnants of Eastern porcelain inlaid into the domes, a reminder of the island’s cosmopolitan trading heritage.

From the foot of the mottled trunks of one of the ancient baobab trees that dot the island, the remains of an impressive palace spreads out along Kilwa’s north shore.

The palace of Husuni Kubwa was a sprawling palace-cum-market built in the 14th century.

With a swimming pool, numerous suites and reception rooms, all with vaulted ceilings and decorated walls, and a vast trading courtyard, the neglected palace’s opulence is evidence of Kilwa’s wealth at the height of its importance.

Lucrative trading post
On Kilwa, African gold and ivory was bartered for Indian cloth and Far Eastern ceramics. Fleets of ships crossed the Indian Ocean to moor at Kilwa’s large harbor. In later centuries, French slave-traders collected their chained merchandise from Kilwa’s Arab fort.

Accounts from 14th and 15th-century explorers talk of Kilwa’s beauty, sophistication and wealth. Historians believe up to 10,000 people lived on Kilwa at this time. Today, there are only 1,300 residents.

In 1505 the Portuguese commander Francisco de Almeida wrote, “In Kilwa there are many strong houses, several stories high. They are built of stone and mortar and plastered with various designs.”

This aesthetic appreciation did not stop him from blasting -- Kilwa to rubble in his bid to take over the lucrative trading post.

More than 500 years later, the multi-story residences are gone and much of their ruins cannibalized to build the mud, stick and stone bungalows in which the local people live today.

“Kilwa was controlled at different times by Persians, Arabs, Portuguese and Germans but the original people were Africans and we’re still here today,” says Assuman, a young islander who makes his living guiding tourists around the island’s ruins.

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