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Travelling to Africa with children, especially young children, may seem like a daunting prospect – the reputation of being the wild continent has stuck. But Tanzania and Zanzibar actually offer a reasonably simple prospect for those travelling with kids – what is lacking in terms of facilities and infrastructure is more than made up for by the kindness and enthusiasm shown towards children.
Nonetheless there are some key things to know about bringing children here.
First is the malaria risk. This is minimal on the Zanzibar archipelago, as schemes to eradicate the disease have paid dividends. But for short term travellers and holidaymakers, taking some sort of medicine to prevent malaria makes sense as a precaution. It’s best to consult your local doctor or tropical disease centre about which medication is best for children. As with adults, though, Malarone is considered to be an effective option currently and can be started just one day before arrival, although it is expensive in many countries.
But also think about other preventative measures e.g. bring a carry cot for a baby with a mosquito net that you know fits, encourage children to wear long-sleeved tops and long trousers, wear child-safe insect repellent and to remain inside particularly at dusk and during the night.
If a child gets sick or has a fever, they can undergo a simple malaria test in Zanzibar’s Stone Town, or in clinics in outlying areas.
A likelier risk is actually exposure to the sun. Zanzibar’s ‘jua kali’ (hot sun) beats down fiercely on those unused to high temperatures, and this effect is amplified by the pale white coral sands of the archipelago’s beaches. Be sensible and keep kids in the shade at the sun’s peak – from 11am to 3pm or so. Get children to wear hats and be liberal with the sun cream. Be sure when you plan day trips with tour agencies that they aren’t going to have you out in the baking sun for longer than you – and your children – are comfortable with.
The main safety issue is road transport. Taking kids on local ‘dala dala’ buses is a fun and eye-opening experience for all, but these buses are not always well maintained and accidents can happen. It boils down to parental judgement – whether the experience justifies the element of risk, and in Africa, away from health and safety cultures, there will always be higher risk but often a richness of experience that compensates. If you want to err on the safe side, consider bringing appropriate child seats for your children to use in rental cars or taxis, and make sure any vehicle you plan to use has seat belts to fit.
If you take a wander on foot around the winding alleys of Stone Town, tell your children to watch out for scooters and bicycles materialising suddenly around corners and ask them to keep to the side of the streets. Prams or pushchairs can be of some use in town and on long journeys to Zanzibar but are of little use in beach areas, so may not be worth lugging along.
Also check that children are welcome at the hotels in which you plan to stay – safari destinations, for safety reasons, and beach destinations that are popular with honeymooners, often have a limit on children below a certain age.
Warnings aside, Zanzibar is a tremendous place to travel with children. It is a society built around the concept of family – which is why you will almost never see a homeless person on these islands. Children are much loved, although expected to show deference and respect to adults.
Big families mean that most people are used to dealing with children. People will often go out of their way to help if you need something for your child, and if you are waiting in a restaurant for a meal with an antsy, grumpy toddler, you may well find that the waiter will put on a one-man song and dance show for your kid that averts the tantrums.
Food itself is not too tricky from a kid's point of view. Zanzibari food is not overly fancy or hot, and common options include fish, rice, chips and pasta, with lots of easily palatable tropical fruit and pancakes available. Many kids love the street food stalls at Stone Town’s Forodhani Gardens, as well as swimming in the same sea that their evening’s fish comes from.
In terms of other activities for children, there is a zoo near town called Zanzibar Park, with lots of different animals on display, a small cafe and a playground. There is also a place to see animals called Zala Park, with indigenous Zanzibari animals such as snakes, chameleons and bush babies on display, a villager-owned and operated butterfly centre at Pete and a monkey forest at Jozani where children can see the indigenous red colobus monkeys.
Many hotels have swimming pools – check with yours before you arrive. If you are travelling on a budget you may often find that nearby hotels will allow you to use their pool if you pay a set fee or buy lunch. Failing that there is the Indian Ocean. It can vary from glassy and calm to fairly rough, so judge the waves before taking very young children in for the plunge. Some areas are tidal, which means you can’t swim every hour of every day and have to plan your swimming visits, but on the plus side you can take your kids at very low tide out on a reef walk (in thick soled shoes).
Supplies are reasonable on the main island, Unguja, for children. For babies, formula milk is available as are recognised nappy brands such as Pampers and wipes. If you are going to Pemba, or to the Mafia archipelago it's a good idea to take some of your own supplies to be on the safe side, and shop in the main villages before you go to outlying areas.
But the main thing is to enjoy - most children have a great time on Zanzibar and leave with lifetime memories of adventure and fun.
Got kids in your backpack? Visit our forum page for some more advice!