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cowrie shell mask Zanzibar Tanzania
Cowrie Shell Mask

The Story: When my husband and I went to Africa, I was determined to come back with a tribal mask of some sort. Nothing seemed to represent Africa more in my mind than these iconic symbols. So while wandering the labyrinth that is Stone Town, Zanzibar, we were invited into shop after shop filled with every imaginable type of ‘authentic’ treasure. Whether they originated from some remote Tanzanian village, or the factories of mainland China was anybody’s guess – and half the fun – as we tested our bartering skills with the shopkeepers.

Masaai statuettes like these ones in Zanzibar all start to look the same when you're shopping for the unique.

Maasai statuettes like these ones in Zanzibar all start to look the same when you’re shopping for the unique.

Always on the lookout for the outlier, I spotted a dusty mask forgotten in a corner of one shop, and picked it out. My husband thought I was nuts to consider this ugly duckling. “It’s dirty and looks old – and there’s a shell missing. Do you really want to pay money for that?”

I was reminded of what Charlie Brown said when choosing his tiny Christmas tree from the surrounding forest of shiny aluminum giants: “This little one here seems to need a home.”

So the mask came home with us. And after I dusted it off, repaired the loose shell, and hung it on the wall,  even my husband had to admit that it ‘looked better’.

When we got home, I Googled the mask. Turns out it probably comes from the Lele tribe in the Congo. We didn’t even go to the Congo on our trip. All we did was find it while shopping in Zanzibar, Tanzania. But that didn’t matter to me.

What matters is that every time I look at this mask, I see the twisted streets of Freddy Mercury’s hometown, a pair of strolling Maasai warriors, and the smell of coffee coming from the cafe below our room.

Of all the shoppers in the world, I guess I’m the Charlie Browniest.

The Fact: Stone Town, Zanzibar has a distinctly Arab influence, being a trade hub for centuries, and as one of the ‘Spice Islands’, it’s a great place to pick up some spices, including the most expensive spice in the world, saffron. But don’t be fooled by the fake saffron-sellers. Here’s a guide for how to tell real saffron from ‘safflower’ or other impostors. And remember, if the price is too good to be true, it’s likely because the product is false.

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