James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

When Coffee is Your Cocktail

When Coffee is Your Cocktail

Jaw’s Corner breathes news and runs on coffee, so of course I like it there.

But, while I’m deeply committed to the two things that fuel the place, I’m also not oblivious to the fact that I stand out in the square. The corner is an open-air man cave. Most of the regulars found leaning on ledges or sitting on benches are old enough to be my father — actually, a good handful of them could probably even be my grandfather by age. I’m usually the lone mzungu (Zanzibari reference to foreigners, Europeans, or white people), very likely the sole non-Muslim, and perhaps most strikingly, almost always the only woman that isn’t just passing through.

Despite not fitting into its demographic, when walking by Jaw’s on evenings when Al Jazeera or the BBC is playing on the television perched up in the corner, I find it really hard not to sit down. With a cup of coffee costing only 100 Tanzanian shillings — equivalent to an American nickel — hell with it, sometimes I just do.

Jaw’s is located within the walls of the ancient city of Stone Town, Zanzibar — a semi-autonomous territory located in the Indian Ocean, a bit over 20 miles off the eastern coast of mainland Tanzania. The corner was formerly known as Soko ya M’hogo (shortened Swahili for cassava market), but people tell me it’s been known as Jaw’s for, as precisely as anyone can remember, a long time.

In some ways the square has evolved over the years — with the arrival of a sleek flat-screen TV and freshly painted logo — but the scene seems to have stayed pretty consistent over time. Simply put, Jaw’s is a place where you can go to find out what’s going on. The conversations that fill the airwaves will leave you arguably more well-versed in day-to-day local affairs than any newspaper or twitter feed. Whether the TV is on or off, take a seat at Jaw’s and you’re guaranteed live updates and commentary all day long.

Traffic ebbs and flows here throughout the day, but there are always people around. Daytime sees the space buzzing with caffeine and conversation, people playing board games and scooters zooming by. The corner rounds up quite a crowd when English Premier League is on, but slows to near-silence during prayer times. Intermittent guides regularly bumble through with sunscreen slathered SLR-armed tourists — often dressed more like they’re going to chase lions on safari rather than strolling through a town — visiting the square to get the real Stone Town experience. For travelers passing by, the place is Instagram gold —but rest-assured there’s room to appreciate it for much more than a couple of clever hashtags.

The window of time between afternoon and evening prayers is perhaps one of the most interesting times in Stone Town. It’s far from a science, but in some ways, the lead up to sunset seems to subtly polarize people. Tourists, volunteers, and expats in town head to its perimeters to a rooftop for sundowners overlooking the sea. Children take to the streets and the ocean to run and play and splash around. Women are often out and about, with the kids, together or at home. Men seek out coffee and conversation, both of which they find in abundance at Jaw’s.

Despite no one’s beverage having a percentage (Zanzibar, after all, is a predominantly Muslim island), there’s something about the corner at this hour that is reminiscent of walking into a bar after a long day’s work. You have the same characters — the people watchers, the networkers, friends catching up, friends complaining, and the guy alone that’s simply trying to drown out a rough day.

I always ask if it’s ok for me to sit before settling into the corner. When it comes to Jaw’s and its crew of coffee-drinking men, like almost everywhere I’ve been in Zanzibar, there’s never been a time when I haven’t been absolutely most welcomed. Whether the offer is always genuine or not, it most certainly is always there.

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