Zanzibar Holiday – Part 3February 4, 2014 at 10:55 am | Posted in Africa Stories, Memoir -- Non-fiction Stories | 1 Comment
Tags: Changu Island, Prison Island, Shannon Moeser, Zanzibar
On our way to Prison Island in a motorboat, we roared past slow moving dhows and fishing boats. As we neared the island, I saw several buildings in front of a forest, but not until we landed did I grasp why the place was special. Dozens of giant tortoises lumbered along the shore. I was enchanted. One looked up as I approached it and Eddie persuaded me to climb onto its shell. It didn’t move while I perched on it and Eddie took my picture. Posing for this photo was much easier than holding awkward postures in a modelling session.
After enjoying a romp with the tortoises, I glanced around. Large shade trees with thick trunks and wide-spread root systems sheltered us from the heat of the sun. The old prison was still intact, its walls weather-beaten but its door secure and windows closed, protected by bars. Several bungalows surrounded the prison, their doors locked and windows veiled by curtains. But no people. Just the smell of salt air, the nearly inaudible rustle of tortoises moving slowly over sand and grass and, in the distance, the faint hum of fishing boats. For once, Eddie appeared uninterested in examining his surroundings; he simply watched me. I remembered that, in his letter, he had written: “I am working on a secret job and require quiet, so I am not in Zanzibar Town tonight, although I can see it over the waves.”
“You were working here,” I said quietly.
He looked into my eyes and nodded.
After about an hour on the island, we returned to town, and once back at Eddie’s apartment, he said, “You should rest now. I promised an Arab friend that I’d take you to his home for dinner.”
Shortly after arriving in Dar, I was escorted to a concert at the home of an Arab, and warned that I would be seated with the women. During the event, females huddled together, surrounded by a black curtain, unable to view the males or the musicians. I didn’t enjoy the experience.
However, this time Eddie said his male friends wanted to meet me, so I would not be sequestered. Eddie knew all my dresses were sleeveless and knee length – clothing generally frowned upon by Arab Muslims – but if Eddie thought it okay, it would be. (Most Muslim women covered their arms and legs, but not all covered their hair or faces. Ismaili women wore saris and, in Dar, they frequently wore western-style clothes while working in offices. An acquaintance, the wife of the Second Secretary at the Sudanese embassy, wore colourful long garments that covered her body from shoulders to feet, and draped a scarf over the back of her head, but left visible her exquisite face.)
Shortly before nightfall, Eddie and I picked up Omar who lived in another part of town.
“Let me ride with the lovely lady, Eddie,” Omar said. “You can drive us.”
He held the door as I hopped out of the front seat and into the back. We chatted as Eddie drove east, towards the other side of the island. I was surprised by Omar’s appearance. His complexion was as brown as many coastal Africans, and his hair more frizzy than curly. So I asked how Zanzibar Arabs differed from Zanzibar Africans given their similar appearance.
Omar replied, “Some families have a tradition of being Arab and others have a tradition of being African.”
Identification based on a tradition. They looked alike and had the same religion. Some were descended from Arabs who profited by trading between the Arab peninsula and the islands; some were descended from Africans who profited by trading between mainland Africa and the islands. Both groups played a part in the slave trade. The Arabs fathered children with African women; these children adopted Arab traditions and so were considered Arab. Sometimes these children married the children of African traders and were considered African. This ethnic mixing blurred the distinctions between these two groups. However, those identified as Arab owned most of the land and were generally wealthier than those identified as African.
Later, after my trip, I discovered the revolution in Zanzibar had been led by an African from Uganda. Once the Sultan and his cohorts fled, this Ugandan was shoved aside and eventually barred from returning to Zanzibar (after a trip to the mainland), and then barred from Tanzania once Tanganyika and Zanzibar merged.
This meant that Zanzibar was now controlled by an African political group that differed minimally from the Arab group; both parties had similar ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds. The African group, representing a larger number of poorer citizens, espoused a socialist policy, not unlike that advocated by Julius Nyerere, President of Tanganyika until its merger with Zanzibar and, after the merger, the first President of Tanzania.
Arriving at our host’s home after a 20-minute drive, I wasn’t sure where we were. The house sat in the middle of a field that might have been a spice plantation. Our host and his friend (possibly a relative) had lighter complexions than Omar. They were both young, around 35, just a bit older than Eddie. We were invited into a large living room, furnished with many comfortable sofas and chairs, coffee tables, table lamps, oriental carpets, and ornate wall hangings. The bright rich tones in the carpets and wall hangings mixed tastefully with the softer shades of the furniture. Relaxed in a large cushioned chair, I felt at ease surrounded by the four men.
The host, his friend, and Omar asked me questions – about Canada, my family, living in Dar, and why I came to Africa – and I felt like a star. They were charming and appeared to have a genuine interest in my responses. So I smiled and answered to the best of my ability, not trying to be demure or evasive. Looking back, I must have been glowing – a friend used to say that I “bubbled” whenever I became the center of attention.
We moved to a large rectangular table in the dining area, where two young women joined us. They wore black cloaks flowing from the top of their heads to the ground, but no face veils. Once we had seated, the host rose, went into the kitchen, and came back carrying a fork, its prongs a bit bent, which he presented to me. Everyone laughed. Arabs ate with their hands. I felt like saying that working-class Canadians often grasped food with their hands as well, unlike pompous Europeans with their multi-cutlery settings. I picked up the meat and some vegetables with my fingers, as they did. But I couldn’t match the deftness at which these Arabs – and Eddie – scooped the rice using only their hands. For rice, I used my fork. Between courses, servants brought bowls of water and cloths so we could clean our hands.
With regards to how it tasted, the meal was a bit of a disappointment. Having become used to the hot curry and cool fruits in Indian cuisine, I found it rather bland, with its emphasis on lamb, vegetables and rice. I did enjoy the sweet dates served for dessert.
After dinner, we returned to the living room and the two women accompanied us, although they sat in a corner and never spoke. Everyone was in a hearty mood, teasing each other and plying me with more questions. For once, I was tired of talking about me – there was not that much more to say – and I noticed the host’s collection of conch shells displayed on a low table between the sofas. I had purchased two similar shells from street sellers in Dar, but had never imagined such a variety. I enthusiastically praised his beautiful collection and the ingenuity of their placement, each with unique markings, arranged by size.
The host immediately offered me one as a gift. I was astounded, not believing he meant it.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yes, yes. I want you to have one.”
“You choose. The one you like best.”
My hand hovered above the display and I was about to pick a large one with unusual markings when Omar whispered, “Take that one. It’s rare and one he prizes.”
Omar gently pushed my arm towards a small shell. Like an imp, I chose it. As I picked it up, I caught a flicker of pain in the host’s eyes, followed immediately by a smile.
Soon after, Omar, Eddie and I took our leave, among profuse expressions of gratitude for a most enjoyable evening. The host presented the shell to me, carefully wrapped.
Years later, I realized that I had committed a cultural gaffe by praising the host’s collection. Traditionally, Arabs will offer an object of admiration to a visitor as a gift. Not to do so would lower the host’s esteem in the eyes of his companions. I didn’t know this, and Omar used my ignorance to play a joke on our host by encouraging me to pick a highly-prized shell.
I have since realized that among these people, one-upmanship was a game, and that was the reason I was invited to dinner. My host had dared entertain in his own home this strange blond woman who broke many cultural taboos. It was a way of outshining the community’s more conservative Arabs. They would have something to talk about for months. And, indeed, in a letter I received from Eddie six weeks later, he mentioned that an Arab who had not been present that evening had asked him about me. On this small island, there seemed little to do except entertain each other with stories.
Back at Eddie’s place, we again relaxed in his living room. He told me a bit about Prison Island, how the main building was used as a quarantine station for years; how more recently, the island had served as a getaway for city residents who sometimes used the bungalows for overnight shelter.
“Since it is no longer a secret, I might as well tell you. I was working on Zanzibar’s budget. That is why I needed a quiet place.”
He had worked in Zanzibar for years beginning as a clerk when it was a British protectorate. He called himself a Zanzibari, but he had no family here, just friends. Again he mentioned his wife and two children who were now living in Nairobi. Although his government contract included a five-day leave to visit Nairobi each month, he had not been allowed to go in June or July. Expecting to take the trip early in July after completing the budget, he initially told Solange he would not be in Zanzibar during the Saba Saba holiday. Later, however, he was informed that he could not go until Cabinet passed the budget, which would likely take another month.
I again told him about my boyfriend who had left Dar at the end of January, supposedly on a one-month trip, but had been barred from re-entering Tanzania due to political infighting with his former colleagues.
Both of us were alone, and lonely.
“Well,” I said. “I still have Solange. I wonder how she spent her vacation.”
“I don’t like Solange,” Eddie said.
“You don’t know her well. She’s very kind.”
“She should have stayed here. You were sick. She should not have left you alone.”
“But Joseph and his family had made arrangements. She had to honour them, even if I couldn’t. I improved rapidly, and thoroughly enjoyed touring with you and Dick-Dick.” And to myself, I added, “Plus I wanted to stay because you had a real toilet.”
The next morning we moved quickly. I worried about missing the ferry; only one ran each day between Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam. I fretted about getting through immigration and the possibility, however remote, that officials on the mainland would find reason to deny me entry.
Eddie remained calm and had me out the door in plenty of time.
“Are you going directly to work after you leave me at the ferry terminal?” I asked Eddie.
“You told me in your letter that you would have to work ‘round the clock’ this weekend. Instead you showed me around the island.”
“Now I am going to suffer. I’ll have to work all day and all night to catch up.”
“You aren’t going to work straight through the night?” I asked.
“Yes. I must.”
Passing through the market square, we could see a long line-up at the terminal, even though the ferry would not be leaving for 45 minutes.
“Oh,” I said, “I forgot to buy my scarf. Can we stop?”
Eddie looked at the line-up and said, “I’ll get it and mail it to you. Or maybe I’ll be able to give it to you in person. I must go to Dar for meetings on the budget. But I don’t know when.”
He drove up to the main gate. As I hopped out, Eddie said, “Don’t forget to send me a note to let me know you got home safely,”
I spotted Solange and rushed to greet her. I turned to wave goodbye, but Eddie had already curved his car away from the melee. The smell of sweating bodies. The noise of people jabbering in several languages. It was all so familiar. Yet for two days I had peace and the luxury of intelligent conversation. Already I missed it. Only the familiarity of Solange lulled me. She was, as I’d told Eddie, very kind – though by no means sophisticated or brilliant.
We easily passed through the immigration queue and, after we settled on the ferry, I started telling her what I had seen – the old town with its narrow alleyways, the slave cave, and Prison Island with its giant tortoises.
Solange interrupted. “I’ve seen plenty of giant tortoises in the Seychelles.”
“Where did you go?” I asked.
“I met lots of people. We walked around town and visited.”
Probably Solange believed I should have returned to Joseph’s house once I felt better, that Joseph had plans and Eddie kidnapped me. But I thought my holiday had been more fun. Eddie knew what an outside visitor would want to see.
Heading home, we said little more, but unlike the ferry ride three days ago, when I was quiet because I felt low, I hummed to myself as we bounced over the sea.