Zanzibar Holiday – Part 1November 24, 2013 at 8:35 am | Posted in Africa Stories, Memoir -- Non-fiction Stories | 1 Comment
Tags: Dar es Salaam, Shannon Moeser, Tanzania, Zanzibar
A hole. The toilet was a hole in the ground. I wasn’t prissy. As a teenager in Canada, I’d often used my aunt’s outhouse and just wrinkled my nose to block the stench. This hole was more sanitary – there was water flowing into it – and didn’t smell nearly as bad as that outhouse. But my western body had not developed the muscles needed to rise from a squatting position. The wall was not close enough to use for balance; if I crouched too low, I would fall on my bum. I peed – a bit – not very efficiently. Luckily there was a shower nearby, so I washed. But what would I do for the next three days?
Three weeks earlier, Solange had said, “Let’s go to Zanzibar for the Saba Saba holiday.”
And I thought, “Why not? I’ve lived in Dar es Salaam seven months and haven’t seen hardly anything outside the city.”
So I helped Solange compose a letter seeking a place to stay – a note to Dr. Coutinho that included our photographs. I’d never met him but Solange told me he often visited the U.N. office where we worked A few days later, Solange mentioned that Dr. Coutinho had written to say he would not be in Zanzibar during the holiday, and so instead she’d made plans for us to stay with her friend Joseph and his family. Joseph was part of Solange’s circle, not someone I’d have encountered through work or social functions.
On June 22, 1964, I received a letter from Dr. Coutinho. His small, neat handwriting contrasted with his lavish, unrestrained prose. After thanking me for “my very sweet letter” and describing how he was on a “secret job” that required quiet, he added:
How pretty Solange is – and you, wow! Incidentally, I am married, although my wife is permanently in Nairobi – not divorced nor separated – but allowing me the liberties of life so soon.
Then he continued:
My friends were disappointed that you and Solange were to stay with Joseph – that’s his name I presume. They were planning to take you two out on a picnic to a neighbouring island … and on my suggestion would have shown you around Z’bar Island. All that unlucky for me and without me. You could then have had Monday with your host. But your host will not like that, I am sure – too bad! Nevertheless, please do write and let me know how you feel about it all. Say what you want done – rub against the magic lamp – and my fair lady thy will shalt be done.
He signed it, “Eddie, that’s me name.” One small slip, me instead of my. His first language would be one of the Indian dialects, his second probably Swahili. English was likely his third language, yet he made only one error in two pages of dense handwritten prose.
When he previously responded to Solange’s request, possibly he had made a similar suggestion – that he could arrange for his friends to take us on a picnic and tour of the island. If so, she hadn’t mentioned it when telling me that Eddie (Dr. Coutinho) would not be in Zanzibar during our visit. Maybe she knew that accommodation with Joseph also meant that Joseph organized our entertainment. Eddie’s mocking comment – too bad – suggested friction about his proposed scenario. That could be why he was now writing directly to me. Still, the trip had been Solange’s idea and she was making all arrangements, so I wrote Eddie a short note, thanking him for his concerns, and stating that Solange had already set up our schedule. What I didn’t tell him was that I was feeling listless and was just going along with whatever Solange planned. I attributed my low spirits to the fact that my boyfriend had been away from Dar for almost five months.
The day before we left, I received another letter. This one was brief. Eddie said he would be in Zanzibar during our visit. He wrote:
I was not allowed by my Minister to go to Nairobi yesterday. I must stay here for a very urgent job that entails ‘round the clock’ sessions. I am still being hopeful that I might meet you – but if not do please be my guests some other time.
Solange and I worked at the Dar es Salaam United Nations regional office. Dar es Salaam was the capital of Tanzania (formerly Tanganyika). Tanganyika was granted independence in 1961. Of the approximately 4,500 Europeans who had been living there, nearly 1,000 departed. This exodus resulted in a shortage of English-speaking office workers. Within a few days of arriving in Dar, I quickly obtained a job as an executive secretary, with my own private air-conditioned office, even though I was only 23. Solange had no secretarial skills but spoke fluent English and Swahili, and easily found employment as a receptionist at age 20.
In Dar, there were three major racial groups – European, South Asian, and African. Each had its own residential sections (one for Europeans, several for Asians and Africans). This segregation was initially established by colonial policy and continued after independence through neighbourhood housing preferences. Although I was European, I lived in the South Asian downtown area, boarding with Muslims – an Indian Ismaili family.
Solange was part African and part European, with possibly a bit of South Asian as well. She had emigrated from the Seychelles with her mother and several younger siblings, living with them on the outskirts of the city, in an area accommodating many Christians – both African and Indian. Solange was a devout Catholic.
Both of us had African boyfriends, but mine was no longer living in Dar and Solange was in the process of breaking up with hers, so a short vacation would help us forget our troubles.
When I arrived in Dar es Salaam, it was the capital of Tanganyika; now it was the capital of Tanzania. Initially, Tanganyika was one of four countries forming British East Africa, the others being Kenya, Uganda, and Zanzibar. Tanganyika was the first to gain independence – in 1961. Independence was granted to Uganda in 1962 and to Kenya and Zanzibar in 1963. A bloody coup occurred in Zanzibar on January 12, 1964, just one month after attaining independence. The Sultan (with his Arab government) was overthrown and replaced by an African-led Revolutionary Council. This occurred while I was living in Dar but all I remember about that incident was a bit of tension in the streets for a couple of weeks. My work and social life carried on as usual.
Less than four months later, on April 26, 1964, Tanganyika and Zanzibar merged, forming a single country – Tanzania. That was just six weeks before Solange suggested visiting Zanzibar during the Saba Saba holiday. Saba Saba (Swahili for seven seven) was a festival held on July 7th in Dar es Salaam. Our office would be closed Monday and Tuesday, July 6 and 7.
As the finishing touches of the alliance forming Tanzania had not yet been completed, Saba Saba would not be celebrated in Zanzibar this year, making it easy for Solange to find us accommodation. For me, it was a great opportunity to visit another part of Africa at a relatively low cost.
On July 4th, Solange and I worked until noon, our usual Saturday quitting time, and then caught the ferry. I carried a small navy bag containing two extra cotton dresses, a robe to wear when visiting the bathroom, extra underwear, a toothbrush, toothpaste, lipstick, and my camera. My purse held my passport and a few shillings – enough money for a small emergency, not so much that I would worry if it disappeared.
For three hours, we suffered on uncomfortable wood benches. The sky was deep blue, the ocean calm, but still our boat bobbed and rolled. My stomach uneasy, my mind a bit hazy, I said little. Usually we talked incessantly about work, our love lives, and our families. Unlike most young women in Dar, we two were free – allowed to work, date, dance, travel alone, and make choices without male interference. We wore simple cotton dresses, sleeveless, fitted to display our legs and the natural curves of our bodies. This was what we always wore in Dar, which was cosmopolitan, even though about 65% of the population was Muslim. We never thought that our attire might not be appropriate in Zanzibar, a conservative Muslim town seeped in Arab tradition. The immigration officer, however, was surly, especially to me. He eventually stamped our passports but we were restricted to a four-day visit.
Joseph, a South Asian, greeted us at the Zanzibar landing dock. He had hired a cab to drive to his apartment, a short distance away, close to the sea and the town centre.
At Joseph’s apartment, we met his wife, who showed us our bedroom. She said, “We have only two beds. Our daughters can share one and you can share the other.”
They were twin beds.
I didn’t expect luxurious accommodations and had assumed that Solange and I would share a bed, but I worried about its size. In Dar, I had learned to lie in the middle of my bed, with no part of me touching the mosquito net. By sharing a small bed with Solange, parts of my body would brush against the net, and those blood-sucking fiends would land on vulnerable areas of my anatomy. Throughout Joseph’s house, I could hear the high-pitched whine of mosquitoes, just waiting.
Nonetheless, after the long ferry trip, I just wanted to relax and soothe my queasy stomach. I plopped on the bed besides Solange and we napped. When we woke, I headed for the bathroom, and discovered the hole.
Our host had arranged to take us to dinner at a restaurant. Solange and I wore our simple dresses; Joseph had donned a crisp new cotton shirt and his wife a light blue sari. We strolled down the street, talking and laughing until we reached the restaurant, where Joseph was greeted by friends. He had brought special guests – Solange and me. In front of us were mangos, papaya, bananas, and guavas. There was curried chicken and rice. Plantains cooked with peanut curry. Lively music. Non-stop chatter.
A man slipped into the seat beside me. Unlike the others, he was dressed informally, wearing a simple white shirt, his sleeves rolled up. He spoke only to me. Eddie. He was taking a break from work and would return to his office after dinner.
In the middle of the festivities, I felt dizzy, sick.
“I need fresh air,” I said.
Outside I vomited. On the sidewalk, thank God, not in the restaurant. Eddie stood beside me. I saw Solange, maybe Joseph …
“I need to lie down.”
Everything was a blur. Eddie took charge. I was in his car, then in a bedroom at his apartment.
“Lie here while I get a doctor,” he said.
How would he find a doctor on a Saturday night? I only needed to rest awhile and I would be fine.
I removed my dress and draped it over the back of a chair. Then I crawled into bed and covered myself with a sheet. A few minutes later, Eddie arrived with a doctor, who examined me while Eddie hovered in the background. “Malaria,” the doctor said.
How could I have malaria? I took my quinine pill each morning. But I had been feeling low lately. Thought it was because I was lonely, my boyfriend now living in Cairo. Maybe I had also been fighting an infection.
The doctor gave me medicine; I swallowed, and fell asleep.
In the middle of the night, I woke and saw the shadowy outline of a man.
Rape! I’m going to be raped.
I vaguely remembered the doctor leaving as I fell asleep. I was in an empty apartment with a stranger. I didn’t move, though my eyes were open. Did he realize I was awake?
As my vision adjusted to the darkness, I saw the figure clearly through the mosquito net.
Eddie sat on a chair. His brows were furrowed, his gaze focused on my face. He didn’t move, just stared like a grief-stricken father. He barely knew me but he was worried. He was watching over me, making sure I didn’t take a turn for the worse. I relaxed, closed my eyes, and fell back to sleep.
A soft breeze blew through the window cooling the humid air. Through half-opened eyes, I saw my navy bag by the door. My mind was no longer groggy, my stomach no longer upset. Still, it was my full bladder that impelled me to push aside the bed sheet, untuck the net, slip on my robe, and find the bathroom. Relief. Eddie had a real toilet.
Back in the bedroom, I dressed and then ventured into the kitchen. Eddie sat at the table, writing. He looked up and smiled. Not a broad smile, just a gentle, quizzical half-smile.
“I feel better now,” I said.
Eddie got up and sliced a banana into a bowl. He suggested I try to eat while he fetched the doctor.
I ate and still felt hungry. Eddie returned with the doctor who examined me, said my temperature was normal, gave me another pill, and told me to take it easy for the next few days. Then the doctor left.
Eddie prepared us a small breakfast – a mango, sweet rolls and coffee. I thanked him for looking after me and fetching my bag.
“Solange did the packing.” he said. “I hope nothing is missing. I invited Solange to come along and join us but she wished to stay with Joseph.”
When speaking about Solange’s decision, the tone of his voice implied criticism. Without addressing the topic directly, Eddie conveyed the message that he expected me to stay with him. I knew that if I insisted, he would drive me to Joseph’s place. But I didn’t really want to go. Here I had my own bed, fewer mosquitoes, and a real toilet.