Finding Solace

Alone. The word is heavy. Dramatic. And here I am alone, in many ways.

Sometimes the words flow out of me. Other times, I am parched. At a loss for more than just words.

My biggest obstacle here is walking down the street and being treated like an outsider. Being jeered at, or cat called– it is hurtful because I feel that for having lived here for four months I deserve to be treated with some respect. I am not just some random face, I am part of this community!– indignation rises and swells in my head. In such a close, tight-knit Muslim community being young, single, female, non-Muslim, and foreign is a struggle. Sad to say, I have spent many a day fuming over the audacity of passersby and taxi drivers.

My living on my own here tends to encourage a flurry of questions. Why do you live alone? Are you scared? Do you get lonely? Why don’t you live with a family? I did live with a family for the first two months, and they have since become my rock, my source of stability and support here in Zanzibar; but the choice I made to move into my own apartment was deliberate, and I am happy with it. Still, I get the feeling that there is some mild disapproval that I am living alone, mostly because women generally do not move out by themselves.

I am somewhat of a cultural anomaly here. I look like a Zanzibari, yet I don’t cover my head. The culture and traditions I was raised with are similar, yet I still exhibit confusion over the seemingly mundane. I speak some Swahili, yet all I hear is a whistle when locals speak to me at the speed of a bullet train. When I moved here my family and several of my neighbors took a liking to me immediately, and I am positive that is because here I am perceived as an almost-Zanzibari. In their eyes I am not quite local, but not quite Westerner either. Being in that half-way place, in limbo, is something I have had to come to terms with.

Initially, before coming to Zanzibar I had decided to wear the bui-bui and cover my head in order to blend in and respect local culture. But last summer a professor advised me that it is better not to, because the assumption will be that I am a local Muslim woman. He told me that in a circumstance in which I am behaving appropriately for a foreigner, but not for a local woman, the assumption would work against me. My experience here has certainly been a cultural balancing act at times. It took me three months to realize that saying hello in response to every man on the street that says something to me is not at all necessary. At home, I am accustomed to greeting people with a smile, even strangers. I came here to Zanzibar proudly wearing my Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar badge upon my chest, eager to represent my Rotary district and the U.S. So, I beamed at everyone, wished them a good day, and was then surprised and disappointed when what I often received in return were sleazy comments. Weeks later, I was told by my dear friend Auntie Sharifa that it is not impolite to ignore the vast majority of strangers, and that to them a girl is cheap if she actually responds. Call me naive, but I was shocked and upset by what Auntie Sharifa told me because it ran contrary to all that I knew previously about traditional Zanzibari culture. Back in the U.S. I was under the impression that it is only proper to spend a minimum five of minutes to greet everyone and take the time to inquire about their health, family, and work. While this is true to some extent, I think it took me entirely too long to figure out that not everyone I passed by was being friendly.

I am alone here, it’s true. Yet as much as I have struggled, my heart brims with joy. I have seen such compassion, such kindness in this place. I have been in the presence of divine wisdom, the kind of grace that can replace fury with peace by a steady gaze.

About three weeks ago when I was vomiting and very ill, my Baba stood outside of my apartment and shouted and called me until I heard him and let him upstairs. Upon seeing my sorry state, he told me that I was coming back to his house, no if’s, and’s, or but’s. When I arrived, the family did not just simply nurse me back to health.  I found strength in the love and affection contained in every squeeze and reassuring smile. More than from the tea and bread I forced myself to eat, I gained energy from their presence around me. I remember Bi Nunu imitating the pathetic way I sank into the ground with the sullen eyes of starvation and grief. I cannot forget her deep throaty laugh when she pinched my chin and told me to sit up straight. And Sheni, with her khol lined eyes and Herculean strength, both physical and emotional, who at the age of fifty is the manifestation of wit and mischief. Of course, Sadiya, the loveliest most humble human being I have known, who with her captivating smile and subtle eyes restored not just my health but my peace of mind.

Here, I have found solace in my relationships with these people I call my family. One thing I have understood is that when we move far away from home we tend to desperately seek some normalcy, something stable in a world that is in constant flux. It is true, I am alone. But as many times as I have felt alone, there were twice as many times when I was emboldened by the support and encouragement of the people in my life here in Zanzibar.


7 thoughts on “Finding Solace

  1. Hi Nila, I am not sure you were given correct advice. I found in my travels in Nepal that dressing the same as local women opened up my whole experience and enabled me to make friends and great contacts. You send out a non-threatening message and people feel able to talk to you and have respect for you because they measure you by their standards. They do not respect western women who show flesh and will not see you as a friend.
    I received nothing but compliments from local people for covering up when I was in Zanzibar and was enabled to make contacts. The comment to Laura was made on the mainland in Dar before setting off not in Zanzibar. When we were sat waiting for Nell at the Ferry we were told with approval by passers that we were Zanzabari’s because our heads were covered. “We know you are from the mainland if it isn’t,” the helpful man told us. Everyone smiled and was appreciative and that was how it was all visit.
    I personally think you should try conforming and covering your head, arms and legs and see if you then better treated with respect. You have nothing to lose and it does not mean you agree with the practice but is a practical way of giving the right signal, getting to know people and creating trust in my opinion. I know you may not agree as a much younger person than me but I have always found it works much better to fit in rather than stand out and creates a much better experience.

    • Thank you, Hilary. I agree, and I generally dress the way the local non-Muslim women do here, which is modestly but without the bui-bui. As of late, I think I have reached a level of comfort.

      I am planning to visit Pemba, however, and I will be completely covered up and wear the bui-bui. I think in Pemba where there is very little tourism, the social dynamics are different and will be in my favor.

  2. Dear Nila,

    Finally catching up on your blog. 🙂 You are an inspiration to many. The wisdom of the ages are definitely rising up like bubbles to the surface of your intuition. 😉 Stay beautiful, intelligent, and wise!


  3. Nila Nila Nila, tis wonderful to read your blog!

    Personally, I do not have advice on what garb you need to envelop yourself with-to avoid the unease you feel lingering in your interactions with other Zanzibaris.

    What I do have to say is that I am glad that you’ve had to confront some turbulence. In retrospect, I’m certain you present experiences will prove to be a boon and something you can always summon up to measure your growth.

    For one, I am glad that you feel alone….I’m glad the tentacles of solitude have reached you, held you in their grip & forced you to acknowledge them. Now, we all know that in Gainesville, a city choking with ego-inflated students and deaf to silence, the opportunity for you to be wholly alone by yourself wouldn’t be afforded to you. Friends, too, can be distraction.

    I had to reread this blog because it is written with a fidelity to the reality of being a visitor to another country. All the emotions coursing inside of you are living in the folds of your words.

    “I am alone here, it’s true. Yet as much as I have struggled, my heart brims with joy. I have seen such compassion, such kindness in this place. I have been in the presence of divine wisdom, the kind of grace that can replace fury with peace by a steady gaze.”

    Now, this is matured awareness. No corny shit about an unadulterated Africa and, as an African, who experienced the same kind of unease when I returned back ‘home,’ I am certain that your present experience will inform your future work, whether in the continent or elsewhere.

    Anyways, I’ve written way too much than I’m allowed…but I am glad to have read of your “Stronger Lessons.”

    “The likenesses will meet and make merry, but they won’t know you, the you that’s hidden somewhere in the castle of your skin.”
    George Lamming in The Castle of My Skin.

    • Thanks for your comment George, they are always poignant.

      My learning curve has been incredibly steep here. Life back home was so predictable that I felt I dormant at times. One thing is for sure, in Zanzibar whether I am furious or joyful I am always intensely alive.

  4. little bird, it’s wonderful to see the progression you’ve made in spite of the cultural challenges.

    “For when a woman is left too much alone, sooner or later she begins to think;- And no man knows what then she may discover”
    Edwin A. Robinson quotes (American Poet, 1869-1935)


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