Yesterday evening I met with Ulrica, a friend of mine who was born in Zanzibar, but who later moved with her family to Oman for many years. Recently, she and her family have returned to the island. In talking with her, I gained from the perspective of someone who has lived well abroad, but has deliberately chosen to return to the place of her birth, a place where daily life can present innumerable challenges. A true patriot. As difficult as it is for her to accept how much Zanzibar has declined in the years she was away, she tells me with incredible sincerity that “home is home.” When she speaks of Zanzibar her pride is fierce. And although I have lived on the island for five months now, it was only yesterday evening that I truly understood the love that Zanzibaris have for their nation.
I finally realized that it was recently, and very much within the memories of Ulrica’s parent’s generation, that Zanzibar was an autonomous state (albeit a British protectorate). During our discussion, Ulrica relates to me that the island has not recovered from the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964 when Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah was overthrown by a coup d’etat, and 200 years of Arab rule ended. However, from what I have gathered from talking to residents of Stone Town, as well as what Ulrica tells me, is that what many Zanzibaris remember of the revolution is not the power shift but rather the horrific blood bath that followed shortly thereafter. To them, the Zanzibar Revolution was a genocide in which thousands of Arab and Indian men, women, and children were shot in cold blood. For many, the heaps of bodies, the unmarked mass graves, the blood that trickled down the streets were too high a price to pay, and so they left. Ulrica tells me that most of the Arab and Indian families which remained emigrated to Oman, the U.K, the U.S., and to Canada.
The targeting of Arabs and Indians during the revolution was a result of an anti-foreigner sentiment that rose in the time leading up to the coup. This was regardless of the fact that by the 1960s, many Arab and Indian families had called Zanzibar home for centuries, and that the populations were very much mixed in with the Swahili people native to the island. Zanzibar’s history including the slave trade and the humiliating centuries-long subjugation suffered by the black Africans to whom the land originally belonged, I have understood, were what were revolution leader John Okello used to incite anger and hatred. The genocide which took place is largely unknown in the rest of the world, and the death toll is not clear. There are figures as high as 20,000, although most estimates are about 5,000.
It seems as though nearly everyone has their own story about the Zanzibar Revolution. My Baba has told me that he and his brother climbed up on the roof of their house the day the violence started, and laid face down for hours so that they would not be discovered. My Swahili teacher, Bi Amina has told me that it was in the very house she lives now that her own father hid a group of Arab men. She was a young girl at the time, and she remembers helping her mother make chapatis and bread in the kitchen from morning to night to keep the guests fed. Bi Amina and her family are descendants of Comorans who migrated to Zanzibar many generations ago, and she told me that in fact even Comorans were targeted, although it was more difficult to differentiate them from Swahilis based on appearance. When I hear these stories, and there are many more that people refuse to tell, it seems to me that the wounds are still raw. Only their silence speaks of their sorrows.
Despite all of this there is peace within people here. I have seen it.
Ulrica is beautiful. She is of Goan Indian descent, and is a practicing Catholic. Her husband is a Muslim. She says she has begun to study the Qur’an to at least understand its teachings. My meeting with her had been long overdue, and so we met last evening and walked to the roof top restaurant of the Chavda hotel near my apartment. I had not expected to take part in such a serious conversation, yet before either of us knew it three hours had passed. I utterly enjoyed Ulrica’s company; she is fiery, passionate, and incredibly intelligent. The two us were joined later in the evening by the chef at the Chavda, an Indian man by the name of Dinesh who had immigrated to East Africa from India a few years ago for work. While the three of us engaged in a lively discussion, I thought to myself how incredible it was that life had brought the three of us together at that place and time. We could not be more different, yet we were inexorably linked: first through India, and now through Zanzibar.
While we chatted, Dinesh informed us that he was heading to the Hindu temple later that night to take part in the last night of the nine-day Navaratri celebrations. I told him that I had never been able to find the temple, and so he insisted that Ulrica and I join him. Although Ulrica and I ended up going on to the temple before Dinesh could join us, I am grateful that he insisted that we go and see the festivities. It was a beautiful night, and one that I will remember for a very long time to come.
There is a peace here, one that has survived despite being thwarted. And that is something that every Zanzibari can cherish.