Avaes Mohammad

Zanzibar: SKETCHES OF ZANZIBAR 7 (200509)

In Uncategorized on June 4, 2009 at 1:00 pm

INHALATIONS

[I’m sat at a coffee shop. Having coffee. Black and pungent, like my favourite jelly babies. At the other table are two fellas having what seems like an interesting conversation, the type spoken across a table but meant for all the powers of the world to hear. One leaves, the other walks over to the counter to pay.]

Avaes: Are you German?

George: Yes.

Avaes: Thought so. What you doing here then?

George: I’m a historian…Researching the politics, culture, of Zanzibar.

Avaes: Excellent! I really need to speak to you…would you have some time, like now, by any chance?

George: Er…yes. I suppose so.

[There is known to be much variation amongst the human species. Contemporary evidence has successfully demonstrated that some are even capable of great generosity.

…And so, I had an impromptu seminar delivered by an Oxford University Professor, upon the theme of cultural politics in Zanzibar.]

Avaes: …I’m confused see…ever since I’ve been here I haven’t known what to make of it. And I don’t know what to write. It’s really doing my head in. Sorry…that’s a very English phrase.

George: I’m aware of it.

Avaes: Good. Anyway, I was in Mombasa before here yeah, and really liked what I found there. The Swahili culture and that. I was really impressed by it as, you know, a really interesting approach to multiculturalism. Over there I met this Professor guy, in a coffee shop again, he was a Professor of Swahili Culture, working for the Kenya Museums or something. He made out as though Zanzibar was like the centre of it all. Of Swahili culture. Except I’m really confused here. And I’m not sure what to write…

…for one there’s the tourism, right?…and the Papasi that’s created. And then there’s the heroin…[beat]…and the Papasi that’s created. Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate even the beauty of this place…like there’s a wall.

But also, I suppose what I want to ask you about is, is about the culture here. See in Mombasa people generally got on. I think. And I didn’t really sense that much animosity between the Indians and the Bantus and the Arabs. I saw them all hang out together. And they’ve intermarried a fair bit, you can see it. Here there is animosity though. I had a guy having a go at me the other night about how ‘Indians had always let down Africa’! I was trying to stop him pestering my friend for money. But other things too. Like how few Arabs and Indians there actually are here any more. I dunno. Does any of that make sense? Do you get what I’m on about?

[He’s been rolling a cigarette whilst listening. Smiling. The cigarette is lit and a cloud of thick scented smoke heralds the coming of his first words.]

George: There isn’t one Swahili culture. It’s wrong to speak of it as though there is. Even the language that roughly exists from Somalia to Mozambique isn’t mutually intelligible. The only thing the people of the coast really have in common is Islam and so it’s better to speak in terms of Swahilis the plural, instead of Swahili the singular.

[A pleasing introduction calls for a celebratory second inhalation]

Unfortunately, the culture…the Swahili culture. It’s become politicised. And the politics of culture is different between Mombasa and Zanzibar. In Zanzibar, ever since the Second World War, the notion of descent has become increasingly important. Part of it was of course a result of colonial policies. But, nevertheless, a word, Ustarabu, increasingly came into play. Arabness basically. And so since the 1950’s in Zanzibar, descent has become a marker of political allegiance and of course, there’s no choice, this creates a wedge between groups, it has to.

[A third inhalation to mark the futility.]

What you say about Mombasa though, that used to be true for Zanzibar also, before the 1950’s. Intermarriage and a common identity was the norm. But not anymore. People here identify themselves by descent now, which is interesting right, because it’s not what people are, but what people think they are!

Colonial policy, the British, was to separate racial groups. These racial groups created their own political groups post independence. The ZNP for Arabs, the dominant Afro-Shirazi for Black Africans and a third, the ZPP. Indians were interesting. They generally kept a low profile and chose to remain British subjects. They were divided between themselves anyway: Region, religion, class. So most kept their British Indian passports and kept out of East African politics. Now it was also British policy that they weren’t allowed to own agricultural land you see, the Indians. So most were traders or bankers. Some were artisans. The ZPP and ZNP campaigned against Indians but at the same time, landowners in the Arab and African parties were dependent on Indian moneylenders. Some Indians even financially supported the Revolutionary Government. It’s all quite complex. Rarely are things ever simple. Of course one of the first things the Revolutionary government did was to nationalise all wholesale trade and kill off Indian businesses.

[Hand to ashtray again. Fourth inhalation provides time to remind self of what still needs to be said.]

Now in Mombasa, you’re right. Things are different. The political elite post independence in Kenya were the Mao Mao. The Mao Mao are Kikuyu and so Christian. Muslims are a much smaller percentage in Kenya. The political elite in Kenya needed coastal unity in order to influence Nairobi. Unity, not fragmentation of the Swahili coast was in the political interests over there. That’s all.

[No inhalation. Just acknowledgement of the power of politics.]

There are contradictions in Zanzibar that I’m sure confuse you. There is still a mixing of culture. Indian food, in Zanzibar, is Zanzibari food. Culturally there is mixing, origin doesn’t matter, in fact the cultural origin is often even denied. Chappatti is Zanzibari here. [Beat] That’s not true of the people here though.

[Slight Pause]

It’s a shame. After World War 2, race was widely debated in Zanzibar but Indians chose to keep themselves out of these debates. In the colonial order it’s true that they saw themselves as superior to Africans. Closer to the Europeans. And the post colonial governments of East Africa, what happened in Uganda and Tanzania, actually reinforced the idea to many that racial identity is indeed the strongest component of self.

[He sits up and beams, ready to deliver the final killer blow]

Now here’s the paradox! Cosmopolitanism. And racism! They’re not opposites here. They exist side by side. Comfortably.

[Many, many smiling inhalations to mark a journey complete and the comedy of human peculiarities see him into a second cigarette.]

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: