“No get-up stand-up for your rights, here in Zanzibar,” said a tall dreadlocked man who invited himself to join us three days running at a habor-side restaurant that seemed to be the closest thing to a Reggae bar in Stonetown, and one of the few places that locals and tourists interacted outside of the salesman/customer, hunter/prey relatonship. We never learned the name of the restaurant; the man was called Rashid and wandered through the days seeminly stoned and the nights slightly drunk.
The restaurant was hidden behind a typical souvenir and crafts shop – we’d only stopped because Brian had noticed some illegal shells in the display outside, near the shark jaws – through an area of pool tables, and consisted of a scattering of no nonsense plastic chairs and tables. A bar at one end and a grill at the other; there were generally more locals than tourists, the touts from the streets taking a break and businessmen in pressed shirts eating lunch. The prices were almost local; the mishkaki (beef skewers) marinated with ginger and garlic – between that and the view of the sunset over the water, Brian and I (and then Dominic and I) kept finding ourselves there.
Rashid was the first who came up. Swaying, slightly, he seemed to have a car, or maybe it was a boat, and he wanted to take us to Prison Island, or on a Spice Tour. (He also wanted us to know that, you know, just in case, we were in the mood for something to smoke, he was the man. Just in case.) They’d all go through a friendlier, laid back, and propless version of the same apparently prerequisite half-hearted sales pitch that people got cornered on the main streets with – and, when declined, would shrug as if they couldn’t care less, apparently relieved. “Eh, gave it a try,” seemed to be the attitude, and would hang out – slap hands, welcome us to the town, sit down and leaning forward in interest, interview us about where we came from – sometimes letting us ask a few questions, sometimes offering us pictures of their own lives, unasked.
Rashid wanted to talk politics; politics by means of quoting Bob Marley – the rest of the conversation was, as his opening remark, an homage to the man.
The tension between Zanzibar and the mainland is an open secret. Zanzibar did not want to be part of the nation and the mainland – which they often still refer to as Taganyika, rather than the name crafted to combine the two when they joined – is afraid of the “growing” Muslim presence. Rather than the proud nationalism that the rest of the nation displays, speaking of the 120 different tribes and their cooperation with a boisterous sense of involvement, avidly watching the Parliament sessions on televisions in public places, and freely moving throughout the regions (families broadly dispersed), Zanzibar keeps to itself and its people, if involved with the mainland, keep to similarly Muslim conclaves with a sense of segregation that other Muslims, at least those I’ve met here in Kawe, don’t seem to feel.
Religion, class, and ethnicity are in Tanzania – as everywhere – intricately tangled, rendering the poltical issues even more delicate.
The most readily articulated fear is of the imposition of Shari’a Law, which I heard echoed by every person I spoke to, on Zanzibar or the mainland, even the moderate Muslims. The legitimacy of the fear, I’ve no idea. The close political and economic ties with which Zanzibar operates with the Middle East (particularly Saudi Arabia) are a point of contention. The elections tend, apparently, to demonstrate the issues in an obvious, outspokn, and ocassionally violent manner that is otherwise ignored.
Of the upcoming election in 2010, heads were shaken. No specific examples of violence were given, even when I pushed, although they said that it would be – that the elections always were – and that it was because of the corruption. “So, so much corruption. It is so dirty, it is the money,” Dave the fisherman complained. (All of the fishermen seemed to be named Dave, I noted caustically after he’d left; he wanted us to come visit him ater in the evenings when he sold seafood he’d “caught” along the water in front of the posh hotel at what was passing for a street food market).Those who could were leaving the island; I got the impression for safety, as well as to have access to the polls. Rashid was registered in a town near Lake Victoria. Dave would be voting in Mwanza, where his wife’s family lived. would be going.
Dave was Christian. He had been born and raised Muslim, in Stonetown. Somehow he’d ended up in Mwanza; it was unclear how or why but seemed to involve work rather than family. He’d ended up in the far north on his own, broke and out of luck. A Christian family took him in and helped him; he converted and married their daughter. He brought his wife back to Stonetown, eventually, and has two young sons whose pictures he pulled out of his wallet to show us, proudly.Religion He had no family left here in Stonetown and so, religion didnt seem to make much difference to him. He had no prejudice against Islam, he was clear to emphasize. “They would not have taken me in,” he said of Muslims. “They did not help, here, when I had no one. But the Christians did an so I am grateful. And so I am now Christian. But first I am still Zanzibari. I had to come back.”
Ray was also returning to Zanzibar. He’d been living abroad – in Norway. His accent had altered, just, slightly, and he said that he’d approached me (I was sitting on my own that day) thinking I might be European. (He did offer to buy me a drink and invited me to a concert “somewhere, not sure, my friend knows – he works for the Africa House hotel, you know, the biggest one around – it’s tonight” but took both refusals politely, calmly, apologizing in advance that I might be uncomfortable, thinking he was hitting on me. “I know you must get a lot of hassle, being here.”) He was finding the return to Africa somewhat bewildering.
They’d sent him to college in Norway and he’d stayed, gained citizenship, worked in construction. (So he told me.) It had been over nine years. He’d let out his apartment and taken time off work; he already wished that he had more time, lamenting the shortness of three weeks, and the impossibility of tracking down the people that he wanted to see. He had one sister left in Stonetown; she worked with the television, some sort of broadcast – he’d asked her to put out a message to them, saying that Ray was back and looking for soandso. He was disappointed that he couldn’t find any of his friends in town – all were gone, “all to the disease,” he said at one point, and then quickly shut up and looked away. (I didn’t ask if he meant AIDS. He must have; the HIV rate here is obscene – and inflated by the ignorance of people who simply assume that anyone who dies young, or is sick for years, must be positive.)
I asked him about the reception that he got in Norway – being Tanzanian was wonderful, he said, they were fine. The European prejudice was against Somalis; he looked different, they mistook him for an American rapper more often than a Somalian refugee. We talked about health care and social services. At first he said that things had changed “so, so very much” here in Tanzania while he’d been gone – later in the conversation he took it back, upset and frustrated at how little things had changed, how little had improved. Stonetown, though, he said without any prompting for me, had deteriorated – this was not the Zanzibar that he had left, this was a strange land of in-between, neither Europe nor Africa. He pressed me for my opinion and I dodged, saying that he it had been nearly what I needed, but that it must be very different outside of the center – and that I wished I had time to go there, to really see Zanzibar.
“This is Zanzibar. I am from Zanzibar. Many others you will meet are not. They come here for the money. For the tourists. They bring their things – you tourists don’t know better – but those paintings, tintaga, are from the mainland. The Masai here do not belong.The jewelry they sell is not Zanzibar. And why? Zanzibar is beautiful. We have beauty. We make it. But everyone is coming in.” They all said the same thing, in so many words, more or less.
So much for the growing Muslim presence – it is the Christians, in the form of eager entrepeneurs and lost young men, that are flooding into Stonetown. The coast, islands, and the south are more Islamic than the interior and the north; with the exception of Stonetown, moderated by the tourist industry, Zanzibar has at least the surface appearance of a fairly devout Islamic community. As soon as you get out of the most interior maze of old Stonetown, women disapear; simple headscarfs are replaced by full-length billowing robes, hoods, and veils leaving only a slit for visibility. On a dala dala to Jozani Forest, my foreign presence (head covered) was less of a curiosity than an anomaly that I got the impression they really wished would resolve itself. I didn’t feel unwelcome so much as uninvited. Despite the quiet tension – the palpable feeling distaste for intrusion that the islanders radiated – between Christians (which, as a blond westerner, I am immediately classified as) and Muslims, the issue is not religion, however it may be an easy symbol.
It is not the religion itself that is a problem (so far as they would admit outright – although, the men who approached us at the restaurant were generally Muslim, themselves – black Muslim, though, which may have been a key factor) as it is the independence that it espouses, and the imbalance with the mainland, the disconnect with “Taganyika” – that others find frustrating, frightening. That the response is an attempt to disenfranchise even further. Who it is that they are hoping to silence, I’m not sure – and I wonder if they , the political, corrupt, powers that be are entirely certain themselves.
The newspaper this morning reported a series of landmines planted in Pemba (one of the Zanzibarian islands) on bridges and key transport areas. In response, the Zanzibarian Electoral Committee closed down voter registration – indefinitely postponing the process, for “security reasons”.