July 26, 2009

Unveiling Zanzibar's Unhealed Wounds

From the BBC
Unveiling Zanzibar's unhealed wounds
By Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

I often went to Zanzibar as a child, with my mother, who was born in Dar
es Salaam.

We would take a crowded ferry and stay at a hostel for poor women and
their kids, who wanted a subsidised break by the sea.

The women in the local mosque provided lunch and we had a wonderful time.

The island, a fabulous mix of Arab, African, Indian and Persian
cultures and peoples, was utterly unlike my racially-divided hometown,
Kampala, in Uganda.


Then, one day, my mother told me about the thousands of black slaves who
had been captured in the hinterlands and brought to the island to be

She took me to Bagamoyo, the slave port on the mainland: the word means
"lay down your heart".

That trade went on from the Seventh Century until - it is claimed - the
beginning of the 20th Century.

Throughout early history, enslavement was common around the world, and
East Africa was just one more lucrative location.

But here, the abomination went on longer than at any other time or place.

The traders were mostly Arab, though some Indian merchants were
actively involved.

Those who captured and sold humans to the businessmen were local African
chiefs and henchmen.

A febrile young child, I was distraught when I learned that Muslims had
perpetuated this evil. How could it be?

The Prophet Mohammed had freed Bilal, a black slave, and asked him to
make the first-ever call to prayer. Surely that meant something?

And, as the years went on and we learned to look back with abhorrence at
the practice of owning and exploiting humans, how come there was no
acknowledgement of this injustice in Zanzibar?

The questions circled around in my head obsessively when I was a young teen.


Then came 1964, and the island detonated.

A revolution led by African soldiers deposed the constitutional
monarch, Sultan Seyyid Bin Abdullah.

It was, in part, retaliation for slavery - by people, and upon people,
who were not responsible.

It felt as if some ancient God of vengeance had risen from the sea.

They slaughtered anyone who looked Arab, and some Indians too. They took
their daughters to rape, confiscated their properties and
banished many.

To this day there is no list of the dead - those tortured and dumped
into the sea - the disappeared and the exiles.

My mother and I never went back to our favourite place, but for years I
have wanted to reveal these veiled stories.

Returning for the first time in more than 40 years for the BBC World
Service's Heart and Soul strand, I interviewed Leila, 99, whose
grandparents were enslaved.

"My grandmother had a baby, and the baby was still feeding - but the
traders said this would delay the journey so they just threw the baby
away," she said.

"My father was also thrown away but the missionaries took him in and
looked after him here."

Leila became very emotional.

"It is very painful - so many cruel people," she said.

"It's very hard because we can't remember our home, can't see or know
our relatives. We are cut off from our history."

When we turned the tape recorder off, her eyes glazed over and she threw
up blood all over her lovely satin dress - and me.

Then there were those I talked to about the revolution in 1964.

Those who knew the violated and stolen girls cried as they spoke. They
were taking risks talking to us, but it was time to do so, they said.

On a secluded beach away from the main town, Suleman Hamed told me how
his uncle, sister and brother-in-law were killed.

"People were killed in the streets and houses, and the revolutionaries
take your wife and daughters - for raping. That was a horrible time. We
think as if it was yesterday. And all because their ancestors were
Arabs. We are called Arabs, but I don't even speak a word of Arabic."

The historian Maalim Idris says he witnessed the gutters running with
Arab and Indian blood.

He showed me photographs of mass graves and of trucks piled high with
corpses being driven through the main street.

He believes no fewer than 3,000 Arabs and Indians were killed during the
revolution, but there is no official figure.

No healing

Going back to Zanzibar was a life lesson in the potency of the whole
historical truth.

Those of Arab descent feel too defensive about the slave trade and focus
on the revolution; Africans dwell on the trade and expect no mention of
the barbaric acts of the revolutionaries.

There will not be real, deep healing between the citizens of various
ethnicities until everyone talks more honestly about past injustices.

Without that, paradise is but an illusion.

An earlier version of this piece appeared in Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's
column in the Independent newspaper. Her radio documentaries can be
heard via the Heart and Soul website.


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