…a gateway to Africa. Through its portals passed not only slaves, spices and ivory, but also missionaries, explorers and conquerors.
Abdul Sheriff, Professor of History, Dar es Salaam University
In the last of our eight years in East Africa I was taken to Zanzibar as a birthday treat. I can’t imagine a more wonderful gift. It was the end of October, the beginning of the hot season on the Indian Ocean. But there was an air of quietness too. Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s revered first president had just died. He had done his best by his nation while being shunned by western powers. This was because he said things like:
“No nation has the right to make decisions for another nation; no people for another people.”
And: “We, in Africa, have no more need of being ‘converted’ to socialism than we have of being ‘taught’ democracy. Both are rooted in our past – in the traditional society which produced us.”
And: “You cannot develop people. You must allow people to develop themselves.”
And also: “Democracy is not a bottle of Coca-Cola which you can import. Democracy should develop according to that particular country”.
In the days before independence he also told his British rulers: “In Tanganyika we believe that only evil, godless men would make the colour of a man’s skin the criteria for granting him civil rights.”
A man who got right to the point then.
We arrived mid way through the thirty days of national mourning, but even so, and despite being the descendant citizens of the former colonial power in question, we were treated with gracious hospitality as we wandered the shadowy alleys of Stone Town.
Here’s more about the island and Swahili culture from an earlier post:
Zanzibar – it’s all in the name – the Indian Ocean shores where Arab merchants met with African farmers and created a new people: the Swahili. In the Arabic Kilwa chronicles of the Middle Ages, the word Zanj denotes non-Muslim black people, and the word bar means coast, and the term back then referred to much of the East African seaboard – to wherever the dhow traders seasonally put in to haggle with Bantu farmers for ivory, leopard skins, rhino horn, iron, ambergris and mangrove poles. These, then, are the shores of the Sindbad (Sendebada) tales, but today the term ‘coast of the blacks’ survives only in the name of the Zanzibar archipelago (Unguja and Pemba Islands), now part of Tanzania.
These days too, Zanzibar Island, more properly known as Unguja, is seen as the heartland of Swahili culture, and the place where the purest form of KiSwahili is spoken. Once, though, there were many other powerful Swahili centres – independent city states that included Manda, Lamu, Malindi and Mombasa in Kenya, and Sofala far to the south in Mozambique. Such states, with stone towns built of coral rag, began evolving from at least the early 800s CE (Manda), by which time KiSwahili was already a fully developed language, albeit with many regional forms.
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