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Monday, July 27, 2009

Unveiling Zanzibar's unhealed wounds

Stone Town, Zanzibar, BBC file photo
Zanzibar was a centre of the East Africa slave trade

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 sold.

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.

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
Leila, whose grandparents were slaves

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.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Zanzibar, 2009
The return: Yasmin had not set foot on Zanzibar for four decades

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.

We are called Arabs, but I don't even speak a word of Arabic
Suleman Hamed, whose relatives were killed

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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