This story took place a little over two years ago, but it has been on my mind today. Being good friends with the poet, Haji Gora Haji, my program’s resident director was invited by him to visit his hometown on the island of Tumbatu. Excited about the opportunity, she asked if we four students could also come along, and Mzee Haji Gora agreed. To understand the gravity of this invitation, I should explain that outsiders are typically never allowed on Tumbatu without having been invited and granted permission by a local sheha. I am sure that it is the most isolated place I have ever been. To my knowledge, there are no cars on the island; though, there is an inexplicable, yellow phone booth without any sort of phone in it. We didn’t know what we would see or do there, but if there is anyone better to travel Zanzibar with than Haji Gora, I am not sure who it would be. He speaks in riddles, recounts oral histories of ancient times, and commands more respect than a president.
We set off in the morning, and took a small motorboat from Mkokotoni to Gomani, which is where Mzee Haji was born. We saw his house, the plot where his childhood home used to be, and walked around the town. However, things were not that simple. Our visit did not go unnoticed by the hundreds of children who had nothing better to do that afternoon. On each path and down each alleyway that we took, we were escorted by swarms of Watumbatu children. They giggled and gawked at us. One little friend named Ali was especially grumpy and embarrassed when he asked me for money, and I scolded him. Later, he overcame his pride and together we discussed snorkels and airplanes while his friend took pictures with my camera.
But before we began our walking tour–in fact, barely before we made it off the beach–we were surrounded by stares and whispers. Recognizing how foreign I looked, sounded, and acted, I personally gave everyone a pass. I also knew how rarely outsiders came to the island. However, Haji Gora did not accept it. I will never forget the way that he effortlessly halted all the chatter, and called upon the crowd to answer a question for him. He said:
“Answer me. How many legs do these people have?”
There was a pause.
“Do they have six legs? Do they have five arms?”
Someone meekly stated that we had two of each, because we were human beings.
Then wise Haji Gora Haji retorted:
“Yes, they are human beings. Now treat them like ones.”
Photo Copyright 2013, Peter Bennett
Ali and friends insisted that I take their picture as we were leaving. Some were more ready with poses than others.