Normally, sounds atop the roof of Chavda Hotel include squawking crows, rumbling motorbikes, and jangling church bells from Minara Miwili nextdoor. The wind also rattles silverware and rustles tablecloths on especially blustery days. Sitting at a rooftop table, we earned wi-fi with purchase of chipsi and chai. Waitstaff tolerated our lengthy visits because we made them laugh, and we said not Hello but Hamjambo. Proper greetings matter.
Proper goodbyes also matter. This is part of why hundreds of Muslim Zanzibaris gathered at a mosque near the market that day. They wished to pray together and feel a sense of community after a deadly disaster. They wished to say goodbye. Just two days before the beginning of Ramadhan, a massive ferry sank near Chumbe island. The international media reported “at least 68” dead. However, Mnazi Mmoja soccer field and Maisara became an impromptu morgue for suspiciously more than 68 bodies. Families nervously entered tents to look for missing loved ones. Anyone unable to make it to Mnazi Mmoja watched the local news, on which–quite shocking to view–video panned over drowned faces hourly. Wailing pierced the darkness that night.
Nevertheless, the usual call to Friday adhuhuri prayer reverberated through the coral rock walls of town, and men’s sandals clapped along stone streets leading to minarets. But, this prayerful gathering by the market took place at a special mosque. This particular mosque served as a focal point for the loudest voices demanding Zanzibar’s independence from mainland Tanzania. Needless to say, this complicated things. Even still, the somber mood seemed to weigh heavier than politics.
But after a few sips of chai, we heard an unusual sound.
Not a bang—no, more of a resounding snap. If you have heard two wooden boards smack together in an echoey space like a warehouse or a barn, this is the sound. And, at first we thought it must be something similar.
Bang-snap! It happened again, and this time crows from all corners of Stonetown took flight. As humans, we recognize fear. These birds flew in fear, not in play. Screeching shrilly, they scattered without uniformity.
Chavda’s staff didn’t fly, but they shuffled uncomfortably. We noticed it. Though, the Europeans on safari do not. They are busy slurping papaya and tinkling teaspoons. They look at yesterday’s photographs and think about tomorrow’s. We knew better. This was unusual.
And, life on an island does not often proffer ‘unusual.’ We begin to tilt our ears, and shuffle, too. The staff notice it. They hear us discussing, and we see them whispering: mutual understanding. My friend and classmate asks a waitress about the noise, and she is dismissed: just a car, just a kerfuffle in Darajani. We accept it.
But, another bang-snap! prompts our rising. This is time to leave. The waitress changes tones: not quite a car, not a kerfuffle anymore.
“Oh, but stay here. It’s nothing, but stay.”
Our eyes reveal that we are nervous, and the waitstaff reciprocate. They, too, look gravely fretful. The Europeans on safari calmly chatter about tortoises. So, with mutual understanding, we meet quietly in a corner.
“We must go, sister.”
“You must stay, uncle.”
“We live close, not near Darajani.”
“I see. Yes. Okay, go now, go fast.”
We took flight like the crows; not in play, but in fear. We suspected the unusual sounds might be gunshots. A little panicked, we wound through the alleyways toward a host family.
Bang-snap! Bang! Mothers pull their children into doorways. Fathers return earlier than anticipated. Brothers park motorbikes, or else bravely race toward the marketplace. They want to see the action. The Europeans on safari delight over cinnamon and saucers up on the rooftop, above and away.
After some minutes, we arrived at our destination and Mama Salha took us in. Later, we learned that the gunshots were indeed what we suspected. The fiery, independent voices at the mosque garnered attention from the union police. The police took action, demanding dispersal. A riot ensued. Tear gas blanketed the road. This was our first time hearing gunshots in Zanzibar. This was our first time hearing the sounds of repressed revolution.
The next day, we woke to Ramadhan and fasting.
Revolution would have to wait while shops quietly close and men mute their radios. Dancers put away drums and gossipers hush. Men cover heads; women cover faces. Smokers put out their cigarettes.Eyes cast themselves downward. Words are thoughtfully selected. Muslim Zanzibaris do as they have done for generations. And, Europeans on safari chatter delightedly about faith and fabric. Confused, they bicker about the rules of snacking in public. Are bananas okay? What about a Fanta? They giggle and splash in the warm waters. Noticeably noisy on an otherwise quiet island, their foreign words become the most unusual sounds.