I am asking for help.
In writing my first novel, multiple dreams have converged. I dream of communities that do not need to depend so strongly on tourism to sustain themselves financially. I dream of a world that understands people and places whom I love in a way that goes deeper than headlines. I dream of setting a higher standard for outsiders (particularly white ones) who want to tell local (particularly non-white) stories. These dreams lay dormant in my mind until I committed to writing this novel. Then, they awoke. They began as feelings, evolved into questions, and are now possibilities.
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.
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.
In Swahili culture, it is said that when a guest comes with the rain, it is a sign of blessings. Additionally, when a guest is trying to leave but the heavy rains are delaying them, that is supposed to be a good sign, too. Especially when the rains cause so much damage, and even death, this belief is certainly tested. However, I still heard it many times this year even after the devastation in Dar and Unguja. People know that despite the damage and no matter how unpleasant, rain will also bring life in the form of plants, crops, and natural balance. This belief first had meaning for me when I walked to my first day of work as an intern in Stonetown two years ago.
“Zanzibar njema, atakaye aje” is a saying in Swahili that means something like “Zanzibar is great, come whoever wants to” in English. When I was living with a host family just over two years ago, my younger brother would say it often. Because of the hefty grammar, it was one of the things that I mostly pretended to understand for a long time. Both in grammatical and practical meaning, I think I get it now.