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.
Just as the Kaskazi rains started to fall, my classmate’s longing to create peaked. As an artist, she missed having studio space back at Indiana University. Thus, our resident director made good on a promise to introduce her to Stonetown’s art community. Another classmate and I tagged along, and we were the ones who clicked with Philbart Banzie, a.k.a. Bart Michoro, a.k.a. Bart.
My first impression of Bart was that his mind was in eight different places at the same time. He spoke rapidly, and moved unpredictably. His eyes were youthful, but his hands were worn. Not unusual for a Zanzibari, he owned at least two mobile phones. And, he switched between them as seamlessly as his words switched between Swahili and English mid-sentence. Often, it is apparent that he is laughing at your expense, but somehow it is never insulting.
Lately, I have been going to mass at Old St. Pat’s, just west of the Loop in Chicago. The priest tonight talked about “reclaiming humanity,” and it reminded me of another place much warmer than here. One of the most human moments I have ever witnessed happened at a historic church in Zanzibar called Minara Miwili or St. Joseph’s Cathedral. It happened because of a tragedy.
Two years ago in February, when I was living in Zanzibar a priest was shot and killed. His name was Father Evaristo Mushi. The international news media shared the story of his death under headlines about “religious tension,” “brave Catholics,” and “extremists,” without any knowledge of who the shooters were. A small handful of American newspapers shared the story of his life, since he had lived in places like Pittsburgh and St. Petersburg. I attended his funeral mass with a close friend, and I admit that I was nervous. When we arrived, there was a crowd lined up the whole way down the narrow, ancient street. My nerves disappeared when we saw what everyone was wearing. I regret not having a camera at the time, but no one cared about cameras that day. The only people who did bring cameras were journalists who snapped away when the politicians arrived, quickly shook hands next to the casket, and shuffled away from the place immediately. It is incredible to me that no one bothered to photograph the much more meaningful attendees, who were the hundreds of women in matching kanga.