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.
Two years ago in my first Chicago winter I found myself warmed by the mornings spent teaching English to immigrants: parents, grandparents, refugees from war-torn places. They shared with me until I was overflowing with their stories. Soon, I realized that it might be valuable to give what I had received. I began writing brief stories here on this blog based on what others had shared with me.
Today marks the 51st anniversary of Ms. Rosa Parks refusing to give up her place on a bus for a white American solely on account of her being a black American. When I think about her story of rejecting an unfair system, I take little solace in the fact that the world has improved since 51 years ago. My uneasy heart is informed especially by a similar experience of discrimination I witnessed just four years ago on a day that was supposed to be only happy. During that experience, I learned from my host sister’s actions that sometimes when the system unfairly rejects you your only choice is to reject that system. Both Rosa Parks and my beloved host sister who I will call by her nickname, Mamu, have since passed. It is difficult for those of us who knew my host sister to talk about her without pain. But, I feel I must tell her story little by little. Here is one little part of my time with Mamu.
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.
Just over a year ago, I was asked to visit a kindergarten classroom on the Northwest side of Chicago. The purpose of my visit was to join the class and to pay extra attention to two twin sisters from Burundi. The girls were a source of constant stress for their compassionate teacher, Miss Chavez, who suspected that they were utterly lost during instruction. She reached out to the community center where I worked, who sent out a call for anyone who could talk to the twins in Swahili or Rundi–the languages spoken by their family at home–and assess how much they understood.
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.