by Najwa Ali

kila lenye mwanzo lina mwisho
what has a beginning has its ending

– Siti binti Saad

The photograph is tiny, barely an inch and a half across, its black and white image stained with salt and air. In it, my grandmother holds me, newborn, in her arms. The photograph arouses a strange mix of emotion in me – its fragility, its aura of normalcy, its scene of rooftop, coconut palms, woman and infant belying the turmoil that occurred before and after the image was taken.

Writing, I search for the photograph but cannot find it.


Who and what is unaccounted for? Lost? Un-inventoried? Archaeologists stumble across a skeleton during an excavation at the Omani fort near the waterfront. Ivory bones lie rigid against the dirt, the skull turned carefully to one side. A Portuguese nun perhaps, buried inside a Portuguese Fort? Beneath that, a Portuguese church, beneath that, a Swahili village and a thousand more years to dig through before you might reach sand.


Growing up in Dar es Salaam, I saw no images of Zanzibar. All I knew then were men and women who kept entering our lives and leaving, fleeing those islands over there, the space we pointed toward at the harbour, the one we could no longer return to. Afraid of what the future might hold, my mother asked a new arrival, once a revered schoolteacher in Zanzibar, now penniless and jobless, to teach me English. Just in case, my mother said. I watched her hands form vague shapes in the air.

The man who taught me English seemed old to me, austere and strict. Each afternoon, after my daily recitation of the Qur’an with other children in the flat below, I shoved my headscarf and Arabic primer inside my kikapu and climbed another flight of stairs to knock at his door. One of the first in his family to complete school, he had gone on to study at Makarere and returned, some of his students told me later, modern, rational, contemptuous of God and tradition, yet harsh in his punishment of small infractions.

At the age of six, English felt heavy and strange on my tongue. I liked the curtained dark of the room where we worked, the scratch of chalk on slate, the seriousness of our task. I swallowed the short vowels and sharp consonants and laboriously copied out the words he gave me.

A child, I gathered the words of others, stories, maps drawn with fingers on my open palm. Turn left, and there is so and so’s shop. Turn that corner, and you will find. With ear, eyes and skin, I learned the fierce vigilance of children who know their elders have experienced something difficult to put into words, whose melancholies emerge in strange angers and obdurate silences.

In school, I sang with joy: Mungu ibariki Afrika…Tubariki watoto wa Afrika


Small children stare at us from a photograph taken aboard the H.M.S London, an anti-slaving vessel deployed in the 1880s to control the flow of dhows and their cargoes. I read somewhere that British sailors would toss bananas at rescued children to watch them scramble and fight.

Another photograph shows young women in khangas outside a Christian mission, their faces impossibly still. One of them rests her hands tenderly on a young boy’s head. An elderly white woman stands to the left of the photograph, her face stern, her white umbrella partially unfurled.

Few among those rescued were allowed to leave the islands to find their own way home.


My mother’s hand mapped strange shapes in the air. I struggled for years to read them.

I was sent to relatives who had fled to something they described in their letters as safety. Crossing the Indian Ocean, I learned the weight of water, the abrupt weightlessness of air. Home, I was made to understand, was paper given, paper smuggled, or paper bought.

At night I copied out new words. I hid unposted letters beneath my pillow.


In 1875, as Sultan Barghash bin Said unsuccessfully battled the British and other European powers for control over Zanzibar and its lucrative trade routes, his sister Salme, consumed with longing for her homeland, began to write her memoirs in the German into which she, herself, had become translated.

As a child, she had taught herself to write in secret, copying letters from the Qur’an onto the shoulder blade of a camel. Later, she asked a slave, highly skilled in calligraphy, to teach her.

My friends greatly ridiculed my efforts, but I did not allow my enthusiasm to be damped thereby, nor have I ever had cause to regret the hours I spent in acquiring the art of writing, since it has proved a means of communicating with the few loyal and faithful ones of my far-away home.


I returned to Dar at fifteen, a school certificate in my hand. My mother tongues had withered in my mouth. The new words I had learned were useless.

Dreams fail, my elders announced, reciting news of war with Uganda, shopkeepers murdered by unpaid soldiers and closed borders with Kenya. Standing in line for bread, they told jokes about mountains of government-hoarded sugar melting in the rain.

I held out my hands for henna and imagined flight from the route and freight of a woman’s life.


nyumba ya udongo, ghorofa ya mawe

house of mud, floor of stone

– Siti binti Saad

In the early 1980’s travel restrictions to Zanzibar began to ease. My aunt, desperately homesick, asked me to accompany her home. The dictator was dead. The time of terror, they said, had ended. Walking, I looked up to see spiders building large, intricate webs across the narrow alleys. Arriving at my aunt’s house, we found nothing but ruin – huge chunks of coral stone, a few standing walls, a fallen door. I listened to my aunt’s melancholy voice describe a city utterly different from the one before my eyes. In those days, Dar es Salaam too was poor, with empty shops, garbage on the streets, fuel shortages and pot-holed roads. But what I witnessed here was something more desolate – a city willed, deliberately, into destruction.

What we did not speak of then: Mutilated corpses on the street. A boy running, leaping, hoping to reach somewhere. People loaded up on lorries or walking behind, on the road to Raha Leo. A woman’s screams, her neighbour’s lowered eyes. A city cleared, in no time, of its inhabitants.

Walking, we passed two old men in kofias sitting in front of a counter lined with bottles, most of them empty. One bottle, I noticed, held two biscuits, another some ballpoint pens. When I asked a question, their eyes grew nervous, reticent. I bought a pen even though the ink had dried and watched their thin fingers carefully sort through coins.


During zama za siasa, that time of incendiary politics, as the names of parties multiplied, political allegiances shifted. Was the ZNP just for Arabs? Who were the Indians supporting Africans in ASP? Would all the islands’ indigenous Africans switch to ZPPP? And what of that communist Babu, switching codes and camps, but gathering Revolution all along? Not allowed to leave her house, my aunt eavesdropped on the conversations of men, read her brothers’ books, wrote secret notes in her diary and hungered, desperately, for change.

On the night of independence, the young woman hired to help my grandmother in the kitchen seemed sullen, unhappy. Why so sad? My grandmother asked, Won’t you celebrate with ngoma tonight? The woman shrugged her shoulders. It’s only Uhuru wa Arabu, she said. Our freedom is yet to come. My grandmother never forgot her words.


Some nights, when I cannot sleep, I search the internet for signs. Once I found rare footage of the 1964 Revolution. What has stayed with me is the image of a young woman in a sleeveless white dress. She sits in a doorway, holding a gun – her eyes narrowed, her shoulders defiant.


One afternoon, as I wandered through town alone, I met an old man sitting outside a tailor’s shop. I discovered he was vaguely related to an aunt by marriage. Small and thin, like so many Zanzibaris in those days of food shortages, he could not stop talking. Come, he urged, leading me up dark wooden stairs to a room furnished with a narrow bed, a wooden cupboard. He opened up a box and pulled out notebooks. My father died when I was nine. I became tafauti, different. Every day I went to the school library and copied out the books. I sat on his bed and read, in neatly pencilled script, detailed accounts of the Emperor Akbar, Columbus, Drake, the inventions of Marconi and Bell. Page after page. Book after book. Then the Revolution happened. They left me behind.

A small boy entered the room and sat beside me. I was told he was the neighbour’s son, sent to care for the old man. When I got up to leave, the man pulled down his only decoration, a picture of Beit ul Ajaib and Forodhani cut out from an old calendar and pinned to the wall. Folding it carefully, he gave it to me. The boy stared at us, his face watchful, unsmiling.

For years, that calendar page was my only photograph of Zanzibar. I carried it with me inside books and suitcases through various migrations. Forodhani, in my childhood, was just a word, but faces relaxed when they uttered it, their eyes gentled. It was where people left their crowded homes in Stone Town to gather and watch the waves, where eyes met, where gossip and rumour flowed. Where, they told me, one could watch the boats that came and went each day.


The islands are nothing without water. In the past, dhows would arrive bringing dried fish, dates, cloth, frankincense, pearls and spices. Rough sailors thronged through town for months until the winds changed course. Women and children were warned by their elders to stay indoors. When they left, the dhows took ivory, copra and cloves. Few sailors remembered the time when their cargoes included humans to be sold.


Once, I made the mistake of watching a boat being launched off the small sandy beach beside the waterfront. The men, singing and blessing the boat turned and saw me and grew furious at the bad luck I could bring. No woman here, one of them called out. Go. This is not your place.


mambo haya ni ajabu, kila tukiyatazama

these matters are astonishing,  each time we look

– Siti binti Saad

On another visit, sometime in the ‘90s, a man approached me as I passed a corner and looked curiously into my eyes. His clothes were ragged but his manner familiar. So much that I felt I must know him even though I didn’t. He seemed to want to talk so I stopped to listen. His words, at first, did not make sense. Then, he stopped and clutched my hand. You don’t know what they did to me in prison. You don’t know. He began to weep. When an American tourist came down the street and greeted me, the man grew furious. Weh! he shouted, shoving me aside. You’re a bad Zanzibari, talking to these white men. Security guards from a nearby hotel started pushing and beating the man, until he finally broke away. He ran down the street but kept turning, at intervals, to look back at me and shout.


A man once told me a story about a jinn he had encountered when he was a little boy. An older boy, long-limbed, gentle, appeared around the corner and beckoned. Each time the little boy ran towards him, the older boy vanished. The boy returned to his doorstep and waited, alone, for hours, staring at the corner where the jinn had disappeared.


After the Revolution, the dictator banned the teaching of history in schools. The time of Revolution would become an eternal present. It was as though the British had not occupied Zanzibar for over a hundred years but that we had moved, in an instant, from the time of Sultan Barghash and slavery into the time of liberation from Arab rule. At least, this is the story the young Rastafari man told me when I met him at the market. As for Indians, they were just shopkeepers, the jews of Africa, he said.


Where does Africa end and the islands begin? Beneath the waters, bara touches Unguja but Pemba floats free, separated by storm winds and sea spirits. We utter words like talismans – Ujamaa, Taifa, Kabila. But who is Swahili, who Omani, who Shirazi or Hadimu? Who Hadhrami, Manga, Shihiri, Khoja, Goan, Bohora, Banyani, Nyamwezi, Yao or Makonde? And how many years will it take for any migrant to belong?


Khamis Ameir, a member of the Revolutionary Council, once explained how he managed to stay on the dictator’s good side when all other ex-Umma party members were in detention, exiled, disappeared or dead. Who are you mixed with? asked Karume. Your tribe, replied Ameir. His grandmother was from Malawi­like Karume himself. After that, the dictator counted on him like family.


The violence of the 1961 riots between descendants of migrant workers from the mainland and impoverished Manga Arabs from Oman, began, they say, with rumour ­– with words that grew into threats, that turned into blood. Those people, each group said, having learned from British wartime rationing to divide themselves into ‘Arab’, ‘Indian’, ‘African’ – those allowed to eat rice and those who couldn’t.

Language degenerates – vermin, barbarian, less than human. In ritualised killing, injured selves find themselves grown collective – if all are guilty, then no one is. Violence itself ecstatic – an act to cleanse confusing histories, to balance the unequal present.

My uncle, fourteen at the time, was summoned to a neighbourhood mosque to help bathe corpses brought in from the outskirts of town. He told me this story when he was almost sixty, having been stricken by what, he still can’t explain. After the Revolution, my uncle wandered unmoored for years. He too, in his turn, hurt women, fled countries, felt guilt, remorse, loved his mother dearly, and disappointed her.

What he kept repeating to me was how he had to hose the bodies down and how blood ran on the floor from the makeshift tables they had composed for all those bodies. Among them was the body of a woman, her swollen belly slashed open.


The story of the pregnant woman whose belly is slashed open, recurs, over and over again, in Zanzibar. During the 1961 Riots and the 1964 Revolution, it was used to rouse orgies of violence against Arabs. During the time of slavery, the rumour spread, a woman who owned slaves had asked to have a pregnant woman’s belly cut open to see what a foetus looked like.


In the mid 19th century, a wealthy landlord, Seyyid Hamoud bin Ahmed, set aside land for his former slaves and their children as waqf, under Islamic law. In the early part of the 20th century, the British decided such areas should be properly defined and their occupants turned into tenants, forced to pay rent. Seyyid Hamoud’s daughters fought the British in their courts for years. Such modernisation, they argued, would force out those who depended upon them – the poor, the destitute, old women, their father’s freed slaves. It took the sisters a while to understand that Arab women’s words, their letters or claims, no longer fit the island’s new dispensation of word, capital and rule. The British declared the two sisters not competent enough to administer such valuable land.


A few years ago, I met an elderly woman, insouciant, shrewd, brave. Though long-married into the Revolution, her own background was elite. She had experienced great violence, including the murders of close relatives. As I sat on a sofa at her house, I watched a constant stream of visitors entering and leaving. Some were from town, others from Dubai and Muscat. Some, she introduced to me as family, others, darker-skinned, seemed intimate yet marked by a social distance. They stayed on at her house the longest, sitting together at ease on the sofa, sharing morsels of news and gossip. These women, she explained to me later, had been connected to her family for generations. She looked at me warily as she said this. I have an obligation to them. Do you understand?


A photograph taken in April 1963 shows a crowd gathered to await the release of Abdulrahman Babu, imprisoned by the British for sedition. Women of all races surge to the front, some wearing buibuis, some with their heads uncovered. Behind them are children, behind them, men wearing white, some with heads covered in kofia, some with bare heads. They are looking up at something beyond the camera’s view, their faces rapt with joy, with something that resembles love.

I place the image next to another photograph, taken just after the 1964 Revolution. In it, women in the countryside, all African, wearing khangas, celebrate the Revolution’s victory. Their faces look tired but filled with powerful emotion. One of them turns to look at the camera with suspicion.


On a website, Zanzibari exiles grown old, argue with each other, wondering why they cannot come up with a coherent list of all the people disappeared and killed. We all know each other; we all know our families. Surely, we would know who was missing?

One of them, sober, replies: We don’t know each other. This needs proper study, a proper accounting. The numbers they offer vary. Five thousand? No, thirteen thousand.

How does one begin to count such things?


My aunt peered out of her bedroom window the night after the Revolution, wakened by the sound of shovels hitting dirt. In the dark, she heard earth being raised, then falling. Low shouts, the slow drag of bodies. The next day, new cement covered the earth.



All photos are by the author.

About the Author

Najwa Ali

Najwa Ali writes fiction, non-fiction and sometimes poetry. Trace is part of a forthcoming book-length project on Zanzibar. Her work has appeared in World Literature Today, Warscapes, Wasafiri and Room. She has received a Hedgebrook residency, Room’s Creative Non-Fiction Prize and was short-listed for the Canadian National Magazine award. She was born in Zanzibar. Twitter: @Najwa_Layla

Related Articles

adda open call: CLIMATE CHANGE

adda is looking for new writing on the theme of climate change. We are seeking poetry, fiction and – in particular – non-fiction. Deadline 31 January 2020.

Find out more