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Zanzibar’s Desis
[SATURDAY, JULY 27, 2002 12:07:06 AM ]

Abdul Sheriff is professor of history at the University of Dar es Salaam and principal curator of the Zanzibar museums. He is currently busy setting up the Palace Museum and reorganizing the Peace Memorial Museum. In Stone Town, Zanzibar’s historical urban centre, the professor spoke to Dileep Padgaonkar about his community, people of Indian origin who made the fabled Spice Islands their home. Excerpts from the conversation:

How far back can you trace the links between India and Zanzibar?

Portuguese records indicate the presence of Hindu traders from the Gujarat port of Cambay in Mombasa harbour in the 16th century. But there were no permanent Indian settlements before the 19th century. In 1819 the population of Zanzibar included just 214 Indians.

Initially, the Arab authorities imposed various taxes which placed the settlers at a disadvantage. However, their plight didn’t last long. Following the end of the Anglo-French wars, the situation in the western Indian Ocean region changed swiftly. The increase in trade provided Indian merchants with expanding opportunities. The Omani Sultan Seyyid Said sought their skills and talents to realize his own political and commercial ambitions. The Indians received the same privileges as the Arab and Swahili subjects in local trade.

Why were these early Indian migrants called ‘birds of passage’?

They were men of limited means, single men who worked hard and lived in dormitories, in crawls, and when they made enough money they returned to India to get married. It was much afterwards, towards the end of the 19th century, that they brought their families. That is when they began to add another storey to their modest single-storey homes. The windows, balconies and entrance doors all bore the stamp of Gujarati architecture, as did Hindu temples and the mosques of India’s Shia Muslim sects.

What were relations like between Hindus and Muslims from India?

There were no problems between Hindus and Muslims until the colonial era. Colonial rule institutionalized racial and religious segregation, especially on the mainland. Partition polarised the communities along political lines. Some people did not wish to be identified with any community. My maternal uncle, for instance, studied Gandhi closely. An Indian Muslim Association was formed. It was short-lived. The divisions between Hindus and Muslims do not run too deep here in Zanzibar. India and Pakistan are simply too distant.

How would you describe relations between Indians and the rest of the population?

Indians mingled freely with the local population. Language proved to be a great assimilation factor. Indians learnt Kiswahili. My mother used to call it ‘‘our matribhasha’’. Today young people of Indian origin hardly speak Gujarati. Inter-marriages were, however, rare. The Indians, both Hindus and Muslims, did not accept the progeny. They had a pejorative word for them: chottara.

What are African perceptions about Indians?

In African eyes, all Indians are rich. This is simply not true, and certainly not here in Zanzibar. The merchant community was affluent. But not all Indians were merchants. Many served as clerks in merchant firms. Many more were menial workers. But even the merchant community wasn’t always prosperous. Their fortunes declined when the economy went into a decline. The nationalization of trade affected them further.

But let me also add that the African perception holds true in some measure on the mainland. In Nairobi, for instance, Indians have integrated less. They have assimilated western culture but hardly anything at all of African culture. They have also tended to flaunt their wealth. Moreover, Indians on the mainland regard Africa as nothing more than a ‘transit lounge’.

What about your own family? How did it cope with changes like nationalization?

When I was a teenager, my father was shocked to know that I did not know Gujarati. He fined us children if we spoke Kiswahili at home. But in the 50s, and especially after the Suez crisis, I turned a nationalist, a rebel. I told my father: ‘‘I’m a Zanzibarian. Zanzibar is my country. Kiswahili is my language. My Gujarati roots come later.’’ I also had to convince him why I heartily supported president Nyerere’s socialist policies. I said to him that those policies may adversely affect the business community but they would benefit the people as a whole. In due course, my father concurred with my views. I think every community has a right to preserve its culture. However, this must form part of a process of integration.

What do you make of the Indian government’s efforts to reach out to the Indian Diaspora?

In theory, such efforts may be laudable. But in practice they can turn out to be counter-productive. So long as we maintain links with India and so long as we are seen to receive favorable treatment from the government of India, our loyalty to our nation will be questioned. I also wonder sometimes whether reaching out to the Diaspora is in our interest or in India’s self-interest. This is what I would like to say to New Delhi: ‘‘Feel for us. But please leave us alone. Zanzibar is our home, our past, our future.’’



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