Being a Zanzibari

* By Mohammed Saleh

What aspects of your background permit you to define yourself as a Zanzibari?

• Zanzibar being the country of my by birth and a land where my umbilical cord is lying
• Zanzibar being the country where my parents were born and grew up. The country where in some ways they have contributed towards its development
• Zanzibar being the country where there are numerous tombs of members of my extended family
• Zanzibar being the country where I grew up and received my basic religious and secular education
• Zanzibar being the country that I could identify with, in many ways, and that I could easily articulate on its various aspects
• Zanzibar being the country that consciously and/or unconsciously, objectively and/or subjectively attached with and could dream about and even become nostalgic of
• Zanzibar being the country that I could be proud of, that I could be sentimental with and going even as far as sacrificing my time, energy and even the best part of my life for its development and social welfare of its people
• Zanzibar being the country where I could be discriminated against and considered alien by those who are more alien than anybody else, but where I could naturally have the courage to resist without any hesitation against the racist bunch
• Zanzibar being the country where I could really and genuinely feel at home and at ease
• Zanzibar being the country where I could find and recall various aspects of my childhood and find my playmates, school mates, etc.

2. In what ways does your upbringing, language, culture, class, religion (or sect), physical environment, legacy, confirms this identification:
• Upbringing: It is one of the fundamental factors confirming my Zanzibari identity. My upbringing in a coastal cosmopolitan Zanzibari society had a major impact in the formulation and development of my system of representation. Despite living abroad for many years, integrating in the process many other non Zanzibari socio-cultural elements, the basis of my system of representation remains essentially Zanzibari. It continues to date to influence in some ways my socio-cultural orientation and world outlook. Through my Zanzibari upbringing, I was made to understand life in all its complexities, and to cherish honor and pride. These are some of the ideals that are highly valued by the society that one might find elsewhere, but for me, they reflect my Zanzibari identity.
• Language: I consider this an important element of my Zanzibari identity allowing me to differentiate with other Swahili speaking communities in many ways, including accents and colloquial. This is also true to the language used in Zanzibari literature, which I could identify with and feel part of it, allowing my assertion to the Zanzibari identity.
• Culture: Being part and parcel of the plural coastal societies of East Africa, with a number of socio-cultural similarities, my Zanzibari identity remains relevant by the existence and the performance of a number of customary rites, traditional and moral teachings giving room to some kind of differentiation with other non Zanzibaris. The inculcation of the following norms and values – principal moral foundation of Zanzibari, Swahili identity and culture further confirms my Zanzibari identification: respect (heshima), good behavior (adabu), honesty (uaminifu), ethics (uadilifu) and honour (ari).
• Class: This factor does not seem to have any particular importance and to play any role in my identification to Zanzibar, hence to my Zanzibari identity
• Religion: It forms an important part of social and moral background of my Zanzibari identity. Although, I am un-practicing Muslim but Islamic elements acquired through my Zanzibari upbringing still have a major impact in my world outlook and my daily life. However, I always make a difference between the Islamic religious practice that I grew up with in Zanzibar and those of elsewhere or the radical Islam. While talking about Islam in terms of Zanzibari identity, I put particular emphasis on tolerance. As a religion that came by dhow, and not imposed by sword, through trade, social and cultural interaction Zanzibar has been for many years characterized by religious tolerance. Zanzibari Islam has been all along open, tolerant and respectful of minority rights, including homosexuals. These elements contribute in my determining of my Zanzibari identity and in my differentiation with other Non Zanzibari Muslims or present Radical Zanzibari Muslims.
• Physical Environment (architecture, urbanity, countryside, etc): These factors play a particular role in my taste and appreciation of physical environment of the foreign countries that I am visiting or choose to visit. The Zanzibari architectural background, aspects of Zanzibari urbanity and even countryside consciously or unconsciously remain as my major reference points of appreciation or comparison. In this sense while appreciating and comparing the above elements through the Zanzibari lenses I am affirming my Zanzibari background and by rebound my Zanzibari identity.
• Legacy: Although identity is not static and is constantly being negotiated, most of the above mentioned elements remain to date valid and will take time to disappear. They remain the fundamental elements of what I could consider as part of my Zanzibari cultural legacy and identity. They are the elements that I could hardly replace but which I could very well, consciously or unconsciously, enrich with other socio-cultural elements of the foreign society that I am living in.
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3. In what ways these aspects hinder your identification (if any?)

None of these aspects hinder my identification. On the contrary, they are the fundaments providing the intellectual basis for the struggle against cultural hegemony and the efforts of those who are creating confusion among the people in terms of their Zanzibari, Swahili identity and language.

4. Please add any other issues you think would be of interest:
• Grew up in a Zanzibari cosmopolitan background facilitated a great deal and made me feel very much at ease mingling with people from other countries with similar plural background or not. For me identifying with Zanzibar goes even further to include a larger Swahili cosmopolitan coastal identity. For Zanzibar belongs to a larger Swahili plural identity of which I am attached and identify with.

5. Actions speak louder than words. While I tend to agree with all that has been suggested above, I also strongly believe that a true and committed Zanzibari should also be an activist one who is prepared to stand up and be counted for what he/she believes in or else he/she will fall for anything. Consequently, it is time for such Zanzibaris to support ZIRPP by actions rather than words; because it is only through ZIRPP that a discriminated and alienated Zanzibari could make the maximum use of his/her natural courage to resist without any hesitation against racial discrimation in all its forms and manifestations.

* My apology to Mr Mohamed Saleh who owns this article. I unknowingly published it with Muhammad Yussuf’s name. Mohammed Ghassany

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2 Comments

  1. The above statement is mine in response to the questionnaire of Dr. Ahmed Gurnah regarding Zanzibari identity. Mohamed Saleh

  2. The comments on point number 5 are Muhammad Yussuf’s, challenging my commitment to Zanzibar. They are not mine. Mohamed Saleh

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