I met Nabwa for that first time in mid 1970s in Dar es Salaam. At that time he was staying at Narung’ombe junction with Sikukuu Street in Kariakoo. The house Nabwa used to leave was one of the landmarks of Kariakoo in more than one meaning. The house, a two storey building was one of the few imposing buildings by the standard of that time owned by an African. The house belonged to Mzee Mrisho of Mwanza. This building hosted the famous Saigon Club – a hangout of ‘watoto wa mjini,’ who is who of Dar es Salaam. Not that the club rented any premise in the building, not at all. Members just met and relaxed in chairs in the environs and shade of that building. Saigon was a meeting place of all sorts of upstarts as well as those who have made it, be it in politics, business and what have you. They met at Saigon Club to exchange notes, make deals, relax, while away the time discussing issues of the day mainly football politics or sit for a drink across the road at the local pub in those days popularly known as ‘store.’
In Mwalimu Nyerere’s Tanzania one needed a permit to purchase the essentials in life – lactogen milk for a newly born baby, rice and cooking oil for a wedding or funeral, a car. If one has problems of documentation in clearing goods from the port due to bureaucracy and wants to beat the red tape all that could be arranged with ease at Saigon Club. The Club became popular and many young and not so young were proud to be identified with the club. To be a member of Saigon proved that you were someone about town because at Saigon one rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous though in humble surroundings of Kariakoo. It was in this kind of setting that I met Ali Nabwa.
Since the Club was adjacent to where he lived, Nabwa used to come out and join us the lazy bones for a chat. It was during that period in the discussion I had with him that I noticed the massive intellectual ability in Nabwa. We would sometimes disengage ourselves from the crowd and the two of us would sit apart from the rest of the crowd to be engrossed in deep discussion about Zanzibar. In this way I came to be exposed first hand of the atrocities which took place in Zanzibar soon after the revolution in 1964. In me Nabwa found an ardent listener and a wiling but interactive student. Nabwa’s narrations of the personalities in the Zanzibar Revolution and his analysis of complexity of Zanzibar politics became an eye opener to me.
One day Nabwa told me how Abdulaziz Twala met his death. I was stunned. I told Nabwa that Twala and Jaha Ubwa were friends of my father. In our sitting room on the wall there was a photograph of my father and Twala posing together. When my father got information that his friend Twala had been killed he removed the photo from the wall and I never saw that photo again. And from that day for whatever reason if he had to mention Twala or Jaha Ubwa even among his friends my father whispered. I was very young at that time to understand the fear which the atrocities in Zanzibar had instilled into many people including my father to the extent that he thought unwise even to retain whatever memories he had of his late friends and be scared stiff to even mention Twala’s name or that of Jaha Ubwa in public. The day Nabwa related to me the story of Kassim Hanga and the barbaric way he was killed, he brought back memories of the man as I knew him in 1960s. I told Nabwa that as a young boy of about 12 years of age I knew Hanga from a distance because he used to come to the neighbourhood were we lived to play ‘bao.’ At that time Hanga was minister in the Union Government. I can’t even count the times I saw Hanga at Gogo junction with Mchikichi Street sitting on a mat playing the traditional game of ‘bao’ with very common people. I told Nabwa I was there among the crowd at Mnazi Mmoja Grounds in front of Arnautoglo Hall when Hanga was taken from Ukonga Prison and brought to a public rally in which Nyerere jeered, ridiculed and humbled him publicly. Hanga head bowed and his bespectacled face full of beard sat there in the scorching sun silently wallowing in his humiliation. That was the last time Hanga was seen in public.
Nabwa became my mentor now filling the missing gaps for me. Probably unknown to him, Nabwa was correcting the stereo type of Zanzibaris and Zanzibar which had hitherto existed in my young innocent mind. I began to see Zanzibar, its people, history and the revolution in a different perspective. Nabwa’s narrations became more interesting to me because I was now placing the faces I knew to the events and the sad endings which engulfed them. My palaver with Nabwa soon became a two way street because when Nabwa took me through memory lane I will interject of what I knew about a personality or event however scanty that information was. What Nabwa did was to listen patiently and later correct my version.
The Zanzibaris I knew as young boy was that of my father’s friends and their wives who came to visit our home mostly during ‘sports festivals’ in Easter Holidays. The Zanzibar I knew was that painted to me by my father – of parties and taarab and the singing of Bakari Abeid, of ‘Ikhwan Safaa’ of ‘koga mwaka’ and the like. The Zanzibaris I came into contact with were my father’s friends, nice people who would ask me if say my prayers daily and whether I have finished my Qur’anic orientation and things like that. Nabwa was painting a different picture of Zanzibar and the revolution. In this way I became Nabwa’s student of the robust and violent Zanzibar politics and for the time we were together I came to like Nabwa and I have every reason to believe he liked me because the friendship we striked lasted until when Nabwa passed away.
But strange never at any one time did he mention to me that he had just been released from prison. I only came to know about that many years later when I met Jim Bailey and he handed me a manuscript ‘Tanzania the Story of Julius Nyerere.’ I met Jim Bailey in early 1990s. Jim Bailey was the proprietor and executive editor of ‘Drum’ a photo-journalistic magazine published in South Africa and distributed in almost all English speaking African colonies. Drum was a very popular magazine. Its popularity only waned after most of African countries gained their independence and the new leadership in Africa seemed to be enjoying founding fault with the publication. Drum was banned in many African countries for various reasons, from publishing nude pictures (scanty dressed girls) to not observing the right etiquettes when reporting ‘sensitive’ government matters. I was introduced to Jim Bailey by Ally Sykes.
Jim Bailey had a manuscript and wanted someone to go through it and give recommendations on the work. It was a book of collection of old photographs with captions and articles in between from Bailey’s African Photo Archives in Johannesburg. Bailey travelled from Johannesburg to Dar es Salaam to see Ally Sykes and show him the manuscript. Ally Sykes recommended me to Jim Bailey and it was in this way that I met him and he gave me the manuscript to read. It was through this manuscript that I came for the first time face to face with Nabwa’s pen through his Prison Letters. The letters introduced Nabwa’s mind to me in a way that I cannot find words to describe. In those letters Nabwa’s pen was not writing but weeping and whipping. The words from Nabwa’s pen were taking me to a different world which even in my wildest imagination I never thought existed. The first letter written in 1973 from Central Police Station Dar es Salaam shocked me. In that letter Nabwa described intimidation and torture by the police in the style replica of the Ton Ton Macouts of Papa Doc’s Haiti.
That was not all among those arrested with him was Badru Said. This was a person I knew, an uncle of a friend of mine. In Nabwa’s sense of humour in the letter he says it needs a Dickens to describe the squalor of the cell he was in. The letters which followed were all from Condemned Section Ukonga Prison with the exception of one from Muhimbili Hospital where he was hospitalised. I remember reading those letters I some times found myself laughing not because the paragraph was in any way amusing but for the mockery and absurdity of it all. But that alone would not have made me laugh. It was that cynicism banking on satire which made me laugh at the tragic events unfolding instead of shading tears. Nabwa’s pen ‘entertained’ me in a way that I had not experienced before. In his analysis of the personalities which people were made to believe were symbols of justice and principles Nabwa’s pen removed the charade and the camouflage to reveal their true colours and identity. Nabwa’s letters were a potpourri of short biographies, dossiers, profiles, hit list of ‘enemies’ and method of their execution. In the Prison Letters Nabwa’s pen exposed the atrocities which took place in Zanzibar after the revolution and analysed the arrogance, mediocrity and sheer myopia of the leadership.
Bailey had this to write on the letters:
When I came by the letters of Ali Mohamed Ali – a Comorian islander, formerly manager of the Dar es Salaam branch of the East African Publishing House – written from Ukonga Gaol in Dar es Salaam, describing gaol conditions, they turned my stomach. I checked them against the story of a totally independent former prisoner in Ukonga. They tallied. I checked them against the record of a former Ugandan prisoner. They tallied. I discussed them with a former senior member of Tanu in Dar es Salaam. He confirmed that those were the conditions. I did not publish them since it would have put paid to any chance of publishing again in Tanzania.
After finishing reading the manuscript I wanted to meet Nabwa and give him his letters as I knew he would not have copies and he would love to have them back. At that time he was Personal Assistant to the Vice President Dr Omar Ali Juma. I was able to get Nabwa’s telephone number through an acquaintance at Masomo Bookshop in Zanzibar and I called him. If Dar es Salaam has Saigon Club, Zanzibar can boast of Masomo Bookshop at Mkunazini. One can fix anything from there.
I travelled to Zanzibar and I met Nabwa. About ten years had passed since we saw each other. Nabwa was happy to see me and was beside himself when I presented the envelope full of photocopies of his prison letters. He wanted to know how I came by them. Typical of him Nabwa began asking me if I could recognise the personalities behind he initials and innuendos he had used in the letters instead of real names. I told him some I could. Nabwa revealed to me the true identities of the characters. Some of them were people personally known to me.
Now looking back I am happy that I was among those privileged to read Nabwa’s revelations of injustices in Zanzibar before he became a celebrity of sorts and his writings major topic of discussion in the corridors of power. The atrocities which no one had the courage to speak about them publicly for almost forty years were laid bare for all to read through Dira the paper which Nabwa founded in 2004. Dira was the first free newspaper in Zanzibar since the revolution. The ripples from Nabwa’s pen were electrifying. Dira became a paper eagerly awaited by the public including Zanzibar leadership each week. Its circulation rose each passing week. Nabwa’s pen was lifting the lid in broad daylight. The stories of treachery, rape, murder, homosexuality, forced marriages by members of the Revolutionary Council and their cronies in Zanzibar were all there with names, places and accomplices for all to read and pass judgement. Those who had demonised the Sultan had no tongue to defend their own ‘upright’ track record. The young generation began to ask questions and in the answers they saw the leadership in power and the revolution in a different light all together.
Nabwa’s pen helped the young generation to understand why those in power abhorred democracy and were constantly haunted by the ballot box. They now knew why the leadership in the government shivered at the prospect of losing power. The young generation now realised why the leadership would go to any length to cling to power even to the extent of committing more atrocities just to remain in power through massive vote rigging. What more the young generation realised why those in power were trying to build a dynasty. The government did not have the courage or the strength of character to contradict Nabwa’s pen. The only way out for the ruling clique was to harass Nabwa, revoke his citizenship and muzzle him by banning Dira. But government’s revenge upon Nabwa had come too late as to some extent Nabwa’s pen had completed its mission. The last time I saw Nabwa was at his Dira office at Vuga. I had gone there to congratulate him for the work he was doing through the paper. I called him when Dira was banned and his citizenship revoked. I had a pressing matter which I wanted to discuss with him. I asked him if we could meet in Dar es Salaam. He told me that if he leaves the isles, Zanzibar Government will not let him in again. That was Nabwa. Much as he was haunted through intrigues Nabwa was not a person to be cowed. He challenged those in power to take him one on one. The authorities did not have the stomach for that.
NB: Ali Nabwa died on 14th February 2007 and this orbituary was first published by The East African Magazine, Nairobi. It is republished here as a commemoration of 9 years since Nabwa’s departure. May Allah grant him jannatulfirdaus. Amen.