Recently returned from Bagamoyo

Greetings Friends and Family from sweltering Dar es Saalam,

Summer is at its height here, a drought threatens the land, the difference between shade and sun being the proverbial distance between heaven and hell. Tanzania is rain starved these days, though a few, stray, late showers have lately brought some hope.

Fruit Fiesta
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The season has its compensations however. It seems to yield luscious fruit that would tempt the most austere, fasting sadhu to sin! The pineapples are massive and sweetly succulent; red watermelon flesh deliciously breaks loose in the mouth; fragrant, delectable mangoes are akin to ambrosia! And there’s familiar, adorable fruit from India – purple, sweet and sour jamuns, creamy custard apples – which alas do not travel to the great Canadian marketplace – but which I can now buy, the former in cute, woven, leafy containers which later serve as pen holders!

And let’s not forget the ever present, but always pleasing, coconuts and bananas! We have lately invested in a blender and plan to make wicked cocktails, lassis and milkshakes. Today heralded the inauguration, with a banana, almond, cinnamon milkshake.

The veggies are truly yummy as well – various types of greens, okra, really juicy cucumbers, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, cassava, green beans, peas and so on. Though our maid makes the simplest of dishes, they still taste really good though, thanks to the freshness and quality of the veggies.

The heat is enervating, but I do find it a treat, and a comfort, to live in the tropics again! The skies are almost always blue, the clouds fluffy, a light wind is usually a-blowing, the plants and trees are green, glowing, and flowering most of the time, though most of the grass and bushes in the neighbouring coastal town of Bagamayo, visited recently, had dried to a sable colour. Living by the sea is another blessing.

Lessons Learnt
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The year has commenced well on the professional front. We now have Swahili-speaking Tanzanian manager to replace me in the Information Access Unit, so that I can revert to my original job description – writing, editing, developing print production and distribution related management tools, and so on. A former managing editor of a business newspaper here, he is really nice and very competent. I have also been intimately involved with drafting the 2006 work plan, along with all my colleagues in my Unit. This means ownership from the start, rather than having to execute a plan that was made by others, as happened when I first arrived here.

That said, feelings of being an “outsider” do come up. The trick is to acknowledge and accept them, without wallowing. I seem to be doing OK on that front. Many Buddhist lessons to be learnt here as elsewhere. At the same time there’s no doubt that both I, and Marc-Antoine, are much more settled in now. I am quite conscious of passing time and making the most of our stay.

I got to edit some interesting publications in 2005. For example, we have a two-book series called “Making Education Work” where we document lessons learnt from the community projects we had in two districts in Northern Tanzania. The projects introduced trained community information volunteers who catalysed change in schools. They also made available small funds for implementing positive measures. For e.g., some schools bought music or sports equipment and school attendance soared as a result of introducing music and sports.

The first book poses questions about the shortcomings of the education system, like building schools without training teachers, routinely delaying paying teachers’ (the salary is meagre enough when they get it), committing a small financial allocation per student, then not delivering it, etc. It also questions practices like the low interest in educating girls in an ethnic group called Kurya.

There are stories of individual and group initiatives to improve education in both the books. Some students became active and vocal in their school communities promoting debate on topics like corporal punishment; others started various kinds of clubs – for writing, dramatics, and so on. Others actively participated in school committees, a tool to promote democratic decision-making at the school level.

The introduction of a simple device like school notice boards enhanced information exchange, as did study tours between different school communities; two community members set up libraries in their villages; a school rewarded a disabled pupil for his attendance record, pushing up school attendance in general. These efforts may seem small; but they do add up.

Another nice booklet I put together, with a colleague, was a media guide for the Friends of Education. It was done in English and then translated. The Community Engagement Unit at HakE works full-time on expanding and promoting a network of education activists called Friends of Education. Friends come from various walks of life and include students, teachers and parents. In fact, one of them was recently elected MP! They have been trying to get their message into the media but having problems. Hence this simple media guide with tips on writing letters to the editor, getting on radio talk shows and cultivating media contacts.

The government changed in December. It’s still the same party – CCM, with an even more overwhelming majority than before, but with a new and seemingly more progressive President – Jakaya Kikwete. The Minister for Education also changed leading to a collective sigh of relief at HakiElimu. The former Minister was not happy with us, but the current one, a woman who has headed the Teacher’s Union in the past, is an ally and sympathizer.

It was funny how efficiently the shopkeepers, restaurants and businesses replaced the framed photographs of the earlier President, Benjamin Mkapa, with those of Kikwete! The second photo, which remains constant in these places, is of course that of the revered Julius Nyerere.

By the way, we voted in the Canadian elections. Our ballots were couriered to us with impressive efficiency after we had faxed in a form and we sent them back in the Canadian High Commission courier bag.

Bagamoyo Beat
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In the second week of January and I headed North with my colleagues, for the neighbouring city of Bagamoyo, for our annual planning retreat. We stayed at a pretty beach resort and worked hard during the day, but evenings were given over to reading, socialising, and beach walks. Some mornings I also dipped into the rather muddy and all too calm sea, and the tiny swimming pool. The full moon did manage to whip up some larger waves for a couple of days and it enlivened an outdoor dance party we held on our last day.

It’s instructive to see how one falls into a natural rhythm when one is by the sea, or a lake, or in a mountainous terrain; particular landscapes offer individual pleasures and beckon one to shape one’s diurnal activities around them. This brings me to the book I read in Bagamoyo which I highly recommend – “Sahara, the life of the great desert”, by Marq de Villiers (South African-Canadian) & Sheila Hirtle (also Can.) Harper Collins.

Marc-Antoine arrived there on Saturday morning and we spent that day and the next exploring this once-great town. Once among the richest and most important cities in east Africa, its ill-begotten wealth was based on the ivory and slave trade. They slaves were brought here, at times travelling thorough Kaole, a few kilometres away, now a picturesque ruin, en-route to the definitive slave markets in Zanzibar.

The small but lively museum at the Holy Ghost Mission provided us with the history of the town in a nutshell. Called Bwagamoyo, which means throw off your melancholy, it became Bagamoyo, crush your heart, a more likely sentiment for the slaves brought here. The German’s made Bagamoyo their first capital and some ruined buildings attesting to this can be found here. However, they shifted their capital to Dar es Salaam in a few years as they found the harbour here too shallow for bigger ships.

I bought a little booklet, which is based on interviews of the descendents of former slaves and slave owners, who still live in the town. The following information is extracted from there.

One historian gives the population of Bagamoyo in 1890 as 10-15,000, comprising of 400 Arabs, 1000 Indians and 1000 domestic slaves. German records of the early 1900s shows a total of 150-200 freed slaves in the town. (Slavery was abolished in Tanganyika in 1922.)

The two main categories of slaves is given as: domestic or plantation. The latter (ijara) had some autonomy and paid rent to their owners. They lived in independent villages, under their own elders and could run their own business. Domestic slaves were sometimes hired out to others, by their masters. They included skilled craftsmen, guards, porters and inevitably concubines. Female slaves were more expensive for this reason and also because they were concerned more docile.

Called surias, concubine slaves were considered of higher rank and could be resold before delivering a child, but not after. Regarding relations between slaves and their owners, the answers of the descendents of slaves and slave owners differed markedly. The latter saw the relationship as that between “parents and children” while the former decried the utter inhumanity of the situation.

A descendant generalizes the horrific plight of slaves from the story of his slave grandmother: “You are working with your mother in the fields… not far from your home village. You are preparing the field for planting… You know your children are safe… you talk and joke with your mother. Suddenly you hear strange voices. You see yourself surrounded by men you have never seen. They grasp you. You try to escape but they are many and strong. You get an iron collar around your neck. Your hands are chained. You cry. Your heart is shivering. Your body trembles. Under slaps, you are forced to march, chained to other slaves.

“You do not know where they are taking you. You do not see your mother in the long line. Now you know you are a slave. You experience what slavery means. You are forced to carry a heavy load of ivory on the long, long march to Bagamoyo; four months long. At one stop you witness how a co-slave is handed over to another slave trader… You do not know whether your husband or children are alive… Now you know you are a slave. With a deep, horrible shock in your heart you understand what slavery means.

“One day your eyes are blindfolded… You are led because you are chained to others.. Anxiety crawls into your heart. They make you stop at a noisy place. You feel that you are pushed forward. You feel a hand touching your body, examining all parts of your body. You hear someone bargaining. Money is exchanged, Now you are the property of a man whom you have never seen. Now he is your master. Now he can give you any order he wants to give…”

Slavery seems to have died inch by inch. According to the museum, the sale of slaves to India and French Mauritius and Reunion was banned in 1822. 1845 saw the banning of slave trade between Zanzibar and Oman; 1873 the export of all slaves was prohibited while in 1876 the approach of slave caravans from the interior was banned. In 1890, the European Anti-Slavery Conference in Brussels granted slaves certain rights such as religious freedom, freedom to marry, right to possess property (?!) and inherit the masters property, right to a salary, two days off a week, free food and lodging (?!).

However, slavery persisted into the 1920s in Tanzania and many forms of slavery persist worldwide, till today. The Sahara book mentions, for instance, that some Tuaregs still own slaves.

In 1868, a “Freedom Village” was established on the mission grounds. This housed the freed and runaway slaves. The museum claims 614 children were baptized but not forced to convert. During the 1889 Bushiri war (Bushiri was a local freedom fighter who launched an unsuccessful revolt against German rule) and again during WW II, when the British attacked the town, people took refuge in the Freedom Village. One of the descendants of the slaves interviewed in the book grew up in the village and speaks well of the life there, as well as the opportunity to learn a trade that it afforded.

The church alongside the museum is the oldest Catholic building in East Africa and quite beautiful. Here we heard a choir practising earnestly and tunefully while a few young boys, played drums outside. We wondered if they were also an official act, waiting their turn to get in.

One interesting feature of the Bagamoyo beach is a small stand of mangrove forest. Since we stayed at the other end of the beach we did not get a chance to explore it actively. A short cab ride along a broad dirt track by the beach, with a view of swaying palm trees, a turquoise blue sea, and villages with houses marked with Muslim symbols like the crescent moon, brought us to the Kaole ruins. Kaole means “go and see,” and the site, with its small but informative museum, is worth a visit.

This once-prosperous settlement was created by the Shirazis, in the 13th century. They were traders who came from Iran and who spread Islam. They were among the many foreigners to colonize the coast. There’s a continuity of conquest, trade, intermingling of cultures, influences and peoples here, seen in Zanzibar and further up and down the coast. Combined, this constitutes what is termed as the Swahili culture. And the link language that developed here and is spoken to this day is of course Swahili.

The museum informs us that this part of the coast was first settled 2000 years ago, and a people who could smelt iron lived here from the 2nd to the 9th century, but this industry died because of competition and deforestation. Maybe a 1000 people lived here during the Shirazi reign.

The site shows the solid walls of a ruined 13th century mosque, made of coral, lime and sand mortar. Some 22 tombs are spread across the site, some plain, some decorated, others with “pillars” and one with an Arabic inscription. One tomb contained incense and offerings. This belongs to Sharifa – a holy woman whom the local woman still pray too, informed out guide. Most recent excavations reveal stone houses. The site is not yet completely revealed, further adding to its charm.

The place had a distinctly “good vibe” and we enjoyed walking around (there were not too many tourists). A big fire scorched parts of it sometime ago, creating a dramatic landscape of black earth and yellow and maroon trees, reminding us of course of Fall! There’s also a gorgeous 500-year on Baobab on site, still fertile, under which we spent some time, admiring its ample girth as well as the delicate beauty of the fallen flowers.

There were some disappointments in Bagamoyo. The tourism industry is doing nothing with the old Arab fort there, a site where slaves were kept, a rip off at 1500 tsh for a visit, considering that you pay only 500 (less than US 50 cents) for Kaole! The town is also touted to be an arts centre (it has an arts college), but we were not too impressed with what we saw. More impressive was a visit to Salum Kambi’s studio last weekend. This is a Dar artist I met at the Alliance Française, which holds interesting cultural events here.

Salum is a self-taught artist, who uses broad, diffused brush strokes to capture faces, children playing, children on bicycles, fisherwomen, night and harbour scenes. His paintings, with their abstract quality and muted colours, have a modern, universal look. They are refreshingly original. A lot of art here seems to reproduce traditional motifs in a sterile fashion for tourists.

Sad. These artists likely have more original work tucked away somewhere. And there is some beautiful functional, ethnic art to be had for sure. Not to mention the dazzling patterns on the fabric!

An enterprising, young Tanzanian woman runs a lovely little gallery which is a 20 minute walk from our place, hence quite downtown. She showcases local artists and some craft as well. She is not making enough money to be self-sustaining yet. She comes from a well-off family. I think her effort is very laudable and the art movement here will slowly grow I’m sure. As happened in India. The painters will come into their own as well. We bought a painting at this gallery lately and it enlivens our living room now.