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Anchoring at Zanzibar: My East African Odyssey


An #AfricaDay Special

richard ali, Atop Queen of Zanzibar

In this very well-written travel report which The Difference is most pleased to serve you as part of the build-up to the 2017 celebration of #AfricaDay, the Nigerian writer, Richard Ali, makes the point about how really inter-connected Africa is and should be. His journey, which was undertaken as part of a Jalada Africa Mobile Book Festival Tour, saw him traversing the lands of Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Rwanda.
Make plans then to join us at the event  in Lagos, Nigeria by 11.00am on Thursday, May 25 where we will be taking the discussion further through a multi-disciplinary panel engagement on how to make the proposed All-Africa Passport, which is due to come into effect next year, work optimally for the nations and peoples of Africa.



The Queen of Zanzibar pulls out of the Dar es Salaam marina in reverse. It’s a novel experience for me; my first time on a ferry and definitely my first time on the Indian Ocean which I had met just the day before. In a fluid, elegant motion, the massive vessel weaves an arc to the right, switches gears and we are moving forward now and are at sea. I am sitting at the open top deck, the better to see everything. With me are my chums with whom I have forged a humanhood of experience since deplaning at Entebbe three weeks before: six Kenyans, one Ugandan, one American, and this Nigerian. What lay for us on the other side of the Zanzibar Channel? What had led us, motley inter-national posse; here?


We had been assembled from the Pacific and the Atlantic by Jalada Africa, a pan-African literary collective based in Nairobi of which I am a founding member. When the idea of summoning a new writer’s collective into being in 2014 – following a workshop in that city that had been facilitated by GRANTA Magazine and the British Council – first took roots, we never imagined we would one day travel across Africa. Yet there we were, on the Jalada Mobile Festival which would see us log 4500 kilometres across five countries: Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, DR Congo and Tanzania. By the time the festival would end in Mombasa, under a week after that ferry crossing, we would have travelled half the distance between Cairo and Cape Town and stopped at twelve cities between starting point, Nairobi, and end point, Mombasa. Famous cities too: Nakuru, Kisumu, Kampala, Mbarara, Goma, Kigali, Mwanza, Arusha, Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar. Indeed, the idea of a mobile literary festival, never done before, had been mooted one evening two years ago at Kigali over drinks with our friend, Louise Umutoni of Huza Press, at the Discover Rwanda hostel. We are pan-African and international, in conception and nationality; and in seeking to nurture literary friendships across the continent, we wished to urge into action a new idea of Africa.


Perhaps all oceans and seas are the same; it is the same water after all. But there is something startling and thrilling about the deep green of the Indian. I do not remember the Atlantic, at Lagos and Port Harcourt, like this. The Atlantic had been darker water in my remembrance. It was a clear day and soon we left the buildings of the marina behind and were in the open sea. Powerful diesel engines ensured we cut through at a steady chop; there was none of the feeling of strangeness and disorientation I expected. I had been on a huge ship before, the NNS Aradu which was the Nigerian Navy’s flagship, but it had been anchored at its home port, the Lagos marina, for maintenance. I watched everything and thought of the first brave Africans who trusted themselves on wooden craft unto vast endless-seeming waters, the faith in land on the other side leading them like explorers everywhere. A type of bird kept swooping for fish and I thought I saw tiny fish leaping in a glint of motion over the surface. But that might have been an illusion. Soon, in the distance, we passed the Chumbe Lighthouse to our right and I tried to get a good photo of it with my phone camera on burst mode. Then it was more green sea again until under an hour later when ships of varying sizes anchored to the far right of the Queen intuited us of the certainty that was confirmed after the ferry cut to the right and cut the engines, coasting towards a structure on which we made our the words “KARIBU ZANZIBAR” in bold red letters.


Queen of Zanzibar

The structure of the Jalada Mobile Festival had two components: the festival proper which saw us hold conversations and workshops with local art and literature organizations we had partnered with, who were in fact our hosts, and the Book Caravan which saw us meet and interact with secondary school students. In Kampala, for example, we held a conversation in partnership with the Uganda Women Writers Association aka FEMRITE on “un-silencing” women’s voices and the burdens and responsibilities, and the necessity, of this. It was thoroughly intellectually stimulating. In Kigali, we had held a conversation on publishing perspectives with our partners, Huza Press, and others.


For the Book Caravan, we had made a stop at Trinity College, Kabale, in south-western Uganda and at Government College, Ngongare, just outside Arusha. We had also held a workshop with young Burundian exile poets at the Institute of Applied Sciences, Ruhangeri, in partnership with Dr. Andre Greider of Transpoesis. I enjoyed the Book Caravan immensely and it was a pleasure to pique and tickle the interest of young people on the importance, and the tricks, of the writing trade. At each stop, we donated books to school libraries. I had helped secure a generous contribution of books from Nigerian publishers – Cassava Republic Press, Farafina Kachifo Limited and Parrésia Publishers Limited – to join others sent in by the Caine Prize and other East African publishing houses. In this way, I was happy to disseminate Nigerian writing to places it might not otherwise reach. Like spores off a dandelion.


In particular, the session at Zanzibar was in partnership with Upendo Means Love, a local arts organization run by Alessia Lomabrdo, around the topic of the art of the kanga. The kanga exhibition was curated by Amanda Leigh Liechtenstein.” Kanga is a cloth, like a Nigerian wrappa, worn by Zanzibari and coastal women. The thing with kangas is the message custom typed into them in Swahili, the language of the Coast, making them an avenue for expressing oneself. Typical of the subtle power board at play is one kanga that declared: “Ni ukweli lakini hayakuhusu”. Yes, it’s true but it’s none of your business!


zanzibar, kenyan writer, Richard Oduour Oduku


The morning after we arrived, Kenyan brother from another mother, Richard Oduor Oduku, and I were in severe need of a cup of coffee and decided to take a walk around Stone Town, the main section of Zanzibar Island. What better way to see the town, we reasoned, and how could we get lost when Stone Town was a clear triangle? And that was how we stumbled upon the Slave Museum. Our early morning walk saw us conversing about African literature and how we might increase the influence and prestige of our Jalada Africa collective in what we called “the scheme of things”. Our influential Languages and Translations anthologies had guaranteed us a space at the African Literature debate table, but what next? The Slave Museum was unexpected. But then, Zanzibar had been the major entrepôt of the Arab Slave Trade, similar in infamous notoriety to Elmina, Badagry and Calabar on the Atlantic coast. We met a woman there who told us it would open in an hour and whether we would be needing a guide? We walked up the street and found a seat at Lukman’s café and drank down a café Americano and a cappuccino while we waited.


Out in the streets went about the bustle of a city’s morning life, students making their halting ways to school and workers making theirs to offices and shops. Women of every complexion under the sun dressed in black robes and modern dresses talking into cell phones, backpacks hugging them. Zanzibar had more than its fair share of the most recognizable of all foreigners, the Caucasian, walking by on their ways, perhaps, to their preferred cafés. And while we drank, I am sure we could not help thinking about Slavery. Yet, on this side of the world, it was not the White Man who had dealt in our people. It was the Arab. And if Chinweizu is to be believed, the Arab slave trade was far more brutal than the Atlantic Slave trade. But then, how exactly, in the Arab, Persian and Turkic world, can one trace the remnant descendants of those thirteen million slaves today?


zanzibar, memorial

zanzibar, dungeons

Our tour proper started with the Church built over the dungeons where the slaves were kept. We stopped to take photos by the ornately carved doors, “Lamu doors” as my friend the Enkare Review editor, Troy Onyango, calls them; and were then conducted through the ambulatory. We also stood awhile at the nave. Stained glass windows, an organ. There was restoration work being done on the altar by a crew of craftsmen. Places where much pain has happened have never failed to affect me. We entered the Darkness through a gift shop, down to the dungeons. There were two holds: one for men, the other for women and children. Into this space, with barely any leg or head room, had been persistently crammed between fifty to seventy human beings over nearly three centuries! The space was empty that day, but original chains from the period remain to bear testimony to what had happened here; to the many now forever silent people who had passed through Zanzibar unto their deaths and obliteration from history. I could not get out of there fast enough. I feared that my eyes would betray and shame me.


zanzibar, farouque abdela, kangas


We regained our hotel eventually by losing our way further through the winding streets of Stone Town. And then it was just enough time for a bath and a quick dash to the other end of town where the kanga exhibition was holding. We met the closing end of it, with chief kanga designer Farouque Abdela just about finishing his talk. The gathered guests then scattered to go look for kangas to buy. Some of us placed orders for kangas, no doubt with poignant messages for family and significant others. But the long walk in the morning had exhausted me and I was having trouble with my right foot. I went back to the hotel for a long nap. Much later, we all met at the Forodhani, the garden just behind the cannons, for street food including various types of sea food as well as shawarmas, beef and a ginger tea I still remember fondly. Then it was to bed and an early rise for breakfast, after which we made our way to the port where the Kilmajaro IV waited to take us across the channel to Dar es Salaam. At Dar, the ever trusty Hussein awaited us for a twelve hour drive to the last stop in our journey, the Kenyan port of Mombasa which, like Zanzibar, is also intimately tied in with all the issues of this continent in the last five hundred years. When the Kilamnjaro IV lifted anchor, this Nigerian, secure in its hulk, did so too.


Richard-Ali 3


Richard Ali, a lawyer and poet, was shortlisted for the John la Rose Short Story Competition (2008). He has participated in various writing workshops including the 2012 Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop and the 2013 GRANTA/British Council Workshop. Richard has also served as Judge for the BN Poetry Award [Africa’s only Africa-wide poetry prize] and the Huza Press prize and has been a Guest at several Festivals across the continent. He sits on the board of Uganda’s Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation. City of Memories, his first novel, was recently reissued by Parresia Books.

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