Tuesday, September 7, 2010



Unity among the cattle makes the lion lie down hungry.

Zanzibar was the place I ran to when I tired of Dar es Salaam. How I loved that spice island. The first time visited, I flew over on a Fokker Friendship, a tiny plane that held about 14 people. I expected to smell cloves the moment I stepped off the plane. I never did smell cloves, despite this island being the home of cloves. Zanzibar was calming and luscious in an enchanting, old, quaint manner. The people were beautiful and stately, kind and welcoming, and I adored the old, exquisitely carved wooden doors that adorned buildings. I close my eyes and I see old courtyards shuttered by those elaborately carved doors. The island is also known for its ornately carved, wooden chests that range from miniature boxes to larger chests for linens or a trousseau, all done by master carvers who inherited their skills from their forefathers.

This island was once a nation, a tiny one, but still a nation. It thrived and was a wealthy island. Its people are beautiful blends of the African women of Zanzibar, and the Arab sultans who ruled. Zanzibar is also the site of bloody massacres.The more peaceful a place, it seems to me, the bloodier its history. The kinder the people are, the more fire they have come through. Zanzibar and Haiti are two examples of nations whose history is written in blood, and yet both have incredibly gracious, and welcoming people.

Zanzibar was always wealthier than the mainland of Tanganyika, and considerably more modern. It had a thriving television station and those who could afford televisions had them. When the two countries joined and became Tanzania, television remained forbidden on the mainland. President Julius Nyerere said television would never be permitted on the mainland until everybody could afford one.

Once, instead of the 20-minute flight on a Fokker Friendship plane, or 17 minutes on the newly acquired jets, I decided to take a leisurely boat trip over to the island. The trip took four hours. There were hundreds of people on the ship. I napped and read in my cabin until we arrived. After we docked I left my cabin. The women were lined up on one side of the door leading to the gangplank, and men lined the other side. I noticed only the line of men was moving. The women began pushing to get off. To my horror the men pushed them right back. I looked around but could see no ship attendants to maintain order. There were more men than women and that indicated that we would be the last off the ship. One of our Fulbright professors was waiting for me at the dock, and I knew he thought – as did I - that a diplomat would be among the first off. It was not going to happen that day. Diplomat or no, I got in line with the rest of the women and let myself be jostled and pushed as they were. I resented the fact that the ship’s crew were nowhere in sight, and I was furious that the men had so little regard for the women.

When I finally reached the deck I saw that the gangplank went straight down instead of sloping onto the dock. A young American man tried to help me off. He said the gangplank was the one used for cattle. Somehow the ship crew was unable to “find” the gangplank for humans. Women were falling into the water as the men pushed them out of their way. The women tried desperately to hang onto their belongings. It was a scene from hell. It was as if somebody had yelled, “Fire!” The young man stayed behind me to try to keep me from being pushed and pummeled, but when I reached the gangplank I balked at going down. I knew I would fall into the water. He was encouraging me to go down, but I was too scared. I needed space before venturing down that gangplank. When I hesitated, I was immediately shoved aside.

My new friend managed to get off, and stood on the dock yelling at me to throw my huge handbag so that I could use both hands to help myself disembark. I did not want to throw my handbag to a total stranger. I didn’t know his name or anything about him. In my purse were my passport, money, my diplomatic carnet (I.D. card) from the Tanzanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and I was going to hang onto it no matter what else happened.

I tried putting my handbag around my neck, but it almost choked me because it was so heavy. I also had an overnight bag, but he never asked me to throw that. All around me women were screaming and pushing and being pushed. The men wanted the women to get out of their way. The young man continued trying to coax me down the cattle ramp, but my feet were unable to get the leverage I needed to go down the ramp. Finally, I saw him leaving the dock.

I tried to plant my feet and maintain a stance to prepare to go down the gangplank. I had to push people away from me, and finally I was able to make the dangerous trek down and onto the dock. I wore a dress that had tiny buttons down the front. I never unbuttoned it all the way because there were about 40 buttons. When I got off the ship I looked down, and every button was undone. My dress stood wide open. It took a lot of rubbing, gyrating, and twisting to get 40 buttons undone, but undone they were. And so was I! I was hot, sweaty, and looked as if I had come through a battle, which I had. I calmly put my overnight bag down and continuing to hang onto my purse, managed to button every single damned button on that dress that I never wore again.

It had taken me over an hour to disembark, and the Fulbright professor had left the dock, assuming that I was not on the ship since I was not among the first to get off. I took a taxi to my hotel and immediately made arrangements to return to Dar es Salaam via plane. I had had enough of Tanzanian ships.

The Zanzibaris are warm and outgoing. Fatma was a dear friend who was a curator at the museum in Zanzibar. Periodically she would come to the mainland and spend a week or longer with me. She was a wonderful cook, and she loved cooking. Before she returned to Zanzibar, she always prepared food for me to freeze and have after she left. She told me once that “security people” in Zanzibar had warned her that she should not become too friendly with Americans. I told her not to endanger herself. She pooh-poohed the idea that there was any danger and continued visiting me.

In December of 1979, Fatma came to spend Christmas with me. Fatma was Muslim, and I suppose she wanted to see how Christians celebrated the birth of Christ. I had also invited an elderly American woman, Ruby, a professor from Temple University who had been staying at the dingy YWCA, and who came into my office to get some information. I could not see her remaining in that dingy YWCA over the holidays, and I invited her to move into my residence. After all, I had four bedrooms and four baths. I welcomed the company. The three of us were invited to the homes of embassy families, and I hosted a big Christmas party with dancing. The three of us laughed a lot, and had a wonderful time. I went off to Mass on Christmas Day after leaving tiny presents for my two guests. We were invited to the home of the USAID Director for a traditional Christmas Dinner. Everyone made Fatma and Ruby feel welcomed, and I felt especially blessed in having such delightful houseguests at Christmastime.

{Note: In 1985 I was back on assignment in Washington, DC when I had a telephone call from Fatma. She was working at the Tanzanian Embassy in London as a Foreign Service Officer. It was wonderful hearing from her. We talked about visiting each other soon. Later, she wrote that she had been diagnosed with cancer, and within a few months I learned that she had died. I was devastated. I will always remember her laughter and the fun we had together. Religion was never a factor in our friendship because we respected each other’s religion. Why can’t the rest of the world be as accepting as Fatma and I were of each other? I treasure her friendship, and I miss her terribly.}

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