Tumbatu Island with Jumuiya ya ma Albino Zanzibar

On Saturday August 3rd, Abdalla Daudi, Omar Bakar, and I arrived at the daladala bus station in Stone Town, packed and ready to go for our trip to Tumbatu Island. We had aloe-based soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and plenty of sunscreen. These items were among the gifts to be given to the three albino families we were going to meet on Tumbatu Island. We had a two and a half hour bus ride ahead of us, which we survived amidst our occasional doubts, as the packed vehicle frequently navigated tough road conditions. The destination for our bus ride was Mkokotoni in the northern part of Unguja (Zanzibar). Once at Mkokotoni, with Abdalla and Omar by my side, we set off on a 25-30 minute adventurous boat ride to the distantly visible island of Tumbatu.

Map showing Tumbatu (from Map of Zanzibar and Pemba, 2005. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division).

When our boat arrived it docked 100 yards out from what appeared to be the shore. Seeing that I was surprised to see people walking around the area in which our boat was docked, Omar explained that we were about to be walking on a shallow reef, where many of the locals venture to collect crabs and clams to sell to mainland Zanzibaris.

Arrival at Tumbatu Island. Photo: Nyakeh Tuchscherer

Arrival at Jongowe on Tumbatu Island. Photo: Nyakeh Tuchscherer

Once we reached the sand, Abdalla led Omar and me into the small village known as Jongowe or Tumbatu Jongowe, which is on the southernmost part of island. This is one of the main settlements in Tumbatu, which is by the way a very small island – only about 5 miles long and 1 mile wide – and doesn’t have a single car or road. We followed Abdalla through winding narrow pathways and around a matrix of houses until we finally reached the home of the Hassans. There we met the Hassan family as well as their neighbors, the Juma and Sheha families. Two or three big carpets were assembled on the ground and we all sat together under a shaded tree, protecting us from the overcast but still dangerous rays of the sun.

Meeting the Hassans, Jumas, and Shehas at Jongowe. Photo: Abdalla Daudi/Omar Bakar

Abdalla knew the families very well personally as well as in his capacity of chairman of Jumuiya ya ma Albino Zanzibar (Association of People with Albinism in Zanzibar). Omar and I introduced ourselves to our new friends, with Omar explaining in Kiswahili that we wanted to personally greet them and that we had brought gifts to mark the occasion. With Omar translating for me into Kiswahili, I addressed the three families, thanking them for receiving me in their homes, and asking them to share their stories of the challenges they face from the sun and the hurdles they face socially. First to come forward was ten year-old Ibrahim Sheha, the youngest out of the 11 albinos present. “At school, although I’m the best in my class, I have to work harder and longer because I cannot see the blackboard or read even from arms-length away. I have to put the book directly in my face,” Ibrahim explained. His mother, who does not have albinism, then shared how his condition impacted the family circle as well. “When Ibrahim was born, his father left me and wanted nothing to do with us because our son was an albino. He was ashamed,” she explained.

Photo with the Hassans, Jumas, and Shehas at Jongowe. Photo: Abdalla Daudi/Omar Bakar

Fifty year-old Haji Hassan Juma, the oldest person with albinism in attendance, recounted issues regarding safety and his constant battle with poverty. “Here on Tumbatu we are safe but sometimes we still hear about mainland Tanzanians coming to Zanzibar in search for albinos.” Haji explained that that wasn’t the only obstacle to living comfortably. “Tumbatu only has work for agriculture and we cannot spend long hours in the sun or we will get burned or go blind. We can’t do that work so we try to stay indoors, breed chickens and sell them. It’s still not enough.” He shared that although many villagers were understanding and supportive, there were still some in the community who were uncomfortable with the presence of albinos, “so we tend to walk around and go outside at night.” Haji added, “We don’t know why people hate us. There are some who treat us no different from others but we still know we are different and live very different lives.”

The condition of albinism extends just beyond the realm of science and health. There are many social boundaries, and discrimination and persecution are suffered by those living with albinism. The condition prohibits people like Ibrahim and Haji from living regular lives socially, physically, and financially.

I thought of the first time I had met my friend, Abdalla. We had met just outside SUZA when my Kiswahili class finished and we were walking to a restaurant. At the time, children were just getting out of madrassa school, running loose everywhere on the streets. Every other child passing us by shouted the words “zeru zeru.” Abdalla said nothing, just kept his head down under his cap. I asked Abdalla, using my Kiswahili, what those words meant. “Bad bad word for albino,” he responded in broken English. Omar was with us, and he explained that the phrase is used as a derogatory term for albinos. It translates as something like “ghost” and is hurtful, denying the humanity and dignity of albinos. This is the subtle and normalized form of discrimination faced by albinos daily, which pales in comparison to the dangers they face from those who seek to kill or maim them in pursuit of body parts used in ritual magic.

As we sat and shared stories under the canopy of trees at the Hassan compound, Abdalla explained that albinos in Zanzibar, in Tanzania, and throughout Africa need support. He explained that “Many albinos can’t even read because the fonts in books are too small and they don’t have glasses, people from mainland Tanzania travel to Zanzibar to capture us, and employment is really bad because nobody wants to hire us and we can’t work outside…options are limited.”

The time slowly slipped away until we realized darkness would catch us soon if we didn’t move fast. We said our ‘goodbyes’ and the three of us made our way back to the shore, walking out along the reef once again to catch our boat back to Mkokotoni on Unguja.

Kiswahili linguistic beauty

Kiswahili directions on a tree. Photo: Nyakeh Tuchscherer

One of the truly beautiful things about languages is that they have rich and sometimes surprising histories. This is true for so-called ‘dialects’ of languages too. Too often we fail to stop and think about the birth of various languages and how those languages spread to the regions they inhabit today. Kiswahili is a very interesting language historically, and there is wide debate on the historical and linguistic circumstances concerning its birth. This is due to the fact that many African peoples and languages as well as peoples and languages from outside the continent influenced the development of the language.

At its core, Kiswahili is an African language of the Bantu group. According to scholars,

“Swahili is a Bantu language, i.e. it belongs to the vast family of languages spoken South of a line stretching from the slopes of Mount Cameroun to the Northern shores of Lake Victoria, and thence towards the Coast, to Meru on the Eastern slopes of Mount Kenya (and further South, embracing the Southern group (Zulu, Xhosa, Shona etc.)” (Chimerah 1998:26 cited in Okombo & Muna 2017: 58). Citation below.

Kiswahili’s place of origin is along the eastern coast of Africa. It grew and spread. Much of the early Kiswahili literature was written in the Arabic script. Today it is a prominent language and lingua franca in Tanzania, Kenya, and many other places.

Al-Inkishafi. Kiswahili Islamic religious poem in Arabic script, ca. 1820. Citation below.

While indigenous Bantu languages provided the core for Kiswahili, what is also fascinating is the extent of outside influences on the language. Kiswahili uses many Arabic and English vocabulary words and verbs. In terms of Kiswahili words of Arabic origin, the most obvious example is the word ‘Sahil’ from Arabic which means ‘coast’. It is from this word that the name of the people, Swahili, comes from. The ‘Ki’ added to the beginning is the Bantu influence on the Arabic, as this prefix means ‘language’ (so ‘Kiswahili’ literally means ‘Language of Swahili people’). The Arabic influence came from the coast. Number words in Kiswahili combine Bantu origin one/’moja’, two/’mbili’, three/’tatu’, with those of Arabic origin like six/’sita’ and seven/’saba’. There are also many examples of Kiswahili phrases of Arabic origin, this being especially the case here in Zanzibar because the culture is predominantly Islamic. Even among non-Muslim Kiswahili speakers the Arabic/Islamic influence is everywhere, for example ‘Friday’ – the big Islamic prayer day all over the world – which in Arabic is ‘al-jumuʿah’, was transformed into the Kiswahili for ‘Friday’ as ‘Ijouma’. That means that Kiswahili speakers, regardless of what religion they practice, use the Arabic loan. While the influence from Arabic on Kiswahili is older, one can see many English examples in the language such as ‘hospital’ which was transformed into ‘hospitali’, and ‘doctor’ transformed into ‘daktari’. The English loans were through trade and of course British colonialism in places like Kenya and Tanzania.

One interesting final example is a Kiswahili word that entered the English language. Safari. While the word was originally from the Arabic ‘safar’ for ‘travel’, it didn’t enter the English language directly from Arabic, but rather from Kiswahili where it means ‘journey’ or ‘expedition.’


ibn ʻAlī ibn Nāṣir, Abdallah
1820   Al-Inkishafi
SOAS University of London Special Collections, Hichens Collection, MS 47770;      see full information at https://digital.soas.ac.uk/LSMD000181/00001/citation). Image taken from https://blogs.soas.ac.uk/archives/2015/09/18/swahili-manuscripts-workshop/

Okombo, Patrick L. and Edwin Muna
2017   The International Status of Kiswahili: The Parameters of Braj Kachru’s Model of World Englishes. Africology: The Journal of Pan African Studies 10(7):55-67.

Mwaka Kogwa

IMAGE: Banana stick fighting in Mwaka Kogwa festival. Photo: http://www.suntoursznz.com/

The Mwaka Kogwa festival has just finished in Zanzibar. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend because of a conflict with my Kiswahili class schedule as I am based in Stone Town and the festival is held in the village of Makunduchi in the far south of the island. I was able to get some interesting insights on the festival from my host sister, Tashi, and by asking for information at the Zanzibar Tourist Information Centre.

The origin of the Mwaka Kogwa festival is rooted in the Persian New Year celebration which was brought to Zanzibar by the Shiraz people many hundreds of years ago. Some historians say that Zanzibar was a key entry point for this community in all of East Africa.

Mwaka Kogwa is held in the month of July every year. What makes this event in Zanzibar standout among many other similar celebrations that include singing, music, and dancing, is the performance of play-fighting among men with banana sticks. From what I have gathered, the event is meant to be cathartic in the sense that one has the special opportunity to battle against others, to act out aggression in a socially controlled and enjoyable way, which then allows all to have an emotional clean slate moving into the new year. An important ritual that concludes the festival is the destruction of a makeshift structure by burning it to the ground, with predictions made for the new year based on the patterns of smoke given off by the fire.

IMAGE: Burning structure in Mwaka Kogwa festival. Photo: http://www.suntoursznz.com/

From an official perspective, which is to say a government perspective, the festival is an important one that should be supported and preserved, as it is an important part of Tanzanian cultural heritage. In 2018, the Tanzanian premier drew attention to the festival’s importance for the nation, the importance to safeguard it, and the positive impact it has on the economy in the tourism sector (see “Tanzania: Premier Calls for Preservation of Cultural Heritage” https://allafrica.com/stories/201807190790.html)

I asked the friendly people at the Zanzibar Tourist Information Centre about Mwaka Kogwa and was told about it being a great show, that it was a Persian New Year celebration, and about the intense play-fighting with banana sticks. I was told it was a lot of fun and a great way to experience local culture.

In talking to my very knowledgeable host sister (she is just my sister now, and she is Mama Adila’s eldest child), similar information was related to me. Tashi is thirty-one years old and a madrassa (Arabic school) teacher. The big difference was learning that some people, primarily those Zanzibaris who regard themselves as strict Muslims, prefer to recognize and celebrate holidays that have an Islamic connection. I gathered that such people are not opposed to having others participate in the festival, it’s just that they are not interested. Many such people do not even have a sense for when the festival is being held. In addition, the festival is not one that neatly fits into the typical way of understanding as expressed by “this is our religion” and “this is our culture” because at the root of the tradition is actually a competing world religion, which is the South Asian Zoroastrian religion.

Overall, I find that people in Zanzibar are very tolerant and accommodating of the cultural and religious traditions of others. There is a long tradition of influences that are African, Arab, Muslim, Christian, and South Asian so people want to be respectful of others.

Freddie Mercury’s House

Freddie Mercury House. Photo: Nyakeh Tuchscherer

Freddie Mercury was born in Stone Town here in Zanzibar. People are often surprised to learn that fact. After Kiswahili class today I dropped by the spot to have a look. The site is now the Tembo House Hotel.

Freddie Mercury as an infant with Swahili nurse. Photo: Kashmira Bulsara Cooke

“Freddie Mercury” was the name he adopted later. He was born Farrokh Bulsara in 1946. His parents were Parsi immigrants from India who practiced the Zoroastrian religion.

Mercury died in 1991, only 45 years old. Who was his nurse in the photo? If she was twenty years old in 1946 in that photos, she’d be 93 today … I’d like to know her story.

From the same spot where I snapped the front of Mercury’s house, here is the street scene in a different direction

Street scene at Freddie Mercury House. Photo: Nyakeh Tuchscherer

Here are some other shots of Freddie Mercury’s house for those who can’t make the pilgrimage to Zanzibar.

Freddie Mercury House. Photo: Nyakeh Tuchscherer

Freddie Mercury House. Photo: Nyakeh Tuchscherer

Taasisi ya Kiswahili na Lugha za Kigeni

Kiswahili class at The Institute of Kiswahili and Foreign Languages at SUZA.

Language and culture are inextricably linked. Language is a way to communicate as well as a window into the soul of a culture. Learning Kiswahili is more than a social entrée or tool for research, it is the key to understanding worldview, the nature of social relationships, and the organization of society. With these thoughts in mind, I have really dedicated myself to advancing my Kiswahili here in Zanzibar, both in and out of the classroom. In my previous blog I talked about slang, so here I’ll talk about my formal classroom learning of Kiswahili at Taasisi ya Kiswahili na Lugha za Kigeni (The Institute of Kiswahili and Foreign Languages) at the University of Zanzibar (SUZA) based in Stone Town.

Sign for The Institute of Kiswahili and Foreign Languages at SUZA. Photo: Nyakeh Tuchscherer

The Institute at SUZA. Photo: Nyakeh Tuchscherer

Monday through Friday, from 8:30 to 12:30, I learn Kiswahili at SUZA. The class is led by our professor, Mwalimu Jecha (‘Mwalimu’ meaning ‘teacher’). The class has been small, with two other students who are graduate students from the University of Kansas, along with a mature student who works for a Canadian NGO. We are all serious learners, but Kiswahili (or any language) is challenging to learn. We do a lot to help each other and Mwalimu Jecha has a lot of patience and determination as he drills us over and over again until we get things right.

Random page of from my Kiswahili notes. Photo: Nyakeh Tuchscherer

After spending weeks learning how to conjugate verbs and utilizing all tenses of the Kiswahili language, we began to speak amongst each other in Kiswahili. One of our first exercises was to share with each other sentences in Kiswahili that we regularly heard and used. From there we advanced to dialogue practice in role-play, learning how to navigate our way through common situations ranging from the home to the marketplace. For example, some of the dialogue that I focused on concerned purchasing goods, communicating where I was in the process of going, or reporting on activities I have been engaged in. For example, ‘Nina kukata nywele zangu’ translates to ‘I have my hair cut’ which I did yesterday!

Before. Photo: Nyakeh Tuchscherer

After. Photo: Nyakeh Tuchscherer

The most efficient way, I’ve found, to become a better speaker of a language is through constant repetition. Repeated use of important verbs and trying to get tenses perfect comes through such repetition. Paying close attention to singular and plural as well. With constant drilling and dialogue in class – repeating and exchanging utterances to exhaustion – our memories lock in. The words just start to come out. In this way, simple Kiswahili has become second nature. The result as that everyone in the class is launched out into the world of Zanzibar at 12:30 when class ends for the day, at which time we are able to have understandable and even meaningful conversations with Kiswahili speakers. I have found that an ability to speak Kiswahili, or even the act of trying to speak the language, is embraced by the entire community of Zanzibar. Kiswahili speakers love their language and trying to speak it shows a reciprocal love for the community.

My Kiswahili speaking has improved dramatically in the short time I’ve been here. The combination of formal learning in the mornings followed by immersion in the culture and a myriad of language situations in the afternoons and on the weekends, has been a great fit for my learning style. It helps a lot that I have an excellent and dedicated teacher such as Mwalimu Jecha and that I share the class with other students who are as zealous as I am about learning Kiswahili. As time goes on, with every passing day, my speaking has become more fluid and the range of ideas I can express in the language increases. As readers who know me will know, I see my summer Kiswahili language as a true gift as my future goal is to conduct research in other parts of East Africa where Kiswahili is spoken.

Kiswahili Slang

Of the 6,500 different languages we have on earth, one is bound to encounter a variety of rich slang or colloquial expressions that are exchanged amongst various segments of societies. Context is important in the usage of such terms, as what can be a colloquial term of endearment in one situation can be inappropriate and even offensive in a different setting. These terms can possess positive or negative messages and their use can reveal the nature of relationships between speakers. Appropriate use of slang depends on the age, sex, and social status of the speaker in the context of person or group engaged in dialogue (again, factors such as age, sex, and social status). As I travelled to Zanzibar to learn Kiswahili, I wanted to make sure I was learning the intricacies of the language, both inside and outside the classroom. With all the benefits of formal learning inside the classroom, nothing can educate a language learner more than experiential knowledge gained from interactions with friends and family in the home and in society.

My Brother, Muhamad. Photo: Nyakeh Tuchscherer

I did not have to go far to discover the use of Kiswahili slang. My host brother Muhamad and our friends in the neighborhood use slang. They have been helpful in providing insights and explanations to help me navigate various linguistic and cultural terrain. For the most part, however, it has been through experience speaking, listening, and engaging others that has taught me what slang was appropriate in terms of people being addressed and social contexts.

In Zanzibar the most common greeting term for young people is mambo which means “what’s up?” As my brother Muhamad explained to me, mambo is considered slang to be used with friends, especially those close in age.

My Mother, Mama Adila. Photo: Nyakeh Tuchscherer

As commonly as the slang term mambo is used, society in Zanzibar is built upon respect so the word would be regarded as disrespectful if used to greet an elderly person or even someone senior in the family or society at large. My host mother, Mama Adila, explained to me that in Swahili culture one must greet an elder with Shikamoo or Cheichei. In Kiswahili, Shikamoo literally translates as “I am beneath your feet,” meaning the person extending the greeting respects the individual being addressed. Cheichei is a slightly nuanced variant of a respectful greeting, employed as a slang term of endearment towards babies or senior aged citizens.

Kiswahili is not only a rich and vibrant language, but a diverse one too. For an insightful article on Kiswahili, see Elsie Eyakuze’s “A love letter to Kiswahili, those who speak it, and those who think they do”



My neighborhood, Kikwajuni. Photo: Nyakeh Tuchscherer


Carved door in Kikwajuni. Photo: Nyakeh Tuchscherer

Zanzibar Eats

Since I arrived in Zanzibar, or as people here refer to it, Unguja, I have been fortunate to indulge myself in wonderful cuisine. Here in Unguja, there are many popular dishes, such as Ugali which is a maize meal with beans cooked in coconut milk, or Biryani, a mixed rice dish with different meats. For me everything is so good, and so many cuisines are widely consumed, that I can’t say that I have found that any one dish separates itself from the rest in terms of being the “dish of the island.” In the time I have been here I have had no trouble whatsoever in adjusting to new foods. The ingredients used for Unguja’s cuisine come from the island’s markets. Most everything is home grown here on the rice, spice, fruit, and animal farms. While eating here it is very important to respect the culture, which is predominantly Islamic. It is nearly impossible to find a restaurant that serves pork or to find an animal farm that even has pigs for that matter. That being said, people here including myself will not hesitate to eat other types of nyama (meat).

So far, I have eaten at many restaurants, but none of them touches the cooking of my host mother, Mama Adila. Mama Adila has been delightfully sharing the Zanzibarian cuisine culture with me every breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Since Unguja is an island, there is a wealth of fish and other seafood that makes the diet varied, healthy, and filled with freshness. Many of the people in my neighborhood of Kikwajuni are seamen so Mama purchases her seafood like fish, squid, octopus, prawns, etc. from them for a discounted price.

Looking out into the ocean in Zanzibar. Photo: Nyakeh Tuchscherer

Here is my favorite dish that Mama Adila cooks: Ngisi na Wali. Ngisi is fried squid tentacles in curry sauce over white rice.

Mama Adila’s Ngisi na Wali. Photo: Nyakeh Tuchscherer

Even when I’m on the run, delicious food is everywhere, easily found on the streets of Stone Town. One of my favorites is Choma and chips, seen here.

Choma and chips. Photo: Nyakeh Tuchscherer

Alternatively, there is always tasty Shawarma to be found.

Shawarma. Photo: Nyakeh Tuchscherer

My adventure in Zanzibar begins in just a little over a week

As the venerable Swahili proverb instructs, “Bahari haivukwi kwa kuogelea” (You cannot cross the ocean by swimming). Following the sage advice, I’ll soon be flying Emirates out of Newark, via Dubai, arriving Zanzibar’s Abeid Amani Karume International Airport. I’ll be in Zanzibar from early June through early August and I am really looking forward to it.

Zanzibar is off the coast of mainland Tanzania, in the Indian Ocean, and is semi-autonomous part of Tanzania. Zanzibar and Tanganyika combined in 1964 to become Tanzania. Zanzibar is properly known as Unguja and is the largest island of the Zanzibar archipelago. It runs about 53 miles north-south and 19 miles east-west at its widest, with an overall area of about 643 square miles. The history is rich and complex so I’ll get into that later this summer.

I’ll be learning Swahili, or Kiswahili, or to be exact in terms of dialect, Kiunguja, which means “the language of Unguja”, which is the dialect of the language used as the model for standard Swahili. I’ll be studying at the State University of Zanzibar (SUZA), School of Kiswahili and Foreign Languages, in the Department of Kiswahili (see https://www.suza.ac.tz/department-of-kiswahili-for-foreigners/) which is located right in the heart of Stone Town of Zanzibar. Stone Town is on the western coast of Unguja and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Three potentially useful notes on my pre-departure planning:

VISA: applied and received by mail from the Tanzanian embassy in Washington, DC. Required visa application, passport, 2 passport photos, letter from State Univ. of Zanzibar (SUKA) where I’ll be studying, copy of flight itinerary, pre-paid return envelope, and $100 money order. It was fast and easy. The visa lasts for 90 days from date of entry and is multiple entry/exit.

MEDICAL: I read all the WHO and CDC advice for travelers so am good to go. I have a Yellow Fever card, which I’ll take, although it isn’t required for entry (for those arriving from certain countries, including the USA). I have a 3 month supply of the malaria meds called Malarone.

PACKING: Zanzibar is of course a Muslim culture, so I’ll keep that in mind. I’ll aim to take clothes for the weather too, which in June/July/August will be about a high of 84° degrees during the day, a low of 70° degrees at night, with lots of blue skies, little rain, but still pretty humid. Zanzibar requires 240/120 voltage adapter for phone. I’ll be able to text locally and internationally for free, probably using Whatsapp whenever I can get a wifi.

That concludes my first blog post.


The Swahili proverb above is taken from the collection of the Center for African Studies, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign http://swahiliproverbs.afrst.illinois.edu/ambition.html

The map of Zanzibar is fromOona Räisänen (Mysid), Map of Zanzibar Archipelago-en, CC BY-SA 4.0 httpsen.wikipedia.orgwikiZanzibar