July 24. Yesterday, I was contacted by a gentleman from Muscat, Oman. He is my age and says he is planning to write his family story and would appreciate some help. His family originally came from Yemen but spent many years in Zanzibar including the period of the 1964 revolution. In those days, people travelled with the monsoon to and from the Gulf States and Eastern Africa.
The 72-year-old is wanting help to fill in gaps of his father’s time in Zanzibar. He has appealed to me to answer specific questions about the period 1963 to 1964. Most importantly, he wants to know more about what happened during the Zanzibar Revolution.
This revolution caused a diaspora of surviving Zanzibaris. Although it was punishable by death, anyone who could leave, did so. Nowadays, you will find Zanzibaris settled in London, Toronto, Muscat and Adelaide, for example.
Following the end of the Cold War, when Zanzibar relaxed their one-party state by holding multi-party elections, (1995) people begin to return. After all, this was where they spent their childhoods, where their grandparents were buried. Half hidden throughout Stone Town, Zanzibar, there are private cemeteries. Most of the private houses had been nationalised without compensation by the revolutionary junta. However, nowadays, whenever a picture of Stone Town’s streets is posted on Facebook, people remember whose house it was and whose little shop or duka was below. The streets of your hometown are never forgotten.
And it is in honour of one’s parents to try to recall their world, the history they lived through, the challenges they faced.
The British, in recalling their history, might not remember the Zanzibar Revolution, or if they do so, would like to forget it. It is a mere blip in the history of Africa, a fallout of the Cold War. After all, the resulting genocide is a small one: maybe 5-10,000 people in a population of 300,000. (It is listed in Wikipedia’s list of historical genocides).
The point is, the British bear considerable responsibility: the British Colonial Office had ran the country since 1890 and had organised every detail of the series of elections leading to independence or ‘Uhuru’. There’s no other way to say it. A month and two days after the pomp and ceremony of the 10th December 1963 Independence Celebrations attended by Prince Phillip, the new government was overthrown.
A sprinkling of British officials had remained in the government administration, security and police – including my father. When the rebels attacked the police stations, a desperate appeal for help was made to the British Government (through Aden) but they refused, ‘declined’ to send in troops. They said that Zanzibar was now an independent nation. They had first asked if any white people were being attacked.
However, a British Navy ship promptly arrived and moored offshore in view of the city but did nothing except take off the English people. The revolutionary leader, John Okello, had told his mobs not to touch any Europeans. Instead, Okello directed his mobs to slaughter the Zanzibari Arabs.
(Two weeks later, on 28th January, 1964, there was an army mutiny against President Nyerere’s government in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanganyika, and Nyerere appealed to the British for help – the British promptly sent in their paratroopers and quelled the insurrection.)
I realise that the gentleman who contacted me will eventually come down to asking me about this question of why the British did not help. It’s over 50 years since these events, yet still the question comes.
I cannot help thinking what the effects of the massive devastation of countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria must be: what personal stories of loss will be told and passed down from generation to generation.