Monday, April 9, 2012

A Childhood in Zanzibar in the 1940s

From Maggie Thomas in Canada

My father, Arthur James’s next transfer was when I was two years old (I was born in Karachi in 1934) and it was to Zanzibar of the coast of East Africa and a British trust territory. ZANZIBAR This was perhaps the happiest home of my childhood because my parents and I lived there together for nearly 6 years.

It was an idyllic existence for expatriates; an island paradise with breathtakingly beautiful beaches, tall swaying palm trees, pure drinking water, an active social life of tennis, golf, swimming, cricket, sparkling dinner and garden parties and weekends on the beach. The men worked hard and the women played bridge. Gertrude soon earned a reputation as the second best bridge player on the island...the best being the representative of the Queen known as the "Resident" Sir John Hawthorn Hall, formerly Governor of Aden.

My memories of my mother, Gertrude, thankfully known as Gemmy, at this time are that whenever I wanted to chat I was told to ‘shush!’ because of the increasingly worrying BBC news on the radio or because a tense hand of bridge was being played in our living room. I enjoyed the dregs of the four gin and tonics on a few occasions and slept extraordinarily well on those afternoons until I was caught in the act.

My life was supervised by my mother but my constant companions were my ayah or nanny and the mzee or head steward. My ayah spoke no English so I very quickly became fluent in Kiswahili and when I was a little older started to teach my father this language which is the lingua franca of East Africa. My day started with a glass of orange juice, a walk to the Victoria Gardens which were our morning play ground, home for breakfast and then play time with other children either at their or my home and after lunch a two hour rest. In the late afternoon we walked to Mnazi Moja (one Palm Tree) recreation ground and golf course adjacent to the sea shore and played there. Breakfast was the only meal I shared with my parents.

I recall when Mzee was ill and hospitalised and I was missing him terribly I ordered the Bank rickshaw and it took my ayah and myself to the African hospital where room was made for me to sit on his bed amongst his many friends and relations. I remember being made welcome and feeling very happy and comfortable with my friend. My poor ayah took the undeserved blame for this escapade when it was discovered that she had 'allowed' me to order that rickshaw!

Zanzibar was ruled at that time by an Arab sultan, Sir Khalifa Il Bin Harub Sayidd descendant of the Sultans of Oman, in cooperation with the British. It was a British Trust Territory. Zanzibar is the island of cloves and I remember watching Arabs rioting when the government decided they could not dry their cloves on the beaches. I watched from an upstairs window of the bank as they rushed down the narrow street shouting and waving sticks. I was fascinated and frightened...I was about five years old and the picture remains vivid.

The European children in Zanzibar at that time had one claim to fame. When war broke out and there were sinkings of British ships in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean's defences were built against a possible German naval invasion. These were in the form of sandbagged trenches all along the coast of the island. They were erected along the beach just beyond the fields of Mnazi Moja and made perfect forts and castles for us during our afternoon playtime. Shortly after they were erected a strongly worded letter of complaint was sent to the parents by the Resident. He complained that a significant portion of the coastal defences of Zanzibar island had been had been breached and demolished by their children. This vandalism must cease forthwith. Needless to say this letter was the cause of much hilarity as parents considered the obvious fragility of island security which had been so easily destroyed by their children.

We left Zanzibar when my father was transferred back to India in June 1940....Italy was just about to enter the war. We sailed into Mombasa, Kenya and my parents stayed on board (my mother suffering from malaria) while I was taken ashore by a friend. We spent the day with the wife of a previous Zanzibar Bank Manager, Flora MacLeod, of whom I was very fond. As we drove around the city with me sitting quietly in the back of the car, the two women discussed the dangers to Kenya which shared a border with what was then Italian Somalia. Would the Italians invade? Traffic policemen had been issued with gleaming white gloves which could be seen in a blackout.

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