PAINTED DEVILS AND THE LIVES OF ORDINARY PEOPLE. Tuan Marais. Storyline Studio, Western Cape, South Africa, 2016 (paperback). ISBN 978-6-620-60019-4. R185 (and various prices online) http://www.tuanmarais.co.za/.
This memoir is prefaced by Shakespeare’s ‘tis the eye of childhood / That fears a painted devil’ (Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 2). Memoirs are precious stories, carrying the words of ordinary people living through historically interesting times. Young Tuan Marais went to live in Zanzibar with his mother and her new husband. This was Zanzibar of 1956, when the popular Sultan Seyyid bin Khalifa still ruled a diverse population before the rush to independence had taken hold. Painted Devils is Tuan’s profoundly sensitive story of his childhood and young adulthood.
Tuan became immersed in the island’s exotic life. His halcyon days were spent learning the life of the seas. Local Zanzibaris befriended him and guided him in the traditional ways of fishing and negotiating the coral reefs. Soon he was a natural, weaving fishing traps and speaking Swahili. The family home was next to the Sultan’s Kibweni country palace and one of his memories is of rescuing the Sultan’s yacht during a storm. He recalled seeing the great dhow fleets arriving with the monsoon.
The English culture of Tuan’s family prescribed formal education and religious passage as necessary steps to adulthood. Most colonial children suffered the wrench that was boarding school. It was profoundly formative. It would be interesting to know what reflections those children would later have if, instead, they had been enrolled into local schools. Zanzibar before the Revolution had excellent primary and secondary schools based on the British system of O- and A-levels, and a rich and diverse cultural milieu.
Tuan’s parents were not part of the British colonial administration and had no sense of the pull of ‘back home’ that characterised those families regarding their sojourn in Zanzibar as temporary. Tuan became conscious of racism, both in Zanzibar and at his Kenyan boarding school. Racism was taught to him through shame and ridicule. This was also the time that emerging political parties in Zanzibar, and across Africa, were demanding independence – Uhuru! The Cold War intensified this struggle. Tuan was hardly aware of the political wrangling, the escalating violent rhetoric as opposing sides grappled for the popular vote. The presence of Swahili, Shirazi, Manga Arabs, Goans, Indians and mainland Africans was taken as natural by his young self. Meanwhile the British were slipping away, having lost the will to invest in a troubled island.
Tuan planned his future in Zanzibar: to offer diving and deep-sea fishing tours from a traditional fishing dhow. This was not to be. The Revolution of 1964 intervened. His parents were attacked on the day of the revolt when the infamous John Okello directed brutal mobs. They were taken to Okello’s headquarters and bound. Around them were the bodies of murdered Arab Zanzibaris. It is likely that they were saved by Okello’s order that no whites were to be killed – for fear of British intervention. Instead Okello whipped up his supporters into a genocide of Zanzibari Arab people. This is the dark history that the Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar has never acknowledged.
The last section of the memoir is the story of Tuan’s life in South Africa. He was conscripted into the army and for a brief while groomed to be a South African spy. The Apartheid secret police wanted information on the Frelimo camps supposedly located in Zanzibar. He turned down this offer but did visit Zanzibar in 1966, finding the island miserable under the grip of its own brand of oppression.
In 1997, in his late middle-age, Tuan returned to Zanzibar but his Eden had disappeared and he struggled to find acceptance and resolution. Tuan’s memoir is poetically written, filled with the sense of those magic years when anything seemed possible. His years of youth were in Zanzibar and his depiction of life in the pre-revolutionary Sultanate is a charming tale of self-discovery. And perhaps it is with nostalgia that we might imagine how Zanzibar might have been had it not suffered the violence and despotism of those years.
Anne M. Chappel
Anne M. Chappel
Anne M. Chappel was born in Mwanza, Tanganyika, in 1947 and moved to Zanzibar in 1956 when her father worked for the British colonial administration, finally occupying the position of Permanent Secretary to Mohammed Shamte, the Prime Minister for the brief period of Zanzibar’s independence. Anne has written a novel, Zanzibar Uhuru, covering the last 50 plus years of Zanzibar’s history, as well as a biography of her father, Time Past in Africa. Anne lives in Adelaide, Australia.