Dar is surprisingly temperate in the middle of summer, when before, in January, I could not stop perspiring, even when idling in the shadows. My Indian Guru, Aliakberbhai Ratansi is finally joining me for his first ever visit to Tanzania, after futile attempts to coax him the last 21 years I have known the man. The drive from Dar airport to town at 6 PM takes less than 30 minutes – a miracle of sorts. The digs at the supposedly smoke-free Khoja musaafarkhana are mostly acceptable; the A/C works, there is hot water and the linen are washed and pressed, even though the pillows reek of previous sweaty heads. Roaches – I think I martyr an army of them in the bathroom – and the repulsive stink of tobacco smell in the corridors are sure put-offs.
I am unsure what it’ll take for us Khojas to behave and respect the common-sense no-smoking policies in place. I have seen this disrespect outside the mosque here in Dar, in Sanford and elsewhere in the Khoja world. Mufadhal type ironfisted penalties perhaps? The privileged ‘democracy’ currently in place has obviously made most smokers in us abhorrently arrogant. The gym in the complex is convenient and functional, if underutilized; in 5 days I spend in Dar, I find no more than 5 people working out early mornings.
For a ‘poor’ country, Tanzania is faring quite well, methinks. Apart from bellyaching about Mheshimiwa Magufuli’s short-tern-pain for long-term-gain dictatorial reforms, from the Khojas mostly, most Tanzanians seem to be genially happy and at peace. The roads are well maintained, the persistent power cuts and water woes of yore are almost extinct and the rapid transit system works quite well. Aliakberbhai is treated to all the eating places Dar is famous for, including K-Tea Shop, where we gorge on 6 renowned kababs each and share a gigantic elaichi-free kitumbua. Burb. Zanzibar is bustling with tourist dollars, and even crumbling Tanga has more cars on the well paved and litter-free roads than I have ever seen before. Why, it also has working traffic lights – finally! The Tanga airport, with no more than 3 Cessna flights a day, has a cooling A/C, immaculately clean toilets, with running water, pump soap and toilet paper, and a TV in the waiting area that displays clearly. My, my, what luxuries.
Tanga, for me, holds a special place in my heart and memories. Although I was born in Arusha, it was Tanga that nurtured my physical and intellectual curiosity and maturity. At its sisal producing heydays, the town was booming, and the Khoja community numbered into several hundred; the general Asian community into numerous thousands. It was a vibrant place to be in, and people made decent money. Sadly, during the unwise Ujamaa policies of Mwalimu Nyerere, the founding president of Tanzania, the Asian business community prospered, even more, taking advantage of trading in hoarded magendo commodities. I was one of them and the guilt of earning and prospering on the sweat of poor Africans leaves me with a sick feeling every time I think of it or visit my birth country. The racist condescending treatment towards the Black African I aped from my elders is shameful and reprehensible, and I can only pray they will be compassionate towards me on the Day of Judgement.
We drive to St. Anthony’s (now renamed Changa) elementary school, the premium school to be studying in during my times. Funded by the Roman Catholic church, it was run by the ironfisted Irish nun Sister Mary Fabian, not at all shy in applying her vicious bamboo cane liberally on our tender skins. The school looks dilapidated and small; the headmistresses, Stela Kyimo, has a litany of wants, from a water-well for potable water to a fresh coat of paint. The church next to the school is where ‘girlfriend’ Clara, a product of a Portuguese father and Goan mother, led me one day from where I innocently tasted the holy communion from a larger than life priest who placed it on my tongue.
I visit Popatlal Secondary School, where Mr. Ismail, my English teacher, instilled the love of reading and literature and writing in me; I owe him momentously. I was heartbroken when someone mistakenly informed me that he had died but elated to learn he is alive, staying in an old people’s home in London; I will visit him in March, insha’Allah. There are so many overwhelmingly good memories from my days in this school that I am moved to tears. Mr. Chaudry, the Sikh headmaster then and now at 82, another dictator in my life, is ailing. His tyrannical behavior made me hate him then, but I realize how much he loved and cared for us, not unlike any parent. His hardball disciplinary tactics made a man out of me, and others, I’d like to think, something our current teenagers sorely need. The cricket ground I and other classmates labored to flatten under Chaudry’s stern command still looks in decent shape and I recall myself as a 16-year-old running up to deliver a medium paced swinger that clean bowled ace Tanga team opening batsman Olavo for a duck.
And sadly, I visit our Khoja mosque, once filled with worshippers for any given namaaz but now with no more than 5 people in attendance for zohr or maghrib. But they are all present for dinner at the birthday commemoration of Lady Zainab (s) later that night. The biryani niyaaz cannot go to waste, no? I do get to meet several childhood chums I went to school with, so close then, now awkwardly separated by oceans of growing up experiences.
The final day we are in Tanga, I go for a long walk early in the morning, all the way from the claustrophobic hotel room near the Khoja mosque to past Changa school, 2 plus miles away; it takes me 30 minutes. This is the route I had taken in all my years at Changa, hiking to school early morning and walking back home late afternoon. The dirt and stone pathway, the crumbling courthouse and the stone giraffe have changed not one bit in all these years. I suddenly feel old and depressed, sense the weight of time pressing on my shoulders. Along the way, I meet preppy young girls and boys, happy, in innocent laughter, chatter, and mischief, with bag packs bobbing on their backs, going to my school; I wave at them and smile. Taken aback at the sight of middle-aged Asian in running shorts, a T-Shirt, and running shoes being friendly, they quickly recover and reciprocate with giggles and smiles.
Shikamoo, they call out in respect for elders in Kiswahili, shikamoo! Jambo!
I shake their hands and a crowd of kids gather around me; they too, want to shake hands; boys laughing brashly and girls giggling away uncontrollably. The clouds in my mind lift at the innocence and cheerful faces that call out to me and happy hormones surge through me. So, I talk to them in almost flawless Kiswahili, telling them I studied in the very school they were now going to, more than 50 years ago. They are astounded, yet again, and squeal in happy surprise, hopping up and down, full of questions. I stay with them all the way to school, asking and answering questions and teasing. They reluctantly wave me goodbye as the school bell tolls aloud.
This is what life is about, then, the new will replace the old, in a better way, insha’Allah. I feel much better, so turn around and sprint back to the hotel, receiving startled stares from those out and about early.
CAI donors will grant a water well for Changa school soon, insha’Allah. And the Abul Fadhl Abbas School in barabara 16 will be equipped with a full-fledged library, a computer lab, connection to continuous water supply, 4 functional toilets and a coat of paint. We’ll make this the best elementary school this side of town. Insha’Allah.