Shafiq Kutchee, née Fernando Sancho, messages me on WhatsApp about a month ago, towards the end of Ramadhan. I have no clue who he is until he calls me to jerk old cobwebs fogging my mind. He was scouring the social media for anything related to Tanga and chanced on reading one of my Blogs. So, after a gap of almost fifty years, we unite after Eid over coffee and snacks at Blue Room Tea Shop in Dar es Salaam. It is a happy occasion, yes, but my friend is an ajnabee man – bitter, broken, and sad. I cannot believe I am looking at my old buddy for he resembles nothing close to who I knew from school. He is obese, almost, and a chain smoker, a habit I intensely detest. He is also a heavy beer drinker, another trait in humans I despise. But I’m so happy to see him through the prism of my childhood.
Shafiq resembled Fernando Sancho as a teenager, the Spanish villain actor in Western movies, so he was known more as Fernando than his birth name. He was a good friend of mine when we studied together at the famous Popatlal Secondary School of Tanga, way back in the 1970s. His family had migrated from Zanzibar, escaping the revolution mayhem there. He had two pretty, older sisters and his mother, a widow, was so rattled by the forced marriages of other teenage girls to random men during the revolution, she sold all her wedding jewelry to finance the trip and fled to the relative safety of mainland Tanganyika. Shafiq belonged to the Memon community but that did not matter; we clicked and were buddies in fun and mischief during our high school years. Both of us loved movies and a show at the Majestic or Regal was obligatory, almost, when we could muster the cash. Fernando was gifted with good tenor and was admired for singing Bollywood’s Kishore Kumar hits while my voice curled up toenails.
Such is life – I moved to Dubai and eventually to the USA where I spent most of my adult life. As is the case among adolescents, Shafiq and I lost contact; there was no Facebook or WhatsApp during those times. He completed high school and stayed home to work as a clerk or accountant for a Memon-owned business. He married a Kutchi girl from a well-off family of Mombasa, and they had twins, identical sons. Then Shafiq too, like many of us, tried his fortunes in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where he slogged for a local Emarati company, working sixty hours a week. There were no maids or servants that could be hired on a five thousand Dirham salary, so all housework was managed by his wife while Shafiq was at work or too tired for good company on his return home for his wife or the kids. Resentment and fights inevitably ensued. The wife was used to a life of privilege; cooking she coped with, but cleaning house, washing clothes, ironing, and scrubbing toilets, especially, – including care of the twins – was way beyond her dignity, delicate hands, and upbringing. The marriage did not work out, sadly, and ended in an acrimonious divorce, the wife winning custody of both children.
Shafiq returned to Tanzania after fifteen years, tired and broke. He began working for a wealthy family business as a manager in one of their stores in Dar es Salaam. His fortunes seem to improve – he fell in love with the boss’s youngest daughter, several years his junior. Let us call her Naila. Naila’s father, however, was not amused when he found out and immediately fired Shafiq. He accused his employee of being a two-timer, wanting to lay his hands on the inheritance Naila would receive after his demise. Naila was as adamant, threatening suicide if denied marriage to Shafiq. The father swallowed his pride, painfully, relented, and welcomed his prior disgraced employee as a family member. Poor guy. Naila delivered a beautiful baby girl in 2000.
The daughter, let’s call her Layla, grew up to be a wonderful, beautiful daughter, a delight to her parents. She studied at a premier school in Dar es Salaam and eventually made it to the UK after high school, where she studied and trained to be an optician. Strange no, almost all Tanzanian Asians I know go to the UK and become either opticians or pharmacists.
Layla adopted and assimilated well in Birmingham. Too well, according to her father. The first two years went well. Layla studied hard and got good grades. There were some issues with the type of company she kept. Shafiq and Naila were not too excited about their daughter’s circle of friends, especially the attire they elected to wear. There were petty arguments, and tears, but nothing extraordinary in a normal family. Layla was admonished and told to behave or else.
Layla called her mother one day and confided in a secret that she did not want her dad to know – she had discarded her hijab. Naila was distraught but too scared to tell Shafiq, a hothead, so the secret remained intact between daughter and mother. Had Shafiq found out, Layla would have been cooling her heels back home. Like her father, Layla had a weakness for love and romance; she fell in love with a fellow student at the college in Birmingham. Layla confided this to her mother also. The mother lost her nerves and came clean to her husband. So began World War Three. There were threats and ultimatums from Shafiq to Layla, a warning of disowning and loss of money and support. Nothing moved Layla.
Yusufali, Shafiq covers his face with pudgy hands, his eyes swimming in pain, please never send your children away from you, especially daughters. Educate them at home where you can keep an eye on them. I’ve lost my twin sons, they rarely see or speak with me, now that they are adults and have their own families. Neither of them are financially successful, they are petty traders in Kariakoo. And now I’m about to lose my daughter.
To my shock and horror, the guy breaks down in tears and sobs quietly, streams of tears roll down his ruddy cheeks and plop on a plate of kababs, now empty. Other customers look at us curiously and they too, seem embarrassed to see a grown man cry. I quickly settle the bill and coax Shafiq out of the restaurant and to my apartment not too far away. At home, Shafiq is inconsolable, bawling like a baby.
I make him relax, give him fresh organic carrot juice that is unmatched in freshness and sweetness in our entire Dunia, I ask Shafiq why he thinks he’s going to lose Layla.
Shafiq breaks down in tears again, because Layla is being an insolent daughter, has totally lost her mind. She’s insisting on marrying outside of the Memon community. To a Christian! Can you believe it? I should never have let her go study in that bloody country. He slaps his forehead so hard that I jump, startled.
I try and console my friend from the past, telling him there is nothing he can do except wish her well and pray for her. She is an adult and the past eras of children owing compassionate payback to parents are long over. He immediately sobers up, grabs a ton of tissues, and violently blows his sinuses open.
I don’t pray, Yusufali. I don’t believe in God. Not anymore. And if He’s around, He has long stopped caring about me.
Yikes! I want to tell him that perhaps his troubles would ease up if he believed in his creator but stay mum.
Do you know what hurts the most, Yusufali?
I don’t reply.
That brat is in love with a Black man! After all that I’ve done for her, she ends up falling for a Black man. How does she expect Naila and I to parade a Black man as our son-in-law at a Memon wedding reception here in Dar?
Nothing has changed, has it? Our usual racist upbringing and mindset at play. I see Shafiq to the door shortly afterward. We promise we’ll keep in touch, an undertaking I do not intend to keep.