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   Date: 5/2/11 Bookmark and Share

The Search for Higher Meaning

Students in the Jacobson Center’s January course “Spiritual Writing,” taught by Sam Samuels, associate director of gift planning in development, examined published essays about spirituality and authored their own essays. Hanna Meghji ’11 agreed to share her essay with Gate readers, about a moment of identity conflict she experienced in Tanzania during last year’s World Cup.

Shining in a White World: The Black Stars

By Hanna Meghji ’11

Hanna Meghji ’11 in the middle of the Serengeti.

The sun shone brightly overhead, causing me to squint. Despite the abnormally large size and uncommonly dark shade of the sunglasses that I donned, my eyes were still sore and tired. Wrenching the door of the jeep open, I hopped out. We had been sitting in that sturdy but uncomfortable vehicle for four hours, traveling the endless semi-paved roads of northern Tanzania, and it felt good to be able to place my feet upon firm ground. Now that the rumble of the Land Rover’s large wheels grinding against the stones and gravel that made up the road which we had been traveling had come to a halt, I was able to revel in the endless peace and serenity, unequivocal to anything that I had ever felt.

We had stopped in front of a sign that read, “Hifadhi ya Taifa Serengeti,” which was translated in English as “Serengeti National Park: A World Heritage Site.” The sky was a deep blue and the clouds were lazy—small, seemingly motionless, and scattered. The plains of the Serengeti were infinite. No matter which direction I turned, all I could see were miles and miles of savannah—blades of grass that crouched close to the ground and flat-topped trees which had been shaved neatly by the wind. The trees that I could see were no taller than eight or nine feet and presented themselves sparingly. A layer of dust covered everything. From the tips of my shoes and the bottom quarter of my jeans to the exterior of the jeep, it hung in the air, which was thick with heat and silence.

These abysmal plains were overwhelming. They were powerful and strong—survivors amidst the rest of the chaos that made up Tanzania’s political and national identity. Tanzania was the model country, the baby, if you will, for aid organizations around the world. The government fully cooperated with foreign aid agencies, and, because of this relationship, local Tanzanians had mixed feelings about the wazungu that had become a part of the country’s landscape. Wazungu literally translates to "white people," but I had come to learn that Tanzanians used this word to describe all foreigners. Although I explained to them that I was far from a mzungu, they laughed and disregarded my pleas. Was I a mzungu? I didn’t think so.

Family Ties

Thousands of years ago, my family lived in Kutch and Gujarat, two provinces in northern India. They were merchants, and so, following the Silk Road to the heart of the spice trade, they wound up in Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania. For the next five or six generations, we flourished there, building our plantation empires from the ground up. Africans, during this era, were employed as house servants, slaves, or plantation workers and were seen as inferior to the wealthier Asians or Arabs. The African population on the island, however, was roughly 230,000, whereas the Arab and South Asian populations were closer to 50,000 and 20,000, respectively. Over the years, the frustrations of the locals began to snowball, and in December 1963 the revolution began, followed shortly by the coup of the Arab Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah in January 1964.

My mother’s entire family fled Zanzibar during the revolution, some finding refuge in Karachi, Pakistan, and others in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. My father’s family was living in Pemba, an island north of Zanzibar, where rioting and violence were less prevalent. I was raised with a love for the country. It was not a love that was taught or force-fed but rather something I developed without anyone realizing that it was there. I was raised speaking Kiswahili and Kutchi, both languages of my forefathers, and at home we ate foods that originated in India and Tanzania. Along with these tangibles, I grew up hearing the reminiscent stories of Unguja and this feeling of nostalgia which kicked in whenever the island was mentioned despite the fact that I had never been there.

These were the feelings that pulled me to spend six weeks working in the country. Unfortunately, I was not met with the open arms that I was hoping for. The Kiswahili that I grew up speaking was nothing like the complicated, flawless Kiswahili that the locals spoke, and no matter how hard I tried, to them I would always be a mzungu—a white person, a foreigner. That title didn’t bother me so much when I was in larger cities such as Dar or even Moshi, but here, as I stood on the plains of the Serengeti and surveyed the bounties that had been bestowed upon a country which I considered my own, it bothered me.

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