Search for Higher Meaning
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.
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
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.
abysmal plains were overwhelming. They were powerful and
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?
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.
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.