A Girl From Zanzibar: An Excerpt


I understand now why Moore College wanted me. I satisfied all their quotas: woman, Asian, African. Arab, European, black, brown, person of colour. I am the perfect package only because I am not like them. On the forms they send off to government a place was, after all, waiting for me. Was there a box for ex-convicts that they might also have checked? If I tried to explain my innocence, I fear my colleagues would smile irritatingly and tell me that I need not, that guilt was fine with them.

It’s so cold here the snow squeaks, like walking on mice. This morning I put on the black Harrows coat that has survived from London, my bright new Timberland boots, a cheerful red beret, a soft wool scarf – which they call a muffler here – and gloves, and walked up into the field behind the house just to hear the sound of it. Then I turned and stopped, marvelling at the quiet. I was far away, alone and safe. I breathed deeply and felt my nostrils ice closed, then unpeel.

When I finally let my attention go from my nose to my eyes, I found they were fixed on the little wood house the college has given me. I took in the pretty glitter of the icicles hanging from its eaves and noticed that the fascination had not ended but was focused now on the chimney with its twist of smoke. Then I remembered – with a shock that something so old and small could be remembered – that when I was a new schoolgirl in Zanzibar, a European nun had made us draw houses like this, small square ones with mysterious tails. We obeyed her, but the oddness must have left its impression: the houses we knew in Zanzibar were tall, jammed together, and built of massive stone. Zanzibar can still catch me. Sometimes it arches over to Vermont as if the puzzle of London had never come between.

I have been here long enough to become vulnerable to memory. Three months of Vermont quiet, and now the soft weight of snow, have muffled the world and enclosed me with my thoughts. The president of Moore College thinks he is kind to give me time to settle before I must teach, but I am ready for distraction.

When I left Zanzibar for England at twenty-five, I hoped for no memories, not knowing that I might later need them for sense. I was in my mid-twenties then and only wanted to draw a line above the past and say, my life starts here, brightness above the line, darkness below. I dreamed of a young woman – myself – standing in the window of a well-lit upstairs room of a fashionable London house. There was a party. I held a drink. My dress displayed my shoulders and was expensive. I was smiling, chatting. Possibly I was the hostess. It was a picture that could only have come from films or magazines. Oddly, in this dream, I was also the pensive, shadowy girl standing in the street below, looking up at the woman in the window. This was all I had for Europe, a luminous promise of vague happinesses and unknown possibility, to set against the ghosts of Zanzibar.

It was nineteen eighty-three then and all that moved in Zanzibar were its ghosts. The government was broke and hopeless. The east European communist advisors had abandoned the island and nothing had come to take their place. There were no telephones in the telephone boxes they had built, no water in their taps. The People’s Funfair was locked up and our only modern hotel, the Bwawani, was closed. No tourists came to coo at our palm trees and tropical beaches and tell us we were paradise on earth. We had no food for them, nowhere for them to stay. What we had were skeletons left over from the slave trade, living memories of a murderous revolution, a sharp terror of witchcraft, and all the gossip that the sects and subsets of Africans, Asians and Arabs could muster. I was twenty-five and did not want to be there.