The days are approaching when you will hear new things.
Soon you will hear that an Arab is not an Arab, a Shirazi is
not a Shirazi, and an African is not an African. You will hear
this, and you will be told that you are all Zanzibaris.
Al-Falaq, paper of the Zanzibar Arab Association, 1946
Nani awezaye kumnyoosha Binaadamu pindi alitiwa kibyongo
na Mungu? [Who can straighten out mankind, whom God has
made a hunchback?]
Afrika Kwetu, paper of the Zanzibar African Association, 1952
STUDENTS of the history of African ethnicity will recognize in the second of
these quotes a Swahili version of the aphorism from Kant with which Leroy
Vail introduces his important volume on the creation of tribalism in modern
Africa: ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity nothing straight will ever be
fashioned’. True to their spirit, both aphorisms can be interpreted in
contradictory ways. Vail intended to point up a theme that runs throughout
his volume: that ethnic categories are rarely as clear-cut as ethnic nationalists
would have them seem, and that, where such clarity exists, it is only
momentary, having arisen out of complex and messy historical processes.
But the editors of Afrika Kwetu, the weekly newspaper of the Zanzibar
African Association that published the Swahili proverb in 1952, drew less
subtle implications. The immediate context was a plea against religious
chauvinism, part of the newspaper's allegation that Zanzibar's Arab
nationalist leaders had violated the Islamic injunction to respect other
religions ‘of the book’. But the clear implication – elsewhere made explicit –
was that God and nature had fashioned humankind into irreducibly
separate races and nations, and that it was foolish and even blasphemous to
mix or combine them, as (they charged) their Arab rivals were seeking to do.