Thoughts from The Island


Nungwi, Zanzibar

If you had told me in a distant past that I would one day live and work in East Africa, even if it is just for a month, I probably wouldn’t have taken you too seriously. But as I look back, I don’t believe I was here. And unlike the exotic perception that the term ‘East Africa’ evokes, there was nothing tourist-like about my time here.

If being in Tengeru and Arusha reminded me of parts of India, Zanzibar was more like being in my backyard, if I’d had one. Initially, some much needed beach-time was probably the only factor that drew me to the island. But within the hour it became a revelation for me. Even though it is part of Africa, part of Tanzania, it strives to be independent of both. Primarily Muslim in faith, the population is a mix of African, Indian and Arab ethnicities.

The businesses are primarily Indian-owned and we gasped as we spoke with each other in Gujarati (who would’ve known!!!) with a mutual curiosity, full of questions and stories to tell. A familiar smile broke out when upon inquiry, I told them I was Parsi. They spoke of ‘Parisi’ (Parsi in Swahili) friends they had once known who lived in Zanzibar, and that everyone had either passed away or had left the Island during the revolution. The world continued to shrink for me. After all, it was only an ocean, albeit a busy one at the time, that separated the Island from India.

On the surface, the eye sees the tourist destination, exotic and cocooned within the walls of expensive resorts, with exquisite sunsets and turquoise green water seemingly an arm’s distance away. Burgeoning underneath is the living, breathing Zanzibar where everyone is trying to learn to live with one another amicably, locals and expats alike.


This is the world I got to know through the eyes and life of the amazing Amanda Lichtenstein. A former ITLP Teaching Artist, she fell in love with Zanzibar 3 years ago and decided to find a way to live there. Fluent in Swahili, Amanda works directly with the University of Zanzibar heading a student program in partnership with the US. From the difficult conversations we’ve had covering delicate topics, sharing stories and experiences, raising age-old questions we cannot necessarily answer, it feels surreal that we met just a few days ago.


Lovely Amanda!

Amanda lives in the heart of historic Stone Town, a tourist hotspot, but still very much grounded in a spicy blend of cultures, languages, personalities and beliefs. The easily accessible and tempting life of the Mzungu (Swahili for White Person – whether tourist or expat) did not influence this Chicago native when it came to being a resident of Zanzibar. She seems to integrate all aspects of her life experiences into her work, with her students, with the school trips she organizes, and the Poetry Night she heads every month at a quaint little bookstore in town – all this in an effort to continue to create and maintain balance within the community she has formed for herself.

I got to attend Poetry Night on my last night in Zanzibar. The little bookstore, ‘A Novel Idea’ was packed with eager ears. The theme for the month, Ukarimu (Swahili for Generosity, Compassion), was interpreted in so many beautiful ways by voices old and new. It was so special to be part of this community where people showed up on a Tuesday evening, after a long day’s work, full of poetry and support to share with one another – that in itself being an act of Ukarimu.


A Novel Idea

The last few days haven’t been as much a holiday-by-the-beach as it has been a study of culture, race, personality and society. I’m exhausted, but my senses are up and about taking in as much as possible. Over the last month I’ve been pulled, pushed, stretched, wrung, in every which way, and just when I felt like I reached my threshold of staying present, open and receptive, the familiar strains of languages and Bollywood tunes playing in the streets melt my heart and create a welcoming respite.

There are times I dream of an uninterrupted night’s sleep, without the sounds of dogs and goats and cocks and calls to prayer, without the nightmares of missed flights, without jumping awake at wee hours with the sudden urge to journal; and yet, if I could do it all again, I would.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by dara on July 28, 2012 at 4:13 AM

    Hello Farah,

    I am a Parsi from Bombay, India who has read every page of your blog — for two reasons (i) I’m a voracious reader (ii) i like your chatty style.

    I left school in 1963 and college in 1967 and i have a lot of friends who were from East Africa in those days. I am still in touch with many of them. None were ‘Parisi’.

    But i did have some Parsi relatives there. Would you know how many other Parsees still live in Zanzibar or any other place in EA besides Diana D and her father?


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