Title: The Colour of My Skin
Author: Khairoon Abbas
Category: Eastern Region
Summary & Comment: Mixed-race issues are not frequently discussed in Tanzania. In this essay, Khairoon Abbas provides a personal narrative, while exploring the legacy of historical and political factors within the relationships between people of different ethnic origins in Tanzania. Eradicating racial marginalization is one step towards greater socio-economic inclusion.
Every city has that one memorable sight everyone remembers; in New York, there's Times Square, Toronto has the CN Tower and Paris, the Eiffel Tower. In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which is East Africa's largest country, that place is undeniably Kariakoo - the busiest market in the country. As you enter the market, you are surrounded by the scent of freshly ground spices, piled next to each other, forming colourful mountains - everything from turmeric and garam masala to cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. Kariakoo is filled with butcheries, mouth-watering fruit stands, electronic and clothes shops, and large displays of the colourful traditional wear called khanga. Word has it that everything you need can be found in Kariakoo - a name derived from "Carrier Corps" during the colonial days when Tanganyika (now Tanzania) was a British protectorate.
To me, Kariakoo represents the melting pot of Tanzania. Kariakoo's merchants, petty traders, buyers, and residents represent Tanzanian history at its core. People of black African origin, Arab and Indian heritage or those who are from intermarriages (mixed race) either come to or live in Kariakoo. They all meet to sell, bargain, establish business contacts, or simply visit to experience the bustling nature of this popular place that I can dare say is the loudest spot because vendors would either use loud speakers or simply shout out to market their products.
Race issues, which include those that concern mixed-race, are not openly discussed in Tanzania, unlike in other parts of the world such as in North America and Europe, among other regions, where issues of race are explored publicly and debated in the public discourse. For example, the American media often covers issues of race and its repercussions, particularly when black people are involved in shootings or social unrest or when acts of discrimination and racism are involved. In Tanzania, silence surrounds this issue of race. There are unconfirmed reports that minorities - Indians and Arabs, including those of mixed race - are sometimes subjected to acts of discrimination at times by the coercive state apparatus (e.g. police), let alone the general public. The argument is: They are not black hence they are not originally from Tanzania. According to some statistics, Tanzania's mainland is reported to have 99 percent black African people and the other 1 percent consisting of Asian, European or Arab people. While it may be easy to get data on citizens who are Whites, Arabs or Indians, it is much harder to get information of those of mixed race ancestry dubbed "Chotara" (a half-caste) or "Shombe" (mixed-breed) like myself. This is probably due to the lack of discussion or analysis of these racial issues following our unwillingness to look at our past - the slave trade era and colonial legacy, and see how these aspects impact our daily lives.
Racial marginalization is one of the factors that explains the birth and prominence of the East African Slave Trade, which was driven by Arab traders. The history of the slave trade is evident throughout the eastern coast of Tanzania, where the town of Bagamoyo has become a central and historical place to learn about how Arabs shipped slaves out of the country. Bagamoyo, which derives from the Kiswahili words of "bwaga moyo"- to lay down your heart- is reminiscent of how the slaves felt when they had to leave the country as a result of slavery. One of the key outcomes of the slave trade is the birth of the Swahili culture, language and people of mixed race from the blending of Arabs and local Bantu women, among other races. However, the Arab, Indian and mixed-race groups were not a threat to colonial rule during the colonial period following the Scramble of Africa in the late 1880s. It was then that Tanganyika fell under German colonial rule. However, after World War One, when the Germans were defeated, Tanganyika became a British Protectorate. Both colonial powers focused their attention on the masses - the majority native African population - in order to control and rule Africans. But it is worth noting that the colonial powers had their own unspoken racial and social structure that placed them at the top, followed by those of Arab and Indian origin and ancestry (mixed-race) with the African majority at the very bottom, something synonymous to the Apartheid system in pre-independent South Africa.
The most prominent example is Dr. Salim Ahmed Salim, originally from Zanzibar, who held public office in Tanzania for over 27 years, in addition to various national, regional and international level positions. Mr. Salim is of Arab descent and when it was proposed that he be a presidential candidate in 2005, there were deafening reactions from within the ruling political party, Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM, Party of the Revolution), especially within elements of Zanzibar CCM members, who questioned the legitimacy of having "an Arab" take the reins of power. This is despite his impressive political track record, which includes being the Minister for Foreign Affairs (1980-1984), before serving as the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense and National Service as well as Tanzania's Prime Minister (1984-1985) until his election to the helm of the Organization of African Unity (OAU, now the African Union) General Secretariat in 1985. Dr. Salim, who was the longest-serving and last Secretary General of the OAU, was also the most influential African diplomat in United Nations history, apart from United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Kofi Annan, having served as Tanzania's permanent representative to the UN.
Eradicating racial marginalization that threatens the social fabric of any country takes time and requires commitment from all angles. Yet it is a necessary undertaking in order to create more inclusion of society members in the nation's socio-economic and political arena, and eliminate an unwarranted practice of judging individuals based on their ancestry and skin tone. This notion of umoja or unity, as propagated by Mwalimu Nyerere, must prevail if we are to build a nation of people who stand proud to defend our country and fight any notion or practice of racial marginalization, whether overt or covert. And there is no better time than now.
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