Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Reminisces of East Africa

This is a review of And Home Was Karikoo - A Memoir of East Africa by M.G. Vassanji, Doubleday Canada, 2014

Part travelogue, part history, part reflection, part meditation this memoir by M.G. Vassanji explores Tanzania past and present.  After an absence of many years the author (presently a well know writer resident in Canada) at various times and with various companions returned to Dar es Salaam, where he grew up in the early sixties, to take the modern pulse of the city he once knew well.  Additionally, he (they) visited several far flung corners of Tanzania to learn about and assess life there.  

Throughout the memoir Vassanji is preoccupied with the status of the Asian community (with origins in the sub-continent) , especially the Ismaili sect of which he is a member.  He was always looking for a good cup of chai (tea) and folks who might remember the contributions that the Asians made to economic and social development.  This was sort of a sad quest in that beginning with independence in 1961 and the waves of socialization that followed, many Asians packed up and left.  Vassanji described what they left behind - rows of little shops with living quarters above, mosques, temples and community centers that barely function or are abandoned.  He found that numbers and importance of Asians had shrunk commensurately, yet there was often a story there that merited telling.    Vassanji lamented the loss of such history. He urged that Tanzanians, Africans and Asians alike, claim their own history and write it themselves, rather than leave it to Europeans.

For each city or town - Dar es Salaam, Tanga, Kilwa, Zanzibar, Dodoma, Kigoma, Tabora, and others - Vassanji gave a good concise history. To compliment that he often cited from contemporary accounts from previous centuries - Portuguese, English, German, Arabic - that reinforced his point.  Ergo, the reader learns about slavery, exploration, racism, revolution and war that afflicted Tanzania in earlier times. 
The author saves his warmest memories for Dar es Salaam and the Karikoo neighborhood where he grew up.  Through his rose tinted lens we see a well balanced society where each Asian caste/religious community played a role. Africans and Europeans occasionally intruded, especially Africans after independence, but life was generally predictable and pleasant.  This is the norm that Vassanji reverts to in each of his upcountry visits, knowing how, but wondering why things changed. 

The memoir skips back and forth a bit, I was never sure of the chronology of the various visits, however, the book does hang together.  Just read it chapter by chapter.  Overall it is a wonderful history of Tanzania with the added bonus of a good critical look at the nation today.  Vassanji and his interlocutors wax nostalgic about the past. They accept the present, but are not too optimistic about the future.  Folks who know Tanzania will nod in recognition that bad roads, weather, and just the difficulties of travel in a place where time is not too important requires patience and flexibility.  They too will acknowledge the hospitality extended to visitors.  And finally, those who know the map or who have been there themselves will recall the places (perhaps) fondly.

I found a couple of errors, but without being able to turn down the page, they are hard to recall.  One was that the Zambezi River was said to debouche into the ocean in Zimbabwe.  Obviously, that is Mozambique.  Also Paul Theroux was quoted a couple of times from his book Dark Star Safari, which is listed in the notes as Dark Night Safari.  Finally, I was surprised that Vassanji never explained that Karikoo, his home neighborhood and part of the title, is a corruption of Carrier Corps.  It was initially an open area of Dar where African porters or “carriers” were mustered by the Germans as part of the World War I war effort.

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