08 August 2010

more notes from a magical island

Swahili time. No, it's not a euphemism for "chronic lateness," but if you've spent much time in developing countries you'd be forgiven for making that assumption. ("Filipino time," "African time," and other such expressions all carry that connotation.) Swahili speakers really do have their own timekeeping system, which is simply Western time offset by six hours. So saa moja asubuhi, one o'clock in the morning, is 7:00 am; conversely, saa saba mchana, seven in the afternoon, is 1:00 pm. The photo above is of the most prominent clock tower in Zanzibar's Stone Town, and it was taken just after 3 pm. Most Tanzanians are equally conversant in both, and I've noticed that they seem to use Western time exclusively when speaking in English and Swahili time exclusively when speaking Swahili.

Why this crazy dual system, you ask? As I mentioned before, Tanzania has the typical equatorial schedule of sunrise at 6 am and sunset at 6 pm year-round, so Swahili time is like a running total of the hours in the day (or night). I've noticed that when I think in Swahili time, particularly in the morning, I feel a bit more urgency. (Saa mbili- two hours of daylight gone already and I haven't done anything yet!) It certainly makes sense for a preindustrial society, where daylight is all-important for doing almost anything.

Zanzibar's referendum. I just returned from another week of fieldwork in Zanzibar, and Stone Town was plastered with posters urging people to vote "yes" on a referendum that occurred last Saturday. In a previous post I mentioned Zanzibar's troubled electoral history; in recent times, the ruling party has eked out narrow wins over the main opposition party in elections marred by violence and allegations of tampering. The referendum was on a proposal for a Government of National Unity, in which the party that wins October's elections would get the Presidency and the Second Vice-Presidency the runner-up party would capture the First Vice-Presidency. Almost all of the posters I saw were for the "yes" side. The poster above says "Zanzibar Referendum 31 July 2010 / Choose Yes / A Yes Vote is a Vote for Zanzibar." The bottom of the poster below says "They all said yes! What about you?"

The referendum passed handily, with (not surprisingly) the most fervent support in areas dominated by the main opposition party. The Zanzibaris with whom I felt at liberty to discuss the referendum seemed pleased and guardedly optimistic about the result. However, a newspaper article I read back on the mainland expressed concern that voters were poorly informed about the referendum and that many had been intimidated into voting "yes" by discourse suggesting that voting otherwise was wishing chaos and instability on Zanzibar. I don't know how true that is, but gee, underinformed voters and demagogues questioning the patriotism of dissenters... good thing that doesn't happen in America!

[By the way, if any Zanzibaris happen to find my blog, I want to stress that I have no opinion about this referendum, the CCM or CUF, other than wishing a fair, peaceful and democratic process for Zanzibar. And that last comment about the U.S. is sarcasm- our politics are in a very sorry state indeed.]

But wait, isn't Zanzibar part of Tanzania? I haven't gone into detail about this before, but for those who are interested, here's a quick primer. The modern nation of Tanzania was formed by the union of the former colonies of Tanganyika and Zanzibar during the wave of African independence in the 1960s. That union has persisted to the present day, and it gives Zanzibar a status somewhere between a semiautonomous region and a nation-within-a-nation. The best analogy I've come up with so far is Scotland's position in the UK since 1999, when the Scottish parliament came onto the scene. Zanzibar's government has jurisdiction over "non-Union matters," while the national parliament (with a more-than-proportional share of Zanzibaris) controls defense, monetary policy, and the other usual suspects.

There are perennial rumblings about independence for Zanzibar, but I think the islands are too entwined with the mainland for that to be a realistic possibility in the near future. As different a place as this may be, I find a lot of uncanny parallels with American politics. There is an ongoing debate over how big a share of the national pie Zanzibar receives, with one side shouting "Zanzibar only has 3% of the population!" and the other shouting "it doesn't matter, we're equal in the Union!" Americans have been struggling with that one since the Constitutional Convention. The mainland is also a favorite whipping boy for Zanzibaris and a frequent target of blame for the archipelago's woes, in a way that will sound vaguely familiar to anyone who's heard someone rail against the evils of Washington, DC. I will readily admit that I don't have data to back this up, but I suspect that the relationship, far from being exploitative, redounds to Zanzibar's benefit. But even if that is the case, the question is always whether nationalist dreams trump material benefits. To quote our own President, that's a question far above my pay grade.

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