Far from Home

Adam Shafi

Artwork by Shay Xie

The Spirit of Travel Has Possessed Me

Every evening, as a student at Seyyid Khalifa Teacher Training College in Beit Ras in 1957, I stood on the great balcony of our dormitory and I watched the sea. Since childhood, the sea had brought me great joy. In our house, my father beat me every day for my great love of the ocean and my daily habit of being at the shore. It wasn’t that he didn’t want me playing in the water. His fear was that a chunusi sea-monster would snatch his beloved child away, and that I’d be lost forever.

From the balcony, I watched the ocean and the many kinds of vessels—steamships, modern boats, and our own coastal craft—that docked and left from Unguja Harbor. Between December and March, during the musim winds, wooden dhows, square-sailed mitepe ships, and Arab bedeni, with their cut-waters and sharp stems, arrived in great numbers from Arabia, India, the Persian Gulf, and Somalia. From April through June, when the winds turned, these same vessels went back to where they’d come from. I watched as they skimmed the ocean’s face. It was magharibi, early evening. In the sky, you could see the richly colored clouds, gold mixed with light brown, sometimes peaceful and still like an unfurled carpet, and sometimes tightly coiled, clump after clump in a line, their colors blending, yellow, purple, and brown. At this hour the sun shone red like a great flaming ball, slipping below the sea, as if, pursued, it were speeding on elsewhere.

Sometimes, I stood on the balcony under a perfectly full mbalamwezi moon. I watched the sea shimmer like silver, and the ships coming or going. At times like this, my classmates knew they’d find me on the balcony, unless, as I sometimes did, I’d gone all the way to the shore. If this happened, I was at the nearby beach we’d named Kilosa, with my flute, which I played very well.

For three years, I lived like this, and, little by little, the spirit of travel came to possess me. I longed to be a passenger on those ships I saw drop anchor or take off. In this passion, I acquired an ally: Mohammed Masoud Seif. Mohammed knew a lot of men who’d left Unguja years before on dhows or bedeni ships, and who had already settled in Dubai, Kuwait, and others even in England. Mohammed told me who was where, how he’d made his way, what his itinerary had been. I listened to him quietly and with great longing. At our college, Mohammed and I were both scouts in Troop Fourteen. He’d already been to England for the Jamboree, and so he knew about it, too. He was always telling me about the good life Zanzibaris had in Portsmouth, and the many ways that one could study in England.

I gave no thought to luxury and fine living. I loved to study, and all I thought about every day was going to university in Europe. So, Mohammed and I made plans. We’d go to Kuwait by dhow. There, we’d work for a while, and as soon as we’d saved up enough we’d make our way to England. Mohammed and I were close friends. We were always together, we went everywhere together. We spoke of nothing but our trip from Zanzibar to Kuwait, and from there on to England.

Then, suddenly, Mohammed fell ill. He got a terrible case of malaria. He died. Mungu amrehemu, May God take mercy on him and lay him to rest peacefully in Heaven. His death devastated me. Our friendship was so deep that Mohammed was like my brother. And our talk had not been childish. On the contrary, we’d made plans that we intended to actually, truly carry out, whatever came. I was heartbroken by Mohammed’s death. But my desire to travel remained as it was, and I rallied. But now I would make the arrangements alone. I needed to find people who knew the ships’ captains, and inquire about local contacts in Kuwait or Dubai. And most of all, I had to raise the money for my journey.

I told my father that I wanted to study in Europe. He asked me the cost of passage on a ship. At the time, I think it was one-thousand-nine-hundred shillings on the French vessels, the Ferdinand de Lesseps or the Periloti, from Unguja to Marseilles. From there, for just a small fee, I could cross the English Channel and get all the way to England.

When I named this price, my father shuddered as if someone had thrown cold water over him. I felt sorry for him. He would so have loved to send me, his first child, to study in Europe, but he didn’t have the means. My father wanted all of his children to study. He himself wasn’t educated. He’d never so much as stood in the doorway of a school. He taught himself to read the newspaper and to write a little. His favorite paper was Afrika Kwetu, published by the late Bwana Mtoro Rehani. My father excelled at subtraction and addition, and could have correctly computed figures a whole meter long.

If ever my little brother Saad and I neglected our schoolwork in even the slightest way, he was fierce with us. Whenever we upset him, he would shout in fury, saying “I, your father, am an idiot, because I never went to school! But I don’t want you, my children, to be idiots like me!” Those words were like a song that he was always singing to us. He sang it so often that, to this day, it’s still roaring in my ears.

I never again mentioned my dream of studying in Europe to my father. I knew he couldn’t contribute any funds to my journey, and I would only have hurt his feelings. Though we weren’t destitute, our life was an impoverished one. When I was at Gulioni School, I was sometimes sent away for being unable to pay the school fee, thirty shillings for a three-month term. So how could I ask for a thousand shillings, and eight hundred besides? I swore that I would find the money for my trip myself, by my own strength, and by my own sweat.

After Mohammed Masoud Seif died, I found another ally. He was as eager for this kind of journey as I was. His name was Khamisi Mohammed Nura, a fellow student at the Teachers’ College. Khamisi had no money worries. His father had some. He owned a taxi business and was one of the most well-known drivers in Unguja Town. So, a bit of money, one, two, three, that was no problem for Khamisi. He deceived his father, slipped the money in his pocket, and, leaving me behind with my make-believe journey, boarded a dhow headed for Kuwait.

So I started trying to make money. I did my fellow students’ laundry. Whoever wanted his clothes washed or ironed, I charged a fee. At college, soap was free, and we had irons, and electricity. The only thing required was energy, and I had a lot of that. So my little business grew, and I got a lot of customers.

On Saturdays, when my fellow students went home to see their parents, or to town for a stroll and the cinema, I stayed behind washing clothes and ironing. I became the college dobi. In this way, I earned enough money. I applied for, and got, a passport. The day I received it, I was happier than anything. With my British passport, I could go anywhere in the world.

I hid the passport. I revered it as I revere the pupils of my eyes. Only a few people knew my plans. As the days passed, my ache to go intensified. Khamisi Mohammed Nura fanned this flame. He’d written to me nearly every month, from his arrival by dhow in Kuwait, until he left Kuwait. Then he told me about reaching London, and about life in England. I envied him as if he’d made it to the moon.

I was in my third year at Seyyid Khalifa Teacher Training College. It was 1960. The college was closed for the holidays. I had about a hundred shillings in my pocket. I went to see Karimjee Jevanjee, the shipping agent, at the office near the Old Fort. The money I had wouldn’t cover the fare from Zanzibar to England. I’d have to purchase a ticket from Unguja to Aden. Once I arrived in Aden, I thought, I’d take whatever work there was, and raise the fare to England. I bought my ticket in Karimjee’s office. It wasn’t an imaginary journey any more: the time for my trip had come.

At home, I shared a room with my younger brother Saad. We were living with our grandmother, Bibi Asha binti Kassim. No one at home knew about my trip. Among the few who did were friends who had contributed some funds. The greatest help came from Khamis Mohammed Nura, who was already in London. He sent me two hundred British pounds. Others whom I still recall are Mohammed Said Mohammed, Bilal Gharib, and my dear friend, Abdalla Mwinyi Khamis. I am very grateful to them. Abdalla Mwinyi deserves special mention. We are more than ordinary friends. We’ve become like brothers. He was my journey’s great architect, and he’s the one I tasked with helping my younger siblings after I was gone, which he did.

The day I left, I didn’t have much with me, just one small bag that I could carry myself. In it were two pairs of trousers and two shirts. That day, I woke up in the morning and said goodbye to Saad. I told him I was going touring in the Chwaka countryside. It was Ramadan, and day trips were unusual. But Saad was sleepy, so he didn’t ask any questions. I went to Abdalla Mwinyi, who put me on the back of his scooter and took me to the harbour.

It was April, 1960. I reached the port at about ten in the morning. The sun was getting hot. The harbor was buzzing with all kinds of activity. Porters sped by, their carts loaded with baggage, and dockworkers loaded and unloaded cargo from the ships. There was bustling and shouting, all the sounds that human creatures make when struggling to survive.

M.V. Ubena, a German ship belonging to the Deutsch Öst-Afrika Linie, had set anchor at some distance from the harbor. I had to board a mashua outrigger to reach it. I was nervous, afraid that someone would see me and send news to our house. I wanted that mashua to fly through the air. But the outrigger was operated by the stirring of a paddle fitted to a loop of rope. It moved slowly, bit by bit, and was smacked by the cresting waves. Sometimes, the mashua rode their backs, and sometimes it slid under them. I was afraid I wouldn’t reach the ship.

The oarsman was rowing as hard as he could, battling the waves and the fierce wind. Now and then, when the mashua hit the waves, canting and pitching so violently I thought that it would sink, water soared into the boat. The ship was far away. From where we sank and rose along the lift and collapsing of the waves, the ship looked tiny. As we approached, its size became more apparent. In the end, we arrived and saw exactly how big it was. It was a hulking thing, so huge it could have been an island. I paid the mashua owner and carefully climbed the ladder.

The M.V. Ubena wasn’t a passenger ship. It was designed for freight. Passengers were treated no differently from cargo. There were no accommodations whatsoever, so I was put in a small room near the hold. In that room stood a large table. This would be my headquarters for the duration of the trip.

There were two of us aboard. The other was already there. He was a middle-aged man, wearing a kanzu, a knitted prayer cap, and a kikoi. I could tell by his accent that he was from the countryside. We greeted each other and I left him alone, because I knew we’d be together on this journey, which would last for many days. There’d be time enough.

The ship was to depart for Tanga in the afternoon. As I waited for us to leave, my heart filled with confusion. Because I’d run away, my parents might go to the police and report me missing, and the police might mount a search. I was afraid of seeing anyone who knew me.

Finally, the ship hoisted anchor and began the slow journey north. My heart stilled, and I stood at the edge of the deck, looking back as I left Zanzibar behind. When the ship passed Beit Ras, I thought about the campus that had meant so much to me for the past four years. I felt sad about leaving my friends there, not knowing where I was going or what lay ahead. I was going, just like that, gambling with the future.

Evening began to fall, and I saw Zanzibar disappear behind me. Ahead, the wide ocean rolled out as far as the eye could see. The sky was beautiful and pleasing. The clouds were full and richly layered, the color of a great fire, mixed with brown and violet. The sun was a huge ball of flame, sinking into the sea.

Night came, darkness reigned. The ocean spread out quiet on all sides. All I could hear was the rumbling of the ship. The ship heaved, now to the right, then left. Now I could talk to my fellow passenger at leisure.

I asked him what his name was.

“Amé,” he replied. He too, seemed to want to get to know me.

“Where have you come from, and where are you going?”

He’d come from Mkokotoni and was going all the way to Aden. From there, he meant to go to Mecca for the Hajj. “How will you get to Mecca from Aden?” I asked him.

He said, “There are so many trucks going between Aden and Mecca.”

We didn’t have much to say. We slept in that room, I on the table, he on the floor on a mat that he had brought. The next day, we pulled into Tanga. I wasn’t worried anymore. I was no longer looking behind me, thinking I’d be dragged off the ship and sent back home. I looked ahead to Aden. I thought: I’m going to Aden, to a foreign country. I know no one, there’s no one I can stay with; I don’t know how I’ll survive. I was just going. I had very little money in my pocket, but I had a courageous heart. I stayed hopeful, telling myself: as long as there are human beings, I’ll find a way to live.

We stayed in Tanga for two days. Night and day, the M.V. Ubena was loaded up with sisal and copper bars. It ate sisal and copper until it was totally bloated, and the hold was filled all the way to the top. There were also wild animals. A giraffe and a leopard, thoroughly secured in big crates. And two more passengers came on, making us four. They were Washihiri, Arabs from Yemen.

On the third day, we left Tanga and headed for Mombasa. The little room where Amé and I had been sleeping was completely filled with cargo. We were moved to the deck, and that was our base for the rest of the journey.

After a night’s travel, we reached Mombasa. There we stayed for two days while the ship took on more cargo. The few shillings I had were spent on food. When we left Mombasa, I didn’t have a cent.

Then the week-long journey from Mombasa to Aden began. We talked and got to know each other. The two Arabs had been living in Tanga but, that year, 1960, the fight for independence in Tanganyika had been heating up. They were of the opinion that when Tanganyika got its freedom there could be unrest, and so they’d decided to go back to Yemen in good time. We were all on different journeys. Once the two Arabs arrived in Aden, they would already be home. Amé was going to Mecca, and my destination was England.

I hadn’t thought about what I would eat on the trip. I’d expected to be able to beg for food right there in the ship. One day, having gone to the kitchen to ask for bread, I found the cook lifting a pig’s head out of the oven. I said to myself: Mama yangu we! I’m a Muslim, I don’t eat pork, and now it seems that on this ship pork is all they eat! Then I thought: Let it go. Msafiri kafiri, the traveler an infidel. Never mind, if I get that pig, I’ll eat him.

Amé had brought two baskets, one of oranges and one of cassava. He expected that, when he got to Aden, he would sell the produce to raise his fare to Mecca.

The two Arabs were excellently prepared for their trip. It was they who saved us from being brought low by hunger. They’d brought large quantities of rice, cooking oil, canned tomatoes, shark meat, and plenty of spices. They had a steam cooker and everything besides.

The voyage was well underway. We were in deep water and saw nothing but ocean. Ocean to the south, ocean to the north, ocean to the east, and ocean to the west. The rumbling ship heaved from side to side. The waves crested and fell. On some days, we counted them. When evening came, I thought about home, my father, my mother, and my siblings. I knew they’d suffered, trying to find me. I knew they were joyless and upset. In the afternoon, I spent hours standing at ship’s edge, looking into the ocean. And there was nothing to see but the ocean itself, and those small flying fish that darted up like locusts.

We didn’t have much to say to our fellow travelers. They talked to each other in Arabic. They didn’t have time for us. Amé’s every thought was in Mecca. Once or twice he told me about the holy city, and the pride he’d feel upon arriving at that sacred place. He prayed that he would die there, for he believed that whoever died in Mecca during Hajj would go straight to Heaven.

Inside the ship, we lived on the Arabs’ generosity. Whatever they cooked, all of us ate. Sometimes, I’d go to the kitchen, and the cooks gave me bits of leftover bread. Amé’s oranges began to rot, and the cassava had started spoiling before we’d even gone halfway. We ate a few of the oranges, and Amé threw the ruined ones overboard. We ate the cassava raw, just as it was. All that Amé had brought with him, expecting to sell for a little money when he got to Aden, was either eaten or hurled into the sea.

The further north we went, the rougher the ocean was. We were approaching the Horn of Africa, nearing Cape Gardafui. Sometimes the ship listed, so we thought that it would sink. The M.V. Ubena, despite its huge bulk, was no more than a bauble, thrown from side to side. Whenever it listed nearly flat, we thought it wouldn’t come right again. Sometimes, all of us got seasick, and we stayed there on the deck drooling with fever. Despite all this agony, and the endless crashing of the sea, the M.V. Ubena pressed ahead. It was a powerful ship, growling as it sliced through one wave after another.

Finally, we began to see the boulders in the distance. They stood ahead of us like termite hills, in rows, at the edge of our far sight. We knew we were approaching Arabia, and that Aden was not far.

On the second day, at the entrance to Aden Harbor, the M.V. Ubena sounded its horn, announcing itself. It didn’t take long for the foreman’s motorboat to come up alongside. A ladder was brought down for him and he boarded. He permitted the ship to pass through into Aden. At about ten o’clock in the morning, the ship dropped anchor. The city of Aden was before us, at the base of those huge cliffs.

Comings and goings began. Immigration officers, health officers, and the ship’s representatives were among the first to board. That day, I had bathed and was marvelously clean. I’d dressed well, so I’d look smart when I got into the city. It seemed that half of my dream had come true.

The four of us stood in line. We waited to pass into the room where a temporary Immigration Office had been set up. I held onto my pouch. My heart filled with yearning, but the yearning was an anxious one, for I didn’t know anyone in Aden. Disembarking was a gamble. I didn’t know where I’d stay, where I’d live, what I would eat. All of that, I left to God, believing in my core that He does not refuse His creatures sustenance.

One by one, we went into the Immigration Officer’s room. The first Arab went. His papers were stamped, and he came back out. The second Arab went. He got his stamp and came back out. I went. I set my passport on the Immigration Officer’s big table. On the chair behind it sat the Immigration Officer, in white jacket and shorts. He was fat as a water tank. His mouth was filled with gold teeth, and he was sweating and wiped at himself with a rag.

He opened my passport and examined it. He looked at one page after another. It was still new; it had never been used. He turned to the page with my picture on it to make sure it was mine. The picture was a perfect likeness, and I looked back at him with the eyes of a child.

“Are you a student?” he asked me in English.

“Yes,” I replied.

He wiped his face, looked at me, and said, “What have you come to do in Aden?”

“I’m just passing through briefly, then I’m heading for England,” I answered.

“Do you have six hundred shillings?”

I told him I didn’t.

“You can’t disembark in Aden without leaving a surety of six hundred shillings,” he said, glaring at me.

I don’t know why I was being asked to do this. Aden was a British colony. And I had a British passport. The Immigration Officer was supposed to stamp my passport and let me into the country with no restrictions whatsoever.

I begged him to let me in, telling him as humbly as I could that, as soon as I had the money, I would pay.

“No,” he said, curtly. Without further explanation, he stamped my passport then drew on the stamp with his red pen.

I felt that I had smashed headfirst into a rock. I’d be sent back to Zanzibar, and I’d have to start all over again. My heart said: Impossible. No way.

The little room was full of people. The M.V. Ubena’s captain, the shipping agent, and more immigration officers. I begged the shipping agent, “Please, pay the six hundred shillings for me, I’ll pay you back when I get them, if you let me get off the ship.”

The agent looked Somali, and he had a kind face. But, contrary to my expectation, he refused my request outright. I don’t think his refusal was due to any lack of compassion. He was bound to uphold the rules and regulations of that country.

I turned to the ship’s captain. I pleaded with him. I begged him to let me remain on that ship as part of the crew, even without pay, until the end of the ship’s journey. And he refused me, too. I was to be returned to Zanzibar, immediately, no less. I despaired, I lost hope, felt my efforts had come to nothing.

More trouble erupted when Amé’s turn came. He spoke no English, and the Immigration Officer didn’t speak Swahili. Neither understood the other, and an argument broke out. Amé’s shouted protests and all the fuss he made were useless. In the end, like me, he was to be returned to Zanzibar.

We were made to disembark and put into an outrigger with the ship agent. Both of us were unwanted migrants in that country. The man with the outrigger paddled, and we slowly headed for Aden Harbour.

That’s when I saw the city’s boulders, which, when we’d been at sea, had from a distance seemed no larger than termite hills. But now, upright behind the city, they were gigantic. Their fall would pulverize everything below. But they didn’t fall. They simply stood, rooted. A fierce heat erupted. The sun burned like fire. When we disembarked, the agent’s car was waiting. We got in and were taken directly to the agent’s office.

I kept begging and pleading with him to help me, but he didn’t listen. He was already on the telephone, looking for any ship on its way to Zanzibar, so we could be boarded and sent out of Aden. We were unwanted in that country. Amé and I sat looking at each other. There was nothing we could do. We despaired, we were completely dispirited. Our dreams had melted away, our hopes were ruined. To go back to Zanzibar, where I had run away from college, from home, telling my comrades that I was off to Europe! Returning would mean shame and disgrace. How would I face my friends? I sat there thinking. All my efforts for nothing, as if I’d run full-tilt on a roof, only to meet the edge! I’d be right back where I started. I wanted to run from the agent and flee into the streets of Aden and never see him again. But where would I go, in that city ringed by boulders on all sides? I knew no one and I had no place.

As luck would have it, in the office, I did see a man I knew. I don’t know if he knew me, and I don’t know what had brought him to the agent. In Zanzibar, he was a well-known dentist. I knew him from his regular visits to Gulioni School, when he examined us and helped any student who had problems with his teeth. His name was Doctor Idarusi Ba’alawi. I hoped he might save me from the trouble I was in. But though I asked, he didn’t help me. Perhaps, even if he’d wanted to help, he couldn’t have, because the ship agent and the Immigration Officer already had me in custody. The ship agent’s instructions were to send me back to where I’d come from, period. And the ship agent had no choice but to do as he’d been told.

translated from the Swahili by Nathalie S. Koenings

Used by permission of Longhorn Publishers PLC.