Image Credit: Shutterstock / Sunvic
It was a sunny afternoon in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. My family was gathered at a Buddhist temple’s crematorium for my father’s funeral in the fall of 2021. In the middle of this forgotten temple stood a tree, older than the nation, and in the corner, my grandmother sat in her wheelchair, still shocked by the events of our lives.
My grandmother showed no emotion: perhaps she didn’t want to, or perhaps it was because she, herself, was recovering from the same virus that took her son: the delta variant of COVID-19. The ceremony concluded at 2:00 p.m. and surrounded by her two eldest sons, I caught a glimpse of my grandmother indulging in a cold bottle of Coca-Cola.
A diabetic woman drank an entire bottle of soda by herself. No one intervened.
For me, a Coca-Cola bottle is representative of nothing more than thirty-seven grams of sugar. But, for the older generations of my family, and specifically my eighty-year-old grandmother, the contours of a Coca-Cola bottle mean home. They mean Tanzania, and a story that, increasingly, has been written out of the Tanzanian literary tradition.
Coke revives my grandmother’s memories of being a single mother and a widowed dukawallah, a Swahili word that translated to “shopkeeper.” Pop and fizz. Two sweet sounds that engulf her memories of being thirty and working in her duka (Swahili for shop, much like a New York City bodega) to support her six children.
A bottle of sweet, American Coca-Cola was one of the many items that she sold, often with a bag of roasted peanuts: karanga. This salty and sweet partnership between North America and East Africa became a staple among lower-income South Asian families in Tanzania. Coke was cheap and so were roasted peanuts: for the working-class folks whose hands were often dirty it was efficient to pour the peanuts directly into the bottle of Coca-Cola.
Despite her diabetes, a cold bottle of Coca-Cola gave my grandmother one last way to connect with her departed son. Like her, I felt compelled to do almost anything to bring me closer to my father. I scoured the house for old photographs; I searched for handwritten notes—anything that would make me feel like he hadn’t left me.
Like my grandmother, I needed to pull the evidence of my father, of our Tanzanian home, close.
My ancestors were among the seven thousand South Asians (referred to as ‘Asians,’ in the English manner, hereafter) employed by British colonizers to work, and settle, in Tanzania. In fact, the British colonial project brought close to thirty-eight thousand Asian laborers on work contracts to assist with the building of the East African Railway. Many ultimately became merchants in the new towns formed as a result of the railway construction. My family settled in Mwanza: the Lake District, a port city nestled along the shores of Lake Victoria. It wasn’t until 1992, that my family migrated out of Mwanza to the eastern city of Dar es Salaam, the largest industrial city in Tanzania, where I lived until I was 18.
In the 1970s, Mwanza was poor. The large, informal economy, of which my grandmother was a part, literally worked hand-to-mouth, feeding themselves with each day’s earnings. Petty and violent crimes were a harsh reality that came with life on the eastern coast of Africa. The political struggle for independence in those years gave way to a period of terror and violence in the post-independence era. Indiscriminate killings, raping and robberies were woven into normal, daily life.
And in the pre-independence era, a new racial politics emerged, one that has, for far too long, encapsulated much of East Africa’s postcolonial thought, in which families like ours were increasingly depicted as foreigners to a place that had long been our home. East African writers, such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Abdulrazak Gurnah, rewrote history around a contemptuous animosity between the ‘non-native’ Indian African and the ‘native’ African, both of whom had been caught up in an English colonial project. This history of contempt and animosity between local ethnic groups coheres around that bottle of Coke: it is at the core of the dukawallah narrative.
How did this happen? How did my family, after generations, become foreigners in a place we had lived and worked in?
In part, this is because Mwalimu Julius K. Nyerere, Tanzania’s founding father, a pioneer of the Tanzanian independence movement, depicted us as part of the European colonial machine. On the eve of Tanzanian independence, he reminded the international community “that because of [Tanzania’s] colonial history the vast majority of the capitalist organizations in [Tanzania was] owned and run by Asians or by Western Europeans.” Uganda’s third president, Idi Amin, did a similar thing. In early 1972, a year into his presidency, Amin ordered the immediate expulsion of Asians from Uganda as part of his African socialist agenda.
As part of this nationalist cleansing, a handful of post-independence East African authors view the ‘othering’ of the Asian community as necessary to the legitimacy of a ‘pure’ African voice. Among others, Thiong’o and Gurnah, have contributed to silencing ethnic minority writers, whose histories are distorted or totally suppressed in the interests of African nationalist projects.
Jagjit Singh, a celebrated Asian East African poet, and writer, explores this tension in his 1971 poem A Portrait of an Asian as an East African:
For I, too, would have liked to think
Only the toes of Africa were infected.
But the cancer of color
Has gathered fresh victims now.
Black surgeons, too, have prescribed new drugs
Must fade away soon.
Yet, like Coke and peanuts, our histories—African and Asian—are intertwined and international. My grandmother reminded me of a particular family meeting she was involved in after the passing of my grandfather in 1974. She mentioned that it was assumed, after her husband’s sudden death, she would move in with her brother-in-law, and he would inherit the duka.
Instead, she said no and, at the age of thirty, my grandmother took possession of her husband’s shop and became a dukawallah. Unable to speak English, she would find unique ways to interact with her community as the new dukawallah on the block and would use her shop as a means of empowering other women by selling women-made household products, like soap. Despite the new opportunities that opened for her as a dukawallah, she faced the same hardship every dukawallah did at the time, but as a woman: the fear of being robbed and having your goods taken away from you and being unable to put food on the plate that night.
After two robberies, she knew what to do: feed the robbers in exchange for some form of security.
That food symbolized the connection between India and East Africa. She fed them the infamous samosa. A stuffed pastry that is now a staple of Swahili food known as sambusa. A quintessential Indian pastry, stuffed with either potatoes and peas or minced meat, my Indian grandmother sold them at her duka. At 12:30 p.m. sharp, she recalls, the same group of five men would come and line-up outside her shop every day. They would wait to be served up some hot samosas with a bottle of cold Coca-Cola for free. In exchange, they would not rob my grandmother’s shop.
But the concept that Indian dukawallahs were more privileged than her local counterparts, was a reality she never experienced. In Mwanza, the women and men of all ethnicities lived sparely. Plumbing was uncommon, and electricity was a luxury most could not afford. The supposedly stingy attitude now attributed to ethnic Indians in East Africa was common to all. The racial animosity between the two groups, that Ngugi, Singh, and Gurnah portray in novels that center the dukawallah as an enemy within, rewrites the multi-ethnic history of the Anglo-American imperialist project on the East African coastline.
Zanzibar played a huge role in the trade route. A gateway to East Africa and a major trading point on the Maritime Silk Road, the city connected Africa, Asia, and Europe. For centuries, Zanzibar attracted African, Arab, Persian, Indian Portuguese, Dutch, English, and German migrants. Traders, conquerors, and indentured workers passed through its streets.
Yet the story of my grandmother—a low-income, widowed immigrant who made a home in this ethnic melting pot, is far from that of the dukawallah narrative that is portrayed commonly in this post-imperial literature. She was not a money-grabbing, inward-looking middle woman nor was she ironically contemptuous of African culture. She knew all too well the feelings of being oppressed based on her race, immigration status, and gender. But she was also knitted into her community: a friend, a neighbor, and a crucial element of local economic life.
Yes, as Gurnah’s Paradise and Desertion and Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat explore, Indian traders and shop owners played a role in the imperial enterprise along the East African coastlines. But true African literature would understand this as part of a narrative of diaspora and migrant peoples. It would understand Tanzania as a land of complex identity crises, struggling to adjust to the logic of imperialism.
Like her fellow post-colonial East Africans, her experiences, like that of many other East African Asians, speak to a history that is increasingly unheard in Tanzanian literature. It was history where the East African Asian was part of the post-colonial nation building process, not against it; one in which Asians are bona fide Tanzanians.
It is a history knitted together with Coke, peanuts, and a shared history.
Shivani Somaiya is a writer and journalist studying at The New School for Social Research for her Master of Arts in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism.