Escape from Zanzibar

Contributed by Mervyn Maciel

by Mervyn Maciel
Escape from Zanzibar
Father Lucien D'Sa
When we flew to Zanzibar in December 1963 for a vacation, we had no idea we'd find ourselves caught up in a revolution.

During my service with the Kenya Government, we had always taken our overseas leave back home in Goa. However in 1963 the Government offered generous cash inducements for officials choosing to spend their vacation leave within East Africa.

My maternal uncle and his family, who had lived in Zanzibar for many years, had often invited us to spend our holidays with them. Zanzibar was also the place where my mother grew up, and where my grand uncle, Father Lucien D'Sa, served as the first non-white Holy Ghost missionary. We seized on the opportunity, and after spending Christmas with a dear friend Bis Noronha at his palatial Oyster Bay residence in Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika, we flew to Zanzibar on Boxing Day.

From the moment we touched down on this clove-famed island, we fell in love with the place and even decided we would retire there when the time came. We enjoyed our daily trips to the seafront, picnics to Mangapwani beach and the friendly atmosphere that prevailed everywhere. Outwardly the different races seemed to get on well together.

Escape from Zanzibar
Mangapwani Beach
All this changed on the morning of January 1964, just a month after the island had attained independence from Britain. My uncle and I had just returned from church and Elsie and my aunt were ready to leave for a later service, it being thee feast of the Holy Family. We asked them to be careful, as the priest at Mass had warned of impending trouble on the island. Hardly had they reached the front door on returning from church, when it seemed like all hell broke loose and the sound of heavy gunfire filled the air. An eerie silence descended on the once peaceful isle.

I was very concerned that the powdered milk supplies for our baby daughter Josey were fast running out. To add to our problems Andrew, our second son, had developed whooping cough.

From the intermittent messages broadcast from the local radio station, we found out a young Ugandan soldier, self-styled 'Field Marshall' John Okello , had overthrown the Shamte government in a bloody revolution aiming to rid the island of the Arab population.

All local communications with the outside world had been cut off and the BBC World Service provided our main source of news. We heard the roar of vehicles and the shouts of what appeared to be drunken trigger happy men. The Sultan and his family, who were threatened with death, had fled to neighbouring Tanganyika where Britain made arrangements for their safety. What happened to Prime Minister Shamte was not immediately known.

Escape from Zanzibar
Main Road, Zanzibar
The local radio station broadcast intermittent and confusing messages. At one stage we were all told to remain indoors. Later Field Marshall John Okello broadcast an order asking all traders to open their shops so people could buy essential goods. Those venturing out were asked to wear a distinctive-coloured armband to signify their approval of the new government. I plucked up my courage and went out to buy Josey's baby food and other essentials. Despite being challenged by untrained and undisciplined 'soldiers' I managed to get home unharmed and in one piece, but visibly shaken.

Sporadic shooting continued and since my uncle's house was close to the Cable and Wireless station and the American Embassy, several of the bullets whizzed past our window. We spoke in soft tones around the house and even had to try and get Andrew to suppress his cough as soldiers were going around from house to house and we didn't know what to expect. We were all in a state of shock.

While shopping that morning, I'd met an Englishman who told me there was to be a meeting at the English Club where the British High Commissioner would advise on evacuation arrangements. I attended the meeting, and heard the Commissioner Mr Crossthwaite attempt to allay people's fears by announcing that the Army would evacuate those willing to leave. As my uncle and aunt were reluctant to leave we decided to stay put. It was very fortunate that our eldest son Clyde and cousin Naty had left to go back to school in Nairobi before the revolution broke out.

We had heard stories of a massacre of several people in the predominantly Arab quarter, which we had visited a few days earlier; some of my uncle's friends had also lost their lives.

Escape from Zanzibar
Zanzibar Stamp
When a semblance of normality returned, I visited the local post office to post some of the letters I'd been writing to family and friends. I was not allowed to use independence stamps on these letters unless the postal staff first crossed out the Sultan's head! Some days later, they had managed to rubber stamp all stamps across with the word 'Jarnhuri' meaning Republic. I bought a few of these new stamps, as I was a keen collector in those days.

The previous carefree attitude on the island had disappeared. People moved about cautiously. An air of suspicion hung over the whole island. Our contacts told us harrowing accounts of looting and death. The once-bustling town of Zanzibar took on the appearance of a ghost town.

Since my uncle and aunt were reluctant to leave despite the trauma of the revolution , we decided we should spend the remainder of my leave with relatives in Mombasa. We flew back to Dar es Salaam and stayed a few days with my cousin Nico Pinto, who drove us all the way to Mombasa. Many of our relatives and friends were pleased to see us. Some had given up all hope of seeing us alive. I later learnt that my good friend Robert Ouko - then attached to the Foreign Ministry in Nairobi, and later to become Kenya's Foreign Minister - played no small part in making enquiries about us and our situation.

On returning to my job in Njoro after a relaxing few days at the Coast, I wrote and thanked Robert for his efforts on our behalf.

When we set out on our Zanzibar holiday, we never imagined we would encounter a bloody revolution. To have escaped without a scratch was nothing short of a miracle.

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Zanzibar and Pemba 1977 Map
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