By: Naeem Sulehri, M.Aslam Warriach
The story starts with the description of the day the Fort Jesus was opened as a museum. Fort Jesus was earlier being used as a prison. Now as a museum it was going to tell the story of centuries. The narrator was also present and thinking this and the like when he heard a shrieking sound of a stopping car. He approached the nearby road and found the people gathered around an old woman lying unconscious on the road. Just before dying, she whispered, “The mosque. Take me …. the mosque.” The police found two ‘hirizis’ tied around the woman’s arm. The first one contained a verse from the Holy Quran but the second one contained something that was not a verse from the Holy Quran. It said, “O ye calamities of the world! Ye are welcome. I have found protection in the God of Heavens.”
Later, in a local café, the narrator talks with his acquaintances. The topic of their discussion was ladies of the day and their activities. There the narrator came to know more about the woman by one of the fellows present. His name was Salim. He told him that in the morning a woman walking down Mwembe Tayari asked him the way to fort Jesus. She was nearly 90 years old. She asked him whether it was true the fort was going to be opened as a museum. Mwembe Tayari was just two miles away from the spot where the old woman died.
Later the narrator paid a visit to an old lady of seventy. Her name was Mwana Saada. She was the aging daughter of the old woman who died in front of the car on that day when the fort Jesus was opened as a museum. Her name was Mwana Safia. Before falling in conversation with Mwana Saada the narrator gives a glimpse of her room. He says, “There was a little light in the room. But there was enough for me to see that the mud walls had begun to crumble; that a small opening in one wall and a parting in the palm thatching above was all the ventilation the room got; and that the furniture consisted of a wood-and-rope bed, and old Arab Lamu chest serving partly as table, a prayer mat, two battered aluminum cooking pots and the usual large red clay pot of drinking water in the corner. I remember thinking what a contrast this dwelling provided with the new municipal flats across the road.”
Mwana Saada told the narrator how her mother went out of home on that day she died. She dwelt on the day it happened and said, “I had gone to the neighbors for a little while, and when I came back mother was gone. I did not know what to do. It was very kind of police and you, Sir, to take so much trouble.” During his course of conversation with Mwana Saada the narrator knew about the life of Mwana Safia.
Mwana Safia started her married life as the wife of one of the richest men of old Mvita. It was the period of the 1870s, during the reign of Seyyid Bargshah bin Thuein in Zanzibar. The name of her husband was Bwana Masoud who had a large coconut estate and an army of slaves to work for him. Mwana Safia used to remember the luxurious life that they would live before the emancipation of slaves. There were rumors in the air about the freedom of slaves. One day Mwana Safia was sitting in the courtyard on a stool with a maize sieve on her lap, she looked up when the door opened. Some of the slave girls were working on the rice in one corner of the courtyard. She let go of the sieve and followed her husband because she had already seen the worst confirmed in the expressions of her husband’s face when he entered the house.
She reached their room across the courtyard, closed the door behind her, and said to her husband, “So it’s true.” Her husband confirmed the rumor to be true. “…..as now no point in talking about the subject behind closed doors. The rumor that had been whispered in great foreboding for weeks, had now culminated in the public decree by the Sultan. All Slaves were free.”
There started the downward journey of the family and also the real story, the story of change, bewilderment, despair, and escape. “It was the story of change, of bewilderment, yes even of despair. Perhaps above all, it was the story of escape. The mill of prosperity ground to a standstill. The vast estate of Bwana Masoud was either sold piece by piece or mortgaged. With better agricultural methods, the situation might have been saved. But new tricks are so difficult to learn. At least they need time and leadership. And perhaps those were what Bwana Masoud lacked.
After ten years of slave emancipation, Omer one of Bwana Masoud’s former slaves came with an offer of partnership in his furniture-manufacturing business. Omer was among the first to utilize his freedom and had been very successful in the ever-expanding industry of furniture-making. Omer was humble in offering the partnership to his former master but Bwana Masoud just could not bring himself to go into partnership with a man he had once owned.
After losing the vast estate and scores of slaves too, the family drew to a poor dwelling. It was a sort of squalor just opposite the road where there was a modern dwelling. “Driven to the poorest part of the town, and clinging to the past with a proud aloofness and contempt for change, the family sank deeper and deeper into poverty and squalor. It was into that squalor that their son was born.
“The name of the son was Abubaker who went to the Quran School for three years and learned to read Quran. He got naughty when he was hardly ten years old. The complaints started coming home, “Abu had willfully broken so-and-so’s donkey cart: Abu had snatched and run away with so-and-so’s bunch of bananas right outside his shop; Abu was with the gang that had beaten up so-and-so. Never did crime get a younger recruit.” Once again Omer, the former slave came up with another offer. This time he wanted to take Abubaker as a trainee carpenter. The offer was once again rejected. If the offer had been accepted, Abubaker would have been another kind of man. Mwana Saada reflected: “Abubaker might have been saved if another offer by former slave Omer- to train the boy as a carpenter and bring him up himself in better surroundings- had been accepted. But whoever said that pride preceded a fall must-have had our family in mind.”
At the age of 21, Aabubaker had already spent four years in jail. After that, he became a habitual jail goer, jail gird. “At forty-five, he was a respected old timer within the walls of Fort Jesus.”
His father, Bwana Masoud died many years before. Not only the life of the wretched family but also many other things had changed. Mombasa itself had gone through a great change. It had become a European town administratively, an Asian town commercially, and an African town by virtue of population. Only people like Abu’s mother and sister could know and tell what Mombasa had been before. They were now stubborn traces of the past grandeur. The elite locality of Mombasa where they had once been proud to reside had a new name now. The elite locality of the past was the ‘Old Town’ of today.
The change that Mwana Saada remembered best of all the changes that occurred was quite a human change. That change was in her brother’s life. This time Abubaker got an early release from the prison because of his good conduct. He had totally changed. He promised with his mother to spend the rest of her in her service. He truly wanted to make it for her. He had said that earlier too but this time he was serious beyond limits. “He had said it before but this time no one who heard him say it, who saw his eyes, who heard the tremor of anguish in the resolution, could have doubted his sincerity.” But as bad luck would have it, ‘the rest of life’ he was left with happened to be less than a year. Afflicted with consumption and knowing that he would not have enough time to do anything for his mother and sister, all he could do was to ask their forgiveness.
A few days before his death, Abubaker started raving in sleep and often came out with a verse from the Holy Quran:
“Verily, Allah changeth not the condition of men until they first change what is in their hearts.”
Mwana Saada told that her mother knew that one of the ‘hirizis’ did not contain the verse from the Holy Quran. She knew that because she had all the verses of the Holy Quran in her mind. Her mother wanted to see that mosque where her son’s life was changed. “To see the mosque where she thought Abu had learned the truth.” Mwana Saada also told that Abu in his ravings, just before he died, had something else that usually followed the recitation and that was “The mosque…. The mosque in the fort.” The mosque was within the walls of Fort Jesus that was being used as a prison. The day Mwana Safia died before the front wheels of the car; she was going there because the authorities were going to pen the fort as a museum.
Two days later the narrator too went there. He was standing before the lower beam on the south side of the mosque in Fort Jesus. He was reading there inscribed, “O ye calamities of the world! Ye are welcome. I have found protection in the God of Heavens.”
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