Claire sighed as she looked in the window of the store. Some scraggly tinsel had been strewn around the usual half-clothed mannequins in a way that was decidedly depressing. Christmas in Africa was not what she had hoped it would be. Logically, she’d known that, south of the equator, the weather would be getting warmer just in time for the holiday. But that still made it feel a bit wrong. And being in a Muslim country meant that any nod to Christmas was purely for commercial reasons. People were in fact much more excited about the approach of Ramadan than they were about Christmas. Still, life in Zanzibar was interesting and her research kept her busy, so she didn’t dwell on the lack of holiday spirit. She’d try to make up for it next year when she’d be home with her family again. But that didn’t mean that she wouldn’t try her hardest to explain it to Omar.
“You should see Temple Square at Christmas, Omar,” she began, “They wrap hundreds of lights all around every single tree—it’s nearly as bright as daylight! It’s so pretty!”
“Does it make it look like Times Square, then?” Omar asked, amused. Something about the rounded vowels and jaunty cadence of African-spoken English made listening to Omar a delight. Despite the accent, Claire was aware that Omar knew more about most major American cities than she did, having obsessively read up on them.
“Well, no, nothing like Times Square. But it’s happier than Times Square,” she added lamely.
“What about in your city, then, in Pilgrim Square?” He was still grinning cheerily.
“Pioneer Square,” she corrected, glancing up at him, “No, they don’t do a whole lot in Pioneer Square. It’s mostly just a bunch of homeless people, really… In other parts of Seattle they decorate more. They used to put up a huge star on one of the buildings. I wonder if they still do that?
“Wait a second,” she paused, “how do you even know the word for pilgrim, let alone that there’s a square like that in Seattle?” she suddenly demanded.
Omar laughed, making his short corkscrew curls of black hair shake merrily, “I am just teasing you. Of course we know about pilgrims! Most Africans know more about American history than about our own continent!”
“That’s so weird to me. Aren’t you proud of your home?”
“Yes.” Omar answered, suddenly serious. “We are very proud. But we know that if we want to make Africa great, we need to study other nations which are also great. That is why I wish to travel to America some day.”
Claire thought about that for a moment. She had been on Zanzibar, a small island off the coast of Tanzania, for nearly four months now, almost half her internship, and she had known Omar since she stepped off the plane. It was Omar, with his fluent English and competent help, who had managed to get her luggage shipped from Dar es Salaam back to the island, a fact for which she would always be grateful. Omar had a respectable job working for the tiny airport on Zanzibar, but his real dream was to travel, ostensibly to America, but he would probably be happy going just about anywhere.
“But you still didn’t explain how you knew about Pioneer Square.”
“Ah, yes, I read about it somewhere when I was reading about Chief Sealth. He is who your city was named after.”
“Yeah, I know of him.” Claire grinned, “But I still think you’re weird.”
Omar pushed at her arm playfully and laughed again.
“Here we are,” Omar announced, stopping in front of an intricately carved door. It was one of the many things that Claire loved about Zanzibar—for all its jungles and palm trees—things that seemed to breathe Africa—it was also very Arabic. Stone Town, with its winding, narrow streets, looked like it could have been taken straight out of 1,001 Arabian Nights.
“Who lives here?” she asked. In order to improve her Swahili and her understanding of the island, Omar had helped her to set up casual interviews with people he deemed important.
“Her name is Tatu. Her grandfather used to be a great slave trader.”
Claire tried to conceal her shock. “Is she African or Arabic?”
“Who knows? She is Zanzibari,” Omar laughed again, then spoke using Claire’s Swahili name, “Kamaria, we are so mixed here that there is no longer any difference to us. But Tatu will be interesting to speak with.”
“But I thought… I thought just white people had slaves.” Claire felt awkward and embarrassed just saying such a thing.
“No, no, Kamaria,” and now Omar’s smile was gentle and kind, “Many Africans were also involved, buying and selling tribes that we warred with. The slaves that came through Stone Town were all sent to the Middle East.”
Claire just swallowed and tried to not feel horrible. She wondered how people could be as forgiving and kind as Omar.
A couple hours later, Claire was finished with her interview. She was glad for her meeting with Tatu, but tired from having to concentrate for so long as she tried to follow the rapid Swahili. It was a relief now to wander the streets of Stone Town alone. The first week she’d been here, she had been afraid of getting hopelessly lost. But she’d quickly realized that for all its crazy, twisted streets, Stone Town was actually very small. If you missed where you were going, eventually you’d either get to the beach or the Portuguese Fortress, so you could never be too lost. This knowledge had given her much more confidence and now she walked easily through the streets. Taking a long route that avoided the reeking fish market, Claire finally arrived where the main stores and shops were located. This time, though, Claire wasn’t just critiquing the Christmas decorations. She was looking for a Christmas gift for Omar. It was proving difficult because most of the stores all sold the same basic items—rice, Fanta, toilet paper—nothing that would make for a very good Christmas gift. A few had rip-off watches and electronics (Claire still smiled every time she checked the time on her fake Nike watch that read “Nikef”), but nothing that was very unique or that Claire thought Omar would particularly like. What could she possibly give him to express how much she appreciated his friendship?
After an hour of wandering, Claire gave up. She was sweaty and tired and needed a break from the intense tropical sun. She bought a bottle of cold water—maji poa—from a street vendor and hurried to her room in the guesthouse. The key that unlocked her door looked like something out of a mystery novel—old and twisted and somehow romantic—except for the block of wood attached with a giant “3” scribbled in pen. A small newt was crouched in the corner of the ceiling of her room and she smiled at it. “Hey, buddy, eat plenty of mosquitoes for me tonight, hey?” she called, and kicked off her shoes and flopped onto the soft bed. A few pieces of cotton leaked out of the mattress and fluttered to the floor. Ah, Africa, Claire thought, You gotta love it.
It was when half her water was gone that Claire noticed the Swahili Book of Mormon on her suitcase. Her Mom had sent it to her a few weeks ago, pointing out that missionaries often studied the scriptures in the language they were trying to learn, and maybe it would help her out, too. Claire had been annoyed. Her mom was always bothering her about serving a mission, but Claire just didn’t feel that that was what God wanted her to do. Claire didn’t mind—she felt sure that there were other important things that she could do with her life. But convincing her mother was proving difficult, and it had become a sore subject between them.
She picked up the Book of Mormon and flipped the pages. Suddenly the answer was so obvious she couldn’t believe she’d wasted so much time wandering around the market place.
* * * * *
Five years later, Claire was juggling her baby over to her other hip in order to answer the insisting ring of her cell phone. The number of the incoming call was unfamiliar.
“Kamaria?” the deep voice on the other end asked. It was a name no one had called her in years.
“Ndiyo!” she answered breathlessly, and then, automatically switching to English, “Who is this?”
“Kamaria, this is Omar!”
“Omar! Where are you? HOW are you? What have you been doing?” Claire was so startled she could hardly get the words out.
“I have just come to the United States. Finally I have come to improve my English! Kamaria, you did not tell me—“
Claire broke in, “In America? Where in America? You have to meet my husband and meet my little girl and, oh, Omar, I can hardly believe that you’re suddenly in America! How did you ever save up for it?”
“Yes, that’s what you did not tell me! After I finally joined your Church—“
Claire couldn’t help it and broke in again, “YOU JOINED THE CHURCH? When did that happen?”
“About two years ago. It happened about a year after I lost your address, so I could not tell you. The missionaries knocked on my door and when I told them that I already had a Swahili Book of Mormon, instead of leaving, they just kept asking me questions and telling me things and before I know it, I am Mormon, too!”
“BUT THAT’S WONDERFUL, Omar!” Claire could hardly keep from screaming in excitement into the phone, “I NEVER thought you’d read it after you looked so disappointed when I gave it to you! I thought that was the end of our friendship!”
“Yes, I was sort of hoping for more from my rich American friend, but it turned out to be a much greater blessing than money. I am grateful for you sharing it with me, now. I’m sorry that I did not—how you say, react?—in such a way at the time…”
Claire paused for a moment, trying to gather her thoughts. She felt like there were more questions than she could possibly ask in one phone conversation. She finally went back to one of her previous questions, “But how did you come to the United States?”
“That was another thing that I didn’t understand for a long time. But many months after I joined the Church, I learned of the Perpetual Education Fund. I am studying with help from it.”
Claire had sunk down into her chair by now, setting the baby gently on the floor to kick her fat little legs.
“Omar, I never knew. The things you’ll be able to do now…”
“Yes,” and he laughed again that rich, round laughter that Claire had missed for five years now, “Yes, finally, I can see Temple Square at Christmas time. And perhaps Pioneer Square, too.”
4 thoughts on “21: Stone Town Christmas”
Got my vote. But your first line is kind of boring…
I'm voting for this-it's a nice change from snow and cold….Christmas can be warm!
The location of this story makes it especially interesting. You included just the right amount of description and information. I felt you must have been there yourself.
Good story, I enjoyed it very much. Nice descriptions.
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