Wandering through the narrow, labyrinthine streets of Stone Town, past men languidly sipping unfiltered coffee or crowded around a game of bao, it’s hard to imagine that Zanzibar was ever anything but peaceful.
However, fifty years ago today, the islands were in a state of turmoil. On January 12, 1964, a strange, messianic Ugandan lead hundreds of insurgents against the Sultan of Zanzibar and his one-month-old government.
The poorly-trained and shabbily-dressed men, initially armed only with pangas (machetes), spears and knives, toppled the primarily Arab government in less than 24 hours and installed an African coalition that is, for all intents and purposes, still in power today.
The anniversary of the Zanzibar Revolution is being celebrated with much fanfare on the islands, with various parades and events celebrating the achievements of the past 50 years.
But what is quietly being ignored is the thousands of lives immediately after the revolution in the form of reprisals against the Arab and Asian communities.
“My uncle was killed—him and two friends—when they were coming home from the their farm,” said Prakash Rathod, whose Hindu family had lived on Zanzibar for generations.
“We had to hide in our home for days. It was too dangerous to go outside.”
Rathod was 13 at the time. Later, he would only venture out of the house wearing a white armband as a sign of surrender. As a young boy, it was difficult for him to understand why the violent men that began roaming the street hated his family so much, he said.
But a quick look at Zanzibar’s checkered history, while not justifying the violence, at least makes some of the grievances plain.
For over a thousand years, the East African islands were settled by Arab traders. These traders were displaced by the Portuguese in 1503, but the islands returned to the Arab sphere of influence in 1698 when Omani Arabs captured Fort Jesus at Mombasa.
Zanzibar was eventually made the capital of the Sultanate of Oman.
The islands were known for their spices, particularly cloves, which remain a major part of the economy to this day.
It also played a major role in the Arab slave trade.
Ostensibly to put an end to this slave trade, but primarily in order to have a strategic port in the Indian Ocean, England invaded the islands in 1890 and made Zanzibar a protectorate of the British Empire.
By the 1960s, the population of the islands was incredibly diverse. There were about 600 Europeans, 50,000 of the ruling and land-holding Arabs, and 20,000 Asians from the Indian subcontinent, who held bureaucratic posts and ran shops and restaurants.
But the majority of the population, and those on the bottom rung of the social ladder, were those of African origin—the Shirazis, who were some of the first inhabitants of the islands; freed slaves; and mainlanders who had come in search of work on the plantations and the docks.
One of those recent arrivals from Africa was a man named John Okello.
Okello was born in Uganda but spent much of his life wandering East Africa in search of work. In 1959, he found himself on Pemba, the northern of Zanzibar’s two islands, working as a police officer. It was here that he joined sheik Abeid Karume’s Afro-Shirazi Party, which opposed Arab rule and the subjugation of Africans.
On December, 11 1963, the British granted Zanzibar its independence. The Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP) ran against the Sultan’s Zanzibar Nationalist Party (ZNP) and, despite suspected electoral fraud, won 54 per cent of the popular vote.
However, the ASP only won 13 of the 31 political seats. The ZNP formed a coalition with a third party and took power, forcing many of ASP’s leaders into exile on the mainland.
Okello had since moved to Unguja (the larger southern island) where he became a house painter. In his spare time, he built up a small army of African nationalists.
Okello was a staunchly religious man and required that his soldiers adhere themselves to strict rules including banning sexual activity, the eating of raw meat and and the consumption of alcohol.
Like Joan of Arc, Okello also believed that he was divinely chosen by God, who spoke to him in his dreams, ordering him to remove the Arabs from power.
On the night before the revolution, rumour has it that Okello ordered his men to kill all Arabs between the age of 18-25, to spare pregnant and elderly women, and not to rape virgins.
Despite being out numbered and ill-equipped, the insurgents captured the capital fairly easily. This was mostly due to the fact that the government had recently fired all of its African police officers, in fear of an uprising.
These disgruntled former policemen knew the layout of the police barracks and where weapons were stored and had little trouble overwhelmed their untrained replacements.
Karume was called back from exile and his Afro-Shirazi Party took control of Zanzibar.
In the days that followed the revolution, Okello, who had appointed himself “field marshal,” allowed his men to terrorize the community, carrying out beatings, rapes, murders and attacks on property.
Estimates on the number of deaths vary widely, from hundreds to 20,000. But it’s generally accepted that thousands were killed in the attempted genocide.
Thankfully, the leaders of the Afro-Shirazi Party put an end to the killing. At the first available opportunity, Karume got rid of the violent and volatile Okello, banning him from returning to the islands after a visit to the mainland.
Without their leader, Okello’s men were disarmed and disbanded.
Okello continued his wandering of East Africa, but was last seen in 1971, with the Ugandan president Idi Amin, who had a nasty habit of assassinating anyone he saw as a political rival.
President Karume was assassinated a year later, shot down by four gunman while playing a game of bao at the Afro-Shirazi Party headquarters.
Prakash Rathod, the 13-year-old Hindu boy who witnessed the revolution, was forced into his own form of exile.
His family tried to remain in Zanzibar, but left four years later because business had declined and there were continued fears of violence.
They fled to Dar es Salaam, where Rathod now runs a barbershop, reminiscing with his clients about the island he still considers his home, even though he hasn’t visited in well over a decade.
“We used to swim out to the ships in the harbour and ask the captains permission to climb aboard so that we might dive from the deck. Some were as high as that,” he said pointing at a two-story building in downtown Dar.
“It was so safe; there was no robbery. And we had the beautiful beaches all to ourselves—they weren’t filled with the resorts like now. Ah, it was a paradise.”