Saturday, 3 July 2010


The Zanzibar Revolution is very poorly documented, and its unexpected instigator, the self-styled Field Marshal John Okello, remains its most enigmatic figure. What little we know about his life before the night of 11-12th January 1964 is largely derived from his own unreliable account, written after he had been barred from Zanzibar less than two months later.* Okello’s later life has been the subject of even more rumour and speculation, and the circumstances of his presumed disappearance and death in Idi Amin’s Uganda are still shrouded in mystery (Clayton 1981: 94; Petterson 2002: 176-177).

In his book Okello claimed to have been born in Lango District in northern Uganda in 1937, and to have led the life of an itinerant labourer, micro-entrepreneur, and local political activist in the decade before the Zanzibar Revolution. His search for new opportunities and better conditions took him from Uganda to Kenya and on to Zanzibar, where he spent three and a half years on Pemba before moving to the main island of Unguja. It’s a plausible account, at least the parts that Okello chooses to tell, and is full of detail about particular jobs and incidents on the way. Here he is describing the events that took him from Ramisi Sugar Factory on the south Kenya coast to Pemba:

  On the 2nd of June, 1959 I met Peter Oloo, a Luo, another mason of about my own age, who told me about Pemba Island, its cloves and the prospect of getting jobs easily. I agreed to accompany him there, and we went one day to Shimoni, on the coast, to find out how we could leave Kenya without being arrested. At Shimoni we met seven Giriama also preparing to go to Pemba. A short, stout brown man offered to take us along for Shs. 25/00 a head. We returned to Ramisi to get ready for the journey. On the 11th of June I returned to Shimoni, and decided with my friends that the best way to avoid the Kenya Customs Officers watching for illegal attempts to sail to Pemba was to go first to a small island in the Indian Ocean called Mukwire. We remained in hiding on this island for a week, and were forced to drink and cook with brackish water which we found near the seashore. (1967: 67).

According to Okello, they finally set sail for Pemba “[s]hortly after midnight on 21st of June, 1959” (1967: 68). The “small island in the Indian Ocean called Mukwire” is almost certainly Wasini Island, to the south of the Shimoni Peninsula. “Mukwire” is evidently a misspelling of Mkwiro, the name of the fishing and farming village on the eastern end of the island whose inhabitants speak a distinctive variety of the Chifundi dialect of Swahili (Walsh 1993).

I stayed in Mkwiro for a number of weeks in early 1986, studying the history and enterprises of Mkwiro Women’s Group, its members and their households, and other aspects of village society and the local political economy (Walsh 1986). I wasn’t asking questions about Okello, and it seems unlikely that his fleeting and furtive presence would have registered in 1959, let alone be remembered more than a quarter of a century later. But I did learn enough to add a footnote or two to Okello’s own cursory account of his sojourn on Wasini.

The fact that he calls the island by the name of Mkwiro suggests that he and his companions were more familiar with this village than the larger settlement of Wasini after which the island is usually named. In 1986 I was told that fishermen and smugglers from Tanzania often hid their boats on the southern side of the island, near a small hamlet called Nyuma ya Maji, literally “behind the water”. I walked there one hot day in January, cutting across the island from Mkwiro to (uninhabited) Bogoa, before following the shoreline westwards. The sandy beach at Bogoa changed into a landscape of coral outcrops and then the mud and mangroves in which it was easy to conceal outriggers and other craft. It may well be that Okello and his fellow travellers laid low in this area, waiting for their onward ride to Pemba.

Wherever they were, it’s not surprising that they were reduced to drinking and cooking with brackish water. Apart from rainwater Wasini island has no natural sources of fresh water: villagers harvest the rain in large cement-lined tanks and when these run dry they are forced to rely on water ferried across from Shimoni on the mainland. The main wet season usually begins in March and can last until June, when Okello was there. When it’s not raining there’s relatively little chance of finding standing water, unless it’s seawater that hasn’t seeped into the ground or evaporated away. Okello doesn’t record what food they cooked with the water they found, whether they had brought it with them or obtained it on the island itself.

At least June is one of the cooler months, and this would have provided Okello, Oloo and their Giriama friends with some relief before their perilous crossing to Pemba. Okello relates that their “dhow” was almost swamped by rough seas in the middle of the Pemba Channel. The southeast monsoon is usually blowing with all its force at this time of year, and it is presumably this that put the wind up Okello and his fellow passengers and threatened to scupper their boat. But, as he tells us in a characterstically messianic passage, he resorted to loud prayer and the waters subsided. It’s common knowledge that Okello wasn’t the only person dreaming of revolution in Zanzibar in January 1964, but who knows what turn it would have taken had he never made it from Wasini to Pemba?

* Okello’s prologue to Revolution in Zanzibar is dated “Kamiti Prison, Kenya / June, 1966” (1967: 26). But at least part of the manuscript was drafted much earlier: the CIA study of the revolution refers to ““Field Marshall Okello’s Story,” written by Okello himself in late 1964” (Hunter 1966: 40).


Clayton, Anthony 1981. The Zanzibar Revolution and its Aftermath. London: C. Hurst & Co.

Hunter, Helen-Louise 1966. Zanzibar: The Hundred Days’ Revolution (ESAU Working Paper XXX). Intelligence Study, Directorate of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, 21 February 1966.

Okello, John 1967. Revolution in Zanzibar. Nairobi: East African Publishing House.

Petterson, Don 2002. Revolution in Zanzibar: An American’s Cold War Tale. Boulder: Westview Press.

Walsh, Martin 1986. Mkwiro Women’s Group, Pongwe-Kidimu Location. In Martin Walsh, Interim Report for a Study of Income Generation and its Effects among Women’s Groups in Kenya’s Coast Province (Report to World Education Inc., Boston). Mombasa, June 1986. 77-108.

Walsh, Martin 1993. Mwaozi Tumbe and the Rain-making Rites of Wasini Island: A Text in the Chifundi Dialect of Swahili, Études Océan Indien 16: 60-85.

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