Sunday, 13 February 2011


Postcard from the Humphrey Winterton Collection
I've just added a visual postscript - the postcard picture of a pet rhino - to last September's post on the 'Imaginary Animals of Zanzibar'. I came across this while looking for photographs to illustrate a seminar on 'Images and counter-images of the Zanzibar Revolution' that I'm giving in Edinburgh next month. In preparation for this I've also been rereading one of my favourite books about the islands, Esmond Bradley Martin's Zanzibar: Tradition and Revolution (1978). This is unrivalled as a description of the foibles and follies of the Revolutionary Government at a time when there wasn't always a lot to laugh about. It includes the following vignette about the presence of another exotic beast in Zanzibar, or to be precise a pair of them: 

1992 reprint (Nairobi: Book Corner Ltd.)
 "On holidays such as Idd, those who remain in Zanzibar town dress up in their finest clothes and there is dancing and singing in the streets. The two Indian elephants at the Bwawani Hotel then receive great attention from the populace, and children even bring nuts and bread to them. The history of these elephants is an amusing tale. In 1974, the Indian government gave them to the government of Zanzibar as a present. They arrived on the Mapinduzi's maiden voyage. When this ship anchored in the harbour, the elephant handlers cermoniously presented them to the Africans who were supposed to take care of them. But there was one major problem: the elephants would only respond to commands in Hindi, and resolutely refused to learn Swahili. Rather embarrassed, the government decided that the Bwawani Hotel should provide for these two gentle but obstinate pachyderms, named Indirani and Govindon. The Bwawani now gives elephant rides for fifteen shillings, but there are few Zanzibaris prepared to pay the price. They like watching them, though; and these are the only Indian elephants in all East Africa. In the mornings, they are walked from their enclosure near the Marahubi Palace by a couple of attendants to the kitchen area of the Bwawani Hotel, where the hotel's staff feed them left-over food and lots of bread. They stand idly around the hotel until around 11 a.m., when their attendants walk them back to their enclosure, and their hard day's work is completed. Karume would not have approved of their example." (1978: 107)

Postcard showing Bwawani swimming pool
The reference here is to the first president of Zanzibar, Abeid Amani Karume, who planned the Bwawani Hotel before his assassination in 1972. The management of the hotel was handed over to an Indian hotel chain, Oberoi (Martin 1978: 4), and it was the Hindi-speaking staff who were later asked to look after the two monolingual elephants. These tuskers may have lived the life of Riley, but apart from providing entertainment and occasional rides, they had a more practical use to Zanzibaris at the time, unmentioned by my good friend Esmond (who is now an expert on the illegal ivory trade, but not quite as inactive as his Wikipedia article implies). It seems that their dung was in much demand as a fumigant (mafusho) for expelling (or perhaps merely calming down) spirits (mashetani), in particular those that caused certain kinds of illness in children. Boys and girls from the town collected the fresh elephant dung from Maruhubi (near the veterinary clinic, where the elephants were kept overnight), from outside the Bwawani (by the hotel's rubbish dump, where they were fed), and from the road between the two. My wife remembers doing this with others when she was in her early teens (around the time that Esmond Bradley Martin wrote his book): they used sticks to collect and bag the dung, took it home, and then left it out in the sun to dry. When the dung was dessicated one of the boys would take it and sell it to Saleh Madawa, Stone Town's principal supplier of traditional potions and charms, who would sell it on to his customers in turn -- presumably at a good profit.

Saleh Madawa's shop in July 2006
I don't know whether elephant dung can still be bought in Saleh Madawa's shop: if so then it must be sourced from the mainland, because the two Indian elephants are long gone. My guess is that recipes for elephant dung fumigant also originate on the nearby continent. It is widely used in eastern Tanzania to treat degedege (e.g. Makundi et al. 2006; Warsame et al. 2007; Foster and Vilendrer 2009), which is the Swahili name for the illness believed to cause infant convulsions, often identified as cerebral malaria. Mama J recalls that in Zanzibar town the dried elephant dung is mixed together with onion and garlic skins before being used to fumigate (kufukiza) a poorly child, and garlic is among a number of additional ingredients mentioned in the literature. The understanding and treatment of degedege is a subject all in itself, and I'll no doubt return to it in future posts. Given his antipathy to other machinations of the devil (Walsh and Goldman 2007: 1149), I like to think that Sheikh Karume would have approved of this particular use of the Revolutionary Government's elephants, and not just because it helped to keep the road to Maruhubi clean. 


Foster, Deshka and Stacie Vilendrer 2009. Two treatments, one disease: childhood malaria management in Tanga, Tanzania. Malaria Journal 8: 240 (online).

Makundi, Emmanuel, Hamisi Malebo, Paulo Mhame, Andrew Kitua and Marian Warsame 2006. Role of traditional healers in the management of severe malaria among children below five years of age: the case of Kilosa and Handeni Districts, Tanzania. Malaria Journal 5: 58 (online).

Martin, Esmond Bradley 1978. Zanzibar: Tradition and Revolution. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Walsh, Martin and Helle Goldman 2007. Killing the king: the demonization and extermination of the Zanzibar leopard. In Edmond Dounias, Elisabeth Motte-Florac and Margaret Dunham (eds.) Le symbolisme des animaux: l'animal, clef de voûte de la relation entre le homme et la nature? Paris: Éditions de l'IRD. 1133-1182.

Warsame, Marian, 
Omari Kimbute, Zena Machinda, Patricia Ruddy, Majaja Melkisedick, Thomas Peto, Isabela Ribeiro, Andrew Kitua, Goran Tomson and Melba Gomes 2007. Recognition, perceptions and treatment practices for severe malaria in rural Tanzania: implications for accessing rectal artesunate as a pre-referral. PLoS ONE 2 (1): e149 (online).

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