Notes from the Field: Zanzibar


Zanzibar, 19th December 2013

When I met Mzee (Sir) Abdul-Halim Suleiman Hassan (name changed) the first time in June 2012 at home in an older area of the city he was 70 years old, married to two wives and with six children. He introduced himself as Mzee Cheetah, as nobody would know his official name nowadays and everybody just calls him after the predator and fastest terrestrial animal. The energetic man lives up to his name: Even though he is officially retired and gets a pension he is still employed at a public institution, where my assistant Saleh and I met him later many times for talks and interviews. In the past he played traditional music (taraab) and proudly told us about all the places in the world he traveled to thanks to his employments in the cultural sector. For a long time he was coach of female netball and football teams, however most famous Cheetah became on the island for being an actor in popular movies showed on local TV channels. Mzee Cheetah - he was for me simply the perfect example of a very active older man. I was impressed by his memos he always had in the pocket of his trousers. On those papers he accurately noted all the things he wanted to do in a day. Oscillating between his first wife (who is actually also his cousin) as well as their common children and his second wife, with whom he does not have any child, he was constantly busy providing them with all they needed for life. Besides his works he regularly went to the market to buy foodstuffs. He kept himself busy bringing his son to school every day, was an active member of a diabetes self-help group and building a house outside the city for the time he would not be employed anymore. Even though he was considering himself as having strength he told us in an interview in September 2012:

“Still I have the same problem, but I try to keep it in a normal condition. All the time, I am suffering with diabetes and blood pressure, I tried to do exercises, I tried to stop eating food with sugar, except for seasonal fruits like bananas or a piece of mango, people say that fruits do not cause problems if you have diabetes but I myself I am very careful, I control myself not to affect my health totally, not to loose my capacity to do my work.“ (Interview 19.9.2012)

Connected to diabetes he told us also about dizziness in legs and feet. Half a year later, in March 2013, he felt again much better and explained that he is not suffering anymore from health problems. He told us that it is necessary to be very active, to remain in a condition in which he can do what he wants to:

„I feel okay and strong since I may do what I want to do, there are some in my age but they are in a bad condition. But as for me, I am even that fine that I can run from here to K. [10 minutes] and now I am working at A. under a contract. So I think, by the time my contract finishes, I will be at the countryside cultivating. This is why I am trying to finish my house, so as to live at shamba [countryside] because at that time I will not be working [under a contract].“ (Interview 16.3.13)  

In May 2013 before I returned back to Switzerland I went to say goodbye to Mzee Cheetah at a cultural club where he was actively committed. Not without proud he showed me around, introduced me to his colleagues and finally gave me a ride back home on his pikipiki (motorcycle), before he went to pick up his son at school.

In the time I was away from Zanzibar my assistant Saleh contacted the male informants every month. He reported to me that he met Mzee Cheetah several times in a splendid condition. In September Saleh tried to call Mzee Cheetah many times without having him answering the phone. Finally, he went to visit him and learned from Cheetah’s wife that he got a stroke with all its abruptly appearing consequences. All of a sudden he could not walk and talk anymore, one side of his body was paralyzed. He tried to talk to Saleh but had to give up, as no single word was understandable. After I received the message from Saleh about Mzee Cheetah’s condition honestly, I could not help but crying. I was astonished myself how much the news that one of my informants and his family went through this pained me. Of course it is a horrible thing to have a stroke but at the same time it showed me also that this research was much more than collecting data about older persons. I realized that I am much deeper connected with my informants. They are not only informants but they became friends, people I really do appreciate and even if I wish not to, I am emotionally involved.

In beginning of November 2013 we met Mzee Cheetah at his 1st wife’s house. He was sitting in a chair in the living room. He lost a lot of weight. But according to Saleh’s observation he was better than the last time he met him. He is now able to walk slowly, to move around but not more then some houses away. He cannot talk but he can smile a little and he seems to understand everything. He is nodding and trying to talk. One can guess a little what he attempts to say. His wife coordinated his medical treatment at the hospital and at home with an herbalist. She commented: “I am now the father and the mother.” To the hospital he went with his son or his daughter who was first staying in Oman. She did not return back to work in Oman because of the condition of her father. She sleeps at her father’s place even though she is married and staying with her husband in another place.

In the beginning he stayed one week at the hospital but left even though the medical staff asked him to stay one week longer. Cheetah’s wife complained that they did not explain to them the sickness and she did also not see any relief after one week. The doctor told them that he should do exercises, move and try to talk. When they talked to him he feels annoyed as he thinks they are just making fun of him. They received prescription for medicaments, which he has to buy every two months. The costs for the medicaments from the hospital are around 100’000 TZS (70 USD) per month. They pay 3000 TZS (2 USD) for one treatment of the traditional healer, whom he needs to see several times a week and who does sell additionally herbal medicine to him.

Cheetah’s wife invited us once to attend a session with a traditional healer. We received a message from Cheetah’s wife that today the fundi (skilled worker) would come in the morning. Actually, my assistant and I expected a man and were both surprised to meet a 66 year-old skinny but strong woman. Wanu Tamali Hana (tamali hana means “she is not having wealth”) she is called and insisted that I should use her real name whenever I write about her. She came from a far distant place by foot and entered the house with a basket on her head. Bi Wanu is doing this work since 1972 and she learned it from her bibi (grandmother), and now she already gave the knowledge to her daughter who is also going to do massages. Bibi treats the serious cases. At that day, she had seven patients, Cheetah was the 4th. She said she comes everyday but when we asked her if she was there yesterday, she did not give a straight answer.

We entered the bedroom where Mzee Cheetah was lying on a mat (mkeka) on the floor in short sport trousers. Bi Wanu massaged him with an oil with five ingredients. She started with the legs, when he was lying on his back and continued with every part of the body, he also turned around on his front side. Sometimes he was making noise, which showed that he feels pain. The fundi told us that there are different types of arm rings against different kinds of wanyama (animals/beasts - bad spirits). The rings come from mainland Tanzania. Maasai sell the rings. She told the family to buy such a ring. Mzee Cheetah did not want to put on the ring again after he took it off for the massage but his wife insisted that this is dawa (medicine) and he should wear it. Besides the treatment of the fundi they also go to a spiritual healer who does kikombe (cup): He writes Koran verses with saffron on a paper, which he puts into water. Later on the patient will drink this spiritual water.

Mzee Cheetah himself does small exercises, walking around to get better. He still gets his Pension 60’000 TZS (40 USD) per month and they live of the salary of his wife (around 150’000 TZS = 100 USD). I go now regularly to visit him and I always remember how much he was talking, once he still was very active and did not suffer from the stroke. Suddenly, I could not only listen to him anymore, I feel I have to share something from me with him and do tell him more about myself. When I showed pictures of my wedding to him, he was all smiles. His situation is a little bit better these days. He can walk longer distances and goes to visit his brother. He still takes medicaments from the hospital as well as from the fundi, which they hope will help him to be able to talk soon again. By the way, he is not wearing the ring against bad spirits anymore.

Zanzibar, 22nd of March 2013

Already two weeks have past since we finished our Swahili language course; two weeks plenty of research actually! Together with my research assistants Saada and Saleh I chose out of the previously sampled 50 elderly persons, five men and six women, with whom we want to continue our research. How do we want to go on to find out more about how elderly people are cared for, how they try to stay healthy or what they do and whom they ask for help if they get sick? In this phase of the research we use classical ethnographic research methods: we spend several times half days or even days together with the elderly persons in their households and observe whatever they do, how they live, with whom they are staying with, who comes for a visit, who calls them and whatever happens. In some activities I join in if it is possible, thus, you can imagine there are many things to laugh if I am trying to clean, to work in the garden or to cook in a Zanzibarian way. It helps to get a closer contact to our informants and the informal talks while doing these small works provide a lot of enlightening experiences in how elderly people in Zanzibar live. During and after these visits I usually note my observations in a field diary to remember as much as possible of the new insights.

Zanzibar, 9th of March 2013

I arrived at 9pm at the airport in Dar es Salaam and a shoga (a female friend of mine) picked me up by car, which was really great. We went directly to a place where we could have dinner (how I missed the barbecue-beef Mishkaki and chipsi!) and drove to her place. I slept there in her room in a big bed together with her and her small boy and even though during the whole night the light in their room was on, because they cannot sleep without light, I felt so happy just to be welcomed and treated like as a sister.

Early in the morning at 5.30am we got up and drove to the office where she is employed as an advocate. We had breakfast there and after having given another lift to three of her collogues who did hardly fit into her small car stuffed with second hand clothes (her mobile store) and my luggage, she dropped me at the sea port at 8.30am where I got a ticket for the ferry and a friendly porter who helped me with my baggage until everything was in the boat. We left the port at 9.30am and I found finally a place in the packed ferry. I got a nice company of a 26-year-old woman called Yusra. We were talking in Swahili almost the whole ferry ride. She had left her two kids with her sister in Zanzibar while she had a miscarriage with baby twins bahati mbaya - bad luck as she explained. Finally, we reached the island and Saleh, my assistant and his cousin came to pick me up by car at the harbor in Zanzibar and brought me to my place. When we arrived at the house where I stayed already last year, my bibi, the elderly woman who stays on the ground floor together with her grandchildren, welcomed us warmly with chapatti, fish, ice cream and falua, an other dessert. After that the big work of cleaning the huge apartment and unpacking my bags kept me busy for the rest of the day.

A day later, Saleh informed me that his neighbor needs his assistance to drive his sick wife to the public hospital Mnazi Mmoja. Interestingly this neighbor, who still works as a tailor was in my sample and I had two interviews with him in 2012. He is married to two wives. The elder one, whom we guess around 55 years old, had an up to that date unknown health problem. I decided to join Saleh to his neighbor and he came to pick me up at my place.

When we reached there, quit some people where in the house of the elderly man and his wife was lying on the floor in her room. After some greetings and a warm welcome by my informant, around five men carried the woman on the small, dusty ways down to Saleh’s car. Three men went into the cargo bay of the car, two women sat on the backsides, in their middle the elderly patient. The patient’s husband decided to come later by daladala, the minibus. Saleh drove quit quickly to the hospital, where the bibi was put into a ruling chair and after having found the right ward (female ward), she could quickly see a doctor as she had already a register book of the hospital. Otherwise people have to get this small book at the hospital for 500 TZS (around 0.30 USD). All the doctors’ examinations are free. If medication is available in the hospital, people do officially not pay for them, otherwise they have to buy it outside in a pharmacy. For blood tests, hypertension or diabetes check-ups patients pay a small amount.

The wife of my informant was admitted and the helpers, who turned out to be all their neighbors, brought her to the ward were she would stay for some time. There, officially, only two men and two women could accompany her. So, Saleh and I waited downstairs. It was stunning how even though most elderly people told us in the interviews that they only get assistance from their relatives in such an emergent case, neighbors are called and do help! Anyway, a large number of people is needed to assist a patient at the hospital as you need carriers, people who bring food and wash the patient. The sick bibi was told to wait for some hours until the responsible doctor would be back from her break and prayers and so Saleh and I decided to leave them there without knowing the diagnosis of her collapse.

In the following days I was busy with organizational stuff like getting internet, completing the household, and visits to the different units of the State University of Zanzibar SUZA to prepare the language course and catch up with the Department of Social Sciences to which our research is affiliated to. The evenings I spent together with the host family I stayed with last year, my friends or in the house of my bibi.

After one week I started another Swahili Language Course at SUZA together with Andrea. Every day we had three hours classes just the two of us. Our former host families in Stone Town kindly agreed that we had one lunch or dinner per day with them. This was another occasion to brush up the language. Otherwise we prepared the research and caught up with different institutions concerned with elderly in Zanzibar.

Zanzibar, 26th of September 2012

Today, I did not go to conduct interviews with my assistants, as they are having other commitments to do besides our research. Thus, I am staying at home organizing my data; i.e. sorting all the audio-data, transcripts, translated transcripts, pictures, I am typewriting the hand-written notes and I am communicating with my assistants concerning the transcripts and translations. All these small activities are actually quite time-consuming even though they are normally distributed over all the evenings after interview-days.

Up to now we did with all our 52 elderly informants the first interview and with around 30 out of our informants also the second, longer interview. So today, apart from tiding up all the data I am reading some transcripts of the twenty wazee with whom we still have to do the second interview.

Just now, a grand-child of the bibi (grandmother) with whom I am staying with in the house brings me some Pillaw (spice-rice). What a nice surprise! Previously, I had every day breakfast and dinner together with “my” bibi, but since she has some health problems, her daughter in the neighbourhood always brings food for her and the grandchildren who live with their bibi. Besides the interviews the insights I get through the contact with “my grandmother” and her family, as well as through observations when I walk through the streets, go the market or visit friends help me a lot to get a deeper understanding of the lives of elderly as well as of their living and care arrangements.

Zanzibar, 3rd September 2012

The month of Ramadan and the end of the fasting, Eid el Fitr, which was celebrated intensely in Zanzibar are over. The usual daily activities are taken up again and our research team in Zanzibar consisting of my two research assistants, who do also work as assistant lecturers at the State University of Zanzibar (SUZA), and me can continue interviewing people. After having randomly chosen fifty men and women above the age of sixty through transsect walks in four shehia (wards) in the city of Zanzibar, we are almost done with the first fifty interviews in order to get demographic information, for example, how old the elderly are, if they are married, about their use of mobile phones, if they have relatives living outside Zanzibar, concerning their health condition and so on. Even though we work with translators, I am grateful Andrea and I did a Swahili language course at SUZA in the first two months of our stay in Tanzania, as it helps a lot understanding the elderly during the interviews.

As elderly here seem to be very flexible concerning their place of living, we have to be flexible too and follow our informants if they shift to another place and perhaps to other relatives. Frequently, elderly who agreed to participate in the research fall ill and may even go to other cities or countries for treatment. This fact keeps us busy trying to stay in contact with the watu wazima (elderly; literally: whole/mature people). While the first round of interviews is being transcribed and translated we are launching with the same elderly the second and main interviews concerning our core topics: their health and the correspondent care arrangements.