Saturday, March 28, 2015

A 'Black' Marriage Proposal?

A trip to Tanzania, Arusha being the city of birth, is always a delight indeed. My childhood and adolescent were unique, special. I know, I know, everybody will claim this refrain, but mine was extra special; special for all Tanzanian diaspora I reckon. That carefree bachpaana and jawaani, those bisri hoowe yadee, are now but passionate, imprisoned memories buried deep in the recesses of my being. I would gladly trade much I currently have to relive that past. Our wise Imam Ali (A) had advised us to take full advantage of the good things Allah grants us, for good things are transient, they go away fast-fast. Either I got to hear this hadith too late or was too arrogant to heed the advice when it could really have made a difference.
My time is severely limited, as usual, what with all the trips to various CAI projects, past, current and potential. I get somewhat of a breather after quick trips to Zanzibar and Arusha. Zanzibar for CAI projects and Arusha to pay my respects to a recently departed dear aunt. So I make my way through puddles of muddy rainwater from recent downpours towards the house of Mullah Mchungu. These are fresh rains for the season and the clouds above are overcast and pregnant with more to come. It is a task navigating the streets of Dar, the drainage system poor and ancient as the Mullah himself, who is ailing, but I had promised to visit with him when he was last in Sanford, FL. I really do not look forward to seeing the grumpy old man; he can be extremely rude and patronizing. But he is old, lonely, ailing and his opinions, although controversial and combative, are right on the money. Most times. My clothes get perfumed from the swirling smoke of kuku and nyaama chooma dhaabas and the awful putrid smell of dooryaani fruit along the way.
Saala ghadheera, Mullah growls at me as soon as his houseboy sits me at his bedside. You have been here five days and you come see me now?
Okay, I have no idea how he knows I am in Dar five days and he has just called me a donkey, but I take the rebuke in stride; I know he is just showing me a false front. I ask him about his health, but he waves my politeness away dismissively, lights up a beedi instead and blows acrid smoke my way. I look around the modest room where the old man lives; there is not very much. An ancient bed, a battered table on which lies an antique TV set, an ageless wooden closet, some clothes laying about and a thermos by the bedside; I suddenly feel depressed.
So Kisukaali, what have you been up to in our blessed and abundantly corrupt country? Up to no good as usual, I am sure.
I ignore this snide remark and brief him on CAI activities in Tanzania while he watches me with moist eyes and puffs away at the beedi. He nods his head when I am done and hollers at the houseboy to go out and buy some kahaawa and kashaata, something I relish whenever in Tanzania. It is a poor man's snack, you see. I used to have this when going to school in Dar many years ago; it used to temporarily soothe my rumbling belly when times were hard. The Mullah sips hot tea while I savor my bitter drink sweetened by the crusty peanut brittle. 
As usual, the man bowls me a doosra, one that scalds my tongue and sets my heart aflutter.
'Kisukaali,' asks the Mullah with a slightest gleam in his eyes,'would you consider taking an African wife, a Black wife?'
I am at a loss for words for several seconds, trying to settle my heartbeat and ascertain how much the chap knows about my personal life. I could easily be equally rude and tell the guy to booger off but decide to play along, certain the old geezer is up to something, as usual.
'That's a rather strange question, Mullah? Why would I want to consider taking any wife, white, black or any other color in between?'
He chuckles, the guy actually smiles, the first time I have seen his gummy teeth and the crinkle of his eyes. Makes him look much better, younger and a real human.
'Touché Kisukaali, touché, ever the smart pants, nai?' Says the Mullah with his usual sneer back on his callous face. 'Okay, we won't go that route. But tell me, what do you think of our Africans? You know, the people we Khojas call Ghoolas and Ghagas and treat with the utmost contempt? The ones we stole from, and still do, the ones we build separate mosques for, the ones we don't want to pray alongside, the ones we will not allow our children to play with, the ones we will do anything and avoid having as neighbors, the ones we give leftover food to, the ones we would easily chop off heads if they ever dare to propose marriage to our women... What do you think of them, Kisukaali?'
I say nothing but stare at the old man, the cutting truth of his words making me queasy and uncomfortable. I am guilty of some of these crimes, committed for the briefest of the adolescence period, something I have always wanted to erase from my conscience; I almost curse the old man for opening old wounds. The houseboy comes along to clear away the teacups. As he leaves, the Mullah points to him.
'See this man, Kisukaali? He has been with me for the last twenty years, almost. He served my wife when alive and reared my children as well. He serves me now, twenty-four hours a day, at my command, something my children would never do. He cooks and cleans for me, gives me company, and when the time comes, I pray it does not, he will gladly wipe my smelly, najees bum.'
I've had enough of this painful chat and want to flee the gloominess in the house, made worse by the rain outside which has started to pour again. I am about to say my farewells when Mullah Mchungu asks me a question that stays and bothers me all the way back to Sanford later that day.
Don't like what I just said, Kisukaali? Because it has touched a raw nerve? Let me ask you a question then, before you leave. You have a teenage daughter, right? Maaha Zainab? May Allah bless and keep her happy, always. Just suppose she comes to you one fine day and says she has met a boy she loves and wants to marry him. The boy is a Shia Muslim, a mutaqee, is a medical doctor and from a good family. She tells you the boy loves her passionately as well. Then she casually mentions that the boy is an African. Tell me, keeping the teachings of the Quraan and practices of our Prophet (S) and Aimaas (A) and the laws of your country in mind, what would you do? What could you do, if anything? Hmmm?'
I make a hasty retreat, drenched to the bone by the time I reach Tanzanite Suites.

Saturday, March 14, 2015


As I reflect on the remarkable progress made by CAI thus far, it is important, I think, to look back and reflect on how it all began, the path we have trodden, where we now are and how to chart out the future. So I will share this Blog with you, first written in 1996, blogged again in 2010. I get comfort from it and renewed inspiration too. I hope you will appreciate and enjoy the narrative.

It is a hot and humid monsoon July Saturday some 16 years ago; dark, pregnant skies above threaten to open up any minute and drench me, but worse, make my travel to Govendhi miserable and perhaps impossible. Govendhi lies about 15 miles northeast of Mumbai that takes about two hours to reach on a good day. It is very densely populated, stench - puke smelly, dirty beyond descriptive word dirty and full of slum flies. And yes, it is populated predominantly by Muslims and by over 12,000 families of the Ahle Tashayyo persuasion, overwhelmingly Sadaats.

I get to Govendhi all hot and sweaty and harassed and almost swoon. The place is surreal; houses are made from rags with garbage bags for a roof, the lanes between homes squelch and slide wherever I delicately put my foot down, covering my once shiny shoes with a thick sludge of muck, the air is ripe with the stench of raw sewer and flies torment every open skin on my body. There are people everywhere, crowding lanes, in a hurry always, vendors shout their wares or vegetables or fruits amidst cows, goats, dogs and chicken. I sneeze once and two flies enter my mouth and I almost gag. I feel I cannot breathe, the world swims in my eyes and I stumble. My guide, who is increasingly alarmed at my distress, immediately props me up until we reach the steps of a crumbling mosque where he parks me on a dry veranda and hurries to get me a cold drink.

I take deep breaths and try to regain my composure, feeling silly and mad at myself for being so weak. I drop my head down, trying to get blood circulating to my brains and feel better. I look around and simply cannot fathom my surroundings; animals live better in the US. My attention is diverted to a pair of kids, a girl and a boy frolicking in a shallow pond of rainwater near the wudhoo area outside the mosque. They seem to be oblivious to their surrounding, filling empty water bottles and dousing each other with its filthy contents, and having a bloody merry time of it. They are both clothed in rags and have bodies so thin, I feel either one would fracture or break a bone, falling upon each other as they were. I get a sudden urge to run away from this misery, for the despair and sudden fear I feel makes me break in a cold sweat and I suddenly start shivering violently. 

I return to my luxury hotel room at the Leela Kempinski, tear off my clothes and have a long hot shower, trying to rid my body of the grime and sweat and the smell that still cling to it. I resolve never to go back to that hellhole, to hell with what Mullah Asghar has to say about it, the benefits of experiencing what the poor in this world live through. I was not going back. Ever.

Allah (SWT) however, has different plans for me; and who is the best Planner? That very night, as I nestle and snuggle amongst the lavish linens of the five-star hotel I am put up, I dream of the two children frolicking in the filthy waters of Govendhi. I awake but strangely, cannot fall asleep again. I toss and turn amongst the bedcovers; I switch on the television, hoping it will lull me to sleep. Nothing works. Who are these children? Why are they not in school? Why are they so thin and in rags? Are they orphans? They look obviously happy…. On and on and on. Strangely, this dream reappears in my sleep the next day and I spend another night tossing and turning, restless and disturbed. And so it goes on for the whole week; my mind keeps me awake with the thoughts of these two children.

When it is Saturday next and my day off, it is as if the skies have decided to open up and it pours non-stop the whole day; I stay in the hotel, brooding about the kids and Govendhi. So I make a covenant with Allah, a selfish covenant, thinking I can outsmart Him. I promise Him if it stops raining tomorrow, if the sun is out, I will revisit Govendhi and try find the two kids and at least feed them. Now, the chance of a bright and sunny day in the middle of July in Maharashtra is equivalent of winning a lottery jackpot. Almost. When I walk outside the hotel after my workout and breakfast the next day, it is cloudy all right and I smile, smug I have won. But exactly at that moment, the sun reveals itself and keeps on smiling its hot rays on the humid air, making me sweat immediately

I cajole and promise my guide a hefty bonus if he would leave his family this Sunday and accompany me to Govendhi. He does not look too excited; I guess he is unimpressed with my behavior from last Saturday. Money wins however, and off we go to hunt for my tormentors. I am better equipped this time, with sneakers and a handkerchief doused in perfume. We spend a couple of hours looking for them and finally, when I am losing hope, we spot them very near the pond, engrossed in making a living. When we approach them, they scatter and run away, fearful. Much to the annoyance of my guide, I dangle a fifty-rupee bill from my fingers and they return, cautious, but very interested.

We take them to a local restaurant and both demolish a heap of greasy chicken biryani; I cannot believe such thin people had such appetites. When I offer them falooda after biryani is over, their eyes light up with undisguised delight. The falooda disappear in minutes; both wiping their glass bowl clean. Over orange Mirinda, we extract their life details. Sakina is seven (she thinks, not sure) and Alireza six (he thinks, not sure), both born in the slums of Govendhi and have never been to school. Both were put to work supporting their family of six by the time they could put razor to slice rubber. These two scavenge scrap electrical cables off construction sites and pull out its copper guts. The copper is then wound into a ball and if they have enough (cricket ball size), it earns them about ten Rupees. They give this to their paan guzzling father who in turn purchases a little rice and daal and the mother then feeds them dinner, their only meal for the day. 

Sakina is so thin, I can see ribs jutting out from her skin through a rip on her dress and so is Alireza, who cannot sit still, constantly moving around in his chair, playing around with the salt and pepper shakers or dipping into the hot chutney container. I feel very sad for them, for I know this is temporary and they will be out on the streets as soon as we depart. On an impulse, I ask the duo to take me to their parents, to their home. They look at each other uneasily and balk. I reassure them, telling them that I may help them but want to talk to their parents first. After some more debate, they escort us inside the slum, with lanes getting narrower and the filth filthier. I see a girl child, totally naked, nose running, wailing at the top of her lungs with no apparent guardian around. I see two children sleeping out in the open, near a stream in which flow human feces…I make maximum use of my perfumed hankie.

We arrive at a small hut, similar to hundreds like it around and enter a dark room; it takes me several seconds to focus before I can see clearly. The hut has dirt floor, I notice immediately, three charpoy beds occupy three corners of rusting tin walls and the remaining corner has beaten up pots and pans hanging from it. Clothes hang from strings strung across all four corners and a charcoal stove glows amber, emits sharp acrid odor that begin to sting my eyes. On one of the bed lie an emaciated looking aged woman, probably a grandmother, who stares at me unblinkingly and follows me with her eyes as I am made to sit on an empty charpoy. By her side, fast asleep, is a tiny baby, looks newborn, with a black streak of evil eye across a frowning brow. On another bed, sitting cross-legged is Mr. Shahed Rizwi, lord of the hut. Rizwi look as me suspiciously, does not offer a handshake, but waves my guide and me to the empty charpoy. He looks very much like Sakina; I do not see Mrs. Rizwi around. Sakina serves us water from dented tin glasses but I decline and sip from my safer water bottle supply.

I ask Rizwi if he is well, but get the typical wag of the head from the neck and bare of paan stained teeth for an answer. I ask him why his kids are not in school.
'School?' He asks, surprised, as if the thought has never occurred to him. 'If I send them to school, who will bring roti home?' he asks, gesturing with pinched fingers towards his mouth. 
I feel a sudden rash of irritation for this man so I promptly and recklessly reply 'You?' My guide finds this funny, for he giggles shrilly and as quickly, covers his mouth, stifling the laugh.
A flash of anger spreads across Mr. Rizwi’s face and he lets out a string of protests; that he is sick, that his mother, gesturing towards the old woman, is old and sick, that he cannot find decent work, that his wife has natal problems…
But I insist that education is important, that his children will not stand a chance in adult life doing what they currently do. Mr. Rizwi shrugs his shoulders and exposes paan stained teeth again ‘Allah’s will…’ he mummers. 
I honestly feel like slapping him silly.

So I bribe him, this Mr. Paan Rizwi. Through my guide, I promise him Rupees 300 a month to keep the kids in school at the nearby Jafri English School. I also arrange to feed Sakina and Alireza one hot meal a day. We arrange to get the kids to school the next day; I take the Monday off. I bring along a local social worker from Bandra mosque and we take the children for a bath and Alireza for a haircut. After the bath, Sakina’s hair has to go as well, for we cannot comb through her hair; they are a mess of impossible tangles from years of neglect. Now, she looks little different from Alireza.

Much has changed in Govendhi since this episode took place. The slum with its decay, hovels, filth, flies and smell still largely remains. There has been startling development on the edges of the slums, as if an attempt to cut off and hide the eyesores at the core. The roads are mostly asphalt now but hovels still have no running water and most power lines are stolen by gangs and crudely distributed for profit.

Sakina is a computer programing manager for a multinational company, earning a very generous package. She owns her own apartment, is married and a mother to a baby girl. 

Alireza does well as well, not as well as Sakina, but reasonably well, working as a sales representative for a mobile phone company. He moves out of Govendhi as well.

Mr. Paan Rizwi still whiles away time, talking to cronies in Govendhi, guzzling paans supplemented by Sakina; Alireza has stopped giving him money but secretly gives to his mother every month.

CAI’s focus on education in India has paid off exceedingly well, thanks to Allah and CAI’s very many donors and well wishers. There are several success stories similar to Sakina‘s.

In addition to supporting poor students with school fees, CAI ensures gifted students, especially girls, are not denied scholarships to colleges.

CAI has built 6 schools in remote India, 18 in Afghanistan and 1 in Liberia. CAI has restored 3 crumbling schools in Zanzibar and 2 in Pakistan.

The work continues, insha’Allah.