By the time I was growing up in the late 1990s, it was no longer fashionable for a young person to have creamed his family tree. Seemingly, the tradition was discouraged some decades ago during the climax of liberation movements and informally banned after the shock waves of the 1964 violence.
I remember there were even some Swahili sayings that were used to show little interests on family origins. One of which was in my mother-tongue, Kipemba. When they said “udugu wa mwana wa yani kamvyaani” or in standard Kiswahili “udugu wa mtoto wa nani alimzaa nani”, they were suggesting that ones’ family relationship was not enough to prove they were relatives. In standard Kiswahili, there were – and still are – popular sayings such as “udugu wa nazi kukutana pakachani” (coconuts’ are siblings because they meet in a basket) and or “udugu wa kuunga kwa gundi” (a brotherhood made by sticking glues).
That said, it does not mean that there were no family bonds. Of course, there were and has always been. People knew each other and could notice even a distant relative, but missed a consideration of a chain that connects them to their ancestors. There had been a time in the known history when creaming it was a sign of love, knowledge and wisdom. But then it was gone!
However, there were some cases whereby this tradition was still practiced and insisted. Mine is a matter of question here, which helped me a lot during the challenging years of early adolesce when my mind was such restless in search of myself.
And it had a good reason, I must say, because I was very lucky to have been born in a house which was considered a Nyumba Kuu (the great house). My father was accepted to be mtu mzima wa ukoo (head of the clan). He was not the oldest amongst others but he was, I think, a natural leader. Many relatives of ours – both in Zanzibar and beyond – were frequent visitors to our house because of my father.
Their visits blessed me in so many good ways. Apart from boosting my image among my peers – as there was no scarcity of presents almost every month from the visiting relatives, I also earned good knowledge when it comes to family bonds. By the time my father departed in 1995, I had already mastered the family links to almost each and every relative of ours, which included those who were living abroad and whom I never met.
I could easily tell why I was calling someone ami (uncle), chachi (aunty), brother, sister or whatever, even if they were not immediate siblings in the kinship. This helped me to grow, thanks to my father who, as I said, was like a custodian of the clan bond. Being a curious boy I used to be, there was always a bunch of questions I rose about our family relationships that he had to answer. I would ask him: “why somebody is calling you uncle while you do have only one sister who is not his/her mother and neither their parents are your cousins or nephews!?”
With that, he would start to show me the roots, the stem, the branches and the leaves. Sometimes his explanation was so complex and keeping turning things upside down that I felt confused, but he had always an art to end the talk by connecting all the dots together. After such session, I rose more relieved, more confident and, of course, very proud.
That was why I was among the few in my generation who could mention their fifth grand-grandfather. That I am a son of Khelef, who was a son of Mohammed, who was a son of Said, who was a son of Mana who was a son of Rashid, who was a son of Saleh from the clan of Bani Ghassani, many peers of my age could not trace their family links this much.
For a long time now, the importance of knowing one’s origin is being taken for granted because family roots are no longer a source of comfort. Life has got new demands, where family tree is not one of them.
But is it supposed to be so?