Sunday, September 25, 2005

Zanzibar: Fear of Nature and the Nature of Fear

This is an intriguing Sunday morning meditation from my wandering friend Andrew Ehrenkranz, who's been in Africa a lot of late, but most recently has been holed up in Utah. When I read this, it started me thinking about the distance we used to believe existed between our rational societies and those that are still rife with superstition. Now, how sure can we be that we're so different? Is the theory of the shetani and their role in the rage of the sea any less plausible than the notion of "intelligent design"? - CD

Chris, I was thinking about spookery in an odd sense this weekend, as Rita was coming. And after she's fallen, it struck me again. We animate these hurricanes with names-- Katrina, Ivan,Camille-- like Poseidon's angry newborns, springing from our warm waters in a great tantrum. It is not a storm until it has a name, a name like our own, and though we can't comprehend its power or its devastation, we can speak of it like what its not-- human. I remember walking on a beach on the eastern coast of Zanzibar, near a small village called Bwejuii. I'd stopped to marvel at a particularly gargantuan beachfront villa, so architecturally decadent and seemingly so heavily secured, I'd become curious enough to ask a passerby who lived there. "Definitely a foreigner," he said, "Zanzibari's are afraid of the sea." Why, I asked? "Bad things live in the sea.. That's where the shetani sleep." Though not in the Judeo-Christian sense, Shetani means " devil", and since Zanzibar's an island, there's a lot of shetani here. Depending on who you talk to, a shetani is either a spirit that inhabits or takes possession of a human, or a human-like creature like a blue monkey with the head of a child and webbed feet. Shetani can be sent to you through a curse or just plain enter your life unannounced. If someone's life take's a turn for better or worse, a shetani, or a curse by the bush doctors controlling a number of shetani, had something to do with it. Things like this, I learned, happen for a reason The shetani have always been in Zanzibar, long before the Arabs or Europeans arrived, perhaps this part of Africa's original colonizers; young or old, strong or meek, Muslim or Christian, every Zanzibari, they say, has to contend with a shetani. Sure, most Zanzibari's eat fish, and are aware of the sea's charm and benefits, but few locals want to live anywhere near it. The sea, itself, isn't innately malevolent-- it's the devil spirits inhabiting it that make fierce winds, rough waters, and great waves. Best to keep away from the ocean, it's believed, if you want to steer clear of the shetani in your life. Let sleeping dog's lie, which incidentally is also something I learned Zanzibari's aren't too keen on, for differentsuperstitious reasons. There's a lot more to it obviously, and I've rambled, but it strikes me- when we fear the sea, it's a fear for what it can do. They fear it for what it contains. - Andrew

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