Letters from TZ

Loss of a living legend

Fatuma Binti Baraka is no more. The Grand Old Lady of Taarab is dead. Many believe that she was about 100-years-old. That’s a century folks. She had a front row seat to history in the making. And she lived to tell the tale.

Her mind, even at a century, must have been a wonderland. It would have been an honour to sit at her feet and listen – to travel back in time to that fork in the road when the Africa of our ancestors was dismantled to make way for the Africa of our colonial masters.

She was a link to the past, representing the richness of Zanzibar’s cultural heritage. Because of her gift for music, a gift that opened doors for her to perform around the world, she became a living legend. She was a legend in life and will certainly remain a legend in death.

Bi Kidude was born prematurely, at a time when Asian traders on the East African coast had just introduced rupees to replace cowry shells as the medium of exchange. Because she was such a wee slip of a thing, she quickly became known by the nickname ‘Kidude’, (Kiswahili for ‘little thing’).

She started small but soon realised that she was destined for greatness. At the age of 13, with a sense of empowerment that was way before her time, she made the decision to leave her forced marriage, and went into exile in mainland Tanganyika. From there, she set out on a marathon tour of East Africa, returning to Zanzibar years later where, it is reported she entered into her second marriage.

According to an article in The Guardian (UK), she married and was divorced twice because she couldn’t have children. Undeterred, she would go on to become an ‘unyago’ practioner, helping girls to transition sexually from single girls to married women. The ‘unyago’ initiations were carried out to the beat of traditional drums, accompanied by song and dance. Even in this endeavour, music was Bi Kidude’s medium.

She was a musician at heart, one dedicated to her craft. Just months before her death, at the Sauti za Busara Festival where she had become a mainstay, a frail Bi Kidude was led on to the stage to address the crowd. Her ill health notwithstanding, she tried to sing but found that she didn’t have the strength. It was her last time on stage.

Dedicated to her craft though she was, Bi Kidude was also a free spirit. Despite her Muslim faith, she was rarely seen without a lighter in her hand. The lady did love her cigarettes. There is many an image of Bi Kidude, clutching a cigarette to her mouth, with her eyes squinting against the smoke swirling around her head. Not the picture one usually has of a woman in her hundreds!

But such were the quirks that made her such an enigmatic personality. Not only was she partial to a cigarette, she also loved her drink, and could often be found sampling some Konyagi (local cane brew). She did her own thing, just like former British Premier Margaret Thatcher, who was laid to rest just a day before Bi Kidude was lowered into the ground. They couldn’t have been further apart in circumstance and yet both will be remembered for their undeniable contributions to humanity.

Both of them attracted controversy for their choices. And both will be remembered for standing their ground and living by the courage of their own convictions. During one interview, Bi Kidude was asked about her penchant for alcohol and cigarettes. She said that she smoked and drank for fun. She didn’t do it to make a socio-political statement. She did it because she wanted to. That she could act like a man and sing like a lady in a culture that abhorred both, is commendable. Indeed, The Guardian (UK) reports that, together with mentor Siti bin Saad, Bi Kidude was one of the first Zanzibari women to lift the veil and perform in public. Before that, women lived in seclusion.

The Grand Old Lady of Taarab was certainly a woman before her time. She was the very definition of a trailblazer. And for her considered contributions to the worlds of women and music, she will be missed. May the road rise up to meet her on her journey to the other side.