a very old womans power to unite

ZANZIBAR Bi Kidude bint Baraka squeezes my hand so hard I worry my fingers might break. She has just left the stage after at the internationally…


Bi Kidude bint Baraka squeezes my hand so hard I worry my fingers might break.

She has just left the stage after at the internationally renowned Sauti za Busara music festival. The crowd is cheering.

Concert assistants are collecting coins and bills people have thrown to her.

Towering above her are journalists from Europe, Japan and Canada.

A mischievous smile crinkles across her leathery face. Like lambs strolling to slaughter we have offered her our hands for shaking.

I can’t help but giggle with delight when she nearly succeeds in breaking my knuckles.

Before me stands the raunchiest 103-year-old African woman I’ll ever meet.

Short, slight and covered in age spots, she smokes, picks her nose and says what’s on her mind.

But after more than a month of watching ethnicity politics cut apart a country like a deranged cookie cutter, I can’t think of a more beautiful woman.

The Sauti za Busara (Sound of Wisdom) festival revels in bringing a mongrel crowd together.

Weary from watching hatreds divide, I am re-invigorated. Bi Kidude has succeeded in uniting us.

“I’m very happy because I’m very strong,” she says in Swahili, flicking the cigarette that her grandson Omar has lit for her. I notice her teeth look like kernels of corn.

And I think she is flirting with me because she keeps grinning in silence.

“I believe they love me. I’m able to do anything — to sing, to cook. I have had to fight in order to live.”

Out in the crowd, local Muslim women in black hijabs sit beside white female tourists with arms around their beer-swilling boyfriends.

Older Japanese women flirt with 20-something local men with dreadlocks, as Indian men stand in line for seafood beside white expatriate women carrying their mulatto babies in traditional kangas.

These people rarely forget who they “are” in Africa. Their interactions are typecast. The rich white foreigner buys whatever the poor black local is trying to hawk.

They talk and laugh together, but never succeed in breaking down the boundaries dividing them.

But tonight, in an old open-air fort built in the 1700s that eventually was used as a holding pen for slaves in Zanzibar, differences have been forgotten.

It took an almost mythical moment to make it happen, which went something like this.

Out walks Bi Kidude, surrounded by the moody yellow walls of the historic city’s Old Fort and the shadow of nearby minarets.

Rain starts to fall and the wind picks up.

Rigid, almost motionless, Bi Kidude stands lonely beside the microphone, gusts flapping her small blue dress. Her taarab band strikes up a melody.

A few in the 2,000-strong festival exchange glances.

Could this tiny woman with heavy bags under her eyes be the owner of the legend they have come to experience?

Then it arrives. A deep, smoky, haunting sound — like time itself singing from the depths — loud and low, like a train engine.

Bi Kidude’s voice has enough gravity to pull a crowd into a trance.

People fall silent and stare. Some rush to the stage screaming. Flashes from the throng of photographers to one side of the stage explode.

With this voice she has won countless awards and travelled around the world, performing for queens and kings.

When many think of Zanzibar, they think of her.

World music is often a euphemism for bad music.

During much of the Sauti za Busara festival, I sarcastically joked with friends whenever yet another band played melodies bland enough to be acceptable to listeners in Germany, Argentina or Japan.

“World music whoooo!”

When a mythical figure like Bi Kidude performs in front of a multicultural crowd, however, the genre is elevated to something the best pop music can’t achieve.

Bi Kidude is a rock star for the world.

We all dig her, and we can all sit and listen to her, together.

Bi Kidude established herself as a rule breaker on the intensely conservative Islamic island of Zanzibar by the age of 13.

Faced with a marriage she didn’t want, she fled for the mainland, called Tanganyika at the time.

There she began her professional singing career, performing with local taarab groups in the 1920s. In the 1930s, she fled another marriage, this time walking barefoot across the entire length of the mainland to flee.

She returned to her island home in the 1940s.

Every music festival needs a rock star.

Bi Kidude is that for Sauti za Busara.

For some, it’s the voice. For many of the locals, however, it’s Bi Kidude herself.

“Here in Zanzibar, people kind of love her,” says festival director Yusuf Mahmoud. They’re very proud that she’s a cultural ambassador for the island, much more famous than any of the politicians for example.

But there’s also this kind of slight feeling that she’s, how do we say, a bit too outspoken?

She smokes, she cracks jokes, and she doesn’t have a lot of respect for formality.

“I think, openly; people say, ‘Bi Kidude is badly behaved,’ but actually, deep down, they really admire and respect the fact that she speaks her mind and tells it like it is, especially women.”

And really, what else is a rock star for?

 Tim Querengesser is a former Yukon News reporter now writing in Kenya.