A LETTER FROM ABDUL SHERIFF, Zanzibar
I have to convey some bad news, but also some good news. So let me start with the bad ones.
Monday last week I went to the House of Wonders for a small job. There I received a letter from the Principal Secretary (PS) of the Ministry of Education informing me abruptly that the Ministry had decided to terminate my contract with immediate effect, and that as of 15th September I was no longer an employee of the Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar.
This action was taken under a clause in my contract which allows the Ministry to terminate the contract on grounds other than disciplinary.’ I would be entitled to 25% of my salary during the term of my contract, and one month's notice or one month’s pay as my terminal benefits.
However, the PS chose not to specify any grounds for this drastic action, or to give me an opportunity to defend myself against any charges that they may have raised.
To say the least I was flabbergasted. We had just successfully completed the exhibition on the Zanzibar Stone Town which was opened on 2nd July by the President of Zanzibar. He had expressed himself well satisfied not only at the Opening but also in a later message through the Minister of Education. Since then I have been on my Research Leave busy with my work on my book on the Dhow Culture, mostly working at home.
I decided to convey the news immediately to my senior colleagues, and we decided it will be best if I talked with the whole group involved in the Training Programme for the past year rather than leaving quietly and let them hear half truths through gossip. It seems to have come as a shock to most of them who were saddened by the break-up of a successful team that had worked together so well.
On my part I began to review my professional work ever since I joined the Department in 1992. While I may have made mistakes, I could not think of any major reason that could have led the Ministry to terminate my contract when I still had another year to go on my three-year contract. On the contrary, I feel that I have put in more than could have been expected of an ordinary employee over the past 13 years during which we set up the Palace Museum, and since 2001, four major permanent exhibitions in the House of Wonders. In addition, we finally set up the Museum Library, launched the promising Museum Education Programme, as well as the training that a large number of our staff were able to get, especially during the last year.
However, as the PS readily admitted in using Article 8 of the contract, the reasons were not connected with any shortfall in my professional work. It will be futile for me to try to speculate their reasons. What is painful for me is the fact that after 13 years of honest and conscientious work the Ministry feels it fit to throw me out unceremoniously like a dirty rag.
This, unfortunately, was not the end of the story. A few months ago I was appointed by the Tanzanian Minister of Science, Technology & Higher Education to be a delegate to UNESCO's World Heritage Committee in recognition, I assume, of my work on the history of Zanzibar and the Zanzibar Stone Town which is a World Heritage Site. I attended the meeting of the Committee in Durban in July and I was expected to attend the UNESCO General Assembly in Paris in October. However, when I went to get the necessary papers from the UNESCO National Commission in Dar es Salaam on 28th September, I was informed that the Zanzibar Ministry of Education had called to state that they did not want me to be part of the delegation, and that my appointment may be rescinded. This was fine with me since I had not solicited that job.
Without wanting to adopt the grapes are sour’ attitude, however, I should say that over the past few years, ever since our Department was transferred from the President's Office to the Ministry of Education, I have been feeling that there was not much appreciation for the work that we have been doing except when it came to opening new attractive exhibitions, like the one on the Stone Town. My own position in the Department of Archives, Museums & Antiquities has also been devalued. Despite my grand title of Advisor & Principal Curator, I have been increasingly not consulted even on matters connected directly with the Museum and generally sidelined. Perhaps my independent opinion on the method of work in the Department and decisions taken were becoming irksome.
I had therefore begun to wonder if I was prepared to be used like a convenient workhorse, but I decided that I did not care so long as there was useful work to be done in the Museum to complete the remaining two exhibitions in the House of Wonders, and perhaps do something about the Peace Memorial Museum. Well, now the PS of the Ministry of Education has taken a decision for us.
As for me, while I immensely enjoyed the practical as well as intellectual work in setting up the museum exhibitions on the national heritage of Zanzibar, I am still a committed historian of Zanzibar and the Indian Ocean. I have work cut out for me that should last me several years, work that I will enjoy. As I mentioned, I was in the middle of trying to finalise my manuscript on the Dhow Culture of the Indian Ocean when my good working mood was so rudely interrupted. I will have to think how I will survive since I would like to remain in Zanzibar, but as the Muslims say, when somebody closes one door against you, God opens a hundred others.
Let me end on a more positive note. I have been informed, and this may now have been made public, that the Prince Claus Fund of the Netherlands has decided to grant me an award in recognition of exceptional achievements in the field of culture and development, and for intellectual leadership and achievements in ensuring the survival and appreciation of global cultural heritage.’ Specifically they pointed to the use of sustainable low cost and low technology, and local technicians and skills, in setting up the House of Wonders museum. They also noted the training of local staff, creating a professional team of skilled and committed personnel and sustainable management.
Needless to say, I am greatly appreciative of these sentiments and for the award that came completely out of the blue. It does give me courage to face the future knowing that our efforts over the past many years have not passed unnoticed. I know that you as my friends will be celebrating with me when the award is given to me on 7th December, 2005. Entirely incidentally, that will be on my 66th birthday, and it will be the biggest birthday present of my life.
I look forward to hearing from you.