The Elusive Power of Colonial Prey: Sexualizing the Schoolgirl in the Zanzibar Protectorate

Corrie Decker. Africa Today. Volume 61, Issue 4. Summer 2015.

In 1934, Henry Otley Watkins-Pitchford, a doctor working for colonial Zanzibar’s Medical Services Department, stood accused of having “immoral intent” to seduce a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl. The girl, whom I call Dadi, was a Parsi student at St. Joseph’s Convent School, a French Holy Ghost Mission school, aided by the Department of Education in the British Protectorate of Zanzibar. The school catered mainly to Portuguese-speaking Catholics from Goa, the Parsi community and other South Asians, and some mainland Christians (Loimeier 2009:217-18; Turki 1987:102-3). Explaining how the affair had begun, the doctor testified that her beauty, “acknowledged even by members of her own sex,” enraptured him. The two had smiled at each other when their eyes had first met. This exchange had encouraged the man “to proceed further with the flirtation” because, as he said, “it is not usual for Parsee ladies to bestow smiles upon Europeans, and so I imagined I was very much favoured and, to some small extent, was foolishly proud of that fact.” It was rare for any local girl or woman in the predominantly Muslim Zanzibar Town to smile at or even make eye contact with strange European men. Though not Muslim, Parsi communities abided by the prevailing Zanzibari practice of keeping pubescent girls under close parental supervision before marriage. The doctor had urged the girl’s father, an acquaintance of his, to bring his daughters to his office for eye exams. He had treated Dadi several times, always in the presence of her father or mother. Upon discovering that a daughter of another acquaintance was attending Dadi’s school, he had persuaded the girl to give Dadi a letter that professed his love for her. Thus had begun a series of written communications between Dadi and the doctor. Dadi claimed that a schoolmate had penned all her letters to the doctor because she could not write in English herself.

The British colonial administration, when it discovered the affair, delved deeply into the case, searching for any minute evidence that might prove whether or not the doctor had carried out a so-called immoral act with the girl. Official preoccupation with the intimate details of the relationship between Dadi and the doctor-and, as I argue, with schoolgirl sexuality more generally-superficially contrasts with the reticence about sex common to Victorian and Zanzibari culture. Rather than repressing sexuality, Michel Foucault argues, the bourgeois European state sought to manage “disparate sexualities,” including those of children. For example, he states that “the extraordinary effort” that went into discovering incidents of child masturbation “leads one to suspect that what was demanded of it was to persevere, to proliferate to the limits of the visible and the invisible, rather than to disappear for good” (1990:42). Similarly, the depth of the inquiry into whether or not an “immoral act” had taken place between Dr. Watkins-Pitchford and Dadi reveals the extent to which the doctor’s tale of the seductive schoolgirl vicariously captivated the investigating officials.

In a chapter of Aspects of Tanzanian History, Lawrence Mbogoni discusses Dr. Watkins-Pitchford’s case to explain the tendency of the colonial administration to go easy on its medical officers involved in improper sexual relationships. Mbogoni contends that both the doctor and the executive council overseeing the investigation refused to recognize this as an incident of child molestation because Victorian Britons conceptualized the child as “a symbol of purity, innocence[,] and asexuality,” though Mbogoni admits that this discourse sometimes labeled the child as “strangely erotic” (Mbogoni 2013:140). Mbogoni homes in on the doctor’s claim of “tropical neurasthenia,” an affliction that offered middle- and upper-class white men a “respectable” excuse for misconduct in the colonies (2013:143). The doctor testified that he had “an element of mental aberration, produced probably by eighteen months[‘] hard work[,] unrelieved by any break such as local leave, in a climate and environment which are admitted by both Medical and other authorities to be conducive to various minor mental affections.”

Rather than presuming the child victim to be innocent and asexual, I argue that the council refused to criminalize the doctor because the investigation had confirmed Dadi’s sexual allure and upheld the doctor’s primary defense. In this scenario, the illness, “tropical neurasthenia,” was a metaphor for the eroticism of the tropical girl. Early twentieth-century Western discourses abstractly characterized tropical societies as adolescent and promiscuous (Hall 1921; Lesko 2001:66-67), even as colonial interventions claimed to protect the “native” girl (whether Indian, African, or Arab) from local forms of patriarchy-what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak aptly called “saving brown women from brown men” (Spivak 1988:296). Colonial interventions to “save” African women and girls, many of which were carried out with the explicit support of local patriarchs, attempted to control (and possess) the sexuality of African women or girls. The danger of the Zanzibari environment lurked within the woman or girl herself, whose inherent sensuality could consume men and drive them to misbehave.

The case of Dadi and Dr. Watkins-Pitchford epitomized the convoluted dynamic among protection, control, and fetishization that characterized colonial discourse on Zanzibari schoolgirls. What is unique about schoolgirl sexuality in colonial Zanzibar, and what the story of Dadi and her suitor poignantly illustrates, is the power of the secret of sex that officials sought to draw out and Zanzibari girls worked to conceal. In Zanzibar, the site of the first comprehensive state-run school system for Muslim girls in East Africa, officials were preoccupied with schoolgirls for economic and political reasons, and girls’ education became the cornerstone of the state’s development schemes, beginning in the 1930s (Decker 2014b). The primary job of colonial schools was to protect the respectability (Swahili heshima) of the students, many of whom came from elite and upper-middle-class families in Zanzibar Town. The most important aspect of Muslim female respectability was seclusion or privacy. From the moment a girl reached puberty in the early twentieth century, she wore a buibui (a long black robe) and headscarf whenever she lefthome. Strict families made sure their adolescent daughters went out rarely, and only when accompanied by an elder relative.

The veiling of women on the Swahili Coast-and here veiling is used in a broad sense to mean the shielding of women from public view-represents the concealment of “family secrets” (Hirsch 1998:52). The veil is a marker of the gender power dynamics in Muslim communities. Feminist scholars of Islam such as Fatima Mernissi distinguish between explicit and implicit theories of female sexuality: the first focuses on men’s aggressive domination over women; the latter, “driven far further into the Muslim unconscious,” centers on the struggle “to contain women’s destructive, all-absorbing power” (1983:32). This seemingly contradictory concept of Muslim female sexuality, which also existed in the European colonial “unconscious,” overlapped with the colonial cliché of the hypersexualized Arab or African woman (Gilman 1986; Jackson 2002; Said 1978). Zanzibari girls appeared at once vulnerable, exotic, enchanting, and dangerous to European men. The male European official was compelled to unveil the Muslim girl, release her from what he considered the oppressive practice of religious seclusion, and in the process unveil her beauty for his own pleasure. His desire was simultaneously to liberate and control, protect and exploit-a treacherous power play, which put him at the risk of becoming victim to her sexual power. Zanzibari schoolgirls were viscerally aware of the power of their sexuality precisely because of the extreme measures taken by local elites and colonial officials to ensure their respectability and protect them from men’s sexual advances.

Sexualizing and Saving Schoolgirls

Historically, male European travelers and officials in Zanzibar coveted elite Zanzibari women, those who were beyond the reach of their gaze. Richard Burton’s nineteenth-century account disparaged the “unveiled” Swahili women who wore an “ungraceful garb” that “depresses the breast, the figure, and conceals nothing of its deficiencies.” In contrast, though elite women’s veil and outer robe hid “even the dress from prying eyes,” the women underneath were “said to be sometimes remarkably handsome.” They were doused in “strong and heady perfumes or musk, ambergris, ottar of roses, and the large Indian jasmine.” Burton wrote that Arab women were “cunning in the matter of fumigation” and believed that European women would benefit from this art if the fragrances were imported into Europe. His inability to see elite Zanzibari women made them even more exotic and powerful: they were “cunning” because they could entice men with their scent, seduce them without touching, speaking, or even looking (Burton 1872:386-88, 434). The tropical climate intensified Zanzibari women’s sensuality and, Burton presumed, their sexual drive. He explained, “Chastity is unknown in this land of hot temperaments … [T]he man places paradise in the pleasures of the sixth sense, and the woman yields herself to the first advances.” Burton revealed his own desire for and frustration with Arab women when he noted that “fearing scandal and its consequences, they deny themselves to Europeans”-a practice that earned them respect in the community (1872:379). The fact that elite women were rumored to be both promiscuous (that is, driven by libido) and off-limits to Europeans made them even more enticing than other local women.

Like Burton, W. H. Ingrams, a colonial official who catalogued Zanzibari customs in the 1930s, also noted Zanzibari women’s high sex drive, which he partly attributed to the explicit sex education imparted in initiation dances and other puberty rites (Ingrams 2005:243-44). It was at the age of puberty, for example, that the Zanzibari girl learned how to employ alluring perfumes. In the European male’s imagination, young Zanzibari women were sexually sophisticated and completely out of their reach-at once dangerous and desirable.

Liaisons between elite Zanzibari women and European men aroused considerable anxiety among Zanzibaris. They brought to mind the bestknown scandal in Zanzibar’s history, the tale of Princess Salme, Sultan Seyyid Said’s daughter, who had run offwith her European lover in the 1860s. Salme, later renamed Emily Ruete, had been taught to read and write as a child. She was her father’s favorite and sometimes accompanied him to public events, which was likely how she had met her future husband. Rumor has it that she snuck away to Germany in the middle of the night because she had discovered she was pregnant. Recounting her return to Zanzibar many years later, she stated, “I had leftmy native home an Arab and a true Mahometan; I returned an undeserving Christian, and half a German” (Ruete 1989:281). As Elisabeth McMahon’s contribution to this collection demonstrates, elite men feared girls and women like Princess Salme, whose passions could not be controlled. The elite, educated girl who shames her family by having an affair with a European man was a powerful stereotype and phobia in Zanzibari culture. For Zanzibaris, the danger lay in the European man’s potential to seduce their innocent daughters, ruin them for marriage, and lure them away from their religious traditions.

Parents’ and elders’ fears about the beguiling powers of European men and European culture intensified with the introduction of colonial schools for girls. Private community and mission schools existed from the early twentieth century, and the Zanzibar administration suggested the establishment of a government girls’ school as early as 1916. The first governmentrun school for girls opened in 1927, and girls’ education subsequently became a central facet of the islands’ development schemes. The curriculum, which emphasized marriage and motherhood while teaching modern hygiene, religion, and the three Rs, was designed in collaboration with local elites. For the first time, elite Zanzibari girls came out of hiding and into the public sphere. The schools imposed strict policies of seclusion, which prevented Zanzibari men from trespassing on campus while girls were present, but European men could easily move in and out of classrooms, dorms, and school clinics. They attended school events, medically examined students, and inspected the schools without scrutiny. They finally had direct access to the girls and young women whose legendary beauty had fueled their imaginations for decades. The schoolgirl was particularly titillating; as one fascinated with European culture and out of the hands of her family during school hours, she represented the potential fulfillment of this fantasy.

Colonial officials justified such actions as part of a broader education campaign to protect girls from the evils of early marriage and life as a “household drudge.” A proverb from Pemba, the smaller of the main Zanzibar Islands, states that “daughters are bad cargo to be unloaded at the first opportunity” (Turki 1987:57). Female sexuality had to be contained within a marriage, and the longer a girl waited to marry, the higher the risk that she might disgrace the family. The schoolgirl who delayed marriage to advance academically was a ticking time bomb. European officials reassured parents that their daughters were in good hands. In a 1942 letter to the editor of a local newspaper, Director of Education Foster wrote, “It is natural and desirable that girls should be married, but since it is the present custom locally to marry very young, it is the duty of the Education Authorities to see to it that these young wives get the best preparation for life that the limiting factor of your own customs allows them.” He contrasted Zanzibar’s early marriage with the tendency of girls in Britain to marry around the age of twenty or later, which allowed them to get a solid education before marriage. It was the intention of the colonial administration in Zanzibar, Foster explained, “to give girls as balanced and as liberal an education as existing prejudices will permit.” The reference to recent developments in marital and educational practices in the West was loaded with imperial assumptions and expectations about shifting gender relations. By this time, education authorities had noted that the Zanzibari girls and women were undergoing a revolution in the way they viewed the world and themselves. Many were wearing European clothes, reading Western magazines, and questioning their parents’ values. P. E. W. Williams, Foster’s successor as director of education, urged his staff to help Muslim girls “obtain a balanced outlook” and “develop to physical, mental[,] and moral maturity on the firm foundation of their religious faith.” He urged teachers to “rid their minds of superstition and fear and to teach them to apply their knowledge to the living of full and happy lives, whether they marry young or late, or not at all.” This was dangerous territory. The idea that a Zanzibari girl could not only embrace European culture, but also decide not to marry at all was preposterous. It discredited any claim the director made to maintaining “the firm foundation” of Islam in the schools.

A culture war was brewing around the notion that colonial education would indeed change a girl’s mind about her primary role in society, her relationship to the opposite sex, and possibly even her religion. The question of child marriage continued to preoccupy colonial officials into the 1950s, and both they and local Zanzibari Islamic judges explicitly referenced menstruation, female anatomy, and sexual intercourse in debates about the issue. Rather than fathers’ and husbands’ economic and sexual exploitation of girls, the conversation pivoted on the question of when a girl would be physically ready for sex (Decker 2014a; Stockreiter 2010). Increasingly during the colonial period, officials-mainly adult men-dictated the institutional and legal definitions of sexuality and marriage for Zanzibari girls.

Colonial obsession with the sexual and other forms of physical development of schoolgirls was evident in the school medical examination. Medical inspections in schools began in 1913 and became more thorough in the girls’ schools and hostels during the 1930s and 1940s. Tracking girls’ physical development was justified by the fact that puberty was the reason parents most commonly gave for withdrawing girls from school before they had completed the course. Doctors and teachers closely inspected students’ hair, fingernails, teeth, skin, and clothing. “Even inside the noses they peeked!” one former student exclaimed (Muna 2005). Dentists occasionally visited the school to conduct oral examinations and offer advice to hygiene teachers. Parents and children were not always cooperative. One father wrote to Mrs. Johnson to complain about the local teacher at the Chake Chake Girls’ School who had threatened to cut girls’ nails and wash their hair if they did not do it themselves. Objection to the allegedly harsh manner in which the school dentist examined, cleaned, and pulled teeth led parents temporarily to withdraw their daughters from two girls’ schools in Pemba. Students nervously prepared for these inspections. Asha, a student at the Zanzibar Government Girls’ School (ZGGS) in the 1940s, reported that the hygiene teacher checked “to make sure you wore clean clothes, your hair was braided well, you wore nice shoes, and if one was not dressed well, she was taken aside” (Asha 2004). “All of us students were afraid,” she said. Muna, a pupil at the nearby Ng’ambo Girls’ School, explained what happened to a girl who did not pass inspection:

Sometimes children used to come to school stinking. So the teacher would say, “Come here into the storeroom” (where we kept our books). And she’d say, “Please take offyour knickers.” And then she’d look at the knickers [saying,] “What is it that makes you stink?” (Muna 2005)

The hygiene checks were invasive, embarrassing, and terrifying, even when performed by female teachers. Students were even more anxious on the days when the “doctor of the body” and the “doctor of the teeth” visited their schools to do full medical examinations (Asha 2004). From the schoolgirls’ perspective, European colonial officials were scary men and women with the power to discipline them and the right to cross boundaries otherwise reserved only for initiation instructors and future husbands.

When colonial officials implemented girls’ schools, they took on the responsibility of policing the perilous period of female adolescence when girls’ virginity and respectability were most in need of protection. Education officials persuaded parents they would protect their girls at school by foregrounding Islamic studies, housing the school in a building designed to shield girls from public view, and generally promoting the elites’ cultural sensibilities. Even government-aided Christian schools like St. Joseph’s Convent School told Muslim parents that their girls would be safe. St. Joseph’s Convent School, which employed only female teachers, existed in a building designed to shield the girls from public view. Boys attended classes, but only up to Standard III. The school, though it had originally catered to the Roman Catholic Goan community of Zanzibar, saw a “great influx of non-Goanese students” in the 1930s, and more than half the students were Muslims. A Muslim girl who had attended the school said that her parents had thought it was the best school in Zanzibar because of the quality of the academic instruction and the fact that the teachers did not try to convert the students (Moza 2005). Of course, the reputation of St. Joseph’s and the measures that officials and teachers took to protect the girls did not always prevent the unthinkable from happening.

Dadi and the Doctor

When a teacher at St. Joseph’s Convent School discovered one of the letters that Dr. Watkins-Pitchford had written to Dadi, she took it to Dadi’s uncle. This letter, the piece of evidence that initiated the investigation into the doctor’s behavior, became the basis for the charge of “immoral intent” against him. His letter revealed that the two had planned to meet “on the beach below the Johnson’s [sic] house,” an area in plain view of “garden boys” and not far from the homes of the British Resident and other high officials. After missing each other there, Watkins-Pitchford suggested they rendezvous at his friend’s garage because it had an “inner little room where no one can see us at all.” He urged her to meet him soon, writing, “I am longing for you[,] you sweetest of all things.” The teacher testified that the girl was absent from school for about twenty minutes around the time of the scheduled meeting-which forced the doctor to admit that they had shared “a hurried kiss and whispered word,” but that “nothing of any improper or indecent nature took place at that meeting.” He repeatedly defended his actions, claiming he “hadn’t the slightest intension [sic] of having improper relations with her.”

The girl’s uncle, a clerk working for the colonial administration, brought the case to the officials’ attention on his brother’s behalf because the father “was so shocked that he was unable to do anything.” The uncle stated that they never allowed their “children to go for a walk alone,” and that it was only Watkins-Pitchford’s cunning maneuvering that had given him access to a girl otherwise protected from such unwanted attention. According to the uncle, after examining Dadi’s older sister, the doctor had persuaded their father to remove her from school because of her poor eyesight. This had left the girl without a proper chaperone at school.

The family watched Dadi closely. In one communication, she wrote to her lover, “My parents are too strict. I am a prisoner really.” Yet when she told her uncle about the man’s letters, she claimed it was the other schoolgirl who had “induced her to read them and that [the other girl] herself wrote replies.” The uncle reported that when the two had finally met, Dr. Watkins- Pitchford had boldly “asked her why she was afraid to move about freely alone like European ladies[,] saying that she should not be always accompanied by her parents or sisters and cousins when she went out in the evening for a stroll.” The doctor seemed intent on luring her away from her family. Noting that Dadi had reached puberty about six to eight months before, nearly a year after the lovers had initially met, the uncle implied that the doctor had initiated an affair with a prepubescent girl. This assertion directly challenged the doctor’s defense that she had lured him into the relationship. Whether or not the uncle’s account was true, it was meant to demonstrate Dadi’s innocence and the fact that her family had gone to great lengths to maintain it.

Though not Muslim, Dadi’s parents had taken many of the measures that other wealthy urban Zanzibaris were taking to ensure the purity of their pubescent daughters and the family’s honor. They were wholeheartedly invested in local ideals of respectability. Dadi’s uncle wrote that his family, one of the best-known Parsi families in town and long-time residents of Zanzibar, had, up to that point, “never had the slightest fear that our friendly relations with [Europeans] would be the means of damaging our honour and reputation.” Dadi’s uncle asked officials to maintain complete confidentiality in the case. The government, too, was concerned about how the case might affect the reputation of girls’ schools and the colonial administration. The administration dropped the immorality charges but ultimately found Dr. Watkins-Pitchford “guilty of conduct which was likely to bring into disrepute the public service.” The question of honor-of the girl, her family, and the state-was the central issue for both Zanzibaris and British officials.

Throughout much of the proceedings, members of the executive council portrayed the doctor as an immature and irresponsible “boy” with an “unfortunate lack of balance and self-control.” “In our opinion,” the council stated, “this affair has been in the nature of a flirtation such as might take place between a schoolboy and a schoolgirl.” They admitted, however, that the situation was “rendered serious by the fact that Dr. Watkins-Pitchford, so far from being a schoolboy, is a married man of 33 years of age, a medical practitioner[,] and a Government officer holding a responsible position.” Dismissing him from his post in Zanzibar, they stated that he “appears not to possess that sense of responsibility which is usual in normal adults.” Watkins-Pitchford himself confessed, “My desire to meet her alone was slowly taking the form of an obsession[,] and I began to idealise [sic] the girl.” He portrayed himself as mentally disturbed, overcome as much by the intensity of the girl’s beauty as by the tropical environment of the island.

Even as he urged the council not to lay blame on the girl, he frequently pointed to her mature appearance and actions as encouragement for this behavior. She wore a sari, a “Parsee woman’s dress, not worn by young children,” she had flirted with the official in public, and had responded to his advances. The doctor and his friend, a witness, believed her age to be somewhere between seventeen and twenty when they had first met. Though they later discovered she was only fourteen years old, they claimed she looked, dressed, and acted like a full-grown woman. In this narrative, the immature official served as a foil to the sexually mature schoolgirl. The girl’s implicit sexual power possessed and emasculated him, making him incapable of thinking rationally as an adult man.21

Dadi’s uncle refused to allow his niece to appear before the executive council-an act that would surely jeopardize her respectability and that of the family. At first, the council suggested that the mother superior of St. Joseph’s Mission deliver a list of questions to Dadi and “take all steps to ensure that no person interferes [with] or assists the girl in answering these questions.” However, William Hendry, director of education, decided it best that he go to Dadi’s home to interview her himself in private. Nearly half his questions focused on some aspect of physical intimacy. He asked Dadi whether she had smiled at or greeted the doctor when they had first met. He searched for any “indecent” references in her account of visits to the doctor’s office, their private meeting, and their written communications. After she had answered yes to both questions-“did he make love to you (a) in word, (b) in deed?”-he pressed on, asking whether or not the doctor had “put his arms round” her, kissed her, or had done anything else “to offend [her] modesty.” Fortunately for Dr. Watkins-Pitchford, Dadi briefly corroborated his statement that nothing serious had occurred without elaborating on any of the details.

A central question of the trial was whether Dadi or the doctor was the sexual aggressor. The twentieth-century colonial state was similarly consumed by the overlap between childhood sexuality, now proven to exist, and what it believed to be Zanzibari women’s tendencies toward promiscuity, determined as much by the tropical environment as by race. Most of the evidence presented during the investigation consisted of love letters from Dadi to the doctor. There is only a brief reference to his letters-a clear indication that the case was more about Dadi’s sexuality than his transgressions. Dadi’s denial of the affair and her curt replies egged on officials seeking some morsel of evidence that would confirm their most voyeuristic suspicions. At the same time, her “ignorance of sexual matters” made her even more alluring: she appeared not to understand the sexual power she held over men, and it was this fact-her simultaneous seductiveness and coyness-that served as the fundamental truth the director of education was seeking while he interviewed her “alone.” He corroborated the doctor’s story, not by Dadi’s verbal testimony, but by his own intimate experience with her. Despite her lack of knowledge about sex, her innate sensuality, made evident by her physical beauty and flirtatious demeanor, bolstered colonial assumptions that, as the succeeding director of education put it, “children mature early in a tropical country.”

The Elusive Power of the Zanzibari Schoolgirl

Zanzibari schoolgirls were increasingly active in the public sphere. In addition to weekday classes, they took lessons in cooking and English on weekends and attended sports days, parents’ days, and other public events held at the school. They were fashionable, cosmopolitan, and fluent in global culture (Decker 2014b). Unlike the elite Arab women of the late nineteenth century, the middle- and upper-class girls who attended Zanzibari schools were, to an extent, visible around town, even when they were dressed in buibuis and headscarves. The more time a girl spent outside her home and the longer she waited to marry after reaching puberty, the more her respectability came into question. If she could wear European dresses and speak English, she might find a boyfriend and, in the worst-case scenario, become pregnant before marriage and convert to Christianity like Princess Salme. These fears dominated parental concerns.

The girls and women at the colonial schools were at once respectable and unconventional. They attracted the attention of progressive, elite Zanzibari men as well as colonial officials. In 1943, Margery Purnell, headmistress of the ZGGS, complained that a group of men had watched the female teachers playing netball in the “enclosed grounds” of the school, the recreation area where students and teachers were presumably protected from “undesirable prying people.” The men had looked on from the balcony of a nearby house, and when the women signaled to them to avert their eyes, “this appeared to increase their interest[,] for they then began to watch through field glasses.” The director of education complained about the incident to the Arab Association and the Young Arab Union, stating, “Whether your members uphold or are indifferent to the purdah principle, you will, I feel sure, agree that the behaviour [sic] of the onlookers was a piece of bad manners. I trust you will use your best endeavour [sic] to discourage such discourtesy.” Incidents like this highlight the “fantasies of invisibility and visibility” at play in the practice of veiling and seclusion in general (Scott 2007:132). The more protected the schoolgirls and teachers were from public view, the more irresistible they became to men who could, but should not, see them.

Schoolgirls from elite, highly respected families themselves sometimes misbehaved. In the late colonial period, schoolgirls hid so-called lurid magazines in their desks, snuck away from school to meet with boys, had affairs behind their parents’ backs, and became pregnant out of wedlock. The headmistress of the Wete Girls’ Boarding School in Pemba, when one of her young, unmarried boarders had a baby, worried that “the good name of the school” would be affected. Samira Seif, the most senior Zanzibari female education officer, noted that this was “not a unique case.” Though she generally advocated removing such girls from school, this particular girl was “too young to be expelled,” so Samira suggested the headmistress resolve the issue by speaking with the girl’s parents. Even before Zanzibar’s independence, many married and unwed pregnant girls were expelled from school for breaking the rules of respectability. Later, during the postcolonial era, this practice became official policy with the passing of the Spinsters, Widows, and Female Divorcee Protection Act of 1985, which remained on the books until 2005 (Maoulidi 2011:50).

One girl, Muna, was a particularly difficult teenager. She recalled, “I was all crazy with this idea of having a boyfriend and running away properly dressed in this buibui and ending up on some beach somewhere” (Muna 2005). Of course, it was “the greatest taboo to have a boyfriend,” Muna told me. She did have a boyfriend, but she had not told anyone because “it was very bad for the record.” Eventually, her brother found out and told their parents. Her father called up her boyfriend, a man much older than her, telling him, “Sir, you be careful with my girl, eh. I don’t want you to get her into trouble.” The man was “so bloody embarrassed” that he asked Muna to marry him.

Before Muna fell in love with her husband-to-be, she had fallen in love with the idea of the affair. Boys and young men fantasized about the girls behind the veil, and schoolgirls daydreamed about sneaking off to meet strange men. Teachers and officials had their hands full with girls like Muna and Dadi, who flirted with the idea of romance and opened the door to sexual transgression. Disobedient schoolgirls got a thrill out of breaking the rules, trying not to get caught, not to be seen or heard. This was a game of cat and mouse. Officials chased the secret of schoolgirl sexuality. Was she talking to boys? Was she a virgin? More importantly, did she know she had the power, as Dadi did, to reduce a full-grown man to an “immature boy”?

In Dadi’s case, the executive council believed that Dr. Watkins-Pitchford had “no deliberate intention of seducing the girl,” though the British Resident argued it was “most probable, whatever Dr. Pitchford’s intentions may have been, that seduction would have been the ultimate result had not, fortunately, the letter been found and the affair stopped in time.” The colonial state stepped in to save the girl from her potential promiscuity. Dr. Watkins-Pitchford believed he, too, had this goal in mind. While describing their most intimate exchange, their meeting in the garage, he maintained that his decision to meet her for “only five minutes” was due to “a complete lack of desire to abuse or harm a young and beautiful girl whom [he] idealised [sic] and … morbidly worshipped.” Her youth and beauty pulled him in opposite directions. He was compelled to both kiss her and shield her from his own sexual advances. In the end, she was spared “any physical or moral damage,” and her “ignorance of sexual matters remain[ed] as complete as it was before the meeting with Dr. Pitchford took place.” As important as her virginity, her naïveté remained intact. The outcome of the case-the doctor’s transfer from Zanzibar to Kenya-seemed to satisfy both parties. Dadi’s family, however, was traumatized by the scandal and moved back to India. In theory, the respectability of both the Zanzibari schoolgirl, declared innocently unaware of sex, and the British administration, now free of its self-proclaimed “diseased” medical officer, was reaffirmed. Or was it?

It is possible to imagine that Dadi, too, understood that her beauty, her sexuality, had a power all its own. Accordingly, she may have been aware not only of the temptation she presented, but also of her ability to manipulate it. Despite her defense that she did not know English and that her friend had written the love letters for her, several clues reveal that she may in fact have authored the letters. In one, she stated, “You are quite right. Eve is really very young. She could be more helpful[,] but she is not fit for it, as she is too young.” Eve, the go-between, here characterized as young and inexperienced, certainly did not write or even read this message. Dadi mentioned other girls who were acting as couriers, but the doctor appeared to reprimand her for telling them about their tryst. She responded that the other girls were “safe” and then professed, “I have never shown any of these notes to either of them, since you told me not to.” Even if Dadi had enlisted the help of her classmates in delivering or even writing the notes, the sentiments behind them were clearly her own.

Dadi’s letters self-consciously enticed her lover. She addressed him as “Dr. Pitchford” when writing matter-of-factly, but “sweetheart,” “my own,” or “my sweetest boy” when expressing her passion. A sophisticated romantic understanding underlay her demands to be “alone for a whole hour or so,” a length of time suggesting she had plans to do more than offer a passing smile. As much as a teenage girl in colonial Zanzibar could, she created opportunities to meet him in person. She wrote, “I am oh so glad when I go for those short walks, up the Nazi Moja, because I am sure I shall see you. I must be content with a glance and smile from you[,] it seems. But I was never happy [sic] than when I used to see you at the beach.” She sought him out, playing the role of a pursuer, not an object of his affection. As in Muna’s fantasy about acquiring a lover, the beach was the place of illicit rendezvous. In contrast to the town, where a girl would likely run into a neighbor or family member, the beach had secluded coves for young lovers, especially if en route the girl was wearing a buibui, the veil of anonymity as well as respectability. The reference to the beach suggests a level of intimacy beyond a mild flirtation.

Dadi had an enormous amount of power as the object of the doctor’s affection. She could have reported his actions to the school, her parents, or the government at any moment and most certainly would have had him fired. Of course, she might have been afraid of him and his power as a colonial official, but her letters suggest that she, too, got pleasure from the exchange, pleasure from knowing she held his secret of forbidden lust, pleasure from her ability to make him act like a boy instead of a grown man, pleasure from disobeying her parents without their knowledge. Keeping the secret of her own pleasure would have been an important lesson for the pubescent Zanzibari girl, one that would have taught her the true meaning of the veil.


This story about the apparent seduction of a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl by a thirty-three-year-old colonial official and others like it demonstrate the agency of children as historical actors and the extremely involved question of power embedded in sexuality and desire. Princess Salme, describing the development of love between herself and the German merchant, wrote, “My house was next to his; the flat roof of his house was a little lower than my own. He held his dinner parties in a room opposite to where I could watch them … Our friendship, from where in time sprang love, was soon known in the town.” Her voyeurism had initiated the relationship, but it had been made possible by his orchestration. This interplay between watching, being watched, and being aware of being watched-all while performing respectability from the so-called privacy of their own homes behind latticed windows and doors-had intensified the friendship whence love had sprung. Salme was a teenager, fully cognizant of the power of her affection on the European man and the sensuality inherent in the taboo itself (Ruete 1989:263-64).

Both local and European men in colonial Zanzibar circumvented the barriers of female seclusion, such as the buibui, the schoolyard wall, and parental control. They strove to see what they were not supposed to see. At the same time, schoolgirls played up their invisibility, symbolic of their innocence and respectability, as a tool to entice men. The buibui simultaneously provided a cover for illicit affairs and proof of a girl’s respectability. The secrecy of the affair upheld the metaphoric importance of the buibui, which not only protected her reputation and his, but made the affair more exciting to both parties.

The story of Dadi and Dr. Watkins-Pitchford raises the more difficult question of the relationship of power presumed to exist between men and women, the colonizer and colonized, and adults and children. Just as the scent of Zanzibari women’s perfume intoxicated Richard Burton in the nineteenth century, the subtlest interaction-a glance from or glimpse of a Zanzibari schoolgirl-aroused colonial officials like Dr. Watkins-Pitchford. Zanzibari schoolgirls were aware that they were the object of fascination for adult men, especially European men, and they learned to hone their power to seduce them with a scent, a look, or a smile. Everything we presume to know about the danger that exists between the British man and the Zanzibari girl blurs as we look closer at the exchange between Dadi and the doctor. The adult man, an expert and an official, degenerated into a boy, while the vulnerable schoolgirl was transformed into a sophisticated seductress. Her sexuality, including the innocence that it presumed as an object protected by the local practices of female seclusion, had the power to enrapture and infantilize any man.