Clove world capital gets an IIT; close to India for centuries (Kurian Pampadi)

Published on 23 September, 2023
Clove world capital gets an IIT; close to India for centuries (Kurian Pampadi)

Zanzibar, 4500 km away from Kochi in the Indian Ocean, is getting an IIT early next month. Indian Institute of Technology is in fact a coveted prize that India offers on a platter to the island state in recognition of the great trade relations the two had centuries ago even before the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama landed on the shores  of the Malabar coast in 1498.  

Preeti, dir IIT Zanzibar along with Ligy Philip, Prof  infra and Mridula Nair, its councillor

The Portuguese vessels took the long and arduous route circumnavigating the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of the African continent. Along with the Europeans came the Arabic and the Chinese in quest of the black gold like pepper, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and what not. Hence the Indian Ocean witnessed a trade war eons before any World Trade Organization.

Ligy and Preeti along with Zanzibar’s education minister Lela Mohamed Mussa

Cloves, grown in the archipelago of Zanzibar, a hop from Tanganyika, was dearer than gold in those days. During the Arabic Sultanate and subsequent British rule, the spice grew in demand and was the prime foreign exchange earner for Zanzibar as well as its mainland ally of Tanganyika before the two finally merged to become the Republic of Tanzania in 1964.

 With Shabu George of Punalur, Counsellor in the Indian Consulate General

Agriculture and tourism form the mainstay of Tanzania’s economy. Gold is also excavated. Today Tourism has overtaken other incoes. It provides 35 per cent of Zanzibar’s GDP. Population in the mainland is 67 million as against 10 m in Zanzibar. Tanzania is the largest of East African countries with an area of 9,45,087 sq. km. India is almost 3.5 times as large as Tanzania and India has almost 20 times the population of Tanzania, which is 1500 m, the largest in the world.

 Coconut groves in Zanzibar; cloves being graded.

A comparison between Zanzibar and Kerala is more fruitful. Zanzibar, as small as the district of Ernakulam, has an area of 2461 with a population of less than one m while Kerala with an area of 38,883 with a population of 35m. This means Zanzibar is as small as one sixteenth of Kerala and her population only 1/35 of Kerala’s. Literacy: India 77%, Kerala100%, Zanzibar 85.3%. Per capita income:  India $ 2150, Tanzania $1099, Kerala $ 2814, Zanzibar $1208. Languages spoken: Kerala Malayalam and English, Zanzibar, Swahili and English.

Zanzibar-born Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah with Nigerian novelist Chibundu Onuzo.

Statistics apart, Zanzibar and Kerala, equidistant from the Equator, has the same climate and vegetation. Driving from the Abeid Amani International airport, south of the Zanzibar metropolitan area, one can see coconut trees jostling with areca nut trees and jackfruit trees with plantain trees. The people savor cassava or tapioca as staple food. Pine apple and pepper vines are grown along with cloves. Fortunes for cloves have changed from its prima donna regime it had during the colonial days. Now Indonesia  is the front runner. Madagaskar, another island in the Indian Ocean, the second and Tanzania the third.

Tanzania’s first woman prez Samia Suluhu Hassan with Indian Prez Droupadi Murmu; first prez Julius Nyerere

Almost 99 percent of the population are Muslims whose women don head scarves. Tanzania’s sixth and current President is an islander- Samia Suluhu Hassan, 63, the first woman president of the nation.  She is a member of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party. She graduated from the Institute of Development Management (present Mzumbe University) in Public administration,  earned a post graduate diploma in economics from the University of Manchester and an MSc in Community Economic Development from the Open University of Tanzania in a joint venture with the Southern New Hampshire University near Manchester, United Kingdom.

Neither India nor Tanzania could forget Julius Nyerere, its former President, who used to be a friend of India for a long time and was called the African Gandhi. In 1976, India honoured him with the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding.  

Aerial view of Zanzibar archipelago.

The campus of the of IIT Zanzibar is a new venture of the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, the first IIT being set up outside India. Its inaugural director - in charge Preeti Aghalayam is also the first woman director of an IIT. She earned her PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and MS from the University of Rochester and BTech in the same area from the IITM itself. There is another distinguished alumna with roots in Kerala in the advisory council of IITM Zanzibar –Dr.  Mridula Nair, who is an inventor-researcher with the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, New York. She earned her PhD in Chemistry from Ohio State University and did her post doctoral in Columbia.   

Joining Dr. Preeti in infrastructure development of the 200 plus acre campus in Zanzibar is Prof. Ligy Philip from Kerala who earned her MTech and PhD in environmental engineering from IIT Kanpur. Born in Valavoor near Pala, she did her BTech in in civil engineering in the Mar Athanasius College of Engineering,  Kothamangalam affiliated to Kottayam’s Mahatma Gandhi University. Ligy’s husband PC Sabumon is also a  PhD in Environmental Engineeing from IITM and is a professor of civil engineering in the Chennai campus of the Vellore Institute of Technology.  He is also an alumna of MG University. They have a son Vineeth, who is pursuing Ph.D in Environmental Engineering from Pennsylvania State University, USA.

Stephen Nuhu Sallanya of Zanzibar with his seniors at MGU campus, Kottayam

Readying for her fourth trip across the Indian Ocean to the transit campus in Zanzibar, Ligy told me from her huge IITM campus in Guindy, Chennai: ‘I am really excited to be involved in the campus planning and development. The new temporary campus is made ready with high end classrooms, computer labs, hostels,  eateries, mini super market  etc in Bewleo district near the island’s International residential area where visitors from 60 countries are hosted. The accommodation for faculty and staff is 5 km away from our classrooms and are transported by government vehicles but the students’ hostel is at a walking distance.

‘The funding for the entire campus development is coming from Zanzibar Government. IIT Madras faculty and staff involved in IITM Zanzibar campus activities are being paid by India and the local recruits and the faculty recruited exclusively for IITM Zanzibar  campus are paid by the Zanzibar administration. The planning for the permanent campus will be starting soon. It will be a sustainable residential campus with world class facilities.’

East African students Kilwake (Kenya), Carolyne (Tanzania) and Andria (Madagascar) in a seminar at MGU. 

There is a hyperactive Consulate General of India in Zanzibar serving more than 60,000 Indians, mostly business people including many turban wearing Punjabees. However the minorities live in perfect harmony with the brute majority. The Stone Town, the island’s world heritage site, has two Christian churches, a Hindu temple amidst 30 mosques.  The CGI interacts with people not only those of Indian origin but also the natives as well. The Consulate organises a wide variety of programmes. On August 15 it organised India’s Independence Day celebrations on a grand scale and are looking forward for the Republic Day.

How many Malayalees are there in Zanzibar? I asked Consulate Counselor  Shabu George from Punalur. Before eliciting an answer, I told him that I knew at least one Malayali who has made it big in Arusha in the mainland bordering Kenya. Prem Cherian, 48,  born and brought up in Arusha is a diamond trader who often visits Zanzibar. His father Cherian (Joy his pet name) hailing from Kottayam migrated to Tanzania ten years after the end of the World War II to work in the European estates. He is alive and kicking at 93.

Arusha, at the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, is the base camp of hundreds of European, American and Japanese mountaineers. The colourful pastoral people of the Masais numbering 28 m live in its precincts. An equal number live in Kenya too. I also know one Sister Mary Reshmi of the SND-Sisters of Notre Dame from Pala who worked  among the Massai population for a long time. From Arusha, it is 628 km or 14 hours by road to the nation’s business capital Dar es Salam. From there, it takes two hours to Zanzibar by ferry. Doma, 8 hours by road almost in the middle of the country is the capital.

Prem and his father Cherian from Kottayam along with Malayali friends in Arusha, Tanzania        

As luck would have it, I met a couple of East African girls doing masters in management in the Mahatma Gandhi University in my neighbourhood. Of them, Carolyne Dulle was from Tanzania itself. Andrianary came from Madagascar and Kilwake Faith belonged to Kenya. Carolyn told me about one Stephen from Zanzibar doing Masters in Tourism and Travel Management. I met him at his school and learnt that he was living in a rented apartment just a hop away from my home.

Stephen Nuhu Sallanya, 26, is the son of Rev. Nuhu Justine, an Anglican priest serving the Christ Church Cathedral at Mkunazini, a 5-10 minutes drive from Forodhani ferry point where the boats from Dar es Salam embark. The Cathedral is standing on a former slave market. In remembrance of the horrendous past, they have erected the statues of a few slaves in a dug out pit in front of the cathedral. The Church is within the Diocese of Zanzibar.

Stephen said his mother Margaret was serving the Health Ministry as a nurse. He is the only son. He has two sisters, the eldest Sarrah has finished her BSc in Environmental Science  and the youngest Sylvia is in the 12th. Though their mother tongue is Swahili, English is the lingua franca of education from primary school onwards.

He is also proud that Abdulrazak Gurnah, the winner of the  2021 Nobel Prize for Literature, was born and brought up in Zanzibar. During the bloody revolution against the Omani Arab Sultanate, Gurnah escaped in a prisoner ship to Oman and from there found his way to the United Kingdom. He studied in the University of Canterbury to earn a PhD in English and end up as a professor there. Most of his novels speak of his hide and seek life in the island till the age of 14 and his escapades during the revolution. He was hunted down by the overzealous revolutionaries branding him a collaborator along with his rich uncle running a highly profitable antique business.

Stephen dreams of making it to the United Kingdom for his doctoral  studies, preferably under Nobel Laureate Gurnah in Cambridge.

Incidentally, I remember the days I spent in Dar es Salam on a transit from Lusaka, Zambia on my way to London across East Africa touching down in Nairobi and Addis Ababa as well. Mrs and Mr. Thomas from Thrissur were my hosts. Thomas was an official of the 15 nation transnational organisation SADC-South African Development Community of which Tanzania was a member. The city was busy as ever, the port had many merchant ships anchored and waiting. But I missed my home- away- home-Zanzibar.

Well, IIT Zanzibar is most likely to be the forerunner of many such IITs to be set up around the world as a symbol of India’s prowess in education and research, a long way from the days of ancient India’s seats of learning in Nalanda and Takshashila, from the days of mathematical astronomer Varahamihira and the inventor of Zero Aryabhatta. Bravo!

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