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Artwork by Ayesha Alshared



(Re)building Home: The Tree and Home in Vassanji’s (2012) The Magic of Saida and the Tanzania Orphanage Design Project
By Marziah Rashid



On the surface, it appears that literary criticism is one of the principal ivory tower disciplines in academia: elitist, self-interested, distant, and without practical use. However, this notion is complicated in light of the value of literary criticism in interdisciplinary research. This paper suggests that it is possible to extend literary criticism beyond the boundaries of literature in order to realize its veritable productivity. In particular, this paper examines the connections between the symbolic significance of the tree in M. G. Vassanji’s (2012) novel The Magic of Saida and the Larchfield Charity Organization’s Tanzania Orphanage Design Project. Vassanji (2012) is a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction who was born in Kenya, brought up in Tanzania, and resides in Canada. His novel The Magic of Saida (2012) is a work of diasporic literature that explores the protagonist Kamal Punja’s personal and public histories and recounts his return from Canada to his birthplace of Kilwa, Tanzania, in search of his lost love Saida. On the other hand, the Tanzania Orphanage Design Project is a collaborative effort of the Tanzania-based Larchfield Charity Organization and a group of students and professionals in the UAE to develop the design of a home for disadvantaged children in Tanzania.


I. Summary

A. The Magic of Saida


 The Magic of Saida centers on Kamal Punja, a Tanzanian immigrant to Canada with Indian origins. The novel weaves together three main plot lines: Kamal’s interpretation of his personal heritage; an account of Kamal’s childhood in Tanzania and university years in Uganda; and a publisher’s retelling of Kamal’s search for  Saida in Kilwa. This summary of the novel disentangles the three aforementioned threads and sets them in chronological order.


In the late nineteenth century, Kamal’s grandfather, Punja Devraj, becomes involved in a movement to overthrow the German colonizers in Kilwa and helps to recruit rebels including the poet Karim Abdelkarim, the brother of Saida’s grandfather Omari bin Tamim. Omari inadvertently betrays the rebels’ plot to a German captain and this culminates in the hanging of Punja and several other rebels, except Abdelkarim, who leaves Kilwa. Ten years later, Omari suspects that his brother is involved in the Maji Maji uprising and reluctantly betrays him to the Germans, whom he holds in admiration, and Abdelkarim is hanged. His execution and those of the first rebels takes place on a mango tree, which acquires the epithet of “the hangman’s tree” and bears “witness” to the history of Kilwa (pp. 109, 174). In the years that follow, Omari buries his brother’s poems in a case under the hangman’s tree, motivated by guilt when claims them as his own and receives praise for his brother’s poetic skill (Vassanji, 2012).


The prologue of The Magic of Saida opens as a publisher, Martin Kigoma, encounters Kamal in a hospital in Dar es Salaam. Kamal tells Kigoma that he has recently abandoned his family and medical practice in Edmonton, Canada, and returned to his childhood home of Kilwa to seek his first love, Saida, whom he refers to as Kinjikitilé. Thus begins the story of Kamal’s life to the present, which is mediated through Kigoma’s narration (Vassanji, 2012).


As a boy, Kamal lives alone with his Tanzanian mother, his Indian father having left them. Kamal and Saida develop a close friendship as he gives her weekly lessons and they frequent a lagoon in a cemetery together. Kamal listens to Mzee Omari’s recitals of his original poem The Composition of the Coming of the Modern Age, which recounts the Germans’ colonization of Tanzania and Tanzania’s resistance, in the town square. Shortly after the local beggar, Salemani Mkono, mocks Mzee Omari from the audience for his past admiration of the Germans, Mzee Omari hangs himself from the hangman’s tree (Vassanji, 2012).


One day Kamal’s mother sends him to live with his Uncle Jaffu and Auntie Zera in Dar es Salaam to “become an Indian” (p. 182). His cousins inform him that his mother sold him to his uncle. Kamal gradually assimilates into the Indian community in Dar. Before he leaves Dar to attend university in Kampala, Uganda, he travels to Kilwa. At the lagoon, he happens to meet Saida, who is now married, and the two make love. On the bus to Kampala, Kamal meets his to-be wife Shamim. When the leader of the new regime orders all Asians to leave Uganda, Kamal and Shamim relocate to Canada at her insistence, where they acquire jobs and raise a family. But with time the couple’s marriage deteriorates as Shamim draws closer to her Indian roots, and they separate. One day Kamal decides to fly to Kilwa to find Saida (Vassanji, 2012).


Once there, he and his acquaintance Lateef track down Saida’s aunt Fatuma, who reveals that Saida has had a child and lives in an isolated village called Minazi Minne. At intervals during his mission, he reminisces about his past as he roams the city and once comes upon the mango tree that stands outside his old home. In Minazi Minne, Kamal is drugged and bound by a group of sorcerers who have been appointed by Saida’s now deceased husband to kill him in revenge for his affair with Saida. Lateef rescues him and takes him to the hospital. When he later returns to Minazi Minne with Kigoma, he is informed that one of his captors, Bibi Ramzani, has died. Kamal is struck when he discovers that Bibi Ramzani called herself Kinjikitilé: he had found Saida after all (Vassanji, 2012).    


Tanzania Orphanage Design Project

The Larchfield Project is an initiative of the Larchfield Charity Organization, a non-governmental organization established in 2011, whose aim is to construct and run a home for Tanzanian street children whose parents have abandoned them or died – for example of HIV or in childbirth, both of which are common causes of premature death in Tanzania (, 2014;, n.d.). The Project is coordinated by OpenSource_Architecture, a non-profit cooperative organization of architects, engineers, and designers. The site of the home will be Mkuranga, a rural area south of Dar es Salam where several such children can be found. The home will accommodate 50 and later 300 children between the ages of 6 months and 18 years and will serve as a model for more such homes to be built in the future in Africa (, 2014; Katodrytis et al., n.d.). In its mission statement, Larchfield emphasizes that the home will provide the children with an environment that is homelike and that fosters in them a sense of responsibility to their community (, 2014).


In early 2013, a group of professionals and students in the United Arab Emirates, including students and faculty in the College of Architecture, Art, and Design at the American University of Sharjah, participated in the design of the children’s home. In a series of workshops, the group helped develop a proposal for the planning, landscape, architecture, and construction of the home, which was presented to an audience in March 2014 under the title “The Tanzania Orphanage Design Project.” The proposal includes housing for the children and their caretakers[1], accommodation for the administration staff and guests, a school, community spaces, and areas for services (Katodrytis et al., n.d.). The proposed design for the home is such that it respects the surrounding area and the environment in that it does not compromise either.


The construction of Larchfield is set to begin in early 2015 and the home is expected to be ready to open in mid-2015 (, 2014).



The Magic of Saida exhibits the theme of the native’s return to and effort to rediscover home; Larchfield lodges children who have been separated from their homes and in part attempts to recreate an atmosphere of home for them. In the novel, the hangman’s tree, the mango tree, and nature in general symbolize memories of and a sense of belonging to home for the protagonist. The design of the orphanage proposed in the Tanzania Orphanage Design Project incorporates nature to a great extent; if nature can be said to symbolize home as it does in the novel, then the aforementioned atmosphere of home is already present at the orphanage. But the symbolism can be applied in the design of Larchfield as a catalyst for innovation to reinforce and further this atmosphere of home. In particular, one means to this end is to incorporate into the design of the home areas where the children plant trees or tend to their own respective plots of land.


Literature Review

Environmental activist Wangari Maathai’s (2010) Replenishing the Earth was useful in the literary analysis of The Magic of Saida. In the book, Maathai (2010) demonstrates how the “four core values” of the Green Belt Movement (GBM), of which she was the founder, are instrumental in the fight to conserve the environment. The values in question are “love for the environment,” “gratitude and respect for Earth’s resources,” “self-empowerment and self-betterment,” and “the spirit of service and volunteerism” (pp. 14-15). Throughout the work, Maathai (2010) stresses on the spiritual nature of these values. She states that several religious traditions, such as those of the three Abrahamic faiths and the Kikuyu tribe’s religion, hold trees in a divine light (pp. 77-91). Also, there is evidence in the Christian Bible that God exhorts his human creations to take initiative to protect the rest of his creations, which includes the environment (pp. 131-141). Finally, one source of inspiration for the core values of the GBM was the 1960s Christian movement of liberation theology, which sought to empower the underprivileged through the church in order to help them “find solutions to their own problems” (pp. 157-170).      


Two sources of empirical information were invaluable to this paper. The focus of Gerald C. Monela and Jumanne M. Abdalla’s (2010) chapter in Tanzania in Transition (2010) entitled “Chapter Seven: Dynamism of Natural Resource Policies on Forestry in Tanzania” is a discussion about the movement in Tanzania’s forest management policies towards cooperation between the forest sector and local communities and about the intended benefits of the 1998 Forest Policy. However, the chapter also provides background information for this discussion, which includes statistics concerning the role of forests in the lives of the disadvantaged population of Tanzania. Secondly, Deborah A. Hines and Karlyn Eckman (1993)’s paper “Indigenous Multipurpose Trees of Tanzania: Uses and Economic Benefits for People,” which was published by the Forestry Department of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, supplied facts about the practical uses of trees in Tanzania and a list of species detailing their growth patterns and preferred uses.


Chapter Two of Tanzania in Transition entitled “A Historical Framework for Analyzing Current Tanzanian Transitions: The Post-Independence Model, Nyerere’s Ideas, and Some Interpretations” by Kjell Havnevik (2010) analyzes the developments in Tanzania’s post-independence stage, with a particular focus on the ideas and policies of former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere. Havnevik (2010) writes that Nyerere’s pamphlet “Socialism and Rural Development” outlined his ujamaa policy, whereby Tanzania’s rural population lived and worked under the socialist principles of equality and self-reliance, without assistance from international capitalist nations; according to Nyerere, this system was based on the traditional African family way of life (pp. 38-40). Professor Cranford Pratt’s interpretation of the ujamaa explores the policy’s promotion of economic and political development not driven by international intervention (pp. 41-44). Chapter Two was used to provide an analogy for the orphanage if the suggestions presented in this paper are put into place, in order to determine whether the changes will have their intended effects.  


Response: The Tree as a Symbol for Home

The Magic of Saida

In the Introduction to Replenishing the Earth, Wangari Maathai (2010) points out that we often compensate for the ineffability of certain truths through the use of symbols, “many of which we find in the natural world, such as the tree, river, sun, moon, and animals” (p. 18). Indeed, one such symbol in The Magic of Saida is the tree, which represents the spiritual connection with the home.

Maathai (2010) claims that the basis of one’s relationship to nature, which drives one in the mission to conserve the environment, is not limited to practical concerns. Rather, it constitutes spiritual values, of which Maathai identifies four that are specific to the Green Belt Movement: “love for the environment,” “gratitude and respect for Earth’s resources,” “self-empowerment and self-betterment,” and “the spirit of service and volunteerism” (pp. 14-15). The essence of Maathai’s argument is that there is the possibility of a spiritual, “intangible, subtle, [and] nonmaterial” (p. 16) relationship between human beings and nature, a point that is encapsulated in the following lines:

We can appreciate the delicacy of dew or a flower in bloom, water as it runs over the pebbles, or the majesty of an elephant, the fragility of the butterfly, or a field of wheat or leaves blowing in the wind. Such aesthetic responses are valid in their own right, and as reactions to the natural world they can inspire in us a sense of wonder and beauty that in turn encourages a sense of the divine (pp. 17-18).


In Vassanji’s (2012) The Magic of Saida, too, this spiritual connection can be observed between humans and nature, with a focus on trees. In the novel, the connection manifests itself in the form of certain characters’ association of trees with the concept of home. Specifically, there is a sense of Maathai’s (2010) “respect and gratitude” for trees on the part of humans. Both Maathai (2010) and the narrator of Saida personify trees in order to suggest they are deserving of respect. Maathai (2010) talks of the consequences of a “wounded” environment and a “bleeding” earth that we must be wary of “degrading” (pp. 16-17). In Saida, when Kamal finds the old mango tree in front of his house on one of his rambles in Kilwa, he characterizes it as “dignified” and calls it “Bwana” (Vassanji, 2012, p. 64), a Swahili word that means “master” (, n.d.). In some instances, this respect for trees derives from the aforementioned association of trees with home. For example, Kamal and Inspector Mwanga, the policeman who arrives to investigate Mzee Omari’s suicide, note that the mango tree and the hangman’s tree act as “witness” to Kamal’s personal history and Kilwa’s public history respectively. The trees are regarded with respect—Kamal places a tentative hand on the mango tree and Mwanga embraces the hangman’s tree—because they are thus sources of truth about the history of the home (even if, incidentally, this truth is elusive since of course neither tree can talk, as both Kamal and Mwanga observe) (Vassanji, 2012, pp. 65, 109).


The novel thematizes the notion that in spite of the changes to the homeland that the emigrant observes upon his return, the land’s natural elements cause it to retain its sense of “home” for him. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols (1996) notes that the various symbolic meanings of trees across cultures share one theme: “they all stem from the notion of the living cosmos in a state of perpetual regeneration” (Chevalier, et al., 1996, p. 1026). In the novel, Kamal’s memories of home are thus “regenerated” when he interacts with nature in Tanzania. For example, when Kamal returns to Tanzania from Edmonton, he chooses to travel on land from Dar to Kilwa presumably because the sight of nature on the way affirms that he is back home; in other words, “each bush, each blade of grass, each tree [is] so loaded with sentiment as to grip the heart of the returning native” (Vassanji, 2012, p.8). Furthermore, as he lingers near the mango tree that stands outside his home, he muses that Kilwa has lost its former identity and has become instead a “nothing place” (p. 65). Elsewhere in the novel, overwhelmed that he is back in Kilwa, he questions whether he is indeed home or “precisely nowhere” (p. 21). But amid this now alien place from which he feels isolated stands the mango tree, his one remaining link with home that acts as “a witness to his memories” of his time in Kilwa (p. 65). It is worth noting also that the continued presence of the tree is juxtaposed with the fact that his old house has been built over: one might expect that the loss of the house in which he grew up would sadden him, but in that moment he nonetheless experiences a sense of connection with Kilwa—and this is because he stands under the mango tree, an element of nature. Finally, Kamal’s metaphorical characterization throughout the novel as a “ghost” (p. 222) contrasts with the diction employed in the novel’s description of the mango tree. While a ghost is a figure that exists between the states of life and death just as Kamal uncertainly drifts between identities, the tree is “ancient,” “old,” “gigantic,” “broad,” “staid,” and “dignified” (p. 33, 64), adjectives that denote rootedness and constancy; the word “staid” is of particular interest in this regard since it is etymologically the adjectival form of “stay” meaning “fixed, permanent” (, n.d.) and is also acoustically similar to the past simple tense of the verb “to stay.” This contrast serves to emphasize the tree’s symbolization of home: the tree is the pillar of immutability to which Kamal, unsure of his identity, can tether himself. 


  • Tanzania Orphanage Design Project

  • The “At Home” Endeavor: Successes


If it is indeed true that there is a relationship between nature and home as The Magic of Saida suggests, then the Tanzania Orphanage Design Project’s proposed design of Larchfield in part meets Larchfield’s objective of ensuring that the children feel at home there. This is because nature plays an essential role in the design of the orphanage.


The design of the home integrates nature into its architecture, landscaping, and construction. The particular architecture of the home is referred to as vernacular architecture, a traditional form that makes use of natural surroundings, conserves the environment, and is inexpensive (Edwards, 2011). Vernacular architecture facilitates both good lighting and good ventilation in the buildings. For example, in the accommodation units, the locations of the windows take into account the sun path—the position of the sun at different times of the day—in order to “[allow] sufficient natural daylight to enter” (Katodrytis et al., n.d.). This gives the impression of the accommodation as an open space that is continuous with nature rather than an indoor space that is distinct from the outdoors, thus bringing the children closer to nature. In addition, good ventilation is ensured in the accommodation units in primarily three ways. First, each window directly faces another window on the opposite wall so that wind passes through the room without becoming trapped. Secondly, the gap in the roof allows warm air to escape as it rises. Thirdly, a wall is positioned between each pair of beds so that the wind that enters from the windows is pushed up to the ceiling, taking warm air with it (Katodrytis et al., n.d.). It is important to note that ventilation is facilitated not through the use of technology but the manipulation of wind and air, so that the buildings themselves effectively become part of the natural landscape.  


The landscaping of the home, too, is such that the home grows organically on the land, becoming a part of it rather than an imposition on it. The most important element of the landscaping is the grassy area that runs in between the four zones that categorize the buildings. The layout of these zones is dictated by the locations of the trees, which then do not have to be cut down. Also, the buildings in the home are constructed along the slope of the ground where it is elevated so that the ground does not have to be excavated and nature is left undisturbed (Katodrytis et al., n.d.).


Finally, in terms of construction, the buildings designated for day use have wooden structures made of bamboo wood. Also, the walls of the classrooms are made of rammed earth, which stores heat and, therefore, serves to regulate the temperature inside: if it is cold outside, it releases heat inside; if it is hot outside, it absorbs the heat that is inside (Katodrytis et al., n.d.). Here we see that nature is incorporated into the very structure of the buildings. 


The “At Home” Endeavor: Suggestions

Thus, for the children who leave the orphanage, in the future the sight of certain elements of nature that form part of the orphanage may invoke feelings of home. But the proposed design does not take into account the fact that nature may also have been an important element of the children’s lives prior to settling at Larchfield. 


Needless to say, the children who have been brought to Larchfield have parted from their various homes in Tanzania; doubtless, many of them experience homesickness despite their improved circumstances at Larchfield. The tree’s symbolic representation of home in The Magic of Saida can inspire a potential solution to this situation. For instance, with reference to Figure 1 below, one of the green spaces between the children’s dormitories on each side of the center axis can be repurposed as a small community garden, where the children each tend to their own plots of land in which they plant vegetation and flowers that grew near the homes they left. Assuming that the children have the same spiritual relationship with nature that Maathai (2010) mentions and that Kamal has, the gardens will help them feel more at home. They will form a literal manifestation of the atmosphere of home that Larchfield seeks to establish, as noted in section II-B above. The proposed location of the gardens is strategic since they would be a part of the accommodation wing of the children’s home, where the children would likely spend their private hours.

In addition, trees planted by the children in the areas designated as “Garden” and “Open Green Space” and along the sides of the center axis can have a similar effect in the long term for future tenants of the home. Of course, caution must be taken to plant trees that are indigenous to the Pwani region of Tanzania, where the Mkuranga district is located. This is because, as Maathai (2010) notes, trees that flourish in foreign climates can be detrimental to the local ecosystem; she takes the example of the eucalyptus tree, which was once imported to Kenya from Australia and which desiccates the soil where it is planted in Kenya (pp. 131-132).


What further benefits does the planting of trees incur? According to Monela and Abdallah (2010), trees play important roles in the lives of the poor and marginalized population of Tanzania, of which the children at Larchfield constitute a sample. Ninety-five per cent of the country’s energy supply is derived from forests in the form of wood used for fuel and charcoal. Forests provide 75% of construction materials. Seventy per cent of Tanzania uses forest resources to manufacture medicines (p. 160). Trees grown in the areas specified above in Larchfield can be used for all these purposes within the children’s home. In addition, Hines and Eckman (1993) note that wood from trees is used to make implements for the household such as kitchen utensils and spade handles.  In the “School” zone of the plan, buildings designated as wood workshops can be constructed where students can take classes to craft these items[2]. Not only can these items be directly useful in the children’s home proper, but they can also be sold to visitors to the home in a kiosk that can be built in the public zone where the administration is located. This will provide the children with their own disposable income and therefore enhance their “confidence and self-worth” as Larchfield aims to do (, 2014).


In a paper published by the Forestry Department of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Hines and Eckman (1993) stress the importance of using indigenous rather than exotic species of trees for the usages listed above because the former are of a superior quality, do not require maintenance, can be acquired without cash payment, and yield products that exotic species do not. An example is the Adansonia digitata, commonly known as the baobab tree, which is considered one of the most serviceable trees in East Africa (Hines and Eckman, 1993). It is noteworthy that it is indigenous trees—which, by definition, have their roots at home—that can, so to speak, bear these fruits for the children at Larchfield.     


One might contend that the orphans might feel alienated from Larchfield, which they might view as a foreign imposition on them by individuals with little first-hand understanding of their affairs rather than a place they can call home. Indeed, Larchfield’s founding Board of Trustees primarily comprises of successful and wealthy Western-educated professionals in law, business, and finance (, 2014). This situation seems to be in opposition to the nationalist and socialist future Julius Nyerere envisioned for Tanzania. According to Pratt, Nyerere saw that the country’s economic and political system should operate based on a “more inward oriented economic strategy and a more clearly non-aligned foreign policy” since Tanzania would have “few, if any, advantages of integrating into the international economic system and […] the IMF’s and the World Bank’s drive to open up Tanzania to the global economy in the 1980s was flawed” (Havnevik, 2010, pp. 42-43). However, with the application of the suggestions above, Larchfield will in fact encourage the self-reliance of the orphans. Since the orphans themselves would grow and repurpose the trees whose use is then reinjected into the local economy, both within the orphanage and in the surrounding area, they would be participating in shared and joint production where none are excluded from work, which is fundamental to Nyrere’s ujamaa policy outlined in “Socialism and Rural Development” (p. 38). Furthermore, since they would work closely with the trees and have their use be circulated only within the locality, they would feel a sense of ownership of the land. Finally, since as Pratt’s interpretation sees, “Nyerere’s socialism was an expression of the ethical core of Tanzanian and African traditional life” (p. 44), in adhering to it the children from tribal societies would feel a sense of closeness with their roots and home. Thus self-reliance and ownership of the land would merely be facilitated by the Board, who would not gift the orphans with the proverbial fish but teach them how to catch it instead.    



While it may seem that the relationship between The Magic of Saida and the Tanzania orphanage design project is superficial—or even nonexistent—the reality is far more nuanced. The undertaking to improve the proposed design project involves conceiving ways in which the values that Larchfield seeks to uphold through its services can continue to be upheld. Given the shared context of the novel and of the design project—the loss of home and the need to reconstruct it, metaphorically and literally—the novel serves an inspiration for these methods.



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Edwards, S. (2011, August 12). Vernacular architecture and the 21st century. Retrieved from

Havnevik, K. (2010). A historical framework for analyzing current Tanzanian transitions: The post-independence model, Nyrere’s ideas and some interpretations. In Kjell, H. & Isinika, A. C. (Eds.). Tanzania in transition: from Nyerere to Mkapa (pp. 19-55). Mkuki na Nyota Publishers


Hines, D. A. & Eckman, K. (1993). Indigenous multipurpose trees of Tanzania: Uses and economic benefits for people. Retrieved from

Katodrytis, G. et al. (n.d.) OpenSource_Architecture workshops and presentation of the design and building of a children’s home Mkuranga district, near Dar el Salam, Tanzania. Retrieved from

LarchfieldCharityOrganization. (n.d.). Our story.

Maathai, W. (2010). Replenishing the earth. New York: Doubleday.

Monela, G. C. & Abdalla J. M. (2010). Dynamism of natural resource policies and impact on forestry in Tanzania. In Kjell, H. & Isinika, A. C. (Eds.). Tanzania in transition: from Nyerere to Mkapa (pp. 159-177). Mkuki na Nyota Publishers


staid. n.d. In Retrieved from (n.d.). Tanzania design project part I [PDF document]. Retrieved from

Tree. (1996). In The Penguin dictionary of symbols (Eds. J. Chevalier et al.) London: Penguin.

Vassanji, M. G. (2012). The magic of Saida. New York: Vintage.


[1] In the spirit of recreating an atmosphere that embodies home for the children, the caretakers are referred to as “Mamas” (, n.d.).


[2] Individuals with indigenous knowledge of woodworking in the surrounding villages can be employed to teach these classes, to provide an added benefit to the local economy. 


Marziah Rashid is a 21-year-old Pakistani student in her senior year majoring in English Literature at the American University of Sharjah. In the future, she hopes to attend graduate school and then pursue a career as an educator, because she never wants to leave the classroom. She intends to eventually return to AUS to teach in the English department, and do live singing shows in cafes on the side. She is a keen enthusiast of all things tea-related.

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