Martin Kigoma, a publisher in Tanzania, meets Kamal Kunja in a hospital in Kilwa. As Kunja recovers from his sickness, he tells his story to Kigoma. Kunja's story interweaves with the story of Kilwa, its people and its myths. Kunja's trip from Canada to Kilwa ultimately becomes a journey of self-discovery. As he explores his past, Kunja contemplates his sense of rootlessness (not quite African, not quite Indian, certainly not Canadian), and begins to question whether he wants to be buried under several feet of snow on a continent to which he does not belong.
Kunja was born in Kilwa to an African mother and an absent Indian father. He was the childhood friend of a girl named Saida, the granddaughter of Mzee Omari, a renowned poet who doubled as a national historian. The second part of the novel recites the history of Kilwa as it was understood by Omari, beginning with Kunja's ancestor in India who, in the 1870s, answered the call of jihad against the Germans who claimed the right to lead the Africans out of darkness (at gunpoint, if necessary). Omari tells how his own life is shaped by betrayal and forgiveness as Kilwa moves from the harsh rule of Germans to the gentler oppression of the British.
After her grandfather's death, Saida becomes a mganga (spiritual healer or advisor). She gives Kunja a tawiz (locket) in which is sealed a prayer. Although Kunja eventually studies medicine in Uganda and becomes a physician in Canada, he never parts with the tawiz and never forgets his promise to return to Saida. As he continues his search for her -- a difficult task given the reluctance of villagers to discuss her -- Kunja recalls his life after his mother sent him from Kilwa to Dar es Salaam. The final chapters, in which Kunja finally learns about Saida's fate, have the flavor of a supernatural soap opera.
As much as it is Kunja's story, The Magic of Saida is the story of Kilwa. We learn enough about Kilwa's history and culture to understand the place, but not so much as to bog down the story. Celebrated in Milton's Paradise Lost and ruled by Persian sultans before becoming an important port in slave traffic, M. G. Vassanji describes the modern Kilwa, its culture and its people, in terms that are alternately loving and stark. It is a place possessed by djinns, haunted by the spirits of the dead who were hung from mango trees. Vassanji contrasts the old and the new Kilwa, questions whether the changes it has experienced are entirely for the better. What has become of tribal pride, Kigoma asks, now that Tanzania depends so much on foreign generosity? Even Kunja, who can well afford to be generous, doubts the value of charity as a response to "the outstretched hand of Africa." The tension between change and tradition and the struggle for African independence are the novel's strongest themes.
Unlike the chapters that take place in Kilwa, those that are set in other locations are less compelling. The frequent flashbacks to Kunja's life after leaving Kilwa interrupt the narrative flow while doing little to advance the reader's understanding of Kunja. His ill-treatment as a half-caste Indian is well illustrated in a couple of powerful scenes, but too many chapters seem determined to relate the history of Tanzania and Uganda. Kunja's time in Canada and a visit to India are covered in a whirlwind of words. The uneven pace and unnecessary scenes mar an otherwise enjoyable novel. The Magic of Saida is nonetheless worth reading for the picture it paints of Kilwa and for its intriguing story of a man struggling to connect his present to his past.