NGOMA MEMORIES: A HISTORY OF COMPETITIVE MUSIC
AND DANCE PERFORMANCE ON THE KENYA COAST
REBECCA KATHLEEN GEARHART
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL OF THE
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE
REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Rebecca K. Gearhart
I begin by expressing my deep gratitude to God for all of the blessings with which
I have been bestowed. Among these has been the opportunity to live among and work
with the people on the coast of Kenya, who have shared their time, their memories, and
themselves with me. Three of them, Mohammed "Bakamoro" Mzee and Abdulrehman
Talo of Lamu, and Ali "Uba" Mzee of Takaungu, have recently passed away. To them,
and the many elders who have deeply touched my life, I dedicate this work.
Zainab and Saidi El-Mafazy and their children, Munib, Majid, Mid-hat and
Miaad, have welcomed me into their family and blessed me with a second home in Lamu.
Words cannot express how much their love and encouragement have meant to me over
the twelve years I have known them.
I want to thank my dear research assistants, whose dedication to this project
inspired me immensely. Omari Shee diligently worked with me night after night
translating interviews. Ali Fani and Mwanaesha Mzee made great sacrifices to assist me
in organizing interviews and documenting ngoma performances, especially during
Maulidi. Both Famau Mohammed and Rukia Nashee introduced me to cultural experts,
and helped me conduct insightful interviews. Abubakar Kuchi accompanied me on
several excursions to various Bajuni communities on the mainland and shared his
extensive knowledge of Bajuni cultural traditions with me. Athman Ali graciously
escorted me to Vumbe to record the Vave ceremony. Twahiru Ali taught me almost
everything there is to know about Bajuni drumming. Takaungu Sub-Chief, Rashidi
Hamza, welcomed me into his community and introduced me to many of the wonderful
people who live there. And finally, Alwi Ahmed Badawy assisted me in every aspect of
my research and accompanied me on several trips along the coast. He and his relatives in
Lamu and Malindi offered me hospitality and friendship I will never forget.
Several of my teachers come to mind when I reflect on the intellectual journey
that has led me to this threshold. First of all, I must thank Eugenia Herbert, who I am
honored to call my mentor and dear friend. She transmitted her love for Africa to me and
many other Mount Holyoke students in a way that continues to inspire me to be a better
scholar and teacher. The second person, who has significantly influenced the way that I
think about Africa and its past, is Steven Feierman. Other important graduate professors
include Peter Schmidt, who gave me confidence when I was ready to quit, and Haig
Der-Houssikian, who has been a firm believer in my abilities throughout. Azim Nanji
taught me to understand the mystical aspects of Islam, and gave me confidence to explore
Sufism in the east African context. My advisor, Allan Bums, has guided my transition
into anthropology, as well as toward becoming a fair teacher. Penina Mlama, Olabiyi Yai,
Larry Crook, and John Moore have provided me with insight into various aspects of
performance at crucial times during my graduate studies. I find myself at the beginning of
a new phase of my academic life primarily because I have had the opportunity to work
with each of these fine instructors.
I am most honored to thank my parents, Thomas and Kathleen, with whom I was
blessed to be matched 32 years ago. Since I was a child, they have taught me to follow
my dreams, no matter how unattainable they seem. My strength and self-confidence come
directly from them, and my love and gratitude for them and the way they have raised me
are immeasurable. My sister Ann has also been a source of great comfort for me. I admire
her for her commitment to her husband Jim and their wonderful children Jimmy,
Elizabeth and Tommy. I love them all.
I am lucky to have all of my grandparents Avis and Russ Lindquist, and Donald
and Helen Gearhart to share my life with. They have been an unending source of joy for
me. It is to them and my great-grandmother Irene Anderson, who is one-hundred years
old, that this work is also dedicated.
Most of my oldest and dearest friends have taken very different paths from mine,
yet they have sustained their confidence that I would someday complete my studies and
become a professor. I thank Wendy Sundberg, Molly Kinney, Andrea Bouzrara, Karen
Bonniwell, Rhonda Robb, Mark Pendergast, and Dale Bloom for sticking with me.
Several other friends, who are also my academic peers, include Kim Lanegran, Dan
Ottemoeller, Karrie Stewart, Karen Hjerpe and Jim Ellison. They have all helped to boost
my morale at critical moments. I especially thank Munib Said El-Mafazy for his
companionship over the past two years. Being able to talk with him about his people and
the places he calls home has made writing this dissertation especially rewarding.
I also want to acknowledge the people who have helped me work on the
technological aspects of the electronic version of this dissertation. Don Grossman has
been particularly patient and kind in offering his expertise. I am also indebted to James
Hardemon, Ryan Williams, and Wiley Ammons for their assistance.
This research was funded by Fulbright IIE and administered through the United
States Information Agency (USIA) in Nairobi. I am very privileged to have received
several travel grants, large doses of advice, and moral support from Carol Lauriault and
Michael Chege at the Center for African Studies at the University of Florida. I am proud
to be affiliated with such a wonderful community of Africa-oriented scholars.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S .............................................................................................. iii
T A B L E O F F IG U R E S ............................................... .............................................. ix
A B S T R A C T ................................................................................................................... x i
1 IN SEARCH OF NGOMA MEMORIES ................................................................... 1
In tro d u c tio n ............................................................................................................... 1
A T hree F ield A approach ................................................................ ................. ... 4
A n H historical P perspective .............................................................. .................. 5
P perform an ce Stu dies .................................................................................... .. 10
V isual A anthropology ......................................................................................... 15
A Feedback M ethod ..................... . ...................................... 21
Community Education and Cultural Development ............................................. 25
C coastal W om en's N gom a............................................. .................... .............. 30
The Lamu Community Cultural Center and Video Library................................. 32
Im ag i nation: A C conclusion .................................. ...................... .............. 35
2 NGOMA GROUPS AND THEIR ROLE IN COASTAL SOCIETY........................ 39
In tro d u ctio n .......................................................................................................... .. 3 9
N gom a G roup O organization .............................................................. .............. 41
Perform ers in C coastal Society ................................... ........................ .............. 45
N gom a C om petition ..................................... .......................................................... 50
Performance as Socio-Political Control.............................................................. 53
Ngoma as Socio-Economic Security .................................................................. 56
The Politics of A artistic Production ............................... ..................... .............. 63
C o n clu sio n ........................................................................................................... .. 6 7
3 THE IMPACT OF SUFISM ON COASTAL RITUAL NGOMA ............... 70
Introduction ................................................................ .. ................ .............. 70
A History of Ritual Pluralism on the Coast................................................ 75
The Consequence of Islamic Reform ................................................................. 89
Habib Saleh and the Rise of Sufi Ngoma ........................................................... 95
R am a O rig in s......................................................................................................... 10 2
R am a as N adhiri .................................................................................................... 106
R am a as Com petitive N gom a................................ ........................ ............. 108
N gom a's D decline .............................................................................. ................... 111
C conclusion ........................................................................... ....................... 114
4 "MTU KWAVO": VAVE AND BAJUNI IDENTITY.......................................... 118
Introduction .................................................................................................. 118
V ave in M otion............................................................... .................. ............. 121
Vave and the Formation of Bajuni Identity ....... ......... ..................................... 127
Vave's Role in the Making of Bajuni Men..................................... 134
Spatial, Cultural and Religious Heritage ....... ....... ...... .................. 139
R a n d a ............................................................................................................... . . 1 5 0
T h e B u rn in g ......................................................................................................... 1 5 3
H om ecom ing: A Conclusion .......................................................... ............. 155
5 "I TOOK IT AWAY WITH MY MOUTH AND PUT IT INTO THE DRUM:"
HISTORICAL NARRATIVES OF NGOMA ORIGINS........................................ 158
In tro d u ctio n ................. ........................ ... ........................................................... 1 5 8
The Transfer of Upcountry Ngomas to the Coast ......................................... 161
Cultural Imports: Chama and Beni Ngomas............................ 180
Change and Continuity From W within ....... ......... .......... .................. 194
C o n clu sio n ........................................................................................................... 19 9
F in al R em ark s ....................................................................................................... 2 0 1
6 E P IL O G U E ............................................................................................................ .. 2 0 4
W O R K C IT E D ........................................................................................................... 2 14
F IG U R E S .................................................................................................................... 2 2 7
A P P E N D IX A ........................................................................................................... .. 2 7 8
A P P E N D IX B ............................................................................................................ 2 7 9
A P P E N D IX C ............................................................................................................ 2 8 0
A P P E N D IX D ........................................................................................................... .. 2 82
A P P E N D IX E ............................................................................................................ 2 8 3
BIOGRAPH ICAL SKETCH .. ............................................................. .............. 286
TABLE OF FIGURES
Figure 1. M ap of the K enya coast. ............................................................. 227
Figure 2. Amina Hamisi & Rebecca Gearhart.......................................... .............. 228
Figure 3. University of Dar es Salaam Students & the Paul Taylor Dance Repertoire... 229
Figure 4. Rukia's female relatives make her into a Swahili bride.............................230
Figure 5. Using henna to decorate a bride's hands and feet..................................230
Figure 6. Rukia at the "Showing of the Bride" ceremony......................... .............. 231
Figure 7. "Kangoromo," a coconut-tapper, and his sons watch a Uta performance ......232
Figure 8. Mzee Talo watches an excerpt of the ngoma competition at Riyadha ..........233
Figure 9. Members of a Mwavinyo group inspect photographs of their performance.... 234
Figure 10. "Kadzo" Chivila, a Mwavinyo song leader, with a photo of herself.......... 235
Figure 11. Chivila reviews the interview he just completed. ................. .............. 236
Figure 12. Abubakar Kuchi with two Bajuni cultural experts in Magomeni ...............236
Figure 13. Coastal residents compete in the annual Maulidi board game competition... 237
Figure 14. The annual donkey race along the Lamu seafront.................... ............... 238
Figure 15. Siyu dancers perform Goma dance during the Maulidi festival in Lamu...... 239
Figure 16. Ngoma la Ndia, a processional dance that features praises to the Prophet.... 240
Figure 17. Two young men from Faza perform the stick dance, Kirumbizi ................241
Figure 18. Bajuni drummers sound out the beats for the exciting Kirumbizi dance. .....242
Figure 19. Students at Lamu Girls' Secondary School recite Maulidi prayers ............243
Figure 20. Local school children at the Exhibit, "Swahili Praises to the Prophet" ........244
Figure 21. After looking at the photographs, children watch a video presentation ........ 245
Figure 22. A drummer from Lamu completes the Exhibit questionnaire.................... 246
Figure 23. The Lamu Community Cultural Center & Video Library Committee....... 247
Figure 24. Committee members and friends at the Opening of the Center................. 248
Figure 25. Omari Haji's women's ngoma group in Matondoni perform Lelemama .....249
Figure 26. Mebaraka Juma's ngoma group performs Lelemama in Takaungu ............250
Figure 27. Bake Die Shee, of Siyu, holds his zumari................................ ............... 251
Figure 28. Bajuni drummers play for the Goma competition at Riyadha ................... 252
Figure 29. Esha Ngoma plays her drum for a wedding dance in Kipungani............... 253
Figure 30. Omari Haji leads the Matondoni women's ngoma group in Lelemama........ 254
Figure 31. Lali Ahmed Kale leads the Goma dancers from Siyu............................ 255
Figure 32. M zee Bakamoro at his home in Lamu.................................. ................. 256
Figure 33. A Seventeenth-Century Ngoma Kuu displayed in the Fort Jesus Museum... 257
Figure 34. Coconut tappers (wagema) perform Uta in front of Habib Saleh's House.... 258
Figure 35. Long-time Uta dancers tie on their leg rattles (misewe) before the dance ..259
Figure 36. Uta leader Omari Said holds the rhino-skin shield (ngao)......................... 260
Figure 37. Goma dancers in white robes (kanzus), hand-embroidered caps (kofias) .....261
Figure 38. A Rama Maulidi ceremony hosted by Abdul Rehman al-Basakut of Lamu..262
Figure 39. Rama positions include acts of submission to Allah............................ 263
Figure 40. Members of the Barani Peoples' Welfare Association............................ 264
Figure 41. Rebecca and Bajuni farmers anxiously wait for Vave to begin.
Figure 42. After a chapter of Vave, Bajuni farmers circle to perform Randa ..............265
Figure 43. Bajuni farmers load dhows with the supplies they will need in Vumbe .......266
Figure 44. Fire bearers run to set fire along the fire-break.................. ................. 267
Figure 45. After a change in wind direction, the fire is set ..................................... 268
Figure 46. Mzee Tarumbeta at his home on the outskirts of Takaungu town ............. 269
Figure 47. Sword-donned Chama leader, Ali Madi, gives a military style salute ........270
Figure 48. Ali Madi and the zumari player lead the dancers in Chama...................... 271
Figure 49. The Chama dancers file out of the performance space............................ 272
Figure 50. Male coastal residents form a Zefe procession along the Lamu seafront...... 273
Figure 51. A Zefe procession during Takaungu's annual Maulidi celebration ............274
Figure 52. The Zefe procession in Kipini ..................................................... 275
Figure 53. Chonyi dancers performing the Mwavinyo dance. ............... .............. 276
Figure 54. Kadzo Chivila leads the dancers in Mwavinyo songs............................ 277
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in
Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the
Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
NGOMA MEMORIES: A HISTORY OF COMPETITIVE MUSIC AND DANCE
PERFORMANCE ON THE KENYA COAST
Rebecca Kathleen Gearhart
Chairman: Allan Burns
Major Department: Anthropology
Music and dance performance, called "ngoma" in Swahili, has been the site of
social interaction and cultural creativity on the east African coast for centuries. This
dissertation explores the recent history of groups oriented around ngoma activity by
sharing the memories of the ngoma experts who once led them. All of the narratives that
are included were transcribed from video taped interviews I conducted with Kenya
coastal residents in 1995 and 1996. Their oral narratives are part of a larger
documentation project concentrated on visually recording oral traditions and live ngoma
events performed in coastal communities between Mombasa and Kiunga on the Kenya
mainland, and on the islands of the Lamu archipelago. This growing archive of visual
data, which ngoma experts viewed at several video screenings, provided ethnographic
material that stimulated discussions that illuminated ngoma's role in the construction of
social identity among the coast's diverse populations.
This study takes a three-field approach, combining theoretical models and
methodological strategies from history, performance studies and visual anthropology.
This work is historical in content, yet it does not follow a chronological narrative, much
like memory itself. The memories of past ngoma groups and how they operated within
coastal society are intertwined with European accounts, secondary historical analyses,
and my own interpretations. In combination, these sources demonstrate some of the ways
in which coastal people have transformed what I call "ngoma packages," made up of
specific dance movements, poems, songs, drum rhythms, costumes and props, over time
Rather than focusing on the ephemeral dimensions of performance, this study
locates music and dance in the daily lives of coastal people, and discusses the practical
advantages of participating in ngoma. This perspective places weekly ngoma
competitions at the center of social activity, and makes them the premiere fora for
sustaining as well as challenging dominant systems of political and moral authority. For
example, spiritual leaders strategically used ngoma as a vehicle for mediating ethnic and
religious difference, while marginalized groups such as women and slaves used
performance media to express their discontent with the status quo. The public nature of
ngoma group competition made both possible--often at the same time.
IN SEARCH OF NGOMA MEMORIES
We are subjectively implicated in and responsible for the histories we tell ourselves or others
tell us and that, while these are just representations, their significance has both value and
consequence to our lives.
(Vivian Sobchack, 1996:6)
This dissertation takes a three-field approach to the study of east African coastal
music and dance performance, a concept encapsulated in one Swahili word, "ngoma."
Such a broad and multifaceted topic lends itself to multidisciplinary investigation,
especially when considering the variation with which people have performed ngoma on
the coast over the past century. Others become privy to the significance of ngoma when
coastal elders share their memories of the past by showing and telling the way it used to
be. This introductory chapter identifies the theoretical models and methodological
strategies I have taken from history, performance studies and visual anthropology.
This dissertation is historical in content, yet it does not follow a chronological
narrative, much like memory itself. The memories of coastal elders are intertwined with
European accounts, secondary historical analyses, and my own interpretations. Chapter 2
deals specifically with the role ngoma groups have played in coastal society over time. It
takes a look at how ngoma organizations operated and why members joined them. The
second chapter also explores the traditional social rank given to coastal performers, and
how some ngoma leaders have managed to defy socio-political barriers and gain
prominence, influence and prestige. Finally, the chapter returns to a fundamental question
about the liminality of ngoma, mentioned briefly above. It suggests that although
performance does indeed alter the performers' perceptions of space, time, and the order of
things, their subversive behavior vis a vis the status quo is usually understood within a
ritual context, and only rarely affects the nature of ordinary life.
The third chapter focuses on the impact that Islamic mysticism, or Sufism, has
had on ritual performance among coastal peoples. One of the most significant
manifestations of ritual pluralism on the coast is a celebration of the birth of the Prophet
Muhammad called "maulidi," held annually in Lamu town. This chapter traces the history
of African and Islamic ritual syncretism primarily by reviewing the literature on the
subject. Then it isolates the life of one Sufi sheikh named Habib Saleh, who first
established the annual maulidi ceremony in Lamu and integrated non-Muslims and slaves
into the coast's Islamic community by means of ritual ngoma.
Chapter 4 is an in-depth analysis of an oral tradition performed by the Bajuni
people, who occupied Kenya's northern coast before they were driven off their land and
forced to relocate in protected villages further south along the coast and in the Lamu
archipelago. To the Bajuni, a farming people devoted to the land, the oral tradition called
"Vave" (pronounced va-vay) represents their unique history, distinct identity, and
community consciousness. All Bajuni revere Vave as an ancient oral text, but it is
especially sacred to those who have lived as refugees since the 1960s. Several excerpts of
Vave, performed by Bajuni farmers before the burning of cut forest for cultivation, are
included in this chapter. An analysis accompanies each of the verses to underscore Vave's
insight into some of the mysteries surrounding Bajuni history and religious practice.
Chapter 5 traces the transmission of ngoma over space and time as "packages" of
performative media that included the latest dance movements, dress fashions, musical
styles, jokes, songs, jargon, instruments, and props that appeared at weekend ngoma
competitions on the coast. Upcountry Africans who were dragged from their homelands
in the interior of east Africa to work as plantation slaves on the coast brought many
unique ngomas with them.1 Other dances were imported by Arabians and Europeans
concerned especially with maintaining their Imperial domination and glorifying their
great military traditions through performance.
Finally, the Epilogue engages a current anthropological debate centered on
"indigenous media." It re-evaluates my own efforts toward this goal, which I introduce in
detail below, and offers a new direction, which western scholars and their ethnographic
subjects can take in the production of more balanced ethnographic media, aimed at
enhancing community development through cultural revitalization.
1 Some of the east Africans whose narratives are included in this dissertation use the Swahili term "mtumwa," or
"slave" when referring to their own ancestors. The English word "enslaved" appropriately describes the power dynamic
involved in slavery, and represents the point of view of the person who has been enslaved, rather than the master. I
believe that the term "slave" is a more appropriate translation, however, which is why I use it. This is not intended to
legitimize east African slavery or privilege the perspective of those who forced others into subservient labor relations.
A Three Field Approach
I began my research in east Africa as a multi-disciplinary scholar in African
Studies at Mount Holyoke College (MHC). One of my friends at MHC was an Asante
princess from Ghana, who humbled me into taking a variety of Africa-related courses,
primarily so that I would learn more about the continent's tremendous cultural diversity. I
ultimately combined many of the lessons I learned from these courses with my own
experiences in east Africa in a film titled Women ofLamu: Reflections on a Swahili
Wedding (1989), which I submitted as my senior thesis project.
The film features still photographs of the month-long ritual transformation of a
bride-to-be from a girl to a woman. It begins with a history of the people of the east
African coast, many of whom call themselves "Swahili." It tells how the Swahili people
originated from the interactions between African coastal women and men from the
Arabian Peninsula, who settled on the coast. The program highlights the centrality of
coastal marriage ceremonies, which make men and women out of girls and boys, and
divide the community into unmarried "children" and married "adults." Scenes of coastal
wedding dances such as Kirumbizi, a men's stick dance, and Chakacha, a women's dance,
are presented with live sound that I recorded while participating in the performances. In
retrospect, the three fields I have focused on in graduate school at the University of
Florida: history, performance studies, and visual anthropology were already well defined
in this first production.
An Historical Perspective
Many Africanist scholars have influenced my development of this tri-angular
perspective, and their studies are cited throughout the following chapters. In particular,
the scholarship of Terence Ranger (1975) and Margaret Strobel (1979) demonstrate
ngoma's central role in the social history of the coast. Their analyses describe ngoma
events as important public fora for men and women of diverse background to express
their grievances against the oppressive forces of colonialism and patriarchy. This
understanding of ngoma's ability to articulate popular sentiment and inspire collective
agency has directed my own search for historical reference to performance activity on the
coast. It is through their work that ngoma's potential for expressing and negotiating social
conflict first became apparent to me.
The historical evidence that so enriches Ranger's study of Beni ngoma became all
the more impressive when I began looking at primary historical documents myself. The
research I conducted between 1992 and 1994 at the Kenya National Archives (KNA), the
Tanzania National Archives, the archival collection at the University of Dar es Salaam,
and at Yale Divinity School was exasperating. I discovered quite early that sifting
through pages of European documents for cryptic descriptions of music and dance
performances was a test of perseverance. I soon convinced myself that there was little
value in accounts written by Europeans, who in my estimation neither appreciated nor
understood the African performances they witnessed.
In the end, western accounts did provide me with the descriptive detail I needed to
visualize some of the ngomas that people performed on the coast in the past. An excerpt
from Hermann Norden's account (1924) of a Beni parade is a good example:
Like many a carnival in civilized countries, the ngoma is rooted deep in
superstition and in religious observance. With some tribes ngoma is a debauch of
incredible dancing preceding the ceremonies of circumcision, marriage, death and
birth. Maybe there is ngoma after the tax collector has come and gone. Certainly
every opportunity is seized. I was to see ngoma of one sort or another with every
tribe I visited, but this first at Mombasa was the festival of a heterogeneous group,
sophisticated from contact with town life, and dressed, which is not the way it is
done on the reserves.
We sat in a car. .and watched as strange a procession as ever was seen. ..
Some wore European clothes. .one squad wore Highland kilts. .one group wore
khaki trousers, with orange belts and felt hats trimmed with peacock feathers. .
.others were in white tennis rigs. A man covered from head to foot in deer skins
walked on stilts twenty feet tall...the bands were many. .the only feminine
suggestion in the parade was an evidence of perversion; a squad of young blacks
dressed in kimonos as Japanese women. .In the crowd of two thousand
spectators, we three were the only Europeans.2
Descriptions like Norden's offered me a wealth of information about coastal
ngoma when I was willing to put up with their tone of superiority. But after months of
reading Church Missionary Society (CMS) documents in the Kenya National Archives, I
was tired of their vibrato. I finally found relief in the diaries of Anna Binns, who lived
with her husband Harold at the CMS coastal mission station in Rabai, Kenya, during the
1870s and '80s. Anna's daily reflections of her interactions with neighboring Mijikenda3
were a refreshing alternative to the formal reports passed between her husband and his
2 Hermann Norden, 1924:46-48.
3The Mijikenda are a confederation of nine distinct ethnic groups, each with their own unique language and set of
cultural traditions. The Mijikenda have a common place of origin known as "Shungwaya," from where they dispersed
and settled in protected villages called "kayas" in the coastal hinterland of present day Kenya. For more information on
the Mijikenda see Cynthia Brantley, 1981; Fred Berg, 1971; Justin Willis, 1993; and David Parkin, 1972; 1991.
fellow European missionaries. A few entries sufficiently demonstrate Anna's narrative
19 November, 1878: An old Wanyika4 from the kaya came in the evening
complaining that there was much want for rain. That the gods would not give it
for they were angry because some blood had been shed here some time ago by
two men fighting each other. Their usual method for appeasing the gods is to
sprinkle some medicine over the spot where the blood was shed. Now this had not
been done, of course, so the elder from the kaya said that was the reason there was
no rain and asked Harry if it could be done. Harry would not allow such heathen
practice in the village, but said that prayer for rain could be made to God in
church if they wished. The man appeared satisfied and went away.
11 December, 1878: Our people had their dance as usual and entered into it with
great spirit. One man wore a whitewashed mask made to represent a European. A
more hideous thing I never saw. He then had a round hole dug into which he put
his head and had the hole filled up again. He stayed in it an amazingly long time.
8 January, 1879: There is some trouble about one of our people who has a child in
his possession who belongs to someone else. Harry told him to give up this child
to its rightful owner. This man is not at all inclined to do so and he is leaving the
place. As he is a chief, all the people of the same tribe say they will follow him.
We cannot help it if they do. We are only very sorry for they can be very happy
and well cared for if they remain here.
9 January, 1879: Damunuju, the Giriama chief, has left with his wife and the
child. We hear that he has gone to Kimboni, a very distant kaya.
10 January, 1879: We hear that the people from Giriama will stay here instead of
following Damunuju. They will miss him here at the dance. Issac heard that they
came here for the sake of the dance and not at all to learn Christianity.
Both Hermann Norden and Anna Binns offer a candid chronicle of daily life on
the coast, and provide insight into activities rarely mentioned in official correspondence.
Rather than converting the Mijikenda to Christianity, or "civilizing" them with European
ways, Anna's account suggests that the missionaries were preoccupied with negotiating
4Non-Mijikenda coastal residents, including European missionaries, commonly used the derogatory term "Wanyika,"
or "people of the bush" to refer to the Mijikenda peoples.
their place among the neighboring Mijikenda. The mission itself was composed primarily
of people seeking food and shelter during periods of famine and drought, alluded to in the
entry of November 18th, 1879. CMS stations also served as safe havens for runaway
plantation slaves,5 who arrived in increasing numbers until the abolition of slavery in
1907. Issac, one of the Indian catechists who acted as a liaison between the Africans and
the missionaries, openly questions the motives of some of the mission residents on
January 10th, 1879. His skepticism reveals the irony involved in the Mijikenda's use of
the mission as a venue for their ngomas. Anna's frequent descriptions of ritual
performances provide evidence that the African residents, as well as the Indian
catechists,6 preferred their traditional religious practices to those promoted by the
missionaries. This was obviously the case on November 18th, 1879, when after being
denied the right to carry out a ritual for his ancestors, a Mijikenda elder refused Harold's
invitation to pray in the church, and left the station.
Like Beni, the dances that mission residents performed in the stations dealt
directly with the Europeans in their midst. Yet Europeans seemed to tolerate ngoma
because they were so fascinated by the spectacle it offered them. This was true even
when the performances outwardly ridiculed Europeans, as did the ritual Anna witnessed
on December 11, 1878, and the Beni parades that coastal residents performed to
fancifully mimic European military customs. This subtle tension, between entertainment
5For more information on runaway slaves (watoro) on the Kenya coast see Fred Morton, 1990.
6Some of the Indian catechists, called "Bombay Africans" by the missionaries, were caught participating in "heathen
dances" on August 4, 1879. See Binns Journal, KNA vol. 1.
and resistance, makes ngoma a unique and complex form of African expression. Making
sense of it historically is a challenge very few scholars have tackled successfully.
After analyzing European interpretations of coastal ngoma, it was pertinent that I
turn my attention to the perspectives held by African performers themselves. This
dissertation weighs heavily on oral evidence that I collected from nearly one hundred
elders living in towns and villages along the Kenya coast between Mombasa and Kiunga.
Some of these men and women identify themselves as Swahili, some as Bajuni, and
others as Chonyi, Kauma or Giriama--three of the nine Mijikenda groups. A few are
descendants of Ngindo or Yao slaves who originated from Tanzania. Many of them have
combined ancestry, but culturally and/or spiritually associate themselves with one group
more than another.
Because ethnic markers among coastal people are nebulous, I use such labels only
when the performance tradition in question signifies specific group affiliation. For
example, many people who live in the Lamu archipelago initially refer to themselves as
"Swahili" because it is the generic, all-encompassing name that the Arabs first assigned
to coastal residents when they began visiting the coast centuries ago. When asked more
particular questions about their cultural practices, however, many self-ascribed "Swahili"
explain that they have Bajuni heritage, which is a prerequisite for knowing and
understanding the performance traditions that are unique to the Bajuni people. Among
these is an oral tradition called "Vave" (pronounced va-vay), an important symbol of
Bajuni identity and solidarity.
By focusing on the performance media coastal groups use to identify and unify
themselves, I avoid being side-tracked by attempting to trace family lineages or
categorize people according to their ethnic origins. Throughout this work, I simply
identify the informants by their real names and their places of residence, since the
majority of their narratives highlight ngoma activities they participated in and/or
As a field of inquiry of itself, "Performance Studies" eluded me until quite late in
my graduate career. Fortunately, I was finally introduced to Margaret Drewal's work on
Yoruba performance media, which gave me new ideas for thinking about the ngoma
traditions I was studying in east Africa.
What initially attracted me to Drewal's work was that it was poised to answer
questions posed by post-structural theorists, who suggest that although ritual events take
on the appearance of realized morality and naturalized order, they are always in a state of
flux, and therefore always contestable.7 For example, Drewal (1992) argues that
performance space is occupied by many agents, who, at simultaneous moments and in a
variety of ways, vie for control over the meanings generated within it. Drewal uses a
diagram to illustrate how Yoruba performers and spectators divide ritual space into
7See Michel Foucault, 1970:50-58; Pierre Bourdieu 1994: 159.
spheres of different kinds of activity.8 I have found this to be a very useful visual aid for
understanding the various levels of competition that take place in a single ngoma event.
Another of Drewal's important contributions to the study of African performance
is her attention to play and improvisation. Corrine Kratz' (1994) analysis of Okiek
women's rituals is reminiscent of Drewal's focus on "the seriousness of play." Kratz looks
at what she calls "unofficial" and "contradictory" modes of expression during Okiek
initiation ceremonies. She explains that even though the fits of anger that occur during
various phases of the ritual are considered unpredictable, they are strategically placed to
heighten emotions at select times. As Kratz suggests, these episodes are "very much part
of the culturally organized pattern of persuasive encouragement, emotional display, and
interactive intensification found in formally scheduled ceremonial events. "9 In this
scenario, everything that occurs during the initiation procedure is calculated, almost
rehearsed in advance. And by locating spatial and temporal patterns of variation within
performance events, Drewal and Kratz prove that ritual performances are ordered and
controlled even when they appear to be chaotic. Without refuting the notions of theorists
who emphasize the maneuverability ritual time and space provide, their research explains
why performances that challenge the status quo are rarely allowed to alter it in significant
The ngomas I have observed in east Africa seem to operate within a range of
activity that limits the degree to which participants can fundamentally change the way
8See Margaret Drewal, 1992:13.
9Corrine Kratz, 1994:216.
their society functions. This does not mean that performers are prevented from exhibiting
outrageous behavior or articulating subversive messages, for coastal ngomas are famous
for that. It simply suggests that people interpret such activity within it's ritual context, and
rarely let such activities interfere with life as usual.
All of this changes when secular time and space are disrupted by significant
political and/or economic transformation. During such crises, the boundary that divides
the sacred from the profane is made more permeable, and the organizing principles that
regulate behavior in each sphere of existence are put to the test. Messages created and
articulated in one realm seem to have a profound effect on the other. This occurred in
Mombasa during the 1930s, when hundreds of female Lelemama members subverted the
male dominated social structure, and dockworkers used Beni to openly defy their
European bosses. Scholars of performance studies, such as Drewal and Kratz, offer
conceptual frameworks within which to better understand the role that ngoma
organizations played in these important episodes of coastal history.
As will be illustrated throughout the following chapters, most people joined
ngoma groups in order to solidify their place and extend their social networks within the
existing power structure, not destroy it. Supporting the neighborhood ngoma group was
as obligatory as buying cookies from the local Girl Scout troop. Even members of very
conservative Muslim families, who were not allowed to participate in public
performances themselves, were expected to at least provide moral support for their
neighborhood's ngoma group as spectators. In many coastal towns and villages, the entire
community was involved in the weekly ngoma competitions in one way or another.
Ngoma competitions were the hub of community life, where people spread news,
made business deals, and arranged marriages. Most importantly, they represented
collective spirit and imagination. For many of the elders I spoke with, the ngomas of
yesterday symbolize a creative energy that was unique to their generation. And the
decline of ngoma signals the end of an era that was characterized by prosperity and
goodwill. Amina Hamisi's sentiments are typical of those shared by her peers:
Things of the past and things of the present are very different. In the past there
was a lot of happiness. During the British period things were different from the
way they are now. Now there is no time, there is no place, there is no peace.
We've come into a period of much uncertainty. And that's why the ngomas
collapsed. If you wanted to, you'd have to resurrect them completely and start
over. If you wanted a wedding ngoma, you could get a group together for that
performance, but it wouldn't be like the olden days. It's not like it used to be. Of
course they collapsed because all of the leaders who made the effort have died.
We who remain aren't motivated to organize ourselves anymore. We might be
able to perform, but it wouldn't be like it used to be. We need inspiration and we
just don't have it. Everyone is just out for himself these days.10
To many elders like Amina, ngoma is a metaphor for "the good old days," and a
mnemonic key that unlocks memories about the way things used to be. Old songs are
especially potent reminders that evoke deep feelings and vivid recollections about precise
events. When people share their memories of past performances, they feel compelled to
share their favorite tunes and demonstrate the way they used to dance. As a result, the
10Interview with Amina Hamisi of Malindi, 8.3.96.
narratives I have collected are performances in and of themselves. They not only feature
descriptions of music and dance, they include music and dance; they do not merely
recollect, but re-collect unchained melodies, song lyrics and dance movements that would
otherwise remain only in their minds.
I developed an interest in performing African dance myself during my sophomore
year of college, when I took a dance class with Pearl Primus, the famous Trinidadian
dancer who popularized African dance in the U.S. in the 1940s. Her course offered me
another medium in which to explore the African experience I was learning about through
novels and films. In her class, I learned how to communicate through African movement
even though I did not yet speak an African language. And I became an African dancer
even though I had not yet set foot on the African continent. I remember how liberating
that was for me at a time when other aspects of Africanness seemed so alien.
I wondered if my modem dance training had prepared my body for the rigorous
movements the African rhythms dictated, or if I willed myself to succeed at the one thing
that connected me to the people I so intently wanted to learn more about. I was reading
Victor Turner's work (1975) on Ndembu ritual at the time and was determined that the
class was some kind of rite of passage. Primus' course was indeed a turning point in my
career in African studies, which inspired me to embark on more serious investigation into
various forms of African performance.
But my path was uneven and indirect, and it was not until after I received a
master's degree in history at the University of Florida that I regained my focus on African
dance. I did this as a graduate student at the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM) in
1993 and 1994. Penina Mlama, a founder of the "theater for development" movement in
Africa taught a yearlong course on African theater that set me back on track. I also took a
dance class with E. Chambulikazi, a gifted dancer, who challenged his students to learn
as many Tanzanian ngomas as we could. Eventually I had the opportunity to teach the
class some modem American dance techniques, which we later combined with African
movements in a performance at UDSM.11
Being both a student and a teacher simultaneously was a rare privilege that
prompted me to explore other opportunities for performing ngoma. I ultimately became
an honorary member of a professional ngoma troupe called "The Lighters" that practiced
near the University. The group was composed of talented young dancers and musicians
who performed ngomas from all over the country. These practice sessions, in addition to
the dance course at UDSM, gave me practical training in numerous east African dance
forms and expanded my movement vocabulary.
I was simultaneously captivated by Africa and documentary film while living in
Paris, France, in 1985. I lived two blocks away from Musee de l'Homme and frequently
attended evening lectures and films about West Africa there. One experience that I
remember vividly was a lecture-film presentation that featured Jean Rouch's film Les
11During this time the Paul Taylor dance repertoire held a series of modem dance workshops at UDSM and at the
Bagamoyo School of Performing Arts. We performed a dance that I choreographed, which demonstrated our combined
African and Modem dance techniques.
Maitres Fous (The Mad Masters, 1955). The auditorium was unusually packed that
evening and the audience was composed primarily of Africans. Although I did not know
anything at all about Rouch, or "cinema verite"--the documentary film style he helped to
invent, the crowd gave me the impression that the film was significant.
I watched the film with my mouth wide open. Many of the scenes are still etched
in my memory, as if I had seen the film recently. I remember the hand-held style of
Rouch's cinematography, which was new to me then. He used close-ups, as well, which
made the images of the Africans, possessed by spirits, all the more frightful. At the time,
I did not know anything about the Songhay people or the Hauka spirit possession cult the
film focused on. Nothing on screen made any sense to me intellectually, and I kept
thinking how humiliating it must be for the well-educated, "modern" Africans in the
audience to watch their fellows shoving their arms into boiling water, drinking blood, and
skinning and eating a dog. I was surprised to see many of them laughing and enjoying the
scenes that were most offensive to me. Their amusement comforted me, however, and
made me question the film's authenticity. Were they laughing because it was so untrue to
real life? To me, the film was an exciting display of anticolonialism, meant to shock and
disturb people in Ghana at the time, not only the audiences in other places and in other
eras. But, the mystery of whether or not anything in the film was "real" haunted me for
years to come. This was indeed my induction into the ambiguous and powerful world of
Now I know that Jean Rouch is one of the most controversial documentary
filmmakers who ever lived. Cinema verite has many critics, and Jean Rouch seems to be
both admired and abhorred by contemporary film scholars. For example, Frank Ukadike
(1994) criticizes Rouch for being racist,12 while Anna Grimshaw (1997) describes him as
revolutionary.13 To get even with Rouch and his effort to exoticize Africans, Malian
filmmaker Manthia Diawara makes Rouch the subject of his film Rouch in Reverse
(1995). What most critics seem to ignore, however, is the depth of Rouch's understanding
of the Songhay people and their culture, clearly discernible in his scholarship (1954,
No one does a better job of analyzing and validating Rouch's research than Paul
Stoller. In the preface of The Cinematic Griot (1992) Stoller includes a poem written by
the son of the spirit possession leader (zima) featured in Pam Kuso Kar (1974) after a
screening of the film at a Rouch retrospective in Niamey, Niger, in 1987. The son, who
had earned an advanced degree in physics, was confronted with rejecting his heritage for
the power of western science and wrote the poem to thank Rouch for providing him with
an opportunity to "taste my reality."14 Rouch's film had given him a chance to see his
father again, as an adult, who could put his father's life and work into a clearer
perspective. Rouch's film forced the man to take an honest look at his past, his present,
and his future. More than a dissertation, a book, or an article written primarily for a
12See Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike, 1994:50-51.
13See Anna Grimshaw, 1997:46-47.
14See Paul Stoller, 1992:xv-xvi.
western audience, Rouch gave Africans something they could watch and listen to, a piece
of the past that might help them remember who their ancestors were, and who they are
because of them. This seemed to me a noble, if misunderstood, endeavor that was worthy
of my time and energy.
I shot 96 rolls of 35 mm film on my first visit to east Africa two years later, with
nine other students on a program sponsored by the School for International Training
(S.I.T.). That was in 1987, my junior year of college, when I was eager to capture every
moment of my experience in Africa on film to prove I had really been there. I vividly
recall the sensory overload I experienced when I stepped out of the airplane into the
Kenya sun. I felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, pushing open a black and white door
into Technicolored Munchkin Land. I wondered how my little point and shoot camera
could hold images as vibrant and iridescent as the multicolored feathers of the malachite
kingfishers that congregated on the telephone wires. I devoted my first roll entirely to
them. The second, to the purple blossoms beneath the huge Jacaranda trees in the
neighborhoods surrounding Nairobi. Another roll featured Kamba women selling produce
in the Machakos market. And so on until I realized that most of what I saw would simply
have to be stored in the visual archive of my memory and not in my camera. But I was
destined to keep trying.
As I mentioned briefly above, the first story that I told about people in Kenya was
a visual one that featured images of a Lamu wedding. This was a small miracle in and of
itself, since most westerners are not invited to the private events of Lamu residents. Of
course, this does not apply to close relatives and friends, the latter being the category I
fell under. Zainab and Saidi El-Mafazy, the couple who had been my host family in
Lamu when I was on the S.I.T. program, asked me to document the wedding for them.
Rukia, the bride, is Saidi's sister and they were excited by the prospects of having some
nice photographs of the ceremony. No one was surprised by my curiosity with Rukia's
pre-wedding seclusion, and she allowed me to photograph some of her activities during
the month before the wedding.
One series of photographs that I took with Rukia illustrates her transformation
from a plain looking girl in a simple cotton dress to a gorgeous woman donned in a
dazzling gown. The photos depict a group of stylists combing and setting her hair,
decorating her hands and feet with elaborate henna designs, and painting her face with
make up. In a few hours, when their work was finished, Rukia was a new person--
fashioned into the woman she was expected to be. The Swahili saying "good wives are
made not born" was clearly evident in the long training process that Rukia had endured
before the day of her wedding.
After I returned to college, I decided that I would submit the photographs without
captions with my senior thesis paper on coastal history and performance. From my
perspective, Rukia's ritual evolution was clearly illustrated visually and did not require
additional commentary, or "translation" from me. Of course, Roland Barthes (1985) had
advised against loading images with cultural verbiage,15 but my professors insisted that
15 See also John Berger, 1995.
photographs without captions are ambiguous. When I discussed transposing the photos
onto VHS videotape, they advised me to use an explicit voice-over narration to explain
the significance of the wedding and provide information not apparent in the images alone.
I was adamantly opposed to the idea.
This was in 1988, just two years after James Clifford and George Marcus had
published, Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (1986), a collection
of essays that had suspended my desire to do anything vaguely related to anthropology.
The only example of visual representation that had any redeeming value to me after
reading that volume was Trinh T. Minh-ha's Naked Spaces Living is Round, filmed in
West Africa in 1985. When I saw it in 1988, my faith in visual media was restored.
The most difficult part of becoming a visual ethnographer was learning to enjoy
the process of cutting and pasting people's images and words together into something that
would be considered mine and not theirs. Taking ownership of the end product seemed
irreverent on several levels, and it took me years to come to terms with my role in this
activity. Ultimately, it occurred to me that producing documentary films employs many
of the same tactics as writing history does. Both activities engage people's observations,
opinions and reflections, and arrange them in a way that appeals to contemporary
audiences. A written description of an event is no more relevant, valid, or truthful than a
verbal description or visual illustration of the same thing. In the African context, written
accounts are primarily authored by European explorers, missionaries, and colonial
officials. In order to get an African perspective, scholars must collect oral testimonies
from Africans themselves. I am convinced that doing so with a video camera only
enhances this endeavor.
A Feedback Method
Soon after I began my dissertation research on the northern coast of Kenya in
1995, I developed a method that significantly improved the way that I collect oral history.
Up until that point, my local assistants16 and I had established a formal procedure that
included at least one pre-interview meeting with the informantss, and a meeting among
ourselves to review the interview questions. We used the questions we had agreed on to
orient the interview and remind us of our objectives. We derived our questions from
information we had gathered during the pre-interview meeting, which gave us an idea of
the informant's personal experience with ngoma. Several core questions common in each
of the interviews allowed us to direct discussion toward general themes relevant to the
research agenda as a whole.
Using the questions to guide the interviews was a particularly useful tactic when
elderly informants got off the subject. Yet, the assistants and I agreed that allowing
informants to tell stories that initially seemed to be unrelated to the topic sometimes
yielded important information we had not thought of asking about. There is a delicate
16In Lamu my assistants were Ali Fani, Mwanaesha Mzee, Omari Shee, Munib Said Abdulreman, Famau Mohammed,
Rukia Nashee, and Alwi Badawy. Alwi Badawy also accompanied me on several excursions throughout the islands of
the Lamu archipelago, to Kiunga, Takaungu, Malindi, Mambrui and Mombasa. Abubakar Kuchi accompanied me to
Kilifi, Mambrui, Magomeni and Malindi. Athman Lali Omar and Machulla assisted me in Mombasa and Rashidi
Hamza assisted me in Takaungu. Only with the cultural insight, historical knowledge, and professionalism of these
people has this research been possible.
balance between permitting people to ramble on aimlessly and being patient enough to
discover they are simply taking a verbose route in the right direction.
Even before I developed the feedback method I am about to describe, there were
two primary reasons why I believed that my informants took the interviews seriously and
provided honest testimonies. First of all, the people who assisted me in my research are
prominent local figures who are respected and trusted in their respective communities.
Most of them are close associates of mine, with whom I have come to know during
various visits to Kenya. They have helped me refine my research goals and have directed
me toward a topic that the community itself is interested in knowing more about. Their
help gave the project credibility and reassured everyone we interviewed that their
participation was worth their time and energy. Secondly, each of the informants were
fully aware that their interview was being video taped and that it would become part of
the public video library that would soon be established in Lamu town. They knew that
their peers would have access to their testimonies and would thus be subject to public
scrutiny. Both of these factors significantly decreased the likelihood that informants gave
misleading information, but I wanted a more full-proof method to be sure.
So I developed a feedback component that consists of a simple procedure that
gives people, who might not otherwise discuss ngoma, an opportunity to do so. Before
each interview session, I selected excerpts of previously recorded interviews that I
believed the informant would find most engaging. This allowed me to create an artificial
dialogue between people who, because of their gender, their location, or their social
background, would not speak candidly to one another. Some of them were sworn enemies
from competing ngoma groups, others lived too far away from each other to engage is
such discourse. As the informants watched excerpts of other interviews about ngoma, I
video taped their responses. The screening sessions helped to jog their memories of
ngoma activities they had participated in in the past, but had since forgotten about. They
also stimulated highly charged debate.
An example of this can be seen in an experimental documentary film I produced
in 1997 called Ngoma Memories.17 The film includes a series of excerpts from interviews
with Kondo wa Juma Saidi18 of Takaungu and Baheri "Maembe" Ndamungu of Tezo
Mbuyuni.19 Each of them has a very different opinion about whether or not coastal slaves
and masters performed ngoma together. By interweaving their reactions to each other's
interviews on the topic, I use a technique commonly used in documentary film to present
multiple views on an issue. But in this case, the informants are responding to each other's
pre-recorded comments that they had just finished listening to themselves.
Using this method of information gathering enriches the value of the interviews in
several ways. It immediately alerts informants to the fact that what they say will be
subjected to public criticism, which like their interview will be video taped and added to
the community's video library. Informants are naturally more cautious about being
accurate in their descriptions and less apt to embellish their memories of past events. I
17 1 thank Diego Colombo for assisting me on this film.
18Interview with "Miraji" Juma and Kondo wa Juma Saidi of Takaungu, 4.8.96
19Interview with Baheri "Maembe" Ndamungu of Tezo Mbuyuni, 4.17.96.
believe this explains the consistency of the information I collected from people after I
began employing this feedback method. In addition, nervous informants seem to be
comforted by watching their peers on screen go through the same interview process they
are engaged in. Tangentially, they often feel honored by being in the company of other
ngoma experts. This augments the prestige associated with involvement in the project,
and increases the desire to make the interview worthy. Finally, viewing pre-recorded
ngoma performances with the experts themselves, both individually and as a ngoma
group, has provided me with rare opportunities to figure out what makes a performance
"good" or "bad." Rather than asking people questions regarding aesthetics, which are
often difficult to answer, I simply listened closely to their critiques of each other. After
several group screenings, I developed a general understanding of the criteria by which
performers judge their peers. I cite some of these in my analysis of Rama in Chapter 3.
To conclude this discussion of my research methodology, I am compelled to
emphasize the length of time it took me to develop an information-gathering technique
that I am comfortable with. I have briefly traced that journey above, by identifying the
people who have helped me along the way. Yet, I feel that it is necessary to encourage
scholars who have not yet resolved issues regarding ethical "data collection" to strive to
develop methods that genuinely involve the communities they work with. This not only
enhances the credibility of a researcher's scholarship, but also serves as a foundation for
other kinds of community development, a topic addressed more fully in the next section.
Community Education and Cultural Development
An important component of all the field research I have conducted in east Africa
has been sharing my work with the communities I have visited. I have done this routinely
by making multiple prints of the photographs I take so that everyone receives at least one
copy. When I deliver the photographs later, I take the opportunity to ask detailed
questions about the people, places and things the photos contain. I used this strategy in
April of 1996, when I returned to Mwamkura in Chonyiland to distribute the photos I had
taken of a Mwavinyo dance the week before. In all the excitement of the performance, I
had forgotten to inquire about the Chonyi names for various features of the costumes the
men and women wore. So, as I passed out the pictures to the ngoma group, I pointed to
different items and recorded their names. This has proven to be a very useful
information-gathering technique time and again. John and Malcolm Collier (1986)
discuss the benefits of such practices at great length in their visual anthropology manual,
which continues to be a source of creative field methods for me.
In addition to using this photo elicitation technique, I routinely gave my
informants opportunities to watch themselves on camera after our videotaped interviews
had been completed. This often caused quite a commotion as relatives and friends
gathered around to poke their eyes into the camera and borrow the headphones for a
listen. Several of the coastal elders I interviewed were not interested in seeing themselves
in the tiny black and white viewfinder, while others were glued to it and watched long
excerpts of themselves-talking and laughing and singing along with their pre-recorded
These were some of my most favorite moments because I felt as though I was
giving something back. And when I return to some of the more remote villages on the
coast, which do not often receive visitors like me, I am caught off guard when people
remember me for the photographs I have given them in the past. Sometimes they take me
into their homes and spend awhile digging under beds, in hidden suitcases and tin boxes
until finally, a perfectly preserved picture, taken years ago, emerges. And they always
smile with pride that they have kept it for so long and so well.
My first public exhibition of some of the visual material I had collected on the
coast was held at the Lamu Fort between June 1st and October 31st, 1996. The curator of
the Lamu Museum, Abubakar Mohammed, agreed to give me a space for the Exhibit
during that time so that it coincided with the four-day Maulidi festival held August 6th -
9th. He also made his staff available to assist me in framing the photographs and
arranging a space where viewers could watch video clips of Maulidi ngoma performances
and other events. The English version of the introduction to the Exhibit, which was titled,
"Swahili Praises to the Prophet," can be found in Appendix A
One of my primary goals for the Exhibit was to make it accessible to female
members of the community, who do not regularly visit public facilities in the daytime.
This stems from the gender roles and conservative customary practices of coastal
Muslims, which encourage women to occupy the domestic realm while men occupy the
public sphere. In order to provide women with a chance to see the exhibit, I planned a
maulidi ceremony at the Fort in the afternoon, the traditional time women go out to visit
friends and relatives. I printed up hundreds of invitations20and distributed them
throughout the neighborhoods of Lamu town, explaining the Exhibition and my research
as I went. Most of the women I spoke with had been to the Fort for wedding dances but
had never taken the time to visit the Museum's exhibits during the day. Several women
said they thought the Museum was primarily for foreigners, not locals. Others said their
children had visited the Museum on school trips, but they had never gone themselves.
My primary obstacle turned out to be a rumor that I planned to secretly video tape
the women who attended the Exhibit's opening. Rather than attempt to publicly denounce
this lie, I decided to carry on with the preparations for the event with the hope that people
in Lamu trusted me enough to know it was not true. So I went ahead and put the finishing
touches on the Exhibit. I arranged to have large woven mats delivered to the Fort, rented
tea kettles, small coffee cups for Arabic coffee, glasses for punch, large metal serving
plates, cloth decorations (zibendera) to hang above our heads, and the traditional
miniature mosque (kinara) with fresh jasmine flowers--the essential centerpiece for
maulidi recitations. Juweriya, a friend who frequently caters large events, prepared
sambusas and pastries, and my dear friend Zainab brewed coffee and made fruit punch.
All was delivered to the Fort by 3:30 pm and we were ready for the guests, however few
or many they might be.
20 A sample translated from Swahili is located in Appendix B.
The catchall term "maulidi" is used in reference to any praise poem or prayer that
is recited in honor of the Prophet Muhammad. Zainab agreed to lead us in the maulidi
recitation and then introduce me so that I could say a few words about the photographs
and my research in Lamu before welcoming the women to view the exhibit and watch the
video. After they had perused the Exhibition, we planned to serve the refreshments, and
then they would leave. All of this had to take place within two hours, in order for the
women to get home and prepare dinner for their families on time. This schedule of
activities followed the schedule adhered to at most women's events--including wedding
dances, where women sing songs, dance, receive refreshments, and quickly depart.
I am made uncomfortably nervous again just thinking about how I felt when it
finally reached 4:25 pm and only fifteen women had shown up at the Fort. Zainab was
anxious to start the maulidi since time was ticking away and she knew some of the
women would leave soon. I asked her to wait five more minutes, then I would surrender
to the mounting humiliation. But a few minutes later, at exactly 4:30 pm a miraculous
thing happened. Two hundred women, who had been gathering outside the Fort
discussing whether or not they should come in, decided to attend. From the balcony I
watched them slowly ascending the long staircase in their flowing buibuis (black veils).
Two by two and three by three they glided toward us. Zainab had started reciting and the
women joined her as they tried to find places to sit. I was ecstatic and could hardly keep
still as I tried to sing the words of the prayers I had memorized just for the occasion. I
saw friends and strangers among the crowd of women, poised solemnly in worship. We
all faced away from the exhibit, so as not to detract from the maulidi. Incense rose in long
streams of white smoke and floated in between the silk figures that now occupied nearly
every inch of the huge floor mats.
After we completed the maulidi prayers, I welcomed everyone and explained a bit
about my ongoing research on coastal ngoma. They appeared anxious to see the Exhibit
and rushed to look at the photographs of their friends, relatives, and neighbors. There was
a large crowd around the television that showed clips of various maulidi activities from
the celebrations held in 1993 and 1995. Some women were obviously shocked to see
relatives whom they had not seen in years or had since passed away. Some asked for
prints of the photographs that featured their sons or husbands, so I wrote down their
names to make sure they received copies. I believe that by following through with my
promises to give photographs to people I have solidified my reputation for being honest
and dependable. Perhaps that is the reason why the women finally decided to come to the
Fort that day. But I will never know for sure.
After the opening reception, I was so busy conducting interviews, video taping
live performances, and traveling to various villages throughout the Lamu archipelago and
the mainland, I do not know how many people visited the Exhibit over the next few
months. When I returned to Lamu for the four-day Maulidi celebration in August, I
decided to take advantage of the hundreds of visitors by asking them to fill out short
questionnaires after they had walked through the exhibit. I was eager to learn which
photographs and video clips appealed to the spectators most, and what images they
thought were missing. A small sample of the responses, translated from Swahili, appears
in Appendix C.
The responses to this short questionnaire have helped me identify some of the
exhibit's most obvious educational applications as well as its shortcomings. I fully
acknowledge the criticism put forth by Mau, a well-respected leader of the Lamu
community, who suggested that the Exhibit was male-oriented. Without making excuses,
I need to explain that Muslim women on the coast do not regularly perform in public
venues, as many of them did in the past. This point is further developed in subsequent
chapters. Here I would like to take the opportunity to discuss the very sensitive nature of
studying women's ngoma activities.
Coastal Women's Ngoma
Several waves of Islamic reform have swept the east African coast since the
Independence era and stimulated an overwhelming reaction against women's public
ngoma activities. This has not only caused a decline in public ngoma competitions in
Muslim communities in general, but has made women's ngoma an extremely private
matter that is rarely photographed or video taped. There has been a slight change in the
past five years, however. Today, many coastal women who live abroad in the United
Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia visually document weddings when they return to Africa,
so their relatives and friends at home can watch them later. As expressed by Ayasha,
from Dubai, many young women who immigrate to Arabia with their families still
hope to have a traditional east African coastal wedding that includes the customary
wedding dances and all of the other festivities that surround a Swahili marriage.
On a few occasions I have been asked to videotape and/or photograph a wedding
celebration called "the showing of the bride," which takes place on the night that the
bride and groom consummate their marriage. In the company of other female
videographers, I am not as uncomfortable documenting such events as I might have been
a few years ago. Since most of the ngomas that I study are for men only, I usually send
my male assistants to video tape them. Thus, I avoid situations where I am forced to be
an anthropologist when I would rather be a friend attending a party. When I am asked to
be the documentarian, I struggle with wanting to turn off the camera and go dance with
my friends. To overcome this problem, I made a promise to myself to dance at least one
time, even when I am "on duty." Putting myself in front of other people's cameras also
seems to put my skeptics more at ease.
I have been alluding to an implicit hostility that some coastal women feel toward
western anthropologists. This is the result of several studies conducted in Lamu in
particular that caste dark shadows on coastal society and women's position in it. I will not
refer specifically to those scholars, or their work here, but wish to elaborate on the
obstacles their research methods and conclusions have posed to me and other scholars
dedicated to illuminating the remarkable aspects of coastal civilization. Besides the
obvious dilemma I faced when a false rumor almost doomed the opening reception of my
photo exhibition in Lamu, the general sense of disbelief that preceded my research and
me was a challenging obstacle that my research assistants and I had to overcome. We did
this by explaining our objectives over and over until the communities we were working
with clearly understood what we were trying to accomplish. We always involved local
people in our work, as well, either as escorts, videographers, or interviewers. They were
the ones who introduced us to resident cultural experts and helped us write-up the
questions we asked them. Since they were familiar with the idiosyncrasies of their
communities, locals often prevented me from committing cultural fauxpas that might
have jeopardized the project's credibility.
For these reasons, I question the motives of scholars who hope to uncover and
expose a community's secrets, or explain away the mysteries that make people who they
are. In my mind, studies that have this agenda are more akin to investigative journalism
than intellectual inquiry, and should not be credited as the product of academic rigor.
Focusing on the cultural attributes that people use to define and understand themselves in
relation to others seems like a more admirable way to use a community's valuable time
The Lamu Community Cultural Center and Video Library
This mission inspired me to establish a public facility in which the visual history I
had collected could be stored for public viewing. My friend and research assistant Alwy
Badawy donated a portion of one of his family's houses near the Riyadha mosque in
Lamu for the Center. I used the last of my Fulbright research grant to restore the space
and make it suitable for classroom size groups to view their video selections. We hung
photographs from the "Swahili Praises to the Prophet" exhibition in the Center and had
shelves and cabinets built for the video tapes, the television, an additional VCR and a
video camera, tripod, microphones and other equipment. I hired my assistant, Omari
Shee, to run the Center, be responsible for the equipment and to teach anyone who
wanted to learn how to use the video equipment. I also wanted the Center to be a training
facility, where local people could come to check out the camera so that the cultural
preservation project would continue in my absence.
I planned an opening reception for the Center to invite people to come for a look.
According to local custom, women and men were invited at different times and were
assured that the Center would maintain gender-specific hours of operation. Like the
invitations to the women's maulidi ceremony at the Fort, I passed out invitations all over
After the Opening, which was a moderate success, it became apparent that Omari
could not handle the Center all by himself. As soon as the Center began it's regular hours
of operation, it was over-run with unsupervised school children that Omari did not want
to baby-sit. Concomitantly, I could only continue to financially sustain the Center for six
more months, and needed the community's support if it were to stay open. Several friends
advised me to form a committee to oversee the Center and seek additional funding for it's
survival. I did not have much time, since I was getting ready to leave to return to the
21 A sample of the English version is located in Appendix B.
States, but I quickly organized a committee of seven community leaders who I hoped
would operate the Lamu Community Cultural Center and Video Library, (Center ya
Utamaduni na Maktaba ya Video). A biographical sketch of the Committee members
appears in Appendix D.
At the Committee's first meeting, all of the members except Omari and Khatwab
were present. We discussed how the Center should be operated and might be financially
sustained by the Lamu community. I was in favor of having Omari teach anyone who was
interested to use the video camera to document important cultural events. I had in mind a
truly "open" facility with resources that were accessible to everyone equally. The
Committee was quite opposed to this idea and feared that people would damage the
equipment and use it for personal and/or recreational use. They explained to me that most
coastal people are unfamiliar with how delicate video equipment is, and recommended
that Omari be the only one allowed to use it. Rather than fully rescind my initial goals, I
proposed that a system be established whereby people who wanted to use the camera
would submit a written proposal for the Committee's approval. Omari could then
accompany the party to make sure they were using the equipment properly and provide
on-the-spot training. The members discussed the idea and suggested that Omari make the
final decision about who should use the equipment, rather than the entire Committee,
since he would be responsible for the equipment's safety. Of course Omari was not there
to disagree, so that idea passed unanimously.
The Committee also raised the issue of theft, and I agreed to hire someone to
build cabinets in which the equipment would be locked up at night. Obviously the
Committee was much more experienced and less naive about local matters than I was, yet
I could not help but be a bit depressed with how things were turning out. The Committee
had basically decided to turn the Center over to Omari, who was a full-time primary
school teacher and had other duties to fulfill. If Omari was too busy, or decided the
money was not adequate for the job, the entire Center would have to be shut down. But
there was nothing I could do. I wanted the Center to be an example of legitimate local
development. Trying to run the Center from the States would defeat the purpose.
The field notes I took immediately after our first meeting clearly illustrate the
tension that existed between my lofty visions of what the Center would become, and the
Committee's realistic concerns about equipment safety and community sustainability. A
letter I wrote to the Committee shortly after the first meeting includes many of these
notes. It is located in Appendix E. I refer to this letter again, more specifically, in the
Imag i nation: A Conclusion
At the end of November, 1996 I returned to the States to attend the African
Studies Association (ASA) annual meeting in San Francisco. I had been asked to speak
on "ethics in the field" at a round table, an honor I did not take lightly. I spent the entire
flight home thinking back on each phase of my research and scrutinizing it on ethical
grounds. Had I paid my assistants fairly, had I asked for and then implemented their
advice? Had I burned any bridges, or excluded individuals I should not have? I was self-
assured at every phase except the last--the creation of the Center. By the time I had said
my good-byes to everyone in Lamu, I had relinquished emotional ties to the videotapes,
the equipment, and the exhibition photographs. After all, I told myself, all of that
rightfully belonged to the coastal people, not me. Having been lied to, deceived and
swindled out of their secrets and their treasures by people who looked like me, asked
similar questions as I did, and made spectacular promises to them, as I had, they certainly
deserved to get something back. Their images and stories about ngoma and about the past
were theirs, not mine. I had simply arranged them in a neatly organized way, and set
them aside in one place--in a very western fashion.
Upon my return home, I resolved not to pester members of the Committee about
how the Center was going. I believed that if the members had the time and energy to
report to me, they would. But they have not. My good friend Saidi has kept me apprised
of the Center's status in a casual way, by telling me when things change. Three months
after I left Lamu, the Center was closed because Omari was unable to tend to everything
himself. I assume this either had to do with the lack of people who visited the Center, or
the supervision required when neighborhood children visited unaccompanied by their
parents. Later, Saidi informed me that Dotty volunteered to store the equipment at her
house, and the Center was re-converted into an apartment for Riyadha Mosque College
students. More recently, I heard that there was talk of transferring the Center to the Lamu
Museum, where it would be made available for residents. I have not heard any other news
about it to date.
Working with people is what ethnographic research is all about. We postmodern
social scientists do not pretend to be able to manipulate the people we study to
accomplish our research goals or fulfill our idealistic dreams. This does not mean that we
should not have goals or dreams, but that we need to be flexible enough to allow for them
to be transformed by the people we work with, and humble enough to accept major
disappointments and sometimes even failures. These lessons cannot be taught in a
graduate methods course, or at a panel discussion at an academic conference. They are
learned and re-learned again and again as we try to improve our strategy for learning
more about the societies we are studying.
As is typically the case, I have learned more about myself while working in east
Africa than I have about coastal society. Much of what I have learned about the history of
coastal music and dance is presented here, in the chapters that follow. This information
has been generously passed on to me by nearly one hundred different people, all of whom
wish to share it with those who are interested in learning more about the peoples of the
east African coast and their performance traditions. My interpretation of their memories
and experiences is evident throughout this work, just as the imprints of a potter's hands
are impressed in the clay.22 Indeed, there is as much craft involved in the following
22Here I borrow a metaphor used by Walter Benjamin, 1969.
interviews, translations, photographs, video clips and text as there is in the creation of a
clay pot; all are the products of culturally-embedded imagination.
NGOMA GROUPS AND THEIR ROLE IN COASTAL SOCIETY
In Africa performance is a primary site for the production of knowledge, where philosophy
is enacted, and where multiple and often simultaneous discourses are employed.
Performance.. .is a means by which people reflect on their current conditions, define and/or
re-invent themselves and their social world, either re-enforce, resist, or subvert prevailing
social orders. Indeed both subversion and legitimation can emerge in the same utterance or
(Margaret Drewal, 1991:2)
This chapter discusses some of the reasons why east African performers have
organized themselves into ngoma groups over the past century. As Margaret Drewal
elucidates in the passage above, Africans perform music and dance to communicate
messages that uphold the status quo, as well as challenge it--often at the same time. Like
all live performance, ngoma is art in motion, an expressive medium that, at it's best, takes
on a life of it's own. The dangerous potential of such activity has, over time, threatened
those who constitute the parapets of religiously conservative, patriarchal coastal
Consider that nearly every household in each coastal town and village had at least
one member involved with a ngoma group. Moreover, weekend competitions brought
together ngoma groups from various places, and attracted hundreds of spectators--men
and women of all ages and backgrounds. The significance of these events in coastal
history is staggering. Ngoma competitions, unlike any other kind of social activity that
people participated in on the coast, stimulated social interaction between groups normally
separated by ethnic, religious, cultural, gender, and age difference. I do not pretend that
ngoma magically erased these differences, but I do argue that performance events created
a unique atmosphere that transformed people of diverse background into dancers,
drummers, singers, and supporters of one group or another. Without fully considering
ngoma competitions into the scheme of socio-political and economic interaction, it is
impossible to understand how coastal society operated at all.
Ngoma stories serve as a narrative framework within which coastal elders talk
about their past experiences. For performers, music and dance is the creative outlet
through which they have celebrated times of wellness and plenty, as well as dealt with the
hardships in their lives. The topic of ngoma rekindles a passion they simply cannot
suppress. When elders conjure up old melodies and movements of past performances,
they do more than illuminate a bygone era, they re-live it. This makes the interview
process therapeutic for people who rarely have an opportunity to re-enact their
experiences for such an attentive audience. It can also be quite painful for those who have
suffered a loss of self-esteem and social recognition with ngoma's decline. After listening
to coastal elders' stories for over ten years, I have learned that nostalgia is a spectrum of
emotion ranging from pure happiness to utter remorse. And reminiscing about the past
evokes any number of feelings simultaneously. I believe the candid manner in which
most of my informants shared their nostalgia for ngoma with me reflects ngoma's value
as a mnemonic key to the past.
Because it comprises so many facets of coastal life, discussion about ngoma
yields fascinating information about political and socio-economic transformations that
coastal communities have experienced over time. By closely analyzing interviews with
ngoma experts, I have pieced together a thematic history that provides further evidence of
the crucial role ngoma organizations have played in the continuous re-creation of coastal
society. This chapter provides an overview of themes that are discussed in more detail in
the chapters that follow.
Ngoma Group Organization
Ngoma members describe their groups as three-tiered hierarchies.1 At the top is
the leader, usually a talented song composer, who either grew up in a family of ngoma
leaders, or has the charisma needed to lead a group of performers. The members select
their own leader based on his or her experience, talent, and personality. He or she must be
openly willing to risk everything they value for the group, including their family life,
financial security, and personal reputation. In return, a leader usually acquires more fame,
social status, and political influence than they thought possible. Most importantly, they
1Both Ranger (1975) and Strobel (1979) detail the various titles assigned to ngoma members during the Colonial era.
Colonialism seemed to foster the kind of rank and file so central to ngomas such as Beni and Lelemama. Although a
few military-style ngomas such as Chama still exist on the coast, the complexity of their organization seems to have
declined with Colonialism.
get a shot at immortality, for the greatest ngoma leaders are remembered by name long
after their peers in other professions have been forgotten.
Well trained drummers, experienced song leaders, and choreographers make up
the second tier, along with professional instrumentalists such as zumari2 or trumpet
players, who are hired to perform with the group on a gig to gig basis. The final tier is
comprised of dancers, who backup the soloists and sing the chorus. They make up the
majority of the group's membership, and need not be musically talented or rhythmically
inclined. All that is required of them is the will to try their best, and the patience to learn
how to perform even the most complicated dance steps. I have been told time and again
that any true ngoma enthusiast can become a good dancer. And it is this accepting
attitude that makes ngoma inviting to so many people.
Seniority takes precedence over skill level when questions of authority arise
between members of the same rank. Traditional rules of gerontocracy have thus provided
ngoma groups with a system of government that parallels east African coastal society in
general. Elders are respected for their past experience, wisdom and ability to resolve
conflict. Young people are valued for their energy and enthusiasm, but are often
considered unpredictable and careless. Elders control the dissemination of knowledge to
younger members thereby sustaining the respect and authority that they deserve. This
system of social reproduction is more formalized in dance societies that deal specifically
with transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next--usually as part of rite of
2The zumari is a double-reed clarinet-like instrument made of strong wood such as mahogany. For an historical
analysis of the zumari see Alan Boyd, 1977. Also see illustrations in H.N. Wanjala, 1990:Ch.11.
passage rituals. Vave, a Bajuni oral tradition passed on from male elders to young men, is
an example of this. Chapter 4 is devoted to exploring the role Vave has played in the
creation and sustenance of Bajuni identity.
Women also take advantage of ngoma's capacity to shape young people into
viable adults. Since grace and discipline are the most important aspects of a good ngoma
group, elderly women spend a great deal of time curbing the behavior of young
members.3 Unmarried girls are not allowed to join ngoma groups,4 which prevents elders
from having to deal with women who have not yet been instructed in adult matters. But
the elders usually have a lot of work to do, nonetheless. Even though young dancers
attract attention, their impetuosity often threatens to erode a group's reputation. This is of
particular concern among women's groups because those who believe women have no
business participating in ngoma constantly scrutinize the behavior of female ngoma
enthusiasts. Opposition to women's ngoma has been exacerbated during politically
volatile times, when female dancers composed song lyrics that publicly expressed their
discontent with the patriarchal nature of coastal society. One such episode of coastal
history is summarized below, in the final section of the chapter.
In addition to external conflicts, internal strife arises when a group member
believes that his or her skill level has surpassed that of the leaders and feels compelled to
3Interviews with Athmani Juhudi of Takaungu, 4.12.96; Kadi binti Mohammed of Matondoni, 11.3.95; Miraji Juma
and Kondo wa Juma Saidi of Takaungu, 4.8.96; Nana Shee and Yumbe Bakari of Kiunga, 11.3.96; Maulidi Sibina of
4Changani, a circle dance performed by women throughout the coast, seems to be one exception. Interview with Salima
Jazaka of Lamu, 10.11.95. See also Marjorie Ann Franken's (1987) discussion of Changani and other female ngomas in
Lamu and Mombasa.
challenge their authority. This is a common scenario in all ngoma groups, and reflects an
underlying tension between people who are organized on the basis of seniority, not skill.
Bake Die Shee, an elderly zumari player from Siyu town on Pate Island, describes his
own experience with this problem as a youth:
Do you see this? (holds out his zumari) It is very jealous. It has a lot of jealously
in it! Jealously! If one person gives a better performance than another does, the
weaker player does not seek advice from the better one. Instead, he claims that he
is the best, and that jealously becomes part of his work. And if his rival is invited
to perform somewhere, he might try and take the opportunity away from him--just
because he is so jealous of his success. He tries to undermine him until he is the
only one left. And the other player becomes useless. Is that proper? Tell me that
It was the teacher who trained me, and has since passed away, who
disgraced and dismissed me from our group. He and Shee Mwana both dismissed
me from the group when people recognized that they were not as good a player as
But I respected my teacher and paid him for my lessons. Even my parents
advised me to respect my teacher. They told me that doing so would benefit me
later on. And now, here I am. Even though they undermined me and dismissed me
from the group, I am the only one left. The other guy (Shee Mwana) is now ill and
cannot perform. If I had refused to come back to the group, who would be left to
In addition to highlighting the teacher-student competition inherent in
apprenticeship training, Bake Die illustrates several important points about ngoma
organization in this excerpt. First of all, he describes a system of tutelage that involves a
master musician and a group of students, who were under no social or moral obligation to
pay fees for their lessons. Earlier in the interview, Bake Die Shee explains, "Of all the
students my teacher had, I was the only one who paid for the training, and thus I received
5Interview with Bake Die Shee of Siyu, 8.25.95.
the teacher's blessings, and was the only one who really learned how to play well."6
According to Bake Die, his parents were the only members of the community who valued
the teacher's talents. The others did not consider making music to be a valid or
respectable profession, and they did not want their children to become musicians and
heavily involve themselves in the ngoma groups. They, like most members of coastal
society, believed that ngoma was a pastime, not a legitimate way to make a living.
Performers in Coastal Society
The devaluation of east African coastal performance experts is symptomatic of a
pervasive trend across the entire African continent. Because drummers, dancers, and song
composers were usually drawn from among the servants and slaves of kings, chiefs, and
other political leaders, they were rarely compensated for their skills. Beating sacred
drums, playing royal horns, and reciting oral history by memory was just a job like any
other. When slavery was abolished, the lower echelons of free African societies inherited
the important, but indigent role of being their communities' cultural custodians. Most
performance experts today cannot get by with the meager earnings they make from
singing, dancing, or drumming even if they are very famous. The incentive to carry on
with their profession decreases as they realize their knowledge of the past is no longer an
asset in today's world, nor something that their children will be proud to inherit in the
History does provide us with some examples of situations in which coastal
performers were given the respect and monetary benefits they deserved. The Pate
Chronicle,7 recorded by several authors in various installments over the past two
centuries, sheds some light on this subject. One version (MS 177), narrated by a Pate elder
named "Bwana Simba" in 1900, suggests the introduction of a lineage-based system that
provided a family of Pate musicians with the handling rights over a large, side-blown
horn known as a "siwa."8 In the 17th Century, the king of Pate, like many coastal royals,
used the siwa exclusively for ceremonial occasions such as circumcisions and weddings.9
Use of the siwa was restricted to members of the royal family. Exceptions were made for
Pate's political allies, who were allowed to rent the siwa for special events. Of course, the
king's rights over the siwa took precedence over anyone else's.
When it came time for one of the king's rivals, Mwana Darini, to circumcise her
son, she requested the use of the royal siwa. In order to prevent her from using the horn,
the king scheduled his own sons' circumcision ceremony for the same day. In her anger,
Mwana Darini commissioned another siwa to be carved out of an elephant's tusk so that it
would be more beautiful than the Pate original. At the same time that Mwana Darini's
ivory siwa was being made, the king's siwa was rented by some Lamu officials, whose
ship sank with the royal horn on board. Before the king could take charge of Mwana
Darini's siwa, she designated a particular family of slaves "the heralds of the horn" to
7See The Pate Chronicle. Edited and translated from manuscripts housed in the library at the University of Dar es
Salaam by Marina Tolmacheva, 1993.
8For more information see James de Vere Allen, 1976; H. Sassoon, 1975.
9See Jonathon Glassman's historical analysis of the role that musical instruments such as the ngoma kuu and the siwa
played in sustaining coastal authority, 1995:154-158. Also see Glassman, 1989.
insure it's protection. With their new status came emancipation from slavery, as well as a
regular salary of money, cloth and cooking fat. In addition, each time the siwa was
blown, the patron who rented it was obligated to offer the herald a gift as a sign of
This story explains two correlating features ngoma leaders typically share; a
relatively low status, and the lineage-based system within which they inherit their
musical expertise. Most of the ngoma experts I interviewed on the coast were from a long
line of performers, who passed on both musical abilities and administrative skills to the
next generation of would-be ngoma leaders. Many of these people have never known the
fame or enhanced social status that their ancestors periodically enjoyed. This is not to say
that professional ngoma experts were held in great esteem in the past. The excerpt from
the Pate Chronicle above aptly demonstrates that was not true. Yet, African royals did
make a distinct place in their courts for families of griots, praise-singers, drummers and
horn blowers, and their authority rested upon the adequate care of these symbols of
power. Thus, however meager was their recognition, performance experts of past
centuries at least knew that their role was crucial to the maintenance of their society, and
that they could not be replaced by a radio or a cassette player, as they often are today.
The general lack of appreciation toward African performers, past and present, is
ironic when considering that many of the important events that take place in African
societies depend upon professional performers to make the occasions happen with their
10See Tolmacheva 1993:304-306.
music. East African coastal weddings are good examples. Female relatives of a bride-to-
be meet their favorite song leader several days before the wedding dance to give her song
lyrics they have composed in the bride's honor.11 The leader is expected to memorize the
lyrics and set them to a tune that the guests are familiar with and will enjoy singing. The
songs usually contain personal information about the bride and groom, and their families,
so it is crucial that the song leader avoid distorting the details of the message. This is a
more difficult task than it may seem. For the song leader is expected to embellish the
lyrics to make them more poignant, more humorous, or more newsworthy than the
originals. And she must do so under the scrutiny of her patrons, whom she hopes to
amuse rather than insult. Basically, the song leader has the entire wedding party's
reputation in her hands.
The success of the wedding, therefore, is largely up to her. All for the price of a
soda, a few cigarettes, a handful of miraa,12 and some chewing gum. If an ngoma leader
makes 500 shillings13 on tips from the wedding guests she considers it a successful night.
Sometimes, the tips are all she can hope for--especially if she is asked to perform for a
member of her own ngoma group, a relative, or a long-time friend. Salima Jazaka, a
retired female ngoma leader from Lamu further explains:
111 learned much of what I know about female ngoma leaders from Esha Ngoma, a famous ngoma leader from Lamu,
who allowed me to accompany her to coastal wedding dances throughout 1993.
12Miraa is an organic stimulant that is grown primarily in Meru District on the slopes of Mount Kenya. Its caffeine-like
effects produce feelings of alertness and euphoria.
13This is equivalent to about $10.00.
A: We used to perform for weddings. The mother of the bride would come to
invite us to perform ngoma. She was responsible for finding the leaders. We just
Q: When she came to invite you, did she pay you anything up front?
Q: She didn't give you anything -no money at all?
A: No, it was just "thank you." It was like this: Let's say your daughter was
having a wedding and you were a member of my ngoma group. In that case, we
would just come and perform for you for free. That is how we used to do it. If you
were hosting a wedding, we would make candy trees (uti wa paramandi). All of
the members of the group participated. We used to whittle coconut branches and
then we would wrap them in colored paper. Then we collected money from the
group and sent it to her.
Q: Did you put the money in the candy tree?
A: Yes, we used to wrap up the money in the tissue papers and put them in the
slits we made in the branches. If it was five hundred, six hundred, or seven
hundred shillings that we collected, we would take it to her. 14
In this passage, Salima highlights some of the fringe benefits that female ngoma
members could expect to receive from their group when one of their own daughters got
married. In such a case, the ngoma group leader forfeited her regular performance fees
and joined her group in offering a donation to a co-member as a gesture of solidarity and
support. The group itself, and not the community therefore rewarded long-term
commitment to a particular ngoma group at large. When considering the weighty
responsibility placed on ngoma group leaders and the trifles they earned for it, it seems
strange that anyone would devote their life to making music. And yet, Bake Die Shee,
Salima Jazaka, and hundreds like them did. Much of this had to do with the "sifa" or
honor and respect that accompanied their leadership roles. This important motivating
factor is explored in detail below.
1ihl.ii. ,e il Salima Jazaka of Lamu, 10.11.95.
Usually ngoma competitions were arranged on a weekly basis--the most popular
competition days being Friday and Sunday. Members from one group wrote letters to the
members of another group, inviting them to compete on a particular date at a certain time
and place. If the group was in a different village, these invitations were written weeks in
advance so that arrangements to feed and accommodate the visitors could be made.
Neighborhood groups simply notified each other a few days prior to the competition, and
then only if plans deviated from the regular performance schedule.
Some ngoma organizations, such as those in Siyu and Takaungu, had proper "club
houses," where they held their meetings and practice sessions.15 Others simply met at the
group leader's house, or at a private plot of land a member, or a group supporter owned.
Former ngoma experts from Lamu remember practicing on private farms and soccer
fields outside of town, where competitors could not see them.16 These practice sessions
were top secret, and it was not uncommon for spies to be caught in the act of trying to
find out what their rivals were up to! 17 It was at the practice sessions that members
discussed their weekly strategies. The song leaders had lyrics to teach, the drummers had
rhythms to practice, and the choreographer had movements to go over with the dancers.
15Interviews with Baraka Mzee of Siyu, 10.23.96; Hauna Mwalim and Lali Ahmed Kale of Siyu, 10.23.96; "Miraji"
Juma and Kondo wa Juma Saidi of Takaungu, 4.8.96.
16Interviews with Ali Jabu of Lamu, 10.26.95; Omar Jabu Mwakatwa "Kangoroma" of Lamu, 10.21.95; Maulidi
Sibina of Lamu, 7.27.96.
17Interviews with Omari Haji and Athman "Habu" Bwana of Matondoni, 8.5.96; Amina Hamisi of Malindi, 8.3.96.
Members had to agree on the order of the numbers, and organize the timing of some sort
of spectacle that would sway the audience in their favor.
Keep in mind that ngoma competitions were events that featured two or more
ngoma groups performing simultaneously. Spectators moved back and forth between the
groups, scrutinizing their performances before deciding the one they liked best. The
group that had attracted the largest crowd by the end of the competition was deemed the
winner. A losing group, on the other hand, might be left without any spectators at all.
During the Colonial era, a District Commissioner or other high-ranking officer was
honored with the privilege of presiding over the competition as the judge.18 The British
were especially fond of "native" dances and regularly sponsored ngoma competitions by
furnishing a trophy for the winning group.19 Of course, ngoma competitions predated the
Colonial era and thus must not be considered products of it. At the same time, the
generally supportive attitude many Colonial officials had toward ngoma competitions
certainly upped the ante as far as the competitors were concerned.
The trophies, or "cups" as people called them, were coveted symbols of
supremacy that provoked members to come up with new strategies for out-performing
their opponents. This took the form of extravagant displays that were meant to thrill
spectators. This might be a stilt-walker, or a famous guest star, or new costumes.
Whatever it was, it's real value was it's surprise factor, which is why groups began using
18Interview with Salima Jazaka of Lamu, 10.11.95.
19Interviews with Ba Omari of Lamu, 9.2.93; "Bakamoro" of Lamu, 7.23.96; "Matangasi" of Lamu, 9.29.95;
"Tarumbeta" and Saidi Mwamanzi of Takaungu, 4.9.96; Maulidi Sibina of Lamu, 7.27.96. See also Ranger, 1975.
espionage tactics to find out what their competitors had in store for them, before the
competition. Amina Hamisi, an ngoma expert from Malindi, describes her group's
surveillance system :
We had special people who informed us about what the other group members
were doing. They were young boys. They were our primary spies. When the other
group performed on days that we did not, the boys would go with a tape recorder
and record them. They were the children of members of our group. They were our
policemen. Whenever our rivals performed, they went to spy on them. There were
three of them. One of them was the son of an Arab. He was the one who gave us
the tape recorder that we used to tape them. They'd bring the tape to us so we
Although such tactics may seem extreme, they were definitely not uncommon. As will be
further discussed in following chapters, ngoma competition was fun, but fierce. And it
regularly got out of hand.
Ngoma also allowed members of coastal society with opportunities otherwise
unavailable to them. To be more specific, ngoma gave marginalized people confidence to
become cultural experts in their own right. An example of ngomas effect on people is
evident in each of the interviews I conducted among coastal ngoma leaders. Each of them
vividly recalls the most significant contribution they made to their group. Whether it was
a satirical song they wrote to cleverly mock someone famous, a beautiful praise poem
they composed for a political leader, an elaborate costume they designed, or a fancy new
20Interview with Amina Hamisi of Malindi, 8.3.96.
movement they invented.21 They remember every last detail! I believe this is because the
competitive spirit of ngoma pushed them to fully realize their creative talent, and they
were recognized for it. In this way, therefore, ngoma provided women, as well as
newcomers, homosexuals, and anyone else who was considered an outsider (wageni) by
long-time coastal residents (wenyeji), with the kind of recognition usually reserved for
male members of the coastal elite.
Performance as Socio-Political Control
This is not to suggest that ngoma has worked exclusively for the benefit of the
socially misfit. On the contrary, music and dance media serve people from all echelons of
society. New songs, whether they are of conservative or liberal content, manipulate
public opinion. There is no question about it. And ngoma leaders often have a great deal
of influence over their communities. Public performances make excellent fora for
critiquing the behavior--either good or bad--of community members. As discussed above,
this is done primarily through songs.
The most famous coastal lyricists compose songs that are both witty and poetic--
on the spot. This means that they cleverly put words together in such a way that innuendo
and linguistic dexterity are demonstrated without compromising Swahili literary
convention. This is not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination. Lyrics need to
21The handkerchief-pass performed in traditional Lelemama comes to mind, although I do not know by whom or
where it was first established. The movement itself consists of the transfer of a handkerchief from one dancer to the
next using only the mouth. I had the privilege of seeing it performed by Omari Haji's women's ngoma group in
Matondoni on 9.29.96. Unfortunately it is rarely performed anymore.
appeal to the local sense of humor, as well as be informed by the latest gossip. If the
composer meets all these demands and attaches the words to a popular tune, it is likely to
be remembered across generations. The historical content of many old songs make them
especially good records of past events.
Less than a century ago, wordsmiths regularly engaged each other in battles of
rhymes, riddles, puns, and innuendo. Verbal combat usually involved someone who
started a poetic phrase and another who was expected to complete it. An example of this
is Vave, mentioned briefly above. As one of the few epic poems still remembered, Vave
provides us with a hint of how coastal people tested each other's intelligence, wit, and
Male elders often demonstrated their poetic skills by acting as unofficial
gatekeepers, who challenged visitors to solve a riddle before being allowed into town.
Elderly women perform a similar role in traditional coastal weddings today. On a bride's
wedding night, her female relatives keep the groom's male relatives from entering the
house in which the new couple will consummate their marriage. Typically, one elderly
woman with exceptional verbal skill is the one men must bribe and sweet talk in order to
get inside. Omar Saidi Amin of Takaungu witnessed such an event the night of his
When my brother married into the family of Sharif Alwy bin Hamed of Malindi,
Mzee Abdalla Kadara, the famous poet from Lamu, helped me get through the
gate to the house, which was guarded by an old Swahili woman of that family. He
used poems to convince her to allow me to pass through without paying the
customary entrance fee. We ended up paying the fee anyway, because it is a
custom, but he just wanted to prove that he could charm the old woman with his
poetic talent. He used the Bajuni language and they argued back and forth with
poems for an hour, but no one tired of listening. Mzee Abdalla Kadara and the
woman argued for an hour and no one got bored! Finally, the woman agreed and
she opened the gate and everyone entered. To be a poet is something very
A similar test was put to me when Ali Jabu, a Lamu elder, refused to allow me an
interview until I solved a riddle. He held up his index finger and asked me what it was
used for. After contemplating it for a moment, I used my right hand finger to point to
something, then I counted to three with it, and then inserted it into my ear, as if to clean it
out. Even though I did not answer the riddle correctly, as I was told later23, I made the
old man laugh so hard that he eventually agreed to speak with me. I am sure my gestures
would not have been acceptable when Ali Jabu was a young man and Swahili oral
literature was reserved for experts.
After experiencing the pressure involved in oral arts myself, I am glad not to have
been born a Swahili poet. Especially considering the malicious messages embedded in
lyrics regularly passed between performers. Indeed, many of the ngoma songs that have
been passed down over time are notoriously sarcastic and reveal the vicious turn ngoma
competitions sometimes take. Some songs are direct attacks, meant to defame individuals
and ruin family reputations. This poetic genre might best be called "oral warfare," and
has little in common with the verbal tricks Ali Jabu plays.
A former leader of a women's ngoma group in Lamu named Salima Jazaka offers
a vivid example of just how biting the song lyrics passed between competing ngoma
22Interview with Omar Said Amin of Takaungu, 4.15.96.
23The correct answer is, "the index figure is used to read the Qur'an."
groups can be. The first song is one which Salima (S) composed herself. The second
song is one of the responses she remembers her opponent (R) singing back.
S: Sinitote kanena asoneneka. (Have you heard this song? Well, it's mine! Don't
provoke me to say something terrible.) Tuyawate mambo yameharibika.
(Let's just forget it--everything is ruined.) Si yoyote atambikae kashika.
(Not everyone who sets a trap catches a victim.)
R: Taunda jahazi langu lauteo. (I'll build a ship out of coconut tree fibers.)
Nimpakie salama ende kwao. (I'll send her safely on her way back home.)
Mwana Haramo alipo hana cheo. (A bastard has no status, wherever she goes).24
Salima remembers this song because the words publicly humiliated her by
suggesting she came from an illegitimate family. Even if a person's background was well
known, it was shameful to discuss such things in public. R broke this code of conduct to
satisfy her own pride. Salima's memory of this incident, years after it occurred, represents
the damaging consequences of competition gone amiss.
Ngoma as Socio-Economic Security
In spite of the problems that resulted from over-competitive ngoma groups, they
are excellent models of the way in which coastal people have arranged themselves in
order to protect against socio-economic calamity. The notion of safety in numbers, or
wealth in people, might also be referred to as "social capital."25 In the east African
context, social capital has been a primary source of economic security for people who
rely on kin and fictive kin networks to assemble the resources they need to pay dowry,
buy land, purchase medical treatments, compensate crime victims, or host a wedding or a
2- ii, % i' ' iil Salima Jazaka of Lamu, 10.11.95.
25For a concise intellectual history of "social capital" see Michael Woolcock, 1998.
funeral. Obtaining those resources at the time they are needed greatly depends upon a
person's ability to liquidate their social capital, or collect on the favors owed to them by
people whom they have assisted in the past. Becoming a member of a ngoma group
extends the network of people who can help in times of need.
In most cases, joining an ngoma group was not about becoming a member of an
exclusive clique that shared a narrowly defined set of beliefs, similar amounts of wealth
and social status, or identical family backgrounds. On the contrary, ngoma groups
facilitated collaboration between people who, at first glance, seemed to have little in
common. This is why several people with whom I spoke compared ngoma groups to
soccer teams; they both foster group pride, which encourages members to suspend ethnic
and class prejudice.26 Muslim leaders have long recognized ngoma's ability to mediate
differences that otherwise separate people. Chapter 3 analyses "maulidi ya Rama" in this
Besides ngoma groups, there are other coastal institutions that ease the social
tensions produced under high degrees of socio-economic stratification. Yet, unlike
marriage, which legally and spiritually joins two families, blood brotherhood,27 which
enacts trade alliances between non-kin, and diye-paying groups specifically organized by
kin for indemnity protection against non-kin,28 ngoma is community-based. Unbound by
26See Hyder Kindy's discussion on the relationship between soccer and politics, 1972:Ch. 9.
27For a vivid description of a blood-brotherhood ceremony performed along the Bagamoyo Road in Tanganyika in
1881, see Last to Hon. Sec., March 18, 1881,KNA. See also Thomas Herlehy, 1984; Cynthia, 1981:62; A.M.
Champion, 1967; Thomas Spear, 1979.
28I.M. Lewis and L.V. Cassanelli describe similar alliances formed as "blood-money" groups between pastoralists,
farmers and hunters in southern Somalia. See I.M. Lewis, 1969; L.V. Cassanelli, 1973. Also see Steven Feierman's
discussion of the "kifu group" among the Shambaa of Tanzania, 1990:56-64.
kin or fictive-kin obligations, ngoma members become a social network that is less
formal, but ultimately more extensive than the others.
In the past, ngoma competitions provided affluent coastal families with a public
venue for demonstrating their religious piety by fulfilling their Muslim obligation of
sadaka, giving alms to the poor. Newcomers, orphans, and descendants of slaves relied
on the weekly feasts that wealthy patrons hosted at weekend ngoma competitions, not
only for food, but also for the social interaction the events entailed. Since everyone in the
community was welcome to attend, those with ambitions for moving up the socio-
economic ladder used the occasions to meet people who could help them. Ngoma feasts,
therefore, were more than sites where wealth was redistributed among the coast's
population, but where people of diverse background met and made alliances.
Today, low membership dues make joining ngoma groups affordable for even the
poorest people. But this also prevents the organizations from becoming primary sources
of financial assistance for those who are not integrated into kinship structures that
provide them with the socio-economic security they need. This puts people on the
margins of coastal people at a disadvantage, especially if they do not have ties to elite
families. This is often the case for people of slave ancestry.
Although anti-slavery legislation began putting an end to coastal slavery one
hundred years ago, many communities on the coast are still cognizant of which families
are descendants of slaves and which are not. This reality is explained by the fact that even
after Colonial decrees made slavery illegal, subservient relationships between ex-slaves
and former masters persisted.29 These relationships are evident today as patron-client
obligations between former slave families and their former owners. For example, senior
male patrons are expected to attend the funerals of senior male clients, and provide
financial assistance for their families. Likewise, clients are expected to visit sick patrons,
help them with labor requirements, and generally be available for special services upon
request. In exchange, clients regularly accept charity (zakat) from their patrons, squat on
their land, tend their farms, and help with their livestock. Although many of these clients
are blood-relatives of their patrons, they remain under the stigma of their ancestor's slave
status in perpetuity.
Ngoma has facilitated positive interaction between the classes, however. A well
known dance expert from the outskirts of Takaungu named "Tarumbeta" recalls that the
two rural ngoma groups "Magongo" and "Chokaa" each had an alliance with one of the
two groups in town--"Crownie" and "Ibinaa al Wataan."30 When the rural groups
competed against each other, the members of the groups in town went out to the farms to
cheer on their respective allies. And when the town groups competed, members of the
rural ngoma groups came into town to rally around their urban colleagues. These
alliances not only bridged the cultural and economic gaps between dancers, whose
historical backgrounds prevented them from performing together, they provided another
29The first anti-slavery legislation passed in 1897 by the British Colonial government applied only to the islands off
the east African coast. Slavery was not fully abolished until 1907. Long after that, so-called "freed slaves" were still
controlled by their "ex-masters" and had little alternative but to continue working for meager wages, for portions of the
crops they tended, and/or for access to small plots of land to grow their own subsistence. For more information on the
evolution of coastal slave systems see Frederick Cooper, 1980; Fred Morton, 1990; Abdul Sheriff, 1987.
"'iinl. c s with Mhunzi Kibwana "Tarumbeta" and AbuBakar Mbwana, Saidi Manzi of Takaungu, 4.2.96; "Miraji"
Juma and Kondo wa Juma Saidi of Takaungu, 4.8.96.
way for the groups to compete. If Crownie brought a goat to the countryside for
Magongo's feast, then Ibinaa was compelled to buy a cow for Chokaa's feast. Thus, the
redistribution of wealth from the urban elite to the rural poor was a result of the
competitive nature of the town-country ngoma alliances.
Ali Jabu, a retired coconut farmer himself, tells of a similar affiliation that
provided an "in" for outsiders in Lamu.31 During the Colonial era, the outskirts of Lamu
town, like the coastal hinterland in general, were inhabited by people whose ancestors
were brought to the coast as slaves to tend coconut plantations. With the exception of
Muslim converts who came into town to pray, the elite (waungwana) did not welcome the
coconut farmers (wagema).
This situation changed when the wagema's traditional dances captured their
masters' attention, and they were invited to perform after Friday prayers. This provided
the elite with an opportunity to fulfill their weekly obligation of charity, while
simultaneously entertaining their friends and neighbors.32 When the wagema divided
themselves into competing groups, these wealthy patrons quickly took sides. Soon they
were hosting huge feasts for the dancers and the spectators before and after the
competitions, in order to outdo their rivals. This paved the way for other kinds of social
interaction between wagema and waungwana, a topic, which is discussed more
thoroughly in the next chapter.
31Interview with Ali wa Jabu of Lamu, 10.26.95.
32These weekly performances are discussed again in Chapter 3.
In the days when group pride and social prestige meant as much as economic
wealth, patrons enhanced their social standing in their communities by financially
supporting their favorite ngoma group. They hosted barbecues, bought lavish costumes,
imported foreign instruments, and ultimately turned ngoma performances into public
displays of their own personal wealth and esteem.33 It is not surprising that people
referred to them as the "owners" ("wenye") of the groups they supported. Yet, how much
influence did patrons practically have over the group members?
Mohammed "Bakamoro" Mzee seems to offer a partial answer to this question. In
a discussion we had about the role Lamu's ngoma groups played in the construction of the
famous Riyadha mosque, Bakamoro explained that there was indeed a strong sense of
mutual obligation between Lamu's ngoma group members and one particularly famous
religious figure and ngoma enthusiast named "Habib Saleh."
Habib Saleh didn't participate in any group. He just organized them to work.
During the month of maulidi (mfungo sita), when the Kambaa group and the
Kingi group were still in existence, Habib Saleh called Sabirina over and said,
"Oh, Sabi, I don't know what to say. We the people of Langoni are so lazy.
Fadhili has already alerted the people of Mkomani with his trumpet, and he and
his group are already on their way to the mosque. While my son, Meri, can't even
blow "halelihalelihalile" to please me."
You see, Habib Saleh was trying to motivate people to work for him!
After the people of Mkomani had assembled, he told them that it was time for
them to get to work. He reminded them that they had enjoyed the Beni
performances and everything else the whole year, but now the month of maulidi
had come and it was time to celebrate the Prophet's birthday. He explained that
the limestone, the sand, and the rock were ready to be picked up at the sea front.
330ne Lamu elder named "Matangasi" recalls a Beni competition he witnessed as a child, which included a group of
patrons digging a large hole and burying a huge basket full of money. Although this sort of ostentatiousness was not
unheard of among ngoma supporters, it is unclear what this gesture actually symbolized. See interview with Nassar
"Matangasi" of Lamu, 9.29.95.
They told him, "Mwenye, don't worry." And they went down and carried as much
as they could to Riyadha--free of charge.
When that group had gone, he told someone to call Mzee Baguo, a
member of the Kingi group. When he came, Habib Saleh said, "Oh Mr. Baguo,
what illness do the people of Langoni have? I haven't heard Jabu Tai blow his
trumpet today, I've only heard Mr. Fadhili's trumpet. Now it's time to get to
work! We have enjoyed ourselves with Beni, Mwasha, Chakacha, but now the
stones must be brought from the sea front. It's the month to celebrate maulidi, the
In the evening, while Mwenye was resting in his house, troops of women--
nearly two thousand--used their cooking pots or pieces of cloth to carry sand on
their heads from the sea front to the mosque--voluntarily! In an instant, all of the
sand was transported. The men carried stones. Habib Saleh acted as an owner of
the groups in that kind of situation, but after the work was finished his authority
dissolved. People used to use wisdom and respect when they organized people to
work for them.34
Here, Bakamoro suggests that Habib Saleh's clever tactics allowed him to call on
Lamu's most active organizations, the town's ngoma groups, as a ready-made work force.
Yet, unlike his peers, Saleh commanded the moral authority needed to compel people to
exert themselves in this way. It is unlikely that even the most generous ngoma
benefactors had the clout to do the same. Even though Bakamoro credits the competitive
spirit between Kambaa and Kingi as the source of the members' motivation, the general
population of Lamu was so enamored by their "Beloved Saleh" that any of them would
have come to his assistance regardless. Bakamoro claims that Saleh himself was so
confident of this that he stayed at home, knowing that the task was being accomplished
without his supervision.
Contemporary politicians have kept a similar system alive by regularly
commissioning ngoma groups to perform for them at campaign rallies and solicit voters
341iiii'i 1' 1 il dI.,iiii.i.d "Bakamoro" Mzee of Lamu, 7.23.96.
during the elections.35 As some of my informants have suggested, ngoma group members
enjoy the publicity they get from these events, but usually end up putting a lot of time and
energy into composing praise songs for candidates who forget them as soon as the
campaign is over.36
More recently, women have taken advantage of their own organizing potential by
transforming their groups into self-help associations geared toward income-generation.
An example of this is the "Shani Women's Group" led by Mebaraka Juma of Takaungu.37
Her twenty-member group has pooled enough money to buy a fresh water tap, and plan to
start up their own cooperative business when their bank account is full. This venture
already makes the women more economically independent than their mothers, who
worked together primarily to provide charity for poor children, but did not economically
enhance their own lives.
The Politics of Artistic Production
The extent to which politics has influenced ngoma and vice versa is well
documented in historical sources. Group solidarity is both demonstrated and created in
public performances, which often makes ngoma, in and of itself, an essentially political
activity. Ranger (1975) provides a thorough study of this by tracing the historical
35Interviews with Saidi Mwamanzi and Tarumbeta of Takaungu, 4.9.96; Shauri Kaingu Chondo, Katana Mapori
Kivatsi, Kirao Kombe Hare of Ganda (Malindi), 9.1.96.
36This occurred after a big campaign rally I attended in Kiunga on 10.29.96.
37Interview with Mebaraka Juma and Kibwana Said of Takaungu, 4.15.96.
development of Beni38 ngoma in various locations and through various episodes of
political change. Beni was a phenomenon that emerged in various parts of eastern Africa
after WWI and lasted into the 1950s. It consisted of elaborate military processions, which
Africans put on to mock as well as to celebrate the pomp and circumstance of their
Colonial oppressors. As Ranger suggests, Beni was a continuation of previous ngoma
traditions that helped people deal with contemporary issues. In the early 1900s, the harsh
realities of forced labor,39 land alienation,40 migration, famine,41 and other symptoms of
British political, economic and cultural domination made ngoma a singular form of relief.
In such uncomfortable times, it is not surprising that the perseverance of Beni and the
lavish activities it supported spurred accounts such as this one from C.W. Hobley, an
officer appointed to the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC), who wrote at the
turn of the twentieth century:
If the decadence of the so-called Swahili or semi-Arab people on the coast
continues, it is almost certain that in a few years they will almost entirely be
replaced by the flow of Nyika people coast wards. Both the descendants of the
slave owners and the descendants of the slaves have lost heart. The former have
lost all their landed property, mortgaging it to Indian merchants in satisfaction of
unpaid debts, both ex-masters and ex-slaves living in exiguous existence ...42
38Beni was also known as "Gwaride" in many coastal communities including Mombasa, Takaungu, Kilifi, and
39For more information on forced labor policies see C.W. Hobley, 1929.
40Chapter 5 presents a detailed history of how land in Takaungu was taken from its original occupants. For more
information on land, labor and migration on the coast of Kenya between 1907-1925 see Frederick Cooper, 1980:Ch. 5.
For a thorough labor history of the Kenya coast between 1935 1950 see Frederick Cooper, 1987.
41For information on rinderpest, small pox and famine in Mijikendaland between the 1880s and the early 1900s, see
42See Hobley 1929:168-169.
It is indeed astonishing that in the wake of considerable upheaval, Beni members
turned their attention to the seemingly insignificant tasks involved in making perfect
replicas of Scottish highlander uniforms and British royal regalia, and building large-
scale models of man-o-war ships to display on parade.43 As increasing numbers of
hinterland Mijikenda (the "Nyika" Hobley refers to) and people from further upcountry
settled in coastal communities to escape poverty and unemployment,44 they too were
caught up in Beni mania. Some of these immigrants actually managed to work their way
up the ranks to become Beni leaders, and hold the prestigious position of "Queenie" or
"Kingi" of their group.45 Ngoma was surely unique in its ability to catapult members of
the lowest echelons of coastal society to the top.
Leaders from other parts of east Africa transformed coastal ngoma in more ways
than one. The story of the Wanyamwezi visit to Takaungu, outlined in Chapter 5,
illustrates just how disrupting the presence of foreign cultural influences was to existing
power structures. New dance sensations such as Beni intoxicated young people and
bewildered elders. This created a generation gap analogous to the one produced during
the "hippie era" in the United States and Europe. A similar cultural revolution was
imminent between the world wars, when male elders found themselves challenged by
their own daughters for the first time. Strobel's research (1975) on Lelemama dance
43Interview with Athmani Kitoka of Lamu, 10.4.95.
44Colonial reports of "gangs of upcountry boys" migrating to the coast without passes (vipande) are numerous in the
first decades of the 20th century. For an example See W.G. Parker to F.G. Hamilton, May 24, 1910, KNA.
45 See Ranger, 1975:89-90.
associations, and Linda Giles' (1989) study of spirit possession cults explores ngoma as a
form of female rebellion during this tumultuous period of coastal history.
This was a time when female members of elite households were bound by
customary laws of feminine modesty (purdah), which severely limited their freedom of
movement. Princess Salme of Zanzibar gives us this description of what purdah meant to
upper-class women on the coast:
Only her father, her sons, brothers, uncles and nephews, and her slaves are
allowed to see her. When she appears before a stranger, or has to speak to him,
the law requires her to be shrouded and veiled; part of the face, the neck and chin,
and above all, the ankles, must be completely covered...Poor people, who have
but few or no slaves at all, are obliged, on this account alone, to go abroad more
in the daylight, and consequently enjoy more liberty.46
However free to move about, lower class women had no socio-economic or political
mobility, save the rise in their status as mothers of freeborn children if they bore their
master a child. To be sure, women of all classes shared exclusion from power-yielding
institutions, including the mosque, which compelled women to join "unorthodox" ritual
communities such as Sufi tariqa47 and spirit possession cults.48 These organizations gave
women an outlet for their discontent, as this verse that Salima Jazaka composed for her
male opponents, clearly illustrates:
46Emily Ruete (Princess Salme), 1989:146.
47Strobel suggests that coastal women were welcomed to join the Qadiriyya Sufi order, and did so in large numbers in
the 1930s. See Strobel 1975:74.
48See also Edward Alpers,1984.
"Sabiri tumbo, wewe hunenani? Na Hamisi tongo, mvaa miwani.
Kipai cha jaha cha mtu usoni."
(Sabiri, with the fat belly, what are you saying? And blind Hamisi, with four
eyes. The symbol of honor should be right in the middle of your forehead.)49
Because I have focused my research on the ngomas of the past, this dissertation
highlights the stories of elderly people, such as Salima Jazaka, who primarily describe the
ngoma activities they participated in as adults. By reflecting briefly on a children's
ngoma, performed in Lamu during Ramadan, I can acknowledge the contribution
children have made to coastal performance, while providing another example that
illustrates ngoma's propensity for sustaining continuity by providing people with a
medium to act out, but not necessarily bring about change.
Of primary importance are the children's groups that performed throughout the
coast during the month of Ramadan. Athmani Kitoka of Lamu established one such group
after a visit to Dar es Salaam, where he saw young musicians singing on doorsteps to
wake people up to eat before sunrise. Athmani's group became so popular that other
youth bands formed to compete against them for the town's affection. These groups not
only provided participants with a taste of what life as a performer was like, it provided
them with a taste for an elite lifestyle usually off-limits. Athmani Kitoka explains:
49Interview with Salima Jazaka of Lamu, 10.11.95.
When I went back to Lamu and Ramadan approached, I rounded up six
children to help me. I was the singer and the drum player, and the children played
the "vumi" (whistle), the "kiamba" (shaker), the "dafi" (tambourine), the
"msondo" (drum), and the "vigongo" (sticks)--for keeping time.. .After the
fourth day, the news spread, and I began receiving letters from different
households throughout Lamu. We performed for everybody who sent a letter--
until we had visited nearly half of Lamu town...We became so famous that we
were even invited to perform at the most important people of Lamu's homes.
Sometimes they invited us to join them for "bembe"50 and some even slaughtered
a goat for us--just for fun!
The most important day of all was Idd, the end of Ramadan. The morning
after the new moon was seen, we went around and performed the ngoma as usual.
But on that day, people showered us with perfume and burned incense for us.
Even if we had never been invited into a certain house before, we went in that
day! And they had mats laid down for us, where we were served tea and
everything. And we received fifty shillings here and twenty shillings there. We
used to make a lot of money because those people wanted to out-do their peers.51
Athmani's experience reminds us that ngoma suspends the regular order of things
and opens up spaces where the impossible can happen. By virtue of the disorder it
creates, the month of Ramadan is a particularly good time in which to test ngoma's
possibilities. Eating is done at night during Ramadan and many people rest during the
day. This creates an "out of time" state of being that permeates every sphere of activity,
and suspends ordinary social behavior. Muslims are expected to right their wrongs, make
up with their enemies, and live as purely as humanly possible. Any good act committed
during the Holy Month yields double the usual reward. Inviting strangers in for a meal is
a good way to stock up on blessings (baraka). Thus, the success of Athmani's group may
not be extraordinary at all, considering they were performing at an extraordinary time of
50A snack eaten between 8 10 pm. during Ramadan.
51 Interview with Athmani Kitoka of Lamu, 10.4.95
If Athmani had permanently enhanced his group's status in Lamu society, their
ngoma activities would be recognized as having legitimate political leverage. Since this
was not the case, Athmani's story serves as a good example of the way ngoma warps
reality only as long as the performers sustain the anomaly with their music and dance.
After the performance is over, everyone returns to their expected roles in their ordinary
lives. The comfort, sense of permanence, and predictability that normalcy gives people
usually overshadows their desire for dramatic change. When ngoma permanently alters
relationships between members of society, as did Lelemama, Beni, and others discussed
in the chapters that follow, then it must be considered an important vehicle for political
transformation. Either way, ngoma gives people a chance to be who they wish they were,
and act out lives they wish were theirs--if only while the music lasts.
THE IMPACT OF SUFISM ON COASTAL RITUAL NGOMA
"Sainthood" represents the domestication of barakahh; "saintship," the social organization
of saints. The two complement each other when disciples, fortified with the barakahh of the
saint, embrace their master's teaching in the charismatic collective setting of community
practice and action. It is in relationship that the true mettle of barakahh is proved.
(Lamin Sanneh, 1997:115-116)
This chapter explores the spiritual aspects of coastal performance by focusing on
the sites and symbols that the diverse members of ngoma groups have enacted together.
Some of the most important examples of ritual pluralism are Muslim performances called
"maulidi"1 in Swahili, from the Arabic term maulid, or birth. The birth date of the
Prophet Muhammad is the 12th day of the sixth month of the Arabic lunar calendar,
known in Arabic as Rabbi-al-Awwal and in Swahili as Mfungo Sita. While this day is
especially significant, many Muslims on the east African coast commemorate the
Prophet's birth throughout the entire month. Since the Wahhabi clan took over the
leadership of Saudi Arabia, maulid is not officially celebrated there. It remains a favorite
1For more information on the annual Maulidi ceremony in Lamu see Allen W. Boyd, 1981; A.H.M. El-Zein, 1974;
Esmond B. Martin, 1968; Rebecca Gearhart, 1998.
religious holiday in many other parts of the Muslim world, however, including the coast
of Kenya and Tanzania.
"Maulidi" also refers to praise poems that participants recite, sing, and chant in
celebration of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. East African coastal peoples have
continuously integrated new cultural motifs into the maulidi ceremony since it was first
performed there, probably in Mogadishu over six hundred years ago.2 There are still
several features of maulidi that are characteristic of the kind of religious devotion
practiced by Sufis, or Islamic mystics, who were the people who established maulidi in
The founders of Maulidi in east Africa were members of the Alawiyya Sufi
brotherhood (tariqa),4 who had migrated to the coast of Somalia from Yemen, formerly
known as Hadhramaut, or Aden.5 The Alawiyaa order was probably the first established
Sufi brotherhood in east Africa. It was founded by Mohammed bin Ali bin Mohammed
(d. 1255) in the southern part of present-day Yemen. The founder's ancestor, Ziyad bin
Labid al-Khazrali, was sent by the Prophet himself to the Hadhramaut city of Tarim,
shortly before the Prophet's death in 630 A.D. Following Ziyad, Ahmed bin Isa al-
2A1-Mas'ud Id wrote an account entitled, Murujul Dhahab (The Golden Meadows) about Muslim activities on the east
African coast in the tenth century. Later, in the early thirteenth century, an Arab geographer named Yakut described the
Muslim polity of Pemba under a pair of sultans, who claimed Arab descent.
3Sufism refers to the mystical tradition of spirituality in Islam, which has its roots in the life and example of the
Prophet Muhammad and the revelation of the Qur'an. For more information on Sufism and it's origins see Michael
4Tariq, (pl. turuq) is the Arabic word for an organization, brotherhood, or order comprised of members who are
devoted to exploring the mystical dimensions of Islamic worship.
5The earliest record of Hadhrami settlement in Mogadishu is the gravestone of Abu Barar bin Al-Hajj Yaqut al
Hadhrami, which is dated 1358. See Freemen-Grenville and B.G. Martin, 1972. Over the next five hundred years,
Hadhrami sharifs continued to immigrate to east Africa in increasing numbers. See Aydarus b. al-Sharif Ali al-Aydarus
al Nadiri al-Alawi, 1954.
Muhajir, one of the Prophet's descendants, also migrated to Hadhramaut, where the sharif
tradition, honoring direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, was inaugurated. The
Alawiyya Sufi order was founded after Ahmed bin Isa al-Muhajir's death, and named
after his grandson, Alawi bin Ubaidallah.6
One of the earliest glimpses of Hadhrami influence on the east African coast is
provided in Rihla, written in the 1330s by the famous north African traveler, Ibn Battuta.
The "Sultan" of Mogadishu welcomed Ibn Battuta with elaborate public ngoma
performances, which demonstrated both his religious convictions and his enormous
wealth. Upon arrival, the traveler was greeted by a grand procession of beautifully
dressed musicians, as this excerpt from Rihla describes:
All of the people walked barefoot, and there were raised over head four canopies
of colored silk and on the top of each canopy was the figure of a bird in gold. ..
(The Sheikh) was dressed with a wrapper of silk and turbined with a large turbin.
Before him drums and trumpets and pipes were played, the amirs of the soldiers
were before and behind him, and the qadi, thefaqihs, the sharifs were with him.7
Much of Muslim devotional life on the coast focused on the Prophet Muhammad
because coastal sharifs like the Sultan of Mogadishu gleaned their religious prestige and
authority from their claims to shared lineage with the Prophet. A biographer of Ibn
Battuta, Ross Dunn, suggests that in the 14th century, the Hadhrami sharifs were among
the wealthiest and spiritually influential members of the east African educated class
(ulama). During Ibn Battuta's time, the sharifs made up the most literate Muslims on the
6See A.A. Ahmed, 1995:165.
7Ross Dunn, 1989:125-126.
coast, which is why they held the majority of Islamic posts as qadis (judges), faqihs
(canon lawyers), mediators, miracle-workers, and Muslim teachers (walimu).
Ibn Battuta's account illustrates the flamboyance with which the Muslim elite
attempted to rule the coast in the fourteenth century. It also provides a snap shot of the
degree of social stratification they tolerated. The barefoot attendants in the Sultan's
parade were probably servants and court slaves of African descent. This brief description
does not offer many clues in this regard. It does testify to the Sultan's economic status,
but tells us very little about the political influence he had over his subjects.8 Such
displays might actually hint at the insecurity of the young Arab regime, surrounded as it
was by strong African confederations unwilling to give up control of the coast or it's
hinterland. The eclectic mixture of instruments Ibn Battuta noticed in the Sultan's band
suggests a mediated exchange between indigenous people and the newcomers. It would
take a few more centuries for Arab leaders to fully understand that syncretism was the
key to Islamic expansion and the rise of "civilization", known as "ustarabu" in Swahili.9
Sufism gradually fostered more of the kind of cultural collaboration Ibn Battatu's
documents suggest. But this was certainly not true of coastal Christianity. In general,
Portuguese priests were unsuccessful in their attempts to convert Africans to Catholicism.
They believed this was due to the "Moorish" (Muslim) tendencies of the peoples of the
8For a slightly different interpretation of the Rihla see Alamin Mazrui and Ibrahim Noor Shariff, 1994.
9There is a paucity of literature on the origin of musical instruments played on the east African coast. While the local
origin of various kinds of drums is certain, the history of the zumari is a bit more difficult to pin down. Alan Boyd's
cursory study (1977) on the history of the zumari on the coast suggests that the instrument is African in origin. This
concurs with my own research, as well as the general consensus among Kenya ethnomusicologists, who maintain that
the zumari originates among the Digo and Giriama, two groups belonging to the confederation of African hinterland
peoples known as the Mijikenda. See Boyd, 1977. H.N. Wanjala (1990) also includes reed pan pipes among the
instruments native to the coast of east Africa.
coast. In fact, priests were barely tolerated by most communities, and in the worst
scenarios, they were run out of town, or murdered, as was the case of a priest who was
poisoned to death by the Muslim ruler of Pate in 1624.10
Portuguese sources suggest that the Mombasa uprising against the Portuguese in
1631 was led by an African named "Chingulia," who was inspired by the general hatred
of Christian missionization among both Muslims and "heathens."11 One account of that
event made by Father Luis Coutinho, the Provincial Vicar of the Augustine Patriarch of
Eastern Parts of India, provides clues to how religious life on the coast had evolved since
Ibn Battuta's visit. The persuasiveness of the "Moors" suggests that coastal people had
adopted many features of Islam. Yet, martyrdom and sainthood, prominent concepts in
both Islam and Christianity, became part of coastal cosmology during this period, and it
is difficult to trace the transmission of such notions to a single source. It is likely that
coastal people's affiliation with Muslims and/or Christians had implications that extended
beyond religious faith or practice, and reflected local political struggles. For example,
Father Coutinho reported that Chingulia also murdered his own cousin, Dom Antonio of
Malindi, who had converted to Christianity.12 Family rivalries were played out between
contenders who aligned themselves with local power brokers--be they Sufi sheikhs,
traditional healers, or Catholic priests.
10See Freeman-Grenville, 1980:xxxv.
11This excerpt from a sworn testimony made in 1632 by Father Coutinho, describes the murder of three Catholic
priests and subsequent takeover of Fort Jesus in Mombasa by coastal Africans. See Freeman-Grenville, 1980:11.
12See Freeman-Grenville, 1980:13.
A History of Ritual Pluralism on the Coast
Here I insert my research on ritual pluralism on the east African coast into
western academic discourse on the subject. I do so in order to provide evidence that
religious syncretism is indeed a historical phenomenon that was recorded by numerous
observers on the coast over time. I trace the development of shared ritual between
Muslims and non-Muslims by referring to primary historical accounts, as well as
secondary scholarship. Although this journey is a bit tedious, I believe readers will find it
to be a good review of what we know about the complexity of coastal religious practice,
and how we gained that knowledge.
The diversity of views on religious pluralism on the coast is exemplified by J.
Spencer Trimingham (1980), who argues that Islam was "inflexible" and did not allow
east Africans to integrate their religious traditions sufficiently enough to allow
syncretization, and A.B.K. Kasozi (1995), who claims Islam's social principles were very
similar to those already adhered to by many east African communities. Kasozi suggests
Islam was "easy to grasp" by illiterate Africans because they were merely required to
memorize the shahada, which proclaims, "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is
His messenger." While Trimingham maintains that Islam and African religions were
"parallel" and dualisticc", rarely if ever intersecting,13 Kasozi offers evidence that
Africans inserted Islam into their lives very easily, by adopting practices that naturally
13See Trimingham, 1980:68.
meld with ritual activities they already engaged in.14 My own research concurs with
Kasozi's findings, as I will further demonstrate below.
Both Donald O'Brien (1995) and Marcia Wright (1995) point to the economic
factors that influenced the popularity of Islam on the coast of Tanganyika during the
colonial era. O'Brien suggests that Sufi brotherhoods flourished in Tanganyika because of
the pre-colonial trade networks that incorporated African traders into the Arabic social
milieu, which included certain elements of Islamic practice.15 Wright contends that
traders in coastal towns such as Bagamoyo increasingly used Sufi networks to strengthen
their ties with important Muslim businessmen in the interior. 16 In contrast to both
O'Brien and Wright, I argue that the primary impetus for coastal peoples to share their
religious practices was not economic advantage, but an increase in ritual efficacy.
Evidence to support this claim is provided in the sections that follow.
Several other historical studies provide examples of the variety of socio-political
contexts within which shared religious practice emerged on the east African coast.
William McKay's (1975) analysis of the sixteenth century town of Vumba Kuu (Wasin)
reveals a society that combined the ritual traditions of Shirazi immigrants from Persia,
members of the Digo tribe of the Mijikenda, and peoples of the Segeju tribe, to form a
unique political and religious system. At the top of the Vumba political structure was the
"diwan," a figure whom McKay describes as, "the living embodiment of the various
14See A.B.K. Kasozi, 1995:224.
15See Donald O'Brien, 1995:203.
16See Marcia Wright, 1995:138. For a more comprehensive history of Bagamoyo and the Mrima coast of Tanganyika
during the colonial period see Jonathon Glassman, 1995.
beliefs and institutions which differentiated the Vumba from other Swahili groups."17
McKay explains that the Vumba appropriated specific symbols from both Islam and
indigenous African religions and created elaborate rituals of social reproduction unlike
any of the societies that surrounded them.
For example, the diwanship was always filled by a person of sharif origin, who
was enthroned in a fashion similar to the installation of a chief. Like other east African
leaders, the diwan had custody over certain artifacts that symbolized his leadership, such
as the "ngoma kuu," a large drum that was used only on ceremonial occasions attended
by the diwan himself. In addition to the African elements of the diwan's regalia were
objects associated with Islamic culture, such as the elaborately carved horns called
"siwas", which constituted authority in many Arab and Shirazi (Persian) controlled towns
along the coast.18
An additional function the diwan fulfilled among the Vumba was his role as
medicine man, or "mganga" in Swahili. Common among coastal societies such as the
Vumba was a local healer, who combined Islamic wizardry, based on the use of Qur'anic
holy words, with African treatments to create effective remedies for both physiological
and psychological disorders. McKay states that diwans were the most sought after
consultants for caravan traders, fishermen and travelers who were about to set out on
17See William McKay, 1975:66.
18Trimingham (1980) suggests the siwa is of Persian origin, although many coastal clans that claim Arab ancestry have
used it as a symbol of their authority. It must not be overlooked that while instruments such as the siwa and the ngoma
kuu sybolized royal privilege, they were undoubtedly cared for and performed by members of the lower classes, as
discussed in Chapter 2.
journeys, and for families who were about to marry off their sons or daughters.19 In this
regard, the Vumba diwan held a position very much like other ritual experts such as Sufi
sheikhs and traditional healers, all of whom attempted to channel supernatural power in
order to care for increasingly diverse coastal communities.20
Divination is perhaps the most prominent manifestation of ritual pluralism on the
coast. In 1838, English merchant John Studdy Leigh wrote an entry in his Zanzibar dairy
that describes his meetings with several "fortune tellers," who used sand configurations,
known as "ramli,"21 to predict the arrival of a ship that he was expecting.22 Although
Islam prohibited divination, several techniques, including sand geomancy, stemmed from
a scientifically grounded field of study from which astronomy and mathematics emerged.
It was within this context that divination became part of a repertoire of esoteric
knowledge that was passed on primarily by Sufi scholars. Among such techniques was a
branch of necromancy that provided mystical interpretations by deciphering
combinations of Arabic letters in different combinations. Another traced the patterns
made by casting stones, sticks, shells, or beads to foretell the future.23
19See McKay 1975:710-711.
20 Hyder Kindy's (1972) pre-colonial history of Mombasa outlines the complex political alliances that existed between
the twelve "Swahili" tribes that lived on the island of Mombasa and the nine Mijikenda tribes that resided in the nearby
hinterland from the seventeenth century. The twelve Mombasa tribes, known as the "Kimvita", were led by a sheikh
referred to by the Arabic term tamim, who presided over a council of elders, or "wazee," a Swahili term.
21Ramli, in Swahili ,or raml in Arabic, is one form of divination that was one of a number of different practices known
in Arabic as Ilm al-falak, which combined knowledge from astronomy, writing and medicine. Raml more specifically
comes from the Arabic word al-khatt bi-raml, which is the original name for the Arab practice of making geomantic
figures in the sand. See E. Donzel, 1978.
22See James Kirkman, 1980.
23See Donzel 1978:71.
Randall Pouwels (1987) attributes the appearance of ramli on the coast to the
Omani Arabs, who reportedly used a well-developed "magico-religious" science known
in Arabic as Ilm al-falak .24 Pouwels links the use of "falaki," as it is called in Swahili, to
the introduction of Arabic medical treatments in east Africa by citing several of his
informants' claims that many of their most popular healing strategies were of Arabic
origin. Pouwels argues that because these treatments were based on the combination of
herbal medicines imported from Arabia and written messages taken from the Qur'an, they
were essentially Arabic in nature.
It is my understanding that waganga were selective about the Arabic treatments
they incorporated. Like the Arabic regalia that coastal chiefs used for symbolic power,
Arab medical prescriptions and conjuration techniques enhanced the assortment of
healing strategies, and thus increased the status of many ritual experts on the coast. A
medley of cures allowed healers to accommodate a diverse clientele that included
Africans, Arabs, Afro-Arabs, Indians, and Europeans--all of whom sought the expertise
of doctors who could successfully combine Muslim and non-Muslim healing rites.
The story of "The Battle of Shela" (1810 or 1812)25 demonstrates the significant
role that trained ritual experts, who successfully used their mystic abilities at crucial
times, have played in coastal history.26 Al-Amin Mazrui's (1995) account of the battle,
24See Randall Pouwels, 1987:121.
25Captain C.H. Stigand's version (1913), based on the narrative of The Pate Chronicle given by Mohammed bin Fumo
Umar al-Nabahani, nicknamed "Bwana Kitini," a descendant of the Pate royal family, claims the Battle took place in
1812. The so-called Lamu Chronicle claims that the Battle took place in 1810. See Marina Tolmacheva's notes, 1993.
See also Al-Amin Mazrui, 1995:67n.
26See Mazrui, 1995:66-67.
based on Freeman-Grenville's recording of The Pate Chronicle, tells of a famous Muslim
ritual expert named Mwenyi Shehi Ali, who is remembered for saving the island of Lamu
from invasion by the Sultan of Pate's army. Mwenyi Ali is said to have written the
"Attributes of God" on an egg (a Sufi symbol of life) and then broke it--sending the
Mazrui-Nabhani soldiers to their deaths. Mwenyi Ali certainly may have been a Sufi
mystic, summoned to provide spiritual intervention in a crisis situation. What is more
significant is that many people in Lamu know this version of "The Battle of Shela" and
believe it. As will be further illustrated below, Lamu town became a center of Sufi
devotional practice in the mid nineteenth-century, and cultivated a milieu that fostered a
greater communion with the Divine through spiritual innovations like the one Mwenyi
Ali is said to have used to save Lamu from a Pate invasion.
By the 1860s and 70s, Sufi practice was popular enough to have been noticed by
British Lieutenant Richard Burton. In Zanzibar, published in 1872, Burton describes
Muslims who incorporated what he refers to as "superstitions" and idolatriess" into their
ritual performances. Speaking of coastal Muslims, many of whom may have been
members of the increasingly popular Sufi brotherhoods, Burton states, "They defend
themselves against evil spirits (jinn) and bad men by Koranic versets, greegrees and
various talismans, mostly bought from the pagan mganga, or medicine man."27
Considering the ritual experimentation going on in coastal communities at the time, it is
safe to assume that the medicine men Burton refers to were a diverse group of healers of
27See Richard Burton, 1872:422. The word "talisman", or charm, is derived from the Arabic word "watalasim." The
term amulet has the equivalent "hirizi" in Swahili. See Mazrui, 1995:66.
diverse religious background, who shared sacred paraphernalia and the expertise on how
to use it.28
Several studies that focus on the history of ritual performance on the Kenya coast
shed light on where some of the non-Muslim rituals originated, and how they came to be
incorporated into Muslim ceremonies. Strobel's (1978) study includes several examples
of how coastal women combined African and Arabic symbols in their life cycle rituals.
The interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims was most intimate in the homes of
elite women, who spent most of their time in the company of their female house slaves.
In a girl's initiation ceremony called unyago, introduced to coastal people by upcountry
African slaves, the wakungwi (ritual experts) led their wari (initiates) in a sand
divination procedure that included red, white and black granules.29 The configurations
were interpreted by the wakungwi, who passed on the meaning of the shapes to the wari
by way of moral-embedded stories. As Strobel further explains, "a lizard reminds the
initiate that .. the secrets of unyago are to remain secrets. The spider is a lesson in good
motherhood, for the spiders take excellent care of their children. (And) the moon reminds
the mwari of her monthly menstruation."30 In combination, the Bantu color triad and the
spider--both popular African symbols, and the moon--an important Arabic icon,
28Johann Krapf s mission diaries from the mid nineteenth century also contain compelling evidence that Muslims and
non-Muslims continued to have a major impact on each others' ritual practices, and regularly collaborated in
developing new forms of worship based on shared cosmological belief systems. See David Sperling, 1995.
29Strobel writes of unyago as a coastal-wide phenomenon by citing references of the ritual by Carl Velten in
Bagamoyo (Tanganyika) in the 1890s and Captain Stigand in Lamu (Kenya) in 1913. See Strobel,1975:287.
30See Strobel, 1975:292. For additional information on female initiation on the coast see Sarah Mirza and Margaret
represented effective means by which upcountry female elders transformed coastal girls
It is interesting to note that slave women, and not men, were more influential as
experts of non-Muslim ritual practices on the coast. Princess Salme (Emily Ruete), who
wrote down her memories of Zanzibar in the 1880s, describes several female "diviners"
who were paid handsomely for their skills at foretelling the future and curing various
illnesses among members of the Sultan's court.31 Much of this has to do with the intimate
relationships, which formed between elite Muslim women and their female slaves, but
that is not the whole answer. Carol Eastman's (1988) theory is that slave women were
more likely to hold on to their Bantu cultural practices than were slave men, who were
more readily trained by their masters in Islamic custom. If Eastman is correct, more
African men than women would have officially converted to Islam.
Some evidence that supports this theory is T.O. Beidelman's study of nineteenth
century caravans, which suggests that Muslim traders in Zanzibar often had their male
slaves circumcised and made "nominal Muslims" so they could legally slaughter animals
for Muslim consumption on the caravans. Elmer Danielson, a Lutheran missionary who
worked among the Iramba in Ushola, Tanganyika from the 1920s, also makes the
connection between male circumcision and Islamization. Danielson (1991) explains how
Iramba boys of various religious background were considered Muslim if they were
circumcised in Muslim circumcision camps, established throughout Ushola primarily for
31See Emily Ruete (Princess Salme), 1989:98-99.
that purpose. Danielson calls this "a sly way of Islamizing Iramba society," but
acknowledges that it was extremely effective.32 Both of these accounts underscore
Eastman's hypothesis that coastal men converted to Islam in greater numbers than did
women, who typically held on to the African religious practices their ancestors had
passed down to them.
Like Strobel, David Parkin (1970) illustrates the important role that upcountry
slaves played in the development of ritual pluralism on the coast. Parkin confirms that
after 1873, when slavery was officially abolished on the Kenya coast, many freed and
runaway slaves, who had worked on Arab plantations between Mombasa and Malindi
were absorbed by Mijikenda villages in the hinterland. Parkin claims that the ex-slaves
who settled among the Rabai peoples of that area were Muslims, whose religion became
associated with their effective healing practices as well as their successful business
relations with traders in the major towns along the coast.
Because the good fortune of the immigrant Rabai was associated with the Islamic charms,
medicines and spirits they possessed, non-Muslim Mijikenda integrated many of these
elements into their own religious ceremonies. While the Giriama did not convert to Islam
in large number, they incorporated Islamic spirits into their possession cults and
integrated Islamic remedies into their healing practices.33 In the case of the Giriama,
32See Elmer Danielson, 1991:39.
33Brantley (1981) discusses the group of Giriama Muslim converts known as "Mahaji," who settled near Takaungu
town in the late nineteenth century and developed relations with the Mazrui there. Brantley's study corroborates my
own research in the hinterland of Takaungu, where I interviewed Giriama Muslims with kin ties as well as socio-
economic relationships with Mazrui families who lived in town.
Parkin reports, "(I)n some cases of spirit possession, divination, and cure, there is
acceptance of the superior ritual efficacy of Islam among a people who have persistently
rejected formal and widespread conversion to Islam."34
By the early 1900s, most of the Mijikenda had incorporated certain Muslim
customs into their ritual performances. Richard Skene's 1917 account of Malindi spirit
possession rituals describes the use of Islamic symbols to exorcise Muslim spirits (pepo)
of various kinds including "pepo ya kiarabu," "pepo ya kihabashi" and "pepo ya
kisomali."35 To appease Arabic spirits, a Muslim healer was called on to write the
Attributes of God on a piece of paper, which was then dipped into a potion for the patient
to drink. Both drums and tambourines called "matwari"36 were used to provide rhythm
for the patient, who danced with white flags on which the Qur'anic verse Alyal il kursi
was written.37 Patients possessed by Arab spirits wore Arabic-style white gowns (kanzus)
and were perfumed with imported oils (udi). In addition, rose water (mirashi), incense
(pefu), and sweet meat (halua) were shared by all of the participants at the end of the
ceremony--typical Arabic cultural traditions.38
From the mid nineteenth century Zanzibari women's spirit possession cults were
characterized by their use of matwari because the instruments signified both a sacred
34See Parkin, 1970:224-225.
35For more information on spirit possession cults, dances, and rituals see Giles, 1989; Franken, 1987.
36Matwari originate from the Arabian Peninsula, although the exact time and place they were brought to the coast is
unknown. Abdalla Kirume, a Lamu elder, suggests that the tambourines that were brought from Arabia were larger than
the matwari now used on the coast. Interviews with Abdalla Kirume of Lamu, 9.13.95; Omar Said Amin of Takaungu,
4.15.96; Mohammed Abdalla Mohammed Mazrui of Takaungu, 2.29.96; Mwalim Dini of Pate, 8.7.96.
37See Skene, 1917:422.
38See Skene, 1917:430-431.
medium of religious expression, as well as a break with the kinds of patriarchal Islamic
practices that excluded them. Because the conservative Muslim ulama generally scorned
Sufis for playing tambourines in the mosque during their weekly maulidi ceremonies, the
instruments became symbols of spiritual rebellion. As Edward Alpers (1984) explains,
"Hadhrami religious practices were both attractive and accessible to relatively
disadvantaged or deprived Swahili who did not share willingly or were denied
participation in the dominant cultural norms."39 As will be illustrated below, it is the use
of matwari and the popularization of Swahili praise poems to the Prophet, which made
Sufi performances sites for the mediation of such diverse cultural metaphors.
Perhaps the most enlightening description of the way coastal peoples shared their
symbols of ritual expression is the one provided by Mtoro bin Mwinyi Bakari, a Zaramo
Muslim from Bagamoyo, who wrote Customs of the Swahili People in the 1890s.40 In
this text, Bakari tells of the popularity of both "wild-tree" amulets and Qur'an amulets
among the late nineteenth century Swahili of the coast.41 Bakari describes the "wild-tree"
amulets as being made with roots, honey, dried herbs, snake skin and lion whisker,
depending upon the client's need. In addition, a variety of Qur'an amulets were available
for purchase, which included various verses from the Qur'an, including Yasin, the most
39See Edward Alpers, 1984:685.
40In the 1890s, a German linguist named Dr. Carl Velten asked Mwinyi Bakari and his colleagues in the coastal town
of Bagamoyo, Tanganyika to write an account of the traditions of the Swahili. The authors used Arabic script to write
the Swahili version of the text and in 1903 Dr. Velten translated and published a version in German. James de vere
Allen used Bakari's original Swahili text to work on a revised edition of in both Swahili and English. After Allen's
death, Noel King and other scholars continued the project and published The Customs of the Swahili People in 1981 in
41See Allen, 1981:60-62.
popular. These verses were written on paper that was held over incense and then sewn
into a leather pouch that was similar to those that encapsulated the roots in the "wild-tree"
amulets.42 Noting the popularity of both kinds of charms among diverse populations,
Bakari states, "Some country folk want Qur'an amulets and some town folk wild-tree
amulets."43 Bakari's account suggests that neither amulets that contained Qur'anic verse,
nor amulets filled with organic and animal matter had more ritual efficacy than the other.
Rather each offered different kinds of protection for different situations.
Combining Muslim and non-Muslim symbols is prevalent among the Bajuni
people, who occupy Lamu and Kiunga districts further north along the coast. For several
generations, Bajuni farmers have performed a series of agricultural rituals that feature
both Islamic and African purification procedures. In her study of Lamu in the nineteenth
century, Marguerite Ylvisaker (1979) mentions that cultivators who farmed the mainland
opposite the Lamu archipelago regularly consulted specialists who had training in
meteorology, astronomy, Islam and witchcraft.44 Such specialists combined practices
from each of these traditions in order to predict the proper time and diagnose techniques
for cutting, clearing and burning the forest, as well as for planting and harvesting the
crops. According to Ylvisaker, local Muslim scholars known as "walimu"45 referred to
42Lamin Sanneh devotes a section of his study on Islam in West Africa to the use of Islamic amulets. Sanneh
demonstrates how Qur'anic phrases were used in both "sacramental invocations" and "magical incantations," as well as
written down and inserted into amulets worn by pagan Bambara. See Sanneh, 1997:42-43.
43See Allen, 1981:61.
44See Marguerite Ylvisaker, 1979:46-50.
45Today, "mwalim" is the most popular Swahili term used for "teacher." In the past, mwalim was associated
specifically with an Islamic instructor, and was considered an expert in performing divination and healing rituals. See
David Parkin, 1994. See also Sanneh, 1997: Ch. 2.
Islamic texts called "kitabu cha falaki to prescribe the purification rites required of the
farmers before they cultivated new areas of the forest inhabited by evil spirits.46 My own
research confirms this practice, which is still performed today among Bajuni farmers.
One of the primary rituals that the Bajuni perform on the eve of the annual
burning is a sacrifice of goats and the distribution of the meat to volunteers who have
come to participate. This offering, or "sadaka," as it is called in Islam, is discussed rather
negatively by Ylvisaker, who suggests that the Bajuni's interpretation of giving alms
demonstrates a degradation of so called "orthodox" Islamic practice.47 In refutation of
such criticism, which is typically made by Muslim fundamentalists, the Bajuni argue that
Qur'anic recitation and prayer play a central role in the farming ceremonies they
perform.48 Bajuni forefathers developed the other procedures over time, and their
prescriptions for combating evil spirits and attracting good ones continue to be effective
means of protection.49 The notion that certain rituals are inherently more sacred than
others is simply illogical to Bajuni cultural experts, who have inherited a formula for
success that, as far as they are concerned, has endured the test of time.50
I video taped a group of farmers from Pate island in March of 1996, as they
performed Vave the night before they set fire to a large tract of pre-cut brush. To insure
46See Ylvisaker, 1979:48.
47See Ylvisaker, 1979:48-49.
48Interviews with Twahiru Ali Famau, Mohammed Kale, Mohammed Ali, and Hassan Mohammed of Lamu, 6.7.96;
Tora Abushiri of Kiwayuu, 11.11.95; Vave performers in Vumbe, 3.25/26.96; Chief Tora of Kiunga, 10.22.95.
49While the ritual practices of Bajuni farmers differ from other mainland peoples, such as the Mijikenda, Ylvisaker
suggests that the use of religious practitioners (walimu) among coastal farmers extended from Lamu to Zanzibar. In his
writings, Richard Burton made reference to a weather forecaster in Zanzibar in the 1870s, as did Sir John Gray in the
1950s. See Ylvisaker 1979:46-47.
50For another example see Peter Lienhardt, 1980.
the fire's success, which was critical because the rains had already begun, the farmers
slaughtered two goats for the evening feast and kept half a dozen chickens ready to be
sacrificed the following day if deemed necessary. After the evening meal, Bajuni
wordsmiths recited Vave in a clearing near the camp. They began each chapter with a
litany of prayers to God before reenacting the legend itself, which foretells the perilous
obstacles, which farmers are likely to encounter.
Vigorous dancing called Randa, characterized by humorous lyrics farmers
compose on the spot as they move slowly around in a circle repeatedly interrupted the
solemnity of the event. Below is an excerpt of the Vave tradition that a group of Bajuni
elders recited by memory. More of this tradition is discussed in the following chapter.
Ni kweli tavuka na mzee. Tavuka na mzee mkalia mbee mshika sukani dira
zimuele. Maana tavuka na mwalimu mwenye taalumu. Mshika uyamu jahazi
iekee. Maana tavuka na yasini isi na sura za tini mzuka na jini asituvambaze.
Maana tavuka na hitima io alotoka nyima na venye kusoma ni vanazuvoni. Hapo
tavuka na chuvo imi cha randa ikevu. Mola apendalo litaiwelea. Maana tavuka na
zikaratasi eh imi na buni nyeusi na zikaratasi kesho tutavuka nazo. Maana tavuka
na kichunga imi kesho kundi na mpunga na venye kutunga ni hulilia moyo. Haye
tavuka na kichunga eh, mvulana eh. Kundi na mpunga na venye kutunga hulilia
Its true, we need an elder to succeed at our task. We'll succeed with the help of an
elder, who will be our compass and guide us on our way. We'll succeed with a
trained mystic. We will follow the leadership of the one who guides our course.
We will succeed by reciting chapter Yasin and chapter Tini. Then the ghosts and
spirits will not come close to us. We will succeed when the scholars read prayers
for us. We will succeed with the scriptures and the land will be well cleared. What
God has planned will be. Tomorrow we will succeed with small chits of paper and
black coffee beans. We will succeed with a basket full of rice while the poets
hearts are aching. We will succeed with a basket full of rice, young man, while
the poets' hearts are aching. 51
51The Vave tradition was translated by Omari Shee and Munib Said El-Mafazy of Lamu.