Thursday, 23 December 2010


In the good old days of descriptive ethnography children's games and pastimes were treated as a serious matter. The now-defunct handbook Notes and Queries on Anthropology declared games of all kinds to be "worthy of special study", and advised fieldworkers to join in and learn to play them, as well as recording them as fully as possible (1929: 321; 1951: 334). When I began fieldwork in Usangu in 1980, Alison Redmayne encouraged me to collect children's riddles for the linguistic and cultural information they contained, much as she and other Oxford-trained anthropologists of her generation had done. But after a tentative start I switched my attention to the verbal 'games' that adults played, making no more than occasional notes on children's pastimes whenever I came across them. Sometimes they were difficult to ignore, like the boys who playfully parodied the ethnographer-as-photographer with their own clay models of my camera.

I discovered Iona and Peter Opie's The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959) in the mid-1990s and haven't tired of dipping into their work ever since, not least because it brings forth memories of my own childhood in the north-west of England. In 1998 I went through my Sangu dictionary and fieldnotes from Usangu plucking out the snippets that I'd written about children's toys, games and other pastimes. Here are some lightly edited extracts from my compilation:

Counting songs
In 1981 I recorded one childhood counting song from two adult Sangu, a man and a woman, who sang it in unison:
1. mbwe
2. yangaya
3. yapusi
4. yalima
5. tumbwe-tumbwe
6. manguluma
7. kinengu
8. nengulya
9. kilosa
10. chumilya
These apparently nonsensical 'numbers' bear no obvious relation to the Sangu cardinals in everyday use, nor other known Sangu counting systems (a cominatorial verbal sequence in use in the late 19th century and a finger counting system which is still employed). The tenth term, chumilya, appears to be a playful variant of Swahili kumi, 'ten', or one of its Northeast Coast Bantu cognates (/ch/ is not an inherited Sangu phoneme, nor is it usually retained in loanwords except in some proper names). The ninth term is possibly derived from the place name Kilosa, located in Usagara on one of the old caravan routes to the coast, though why it should be so derived is obscure (/ki/ also has a very restricted distribution in Sangu, and is probably indicative of a loan in this case: this also applies to the term for seven, kinengu). The other terms in the list share the regular phonological characteristics of Sangu, and playful etymologies might be suggested for some of them, though this would be no more than guesswork.

The Sangu version of jacks (imdodo) that I witnessed on numerous occasions in Utengule in 1980-81 was played with twelve small stones as the jacks and a small round fruit of the ilihuluhulu (Capparis tomentosa) shrub as the ball. The game is played as follows. A small hollow is made in the earth and the stones are placed inside it. The fruit is then thrown up in the air and before it is caught a single stone must be scooped up in the other hand. If more than one stone is scooped up then the extra stone(s) must be returned to the hollow on the next throw. When all twelve stone have been removed one by one in this way, they are returned to the hollow and the same procedure is repeated, this time the stones being removed in twos. Next time they are removed in threes, then fours, and so on, until all twelve stones have to be scooped up in one go. If the player errs at any point (for example by failing to catch the fruit) then it is the turn of another player (or the same player if she is playing alone) to start from the beginning again. This game is most commonly played by girls. A twelve-stone game was also observed and photographed by Kubik in 1976 in the vicinity of Mahango-Mswiswi (1978: 103). This is a version of the game called 'fivestones' by Opie and Opie (1997: 56-72).

Where's the cow?
The following guessing game is one of the most common Sangu children's games, and I watched it being played in both Utengule and Luhanga in 1981. The game is played by two opponents (often accompanied and assisted by other children) who face one another and take turns to guess in which hand the other is concealing a small stone. The stone is referred to as ing'ombe, a cow, and each turn begins with the following exchange:

Player concealing the cow: hilili, hilili (the name of the game)
Player trying to guess where it is: ing'ombe, ing'ombe, 'cow, cow'
First player again: ing'ombe yili kwi?, 'where's the cow?'

If a player guesses correctly, then he or she is entitled to advance his or her counter (also a stone) towards a goal drawn on the ground. This goal takes the form of a circle or small hollow in the middle of a pitch of typically five or six concentric circles (sometimes not completed at the sides, so that the pitch comprises two bands of lines on either side of the goal). The game starts with the two counters at the outer edge of the pitch, being moved progressively towards the centre (across individual lines) at each successful guess. The winner is the player or team whose stone counter reaches the central goal first. When I first recorded this game being played, in Luhanga, children whose turn it was to conceal the 'cow' frequently attempted to cheat by dropping the stone behind their back, so that it was in neither hand. The game is called hilili, presumably after its opening formula, the etymology of which is opaque. The same term is also used in an extended sense by many Sangu speakers to refer to puzzles and riddles in general. Hilili can perhaps be thought of as the quintessential Sangu children's game, not only because of the wider use of its name, but also because it is cast in a bovine idiom.

If I was to rewrite these notes I'd say more about the actual games I watched and the contexts in which they were played. There's a nice account by Marius Fortie (1938: 302-303) of a series of contests and games which he observed being played in the west of Usangu in September 1934, having provided the prize money himself. That's one way of getting people to play games, although it wasn't Fortie's intention to record them in any great detail.  Studying children's games isn't child's play, and I'm not aware of any attempt in East Africa to undertake the kind of research that the Opies did in England, Scotland and Wales, though there are scattered sources from which a compilation might be begun, including the now largely forgotten literature on string figures. In November-December 2002 my Hehe-speaking research assistant, Justin John Kitinye, filled six school exercise books (436 pp.) with descriptions of the games that he knew and had played as a child. I've barely begun to translate these and reflect on their significance, but am very much looking forward to it.


Fortie, Marius 1938. Black and Beautiful: A Life in Safari Land. London: Robert Hale.

Kubik, Gerhard 1978. Recording utamaduni in Tanzania - a field report from Iringa and Mbeya regions, Oct 10 - Dec 14, 1976. Review of Ethnology 5 (11-14): 81-107.

Opie, Iona and Peter Opie 1959. The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Opie, Iona and Peter Opie  1969. Children's Games in Street and Playground. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Opie, Iona and Peter Opie 1985. The Singing Game. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Opie, Iona and Peter Opie 1997. Children's Games with Things. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Redmayne, Alison 1970. Riddles and riddling among the Hehe of Tanzania. Anthropos 65: 719-813.

The Royal Anthropological Institute 1929. Notes and Queries on Anthropology (5th edition). London: The Royal Anthropological Institute.

The Royal Anthropological Institute 1951. Notes and Queries on Anthropology (6th edition). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.

Walsh, Martin 1985. Shisango Dictionary. Unpublished ms. (computer printout), Cambridge, June 1985.

Walsh, Martin 1998. Children's toys, games and other pastimes in Usangu. Unpublished ms. (draft).

Sunday, 12 December 2010


When I was a boy I loved role-playing "Cowboys and Indians". I always wanted to be a "Red Indian" (Native American), and was especially fond of mock-fighting with a bow and arrows. In one overgrown English garden I fashioned my own flightless arrows from the straight stems of Goldenrod (Solidago sp.), and have looked at this plant wistfully ever since. In many parts of East Africa archery is much more than child's play or a weekend sport, and its technology is correspondingly complex. Like many other aspects of African technology, it is also woefully understudied, as I discovered when I set about investigating Mbeere practice in (what was then) Embu District with the help of Silas Kibwece and other local research assistants in 1992-93. I've never found time to finish writing up the results, though I have posted some notes online (Nyaga 1992; Kibwece 1993; Walsh 1993). Last year I tried photographing a selection of the materials that I'd purchased from rural markets or had made for me at the time (unfortunately I've managed to lose my collection of Mbeere bows). Some of the results are shown below. I prefer the close-ups.
Mbeere iron arrowheads
Rusting Mbeere arrowhead
Painted flight bindings on arrowshafts
Decorated flight bindings
Mbeere arrows with iron arrowheads (minus fletching, eaten by insects)
Mbeere wooden arrows with detachable points
Detachable wooden points, barbed and plain
Splayed shafts and detachable points of wooden arrows
Close-up of splayed shaft and wooden point
Fletching of wooden arrows
Fletching and nock of arrow showing bindings
Close-up of nock
Mbeere leather quiver
Top end of leather quiver showing decoration
Cover of leather quiver
Open quiver showing cover and arrows inside
Close-up of open quiver and cover
Close-up of open quiver with arrows inside

Kibwece, Silas 1993. Mbeere Archery. Unpublished manuscript notes on Mbeere archery written by Silas Kibwece in May 1993 for Martin Walsh, Embu. [Answers to a list of questions asked about Mbeere archery and its technology (to fill in gaps in Walsh 1993).]

Nyaga, Alfred 1992. Mbeere Hunting, Trapping and Fishing. Unpublished manuscript notes on Mbeere hunting, trapping and fishing practices written by Alfred Nyaga in December 1992 for Martin Walsh, Embu.

Walsh, Martin 1993. Mbeere Archery and its Technology: A Preliminary Description and Analysis. Unpublished ms., draft, May 1993.

Sunday, 5 December 2010


Taita bag, sketch by James Walsh (1989)
One of the things that fascinates me about public institutions and other large organisations is the way in which otherwise subordinate departments, offices and teams can develop their own collective identity and ways of working that subvert official procedures and create spaces for autonomous (but not necessarily subversive) action. I saw this when studying a local government department in north-west England in 1979, and was especially conscious of it when working as the field manager of a UK-funded project in Tanzania two decades later (more of which, perhaps, in future posts). A nice historical example of this particular kind of institutional resistance-cum-creativity was the practice that developed among British colonial officers of keeping a "goat bag" or hidden fund for use in emergencies and to cover other contingencies that were unlikely to receive official approval. Here's Elspeth Huxley's account of its origin:
  It was in the NFD [Northern Frontier District] that that useful Kenyan institution the goat-bag was born. In the days of its conception, tax was paid in goats instead of money. Most of the goats were fed to KAR [King's African Rifles] askaris. Every one had to be accounted for to the Treasury in Nairobi. But that department's officials overlooked the fact that in any given flock of goats, births as well as deaths will occur. The district officer who started the first goat-bag did not overlook it, and gradually built up a flock that had no official existence, and that could be converted into cash by selling the animals. He also discovered that by drying and marketing the skins, his unofficial fund could be augmented. Every DC [District Commissioner] in the country was continually being confronted by a need for cash to meet unexpected demands unlikely to be sanctioned by the Treasury. The goat-bag proved to be the answer. It was not long before every DC in the country had latched on to the idea. Each commissioner kept a meticulous account of how the money was spent, which he locked away in his confidential safe, so that when the auditors came round on their annual examination of the station's accounts, the secrets of the goat-bag were concealed from their eyes.
   Every DC could give examples of the uses of the goat-bag; here is a single one. On the road between the Tanganyikan border and Nairobi, some unknown person halted his car to fire at a zebra standing on the skyline, missed and drove on. The bullet proceeded on its way until it dropped through the roof of a hut and into the head of a young Maasai girl, killing her stone-dead. Her family, according to custom, demanded blood-money: but who was to pay? In the Maasai view there was no doubt: the Government. The Treasury disclaimed all responsibility. The elders came angrily to the DC at Kajiado, who feared serious trouble should the claim not be met. The Treasury remained adamant. Luckily, the goat-bag at Kajiado was a fat one. The DC handed over twelve head of cattle and the crisis passed. (1985: 166-167)

This last anecdote was given to Huxley by Robin Wainwright (1985: 254, fn. 5), who was Kajiado DC in 1945-46.  Here's another example from the same period, related by L. S. van Aardt in a recent letter to Old Africa magazine:

  After the war I joined the Tanganyika Agricultural Department but was seconded to the Kenya Government to do locust control in the Northern Frontier District. I spent the most blissful time of my life stationed at Garissa. Abundant game covered the area. Since water was scarce, the game lived mostly near the Tana River or around a seasonal water hole at Kolbio on the Somaliland Border. The D.C. and one Policeman ran the boma. The former, Symes Thompson, used to smuggle in Joffes gin from Somaliland, which he sold to the policeman and I for five shillings a bottle. When his request for money to build a swimming pool was refused, he instructed the policeman to arrest some well-known scoundrels and made them dig a suitable hole. He bought materials using money from the "Goat Bag." (van Aardt 2010)

Construction of a sheep and goat dip (FAO)
A quick search of Google Books produces other examples in the literature on colonial East Africa, and even further afield. I don't know whether anyone has ever tried to pull this documentation together, but it would be a great research project, especially if combined with work in the archives and interviews with former colonial officers. This begs the question whether the tradition of the goat bag simply died out with colonialism or survived in some postcolonial contexts. Has it simply morphed into personal corruption? Or been reinvented by contemporary officials with more enlightened interests than the lining of their back pockets? One place to look is surely at the history and ethnography of community fundraising or harambee in independent Kenya, with its well-known propensity for serving both the collective good and the selfish desire of corrupt individuals and groups. The example given by van Aardt suggests that the potential for corruption was always present anyway in colonial practice. And there's another subject for research.

Another place to look is within modern aid programmes and projects, institutions that inherited some of the functions (and personnel) of the colonial technocracy (I can feel another dissertation proposal coming on). In my own work on projects I've never seen a goat bag sensu stricto, but have experienced 'creative accounting', by which I mean the 'bending' of laid-down procedures and rules (e.g. strictures regarding what might or might not be purchased under particular budget headings). When this is done in good faith, for the benefit of the project and its officially-sanctioned goals, we can see the spirit of the old goat bag in action. But when it's done primarily for private gain, the jury of public opinion is likely to be less forgiving -- as Elspeth Huxley was when reporting the suspicion that one former DC had made off with a government-owned lawnmower (1985: 146-147). There are, of course, many shades of grey between official audit and public morality, as the UK parliamentary expenses scandal has so amply illustrated.

The most outrageous case of creative project accounting that I've seen was in the drylands of Tharaka, where the eastern foothills of Mount Kenya slope down to the Tana River, and a British TCO (Technical Cooperation Officer) had evidently dug in the footsteps of Symes Thompson. First, let me quote from a potted history of the project in question:

The Ministry of Livestock Development, supported by the British Government’s Overseas Development Administration (ODA) looked at developing a different type of dual-purpose goat more suitable for arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL). The approach taken at the Marimanti Breeding Station in Tharaka-Nithi District (1983-1989) was to acquire several hundred Galla goats from northern Kenya and select for growth and mothering ability (Skea, 1989). The station was well-funded and as soon as this ended the manager left and the farm quickly fell into disrepair. The goats unfortunately developed beznoites [i.e. besnoitiosis], a disease which is hard to control, forcing many goats to be culled. Eventually all the goats were sold or stolen and the buildings are now used as a district headquarters. (Peacock 2007: 7)

Source: Bill Forse, Where There Is No Vet (Macmillan, 1999)
Marimanti is remote enough to deter all but the most determined auditor from visiting. Fieldworkers are another matter, and I pitched up at the Marimanti station in March 1993 for a meeting with the Kenyan manager of the Goat and Sheep Breeding Project (felicitously abbreviated to GASP). Ernest Njuguna Mbogo proved an excellent host and interviewee, and I came away with detailed notes on agricultural development and livestock production in Tharaka. But the setting of our interview was surreal: we sat by the side of the dilapidated project "goat dip", constructed by a former TCO, ostensibly for the purpose of bathing the doomed hybrid goats in insecticide. At least that's what project accounts submitted to the BDDEA (British Development Division in Eastern Africa) office in Nairobi had declared, or so it was said. Except that this particular goat dip bore a distinct resemblance to an empty swimming pool: its not-so-caprine dimensions, the well-finished tiles, what looked for all the world like a diving-board, and the poolside chairs on which we were lounging...


van Aardt, L. S. 2010. Old Eldoret: early days in East Africa. Letter to Old Africa magazine (published in full on the Editor's blog).

Huxley, Elspeth 1985. Out in the Midday Sun: My Kenya. London: Chatto & Windus.

Peacock, Christie 2007. The Goat Model: a proven approach to reducing poverty among smallholder farmers in Africa by developing profitable goat enterprises and sustainable support services (FARM-Africa Working Paper No. 9). London: FARM-Africa.

Saturday, 27 November 2010


Watching an old James Bond film last night, conversation in our bilingual household naturally turned to hairy chests. You mean "garden love", said Mama J, "bustani ya mapenzi" (lit. 'garden of love'). I'd never heard this expression before, let alone any special term or euphemism for chest hair in Swahili, so made a beeline for the nearest search engine. I missed the ending of Thunderball, but did find a handful of examples on the Swahili blogs, which have become a fascinating source for exploring contemporary Tanzanian usage. The form in general use, it seems, is English 'love garden', Swahili-ised as lavu gadeni. Mama J confirmed that in her experience it's the English expression (back-to-front or otherwise) that's widely used, rather than its literal Swahili translation, bustani ya mapenzi. "Why 'love garden'?", I asked, and she mimed the act of a love-struck woman caressing the luxuriant growth on her lover's chest. Unfortunately my own weedy patch is no match for Sean Connery's chest wig (aka rug), and I was rejected as a subject for further live demonstration.

Setting aside my disappointment, I'm still intrigued by the origin of this euphemism, whose closest equivalent in modern British parlance is 'love rug', though we also employ horticultural metaphors when describing chest hair, as indeed I've just done myself. I guess it says something that our own mocking idioms are based on the image of manufactured products (rugs and wigs) rather than natural and organic processeses (wild and cultivated growth). It isn't difficult to spot the difference and imagine how a cultural theorist might explain it. (Suggested reading: La pensée sauvage (trans. The Savage Mind) and subsequent works by Claude Lévi-Strauss, Lakoff and Johnson's Metaphors We Live By, and any number of articles produced by The Postmodern Generator.)

Searching the Internet Living Swahili Dictionary for bustani ya mapenzi (no luck) and related terms, I stumbled across the likely etymology of another fuzzy euphemism that's always puzzled me. I also first heard this from Mama J, who uses malaika, lit. 'angel(s)' (originally a loanword from Arabic), to describe fine body hair or down, like the wispy hairs on a woman's arm. (For the sake of linguistic precision I should have said earlier that Mama J speaks the Unguja dialect of Swahili, having grown up and spent half of her adult life in Zanzibar town.) From angels to body hair seems like a big conceptual leap, but the online dictionary supplies the missing link by indicating that babies and small children are referred to as angels (malaika) as well as the soft downy hair on their bodies. So it's a simple extension of meaning that had been eluding me all these years since Mama J became the mama of our own little angel (not a pet name that I'd normally use in English, but I use it to bring home the linguistic parallel), malaika and all.


Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude 1962. La pensée sauvage. Paris: Librarie Plon. (trans. 1966. The Savage Mind. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.)

Sunday, 21 November 2010


Woolworths R.I.P.
As we all know now, Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton in October during a private holiday at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in the northern foothills of Mount Kenya. Intense media speculation about the exact location and circumstances of the marriage proposal has been accompanied by interviews with Ian Craig, founding Executive Director and now Strategic Advisor of the conservancy, and other staff, all of whom have remained understandably discreet. Having worked there during his gap year, William has been a regular visitor to Lewa, and royal aides were once forced to deny speculation in the press that he was romantically involved with Jessica (Jecca) Craig, Ian's daughter.

The wildlife conservancy began life as a smaller rhino sanctuary carved out of the ranch of Ian's parents David and Delia Craig in 1983. I visited Lewa Downs in February 1992, before all of their lands had been declared a conservancy (for more on Lewa's history click here). I was working on a consultancy in Isiolo district (see Walsh 1992), and joined a group of colleagues one Saturday afternoon to visit the Craig family. We arrived unnanounced: David was away at a wedding, but we found  Delia and their son William (Ian's brother) at home. My abiding memory of this visit is drinking tea with Delia and talking about the threat of poaching and the need to erect fencing to keep the poachers out. I was particulary struck when, in the course of our polite conversation, Delia referred to the surrounding African population as "the indigenae". I'd never heard this expression before, and had to conceal my amusement: my immediate thought was that this is how one might refer to a barbaric tribe on the frontiers of the Empire, Roman, British, or whatever remnant of it survived on the Lewa Downs. Indigenae is of course Latin for 'natives', 'aborigines', 'autochthones'; it was used by Tacitus and other classical authors, and even by Emily Brontë in Wuthering Heights. Although its use by Delia that day may have been entirely innocent, I couldn't help but feel that it might be given more negative connotations.*

This was certainly the case with other expressions used by the descendants of European settlers to refer to their African bretheren. When I scribbled "INDIGENII" (sic) in my Isiolo notebook, I also wrote down a term that was said to be more widely used in the post-settler community: "NON-REFLECTORS". This, I was told, was a humorous allusion to the fact that Africans were harder to see when driving at night: their dark skin didn't reflect the light from car headlights as well as the skin of white people. This etymology further implied that if "non-reflectors" were run over at night, then was their fault rather than that of the (white) drivers who couldn't (be bothered to) pick them out. Be that as it may, "non-reflectors" is clearly a racial label or slur that many Kenyans will find offensive. Let me add, though, that I don't have any evidence for its continuing or common use in Kenya: it may be that it has fallen out of favour since I recorded it in 1992.**

A much more widespread practice was, and probably still is, use of the Swinglish phrase "the watu" to refer to Africans. Watu of course means 'people' in Swahili, but the addition of the English definite article turns this innocuous word into a racial label with negative connotations, depending on how it is used. As we can infer from the etymology and history of the infamous N-word and its use in English, sociolinguistic context is everything. I'm reminded of my own reactions to being called an mzungu ('white', 'light-skinned person, especially of European origin'). I don't mind it at home and among friends, and might use it in jest myself. But I'm not thrilled when youths and adults shout it at me in the street (I can forgive young children). This annoying habit has spawned the production of T-shirts for tourists with the ironic banner "MZUNGU" and elaborations thereof. I haven't been in a hurry to buy one of these. But I might be tempted to wear one written in Latin.

* Delia Craig (née Douglas) inherited the ranch at Lewa Downs from her stepfather, Will Powys, who was the youngest brother of the novelist John Cowper Powys and an enterprising farmer. Her mother, Elizabeth Powys (née Cross, ex-Douglas) was the hard-working granddaughter of a Viscount who became a supporter of multiracialism in Africa before the more radical agenda of decolonisation took hold (these and other details of family history are taken from Elspeth Huxley's Out in the Midday Sun). Lewa Wildlife Conservancy is now noted as conservation programme with strong community development and education components, a model for private conservation initiatives and the reinvention of 'white farmers' as ecotourist operators.

** Des Bravington tells me that this expression is also known in South Africa, and it may be that it was originally imported into Kenya from the south of the continent.


Brontë, Emily 2003 [1847]. Wuthering Heights. London: Penguin Books.

Huxley, Elspeth 1985. Out in the Midday Sun: My Kenya. London: Chatto & Windus.

Szapary, Peter 2000. The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya: A case study. In Herbert H. T. Prins, Jan Geu Grootenhuis and Thomas T. Dolan (eds.) Wildlife Conservation by Sustainable Use. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 35-50.

Walsh, Martin 1992. Community Participation in Isiolo District: Past Initiatives and Options for the Future. Annex 4 in The Isiolo District Support Programme, report submitted by Masdar Ltd. to the Overseas Development Administration (ODA), London.

Sunday, 14 November 2010


At my desk in Utengule: shoebox in the foreground
Last weekend my daughter asked me if I had any empty shoe boxes: she needed one to fill with odds and sods for an annual charity appeal. There is of course a pile of old shoe boxes in one corner of my study, waiting for the day when I abandon computers and manufactured filing systems in favour of the cheap and cheerful homemade solutions of yore. My most treasured shoe boxes lie at the bottom of the pile. One of them is filled with the slips of paper on which I recorded my Sangu (shisango) dictionary in the field; the other with subject and person indexes of my field notes compiled in the first month or so after my return to Cambridge in early 1982.

I indexed my chronologically written and organised notes at the suggestion of my research supervisor, Ray Abrahams, and having never word-processed them remain eternally grateful for this simple piece of advice. Compiling a dictionary using a card index or slips of paper was a time-tested practice, as afficianados of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary and James Murray's 'quotation slips' will know. Alison Redmayne, my ethnographic mentor, suggested I use index cards for recording Sangu when I first visited her in Oxford in April 1980. She also later recommended that I get hold of a copy of Wilfred Whiteley's 'Suggestions for recording a Bantu language in the field', an article based on a brief study of the Fipa language, in which the same method is suggested  ("It is probably easiest to begin by collecting a word-list on cards", 1964: 2). At the same time she sent me photocopies of the slips of paper on which she'd made her own small collection of Sangu vocabulary in the 1960s. And afterwards she wrote "If you do not have a filing box and cardboard index cards you can make your own index cards and use a biscuit tin - that is how my Kihehe dictionary started" (letter from Oxford dated 11 July 1980). While writing this note I asked Alison for more details: she recalls quartering quarto-sized sheets of paper to make her own cards or rather slips. For many years now she's kept these in a metal index card file drawer. This is the only copy of her Hehe dictionary, a language which very few Europeans can speak like her.  

I ended up with a shoe box. I've forgotten now whether I took this with me to Tanzania in July 1980 or obtained it when I was out there. New shoes were available in the country in 1980 but like a lot of basic goods were in short supply. Stationery, however, was essential to the functioning of the socialist state, and I had no trouble getting hold of pads of plain paper slips. Indeed there are still some unused pads in my Sangu shoe box with the price marked on them: four shillings each. Once I was installed in the village of Utengule-Usangu I set about recording Sangu vocabulary on these slips. At the same time I was learning Swahili, the primary language of my research in this increasingly polyethnic area. But collecting Sangu words and phrases provided me with endless pleasure. Even on the leanest of days I was sure to hear or elicit new items that I scribbled down on scraps of paper before transferring them to the thin slips of paper that were filed away in the box on my desk in alphabetical order within appropriate morphological categories. Let me hasten to add that I didn't study the language as systematically as I might if I knew what I do now, or my research depended on a professional description of it. To make matters worse, I've got cloth ears and struggle to hear vowel-length or distinguish tones and stress, and I didn't mark any of these. Indeed I didn't really understand the pitch accent system of Sangu until the mid-1990s (when I had time to work through and build on the work of my predecessor in Utengule, the White Father-turned-linguist Jacques Bilodeau), and a later attempt to elicit the finer points of tense and aspect in the language fizzled out in frustration. But my rough and ready dictionary was adequate for everyday ethnographic purposes, including the sociolinguistic analysis of Sangu greetings and titles that became one of the chapters of my thesis (Chapter 5, "The theory and practice of misreading greetings", 1984: 126-157).

After I'd written my thesis on the Phoenix mainframe computer in Cambridge, I typed up most of my Sangu dictionary (Walsh 1985), though I didn't get round to including all of the linguistic information from the shoe box and other notes that I'd made on language use, including transcriptions of songs and other tape recordings. And although I've since done further work on particular parts of the lexicon, including Sangu plant and animal names (e.g. Walsh 1995; 1996), I haven't made any attempt to incorporate additional terms and definitions in the dictionary, which I no longer have in electronic form (except as a scan of the computer printout). Nonetheless, I'm pleased that the contents of my old shoe box have been of some use to subsequent researchers, including linguists working for the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) (e.g. Tlustos 2000). For some years SIL researchers have used their own electronic Shoebox, "a computer program that helps field linguists and anthropologists integrate various kinds of text data".  As the blurb says, this programme "is especially useful for helping researchers build a dictionary as they use it to analyze and interlinearize text. The name Shoebox recalls the use of shoe boxes to hold note cards on which definitions of words were written in the days before researchers could use computers in the field." Such is progress, but I'd hate to be parted from my own tatty box of linguistic history.


Bilodeau, Jacques 1979. Sept contes Sangu dans leur contexte culturel et linguistique. Elements de phonologie du Sangu, langue Bantou de Tanzania. Textes des contes avec traduction et notes. Thèse de Doctorat de Troisième Cycle, Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris.

Tlustos, Martin 2000. Draft Sangu dictionary (incomplete). Unpublished ms., Mbeya, December 2000.

Walsh, Martin. 1984. The Misinterpretation of Chiefly Power in Usangu, South-west Tanzania. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Cambridge.

Walsh, Martin 1985. Shisango Dictionary. Unpublished ms. (computer printout), Cambridge, June 1985.

Walsh, Martin 1995. Snakes on the Usangu Plains: an introduction to Sangu ethnoherpetology. East Africa Natural History Society Bulletin 25 (3): 38-43.

Walsh, Martin 1996. Fish and fishing in the rivers and wetlands of Usangu. East Africa Natural History Society Bulletin 26 (3/4): 42-47.

Whiteley, W. H. 1964. Suggestions for recording a Bantu language in the field. Tanzania Notes and Records 62: 1-19.

Sunday, 31 October 2010


One of the blog posts I enjoyed last week was my colleague Duncan Green's review of Small Acts of Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity, and Ingenuity Can Change the World, a popular book by Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson about popular protests that in some cases have had far-reaching impacts. This reminded me of an incident that took place in the Tanzanian town of Iringa in early 2003, when an elderly woman bared her buttocks at men sent by the municipal council to destroy the maize she was growing on her urban plot. Deliberate exposure of the nether regions in this way is widely understood in East Africa as an act of excommunication (hence its Swahili description, kumwaga radhi, literally 'pouring away blessing', 'spilling forgiveness') and the equivalent of a grave curse, especially when undertaken by a parent or elder. I learned this some years earlier when a group of British squaddies in Nanyuki made the front-page headlines for collectively sticking their bare bums out of the windows of the bus they were travelling in. What to them was playful mooning was treated by the Kenyan media as an affront to the nation that demanded a high-level apology. (If I ever find the newspaper cutting I'll post it here. For those who want to reflect further on the humorous side of this cultural misunderstanding, then I suggest starting with Carry On Up the Khyber.)

The Iringa incident happened in February 2003, a month or so before I was due to depart after living there for almost six years. It was soon the talk of the town, and in early March I asked my local research assistant, Justin John Kitinye, to gather what stories he could about this act of resistance and the crackdown on urban maize-growing that had led to it. By the end of March he'd filled two 40-page exercise books with people's accounts of the crackdown and in particular the indignation that they felt about it. I left Iringa before I could follow up on the council's side of events, including the institutional and legal background to its actions, though I can now guess at the general outline of what happened. In 1997 Iringa joined Tanzania's implementation of the Sustainable Cities Programme (SCP), a joint UN-HABITAT/UNEP facility established in the early 1990s to build capacities in urban environmental planning and management (Nnkya 2005). Danida funding of the Sustainable Iringa Project (SIP) began in 2000 and supported a wide range of activities to improve the urban environment (Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Iringa Municipal Council 2004). Although government policy and the SCP projects promoted home gardens and horticultural production in urban areas, this encouragement didn't extend to all forms of urban agriculture in every zone. The cultivation of maize and other tall crops in built-up areas has been perceived as an environmental hazard since British colonial times, and legislated against accordingly (Foeken et al. 2004: 3, 26). The crackdown on maize growing in Iringa in 2003 evidently began as the over-zealous revival of an old by-law, unmitigated by the more relaxed attitude that prevailed in other towns with SCP Projects. And this revival may have been inspired by memories of the colonial period, when such by-laws were strictly enforced and believed to have resulted in the virtual eradication of malaria from the town, as anthropologist Alison Redmayne has reminded me.

Townspeople interviewed by Kitinye placed the blame for the crackdown squarely on the Municipal Director. It was believed that he had decided to take drastic action without reference to his peers, who anticipated a more measured campaign in which education would take precedence over enforcement, which wouldn't be contemplated until the next growing season. It was also alleged that regular council staff had refused to do the destructive work that he had ordered; instead he was compelled to employ local youths - layabouts and bhang-smokers - at a daily rate of Tshs. 2,500 each. Indeed their depredations took place in the very parts of town in which many government staff lived: parts of Kihesa, Kleruu, Gangilonga (where I lived) and Ilala. The victims of this exercise were incensed that it had begun without warning: there was no announcement that the by-law against metre-tall crops would be enforced. They were especially angry that growing crops had been destroyed and their livelihoods threatened as a result; it would have been more acceptable if they had been fined and warned not to grow corn again the following season. But their plots of green maize were slashed without notice in the name of protecting them against the malaria-carrying mosquitoes and robbers that they might harbour. Not surprisingly the crackdown produced widespread fear and dismay, as well as individual acts of resistance, often in the form of verbal threats of physical or spiritual retribution against the maize-slashers. And the most notorious protest, of course, was that of the old woman who lifted up her clothes and displayed her buttocks to the youths who were cutting down her plants.

According to Kitinye the full meaning of her action wasn't immediately understood by the young men sent to do the council's dirty work - why was this old woman showing them her butt? - and they carried on slashing. What they didn't know - or chose to ignore - was that in local Hehe culture this was a curse that could result in them going mad, blind, deaf, dumb, or physically handicapped in some other way. And so after this incident people watched and waited to see what would happen to the cursed perpetrators in the days ahead. Sure enough, the curse began to take effect. One youth was heard talking to himself out loud as though he was still giving orders while cutting maize and mocking the victims of the exercise. One man involved in the operation was said to have got up in the middle of the night and slashed his own child with a machete while imagining that he was cutting maize: his wife snatched the child off him and rushed it to the hospital, where it was treated in time. Another man started frenziedly chewing maize leaves like a cow. Yet another was suddenly stricken by stomach pains and began to defecate maize plants... Such were the tales circulating in March 2003, along with the more prosaic news that the Iringa Urban MP, Monica Mbega, had hurried back from parliament and met with victims of the exercise and local leaders to discuss the gross injustice that had occurred. As a result the regional administration halted the operation against  maize growers. This was a small victory for the protest, but it didn't end the council's use of its by-law against tall crops, and reports from Iringa in February this year (e.g. on Francis Godwin's blog) indicate that urban cultivators continue to be harassed for what is supposed to be their own good.


Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Iringa Municipal Council 2004. Project Document: Sustainable Iringa Project - Phase 2: January 2005 - December 2006. Dar es Salaam and Iringa: Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Iringa Municipal Council.

Foeken, Dick, Michael Sofer, and Malongo Mlozi 2004. Urban Agriculture in Tanzania: Issues of Sustainability (African Studies Centre Research Report 75). Leiden: African Studies Centre. 

Nnkya, Tumsifu Jonas 2005.  The Sustainable Cities Programme in Tanzania 1992-2003: From a City Demonstration Project to a National Programme for Environmentally Sustainable Urban Development. Nairobi: UN-HABITAT and UNEP.

Monday, 18 October 2010


Twenty-five years ago I went to a World Food Day celebration at Kaloleni in the palm-covered hills to the north of Mombasa. The meeting was presided over by the Kaloleni Divisonal Officer and attended mainly by government agricultural staff and the members of women's groups from the surrounding area. The centrepiece was a display of local foods which everyone was invited to inspect and then taste - after the obligatory singing, speechifying, certificate-giving, and distribution of bottles of sugary-sweet soda. Apart from purple maize cobs and meal of a kind that might have excited Barbara McClintock, the most notable of the local delicacies on offer were roasted rodents. At a glance these looked like grilled fish, but I was assured that they were indeed kadzora (pl. udzora) as this "wild rat" was called in Giriama and other northern Mijikenda dialects. The D.O., who was a Luhya from western Kenya, began his speech by referring to the wide variety of foods on display, "plus kadzora", implying that this particular kind of bushmeat didn't quite qualify. Diets divide cultures and subcultures, and the consumption of rodents and other unusual foods is a marker of social difference that is a staple (no pun intended) of everyday humour (kadzora has now made it onto online chat forums) and of 'human interest' stories in the media (e.g. Lukumbo 1995; Ringa 2004).

Coincidentally, walking back from the meeting in Kaloleni to Chilulu, in Jibana location, we passed some children digging for kadzora. I was told that they could also be caught at night in traps made with a coconut shell. On another day, walking to nearby Tsakarolovu (where anthropologist David Parkin worked), I again saw signs of digging for kadzora, and was told that the burrows could be up to a metre in length. One of my companions asserted that kadzora was in fact a Giriama name for an animal that Jibana and Chonyi speakers called pingi (I now doubt this, for reasons discussed below). I had no idea at the time what kind of "wild rat" this might be. The Rev. W. E. Taylor defined Giriama kadzora as a "mole" (1891: 63); Florence Deed as both a "mole" (presumably after Taylor) and a "little black field rat" (1964: 25).The only zoological clue I have since found comes from an old collection at Wema in the Tana Delta where kadzora was given as a Lower Pokomo name for the zebra mouse Lemniscomys griselda (Allen and Lawrence 1936: 106). Lower Pokomo and Northern Mijikenda are neighbouring and closely related groups of dialects, and it may well be that Giriama kadzora also refers to zebra mice and/or other edible murids (cf. Kingdon 1997: 213).

Writing circa 1914, Arthur Champion described a Giriama small mammal trap as follows:

  A most efficacious rat trap is made by splitting down the end of a thick sapling into eight sectors. These are opened out and thin pliant twigs are woven in and out in the manner of a hurdle till a funnel some six or eight inches long is formed. A string made of sisal fibre is attached to the other end of the sapling, which is bent over like a bow. A noose [...] is made at the other end of the string and held by a peg resting against a notch in a small stick or thorn on which is fixed a grain of maize. The slack of the noose is so placed that the rat must put its head and neck right through in order to get at the grain. The slightest agitation of the grain releases the peg, the sapling straightens and the noose tightens. (Champion 1967: 46)

I didn't get my hands on one of these until November 1991, during a family visit to Gede (Gedi) Ruins when we wandered into the artificial 'Giriama village' where groups of tourists pay for dance performances (we watched one that was already paid for) and are sold various knick-knacks and handicrafts. Among the tourist tat were some functional items, including small mammal traps (Giriama muhoto, pl. mihoto). Two types of trap were for sale: the funnel trap described by Champion (muhoto wa mbugu, where mbugu is the creeper it is woven with), and one in which the funnel was replaced by the empty half-shell of a baobab fruit (muhoto wa uyu), with its lovely velvety exterior. Taylor's dictionary also refers to this type (1891: 106), while Deed alludes to similar traps in which the body is supplied by a half-coconut (1964: 60) - the kind I was told about on the way to Chilulu. The funnel trap is depicted in a popular book about the Mijikenda (Mwangudza 1983: 18, Fig. 5); the baobab-shell type in studies of the utilisation of the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, near to Gede (e.g. Mogaka 1991: 58). Mogaka also illustrates what appears to be a larger version of the funnel type, called kizimba and baited with small mammals to catch medium-sized mammals (1991: 55, 59; 1992: 23, 26). A "Tumbatu Monkey Trap", described by Ingrams from the north of Unguja island, Zanzibar, is similar in design and construction: it comprises a baited peg and noose inside a wicker funnel; when sprung the noose tightens on the monkey's hand (1931: 294-295). I've also discussed these parallels in my paper on 'Island subsistence' (2007: 92). According to studies in the Arabuko-Sokoke, the smaller traps are used to catch elephant shrews and small mongoose as well as rats and mice (Mogaka 1992: 23; Fitzgibbon et al. 1995; 2000).

I elicited the Giriama names of the traps from one of the sellers, who hailed from a village just north of Malindi. I also wrote down the names of different components: the sisal string (lugwe lwa konje), bait (chambo), and the peg used to set the trap (katoyo ka muhoto). He said that they were used to catch both kadzora and the tastier tali, a field-mouse "much esteemed by the Giryamas as a great delicacy" according to Taylor (1891: 64). The tali (thali in current orthography) has been identified at Gede as the Fringe-tailed gerbil, Tatera robusta (syn. Gerbilliscus robustus) (Costich 1977: 12). My Giriama informant contrasted these with the light-colored, long-snouted p'inji, which dies when it crosses a path and is inedible. This creature is a common ingredient in the making of Giriama arrow poison, and although I didn't know it at the time, is a generic name for shrews, inlcuding the white-toothed shrews, Crocidura spp. (cf. Walsh 1992). Giriama p'inji is cognate with Jibana / Chonyi pingi (see above), and I would be surprised if they didn't have the same basic range of reference. Shrews are insectivores, not rodents, but this distinction isn't made by Mijikenda speakers, nor, to my knowledge, is it recognised in other East African ethnotaxonomies.

There are no doubt other edible rodents that he did not mention. I came across one of the largest in our garden in Nyali, Mombasa, in May the following year. This is was a dead giant pouched rat - I assumed an immature or small female Cricetomys gambianus - 67 cm from the end of its nose to the tip of its tail, 35 cm of which was the length of its tail. It had puncture marks under one of its eyes and on one of its back legs, and I wondered whether it had been killed by a snake. I stuck it in the fork of a tree. Karisa, our Giriama-speaking gardener, identified it immediately as k'uhe (pl. k'uhe), the largest kind of rat that he knew. He added that two kinds are recognised: the k'uhe which comes out with the moon, and collects a lot of food, and the k'uhe of dark nights - there being nothing to distinguish them other than this difference in their behaviour. Yes, he said, k'uhe are eaten, and like other rodents roasted in their skins once the fur has been scraped off. A single rat can feed four people. Now there's something to chew on for another World Food Day.

Thanks to James Walsh for digging out the photo from our trip to Gede Ruins as well as the funnel trap he purchased there. Not long after they were written Liz Wiley kindly sent me copies of the KIFCON reports about the utilisation of the Arabuko-Sokoke. I am also grateful to John Fanshawe for sharing later papers about the research there.


Allen, Glover M. and Barbara Lawrence 1936. Scientific results of an expedition to rain forest regions in eastern Africa. III: Mammals. Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College 79 (3): 31-126.

Champion, Arthur M. 1967. The Agiryama of Kenya (RAI Occasional Paper No. 25, John Middleton ed.). London: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

Costich, Denise E. 1977. A checklist of mammals in Gedi National Park with KiGiriama names. East Africa Natural History Society Bulletin (January / February): 12-13.

Deed, Florence 1964. Giryama-English Dictionary. Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau. [page numbers refer to the printout of an electronic copy.]

FitzGibbon, Clare D., Hezron Mogaka and John H. Fanshawe 1995. Subsistence hunting in Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, Kenya, and its effects on mammal populations. Conservation Biology 9 (5): 1116-1126.

FitzGibbon, Clare D., Hezron Mogaka and John H. Fanshawe 2000. Threatened mammals, subsistence harvesting, and high human population densities: a recipe for disaster? In John G. Robinson and Elizabeth L. Bennett (eds.) Hunting for Sustainability in Tropical Forests. New York: Columbia University Press. 154-167.

Ingrams, W. H. 1931. Zanzibar: Its History and Its People. London: Frank Cass.

Kingdon, Jonathan 1997. The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. San Diego: Academic Press.

Lukumbo, Lucas 1995. Man who eats, sells rats talks [sic]. Daily News (Dar es Salaam), Wednesday 26 April 1995: 6. [An article about a Makua rat-catcher and roaster in Mpindimbi village, Masasi district, Mtwara region.]

Mogaka, Hezron R. 1991. Local Utilization of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Reserve. Report to the Kenya Indigenous Forest Conservation Project (KIFCON), Forest Department, Kenya.

Mogaka, Hezron R. 1992. A Report on a Study of Hunting in Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Reserve. Report to the Kenya Indigenous Forest Conservation Project (KIFCON), Forest Department, Kenya.

Mwangudza, Johnson A. 1983. Mijikenda (Kenya's People, Margaret Sharman ed.). London: Evans Brothers Limited.

Ringa, Mathias 2004. Kilifi village where mice is [sic] a delicacy. The Standard (Nairobi), 4 November 2004.

Taylor, W. E. 1891. Giriama Vocabulary and Collections. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Walsh, Martin 1992. Elephant shrews and arrow poison. East Africa Natural History Society Bulletin 22 (2): 18-21.

Walsh, Martin 2007. Island subsistence: hunting, trapping and the translocation of wildlife in the western Indian Ocean. Azania 42: 83-113. (With an online appendix: Island mammal lists and local names.)

Sunday, 10 October 2010


Ali Sultan Issa in 1970 (from Burgess 2009)
I've lost count of the number of times I travelled on the overnight train between Mombasa and Nairobi in the second half of the 1980s and the early '90s.When I could afford it, and tickets were available, I booked first class, which meant sharing with just one other passenger, or, if I was lucky, having a compartment all to myself. I met some interesting people on these journeys, not to mention one or two with unendearing habits (I tried to avoid second class travel because it increased the chances of having to share with a group of late-night boozers and/or early-morning throat-clearers). The most memorable of my companions was Ali Sultan Issa, who drank and smoked freely on our journey out of Nairobi while entertaining me with the abridged story of his life as a revolutionary, Zanzibar government minister, long-term detainee, and investor in the fledgling tourist industry. I'd never been to Zanzibar or read up on its history, and took less note of his beery boasts and confessions than I might have done if I'd known that in a few years time I'd be living and working there myself. He left me with a copy of his business card, advertising one of his business ventures and inviting me to visit. But I didn't look him up when I arrived in Zanzibar in 1994, and haven't seen him since the night we spent together on the train to Mombasa.

This week I've been dipping into Thomas Burgess' Race, Revolution, and the Struggle for Human Rights in Zanzibar (2009), which twins the memoirs of Ali Sultan Issa, revolutionary-turned-capitalist, with those of Seif Sharif Hamad (Maalim Seif), also a former government minister, and now leader of the opposition Civic United Front (CUF). It's a fascinating contrast, and there are many aspects of their accounts that invite further comment. It was clear when we met that Ali Sultan relished his self-image as a likeable rogue, and the edited memoir captures this perfectly. Despite eventually becoming a victim of the regime that he served, he looks back fondly at his radical past and role in the events that preceded and followed the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964. We must be grateful, I suppose, for his candid discussion of particular episodes in his political career, while wondering what grisly details he has omitted in his description of the Terror that he was complicit in. Here he is, for example, talking about the brief period he spent as area commissioner in Chake Chake on Pemba island in the early days of the Revolution:

     There was a breakdown of law and order; people would not take their cases to court, only to administrators like me from the revolutionary government. At the time, a decision came from Zanzibar Town that was sent to the regional commissioner in Pemba, Rashid Abdalla. Instead of putting people in jail, all offenders were to be flogged and then released. That was the decision. I thought it better than sending them to prison because if you send a bread earner to prison, you ruin the whole family. When he is gone, the family invariably disintegrates. When the man is inside, people can do anything to his family, like rape his wife and plunder his goods.
    So I sat in a chair in the marketplace, and I dispensed punishments. We did the caning openly, for people to see, so they would behave themselves. Any offense would lead to flogging. I prescribed a maximum of twenty-one strokes, mostly for thieving, not for political reasons. I never caned a woman, but I did order seven strokes for a homosexual who dressed like a woman and even wore beads around his waist. This was an open violation of our customs. We have a saying here: Ukifanya kwa siri, Mungu atakuhukumu kwa siri. If you do something in secret, God will judge you in secret. He was openly dressing like a woman, so I ordered him to be publicly caned.
    I tried in most cases to reconcile those who came to report offenses... (Burgess 2009: 91)

Despite this conciliatory impulse, he also describes using the cane elsewhere:

    Sometime I would even take a cane through the streets and chase away anyone not working, not building the nation. So many people in Pemba just sit under their clove trees and wait for the harvest time to come. I would first speak to them and try to mobilize them through words; but after that, I did not hesitate to cane people if I found them sitting around when it was time to work. (Burgess 2009: 95)

Contrast this with Maalim Seif's recollection of the terror on Pemba, including its origins in the unpredictable behaviour of 'Field Marshal' John Okello and a different take on Ali Sultan's role:

    When Okello arrived in Pemba, he moved with a contingent of heavily armed followers in about three land rovers. They were a mixed group of mainlanders and Shirazi but mostly ASP [Afro-Shirazi Party] supporters from Unguja. Okello started the punishment of caning and whipping people; he would give orders, and his proteges would obey. Okello liked, in particular, to humiliate Arabs from Oman, called Manga Arabs. The sultans and the ruling class were of mostly Omani origins, so Okello believed it was their turn to be humiliated. Okello rounded up Arabs and ordered them to sing words like uhuru na jamhuri, meaning freedom and the republic, over and over again. They were forced to praise Karume, and then he would order their beards to be shaved without water, just dry. I personally saw this take place in Wete in February 1964.
    Even when Okello passed by on the road, all the people had to come out and wave, and often when he saw an Arab with a beard, he would immediately stop his car and start to abuse him. For Arabs from Oman, their beards were a status symbol and a sign of respect; if they were shaved dry and in public, it was a great humiliation. Under normal circumstances, they would have fought to defend their honor, but at the time they were subdued and forced just to take it.
    Karume's government soon appointed new government officers in Pemba. They began to announce public floggings, encouraging people to attend. These were always political floggings: for not standing up when an official passed, for not showing up for nation-building projects, or for not attending public rallies. But if you cannot flog your own child, how can you flog someone older than you? It was especially wrong for a young guy like Ahmed Hassan Diria, district commissioner in Wete, to order the flogging of his elders. Ali Sultan Issa, the district commissioner in Chake Chake, was there for only two months, but in those days, he also really abused his power. His successor, Issa Shariff Musa, never flogged anybody. (Burgess 2009: 187-188)

Ali Sultan also refers to Okello's capriciousness ("...there was even a point when he threatened to have all us area commissioners flogged") while denying, like official government sources, his importance to the Revolution (Burgess 2009: 87, 93). And he further downplays his own part in the Terror by emphasising that the rot didn't really set in until after his departure:

After I left, I heard that, in Pemba over the years, the political die-hards suffered hardships depending on their status in the society. The higher they were before the revolution, the lower they were brought, even, say, to sweep the streets. Men had their beards shaved, just to humiliate them. It was rather excessive, and had I been there, I would have protested. (Burgess 2009: 97).

But as Maalim Seif makes clear (and Burgess in a footnote), these excesses were already taking place, and Ali Sultan was not an innocent bystander. Here is the CUF leader's account of the continuing Terror on Pemba:  

Maalim Seif (source: Zanzibar Daima blog)
    Although more people died in Unguja than in Pemba during the revolution, in the years afterward, the people of Pemba suffered more. We called Rashid Abdalla, our regional commissioner during those years, Mamba, meaning crocodile in Swahili. When a mamba eats you, tears come to his eyes, showing his pity as he kills you. Sometimes Mamba would call for a public rally, and if anybody did not attend, the whole village would be punished. Such punishments took place only in Pemba, not in Unguja. The authorities instituted public floggings for the most trivial offenses, for example, if the regional commissioner passed in his car and you did not stand up. After a while, the students in Pemba learned by reflex to stand at attention whenever they saw any car, assuming a party dignitary was passing.
    All the colonial sheha were terminated, including my father. ASP branch chairmen assumed their administrative duties, and sometimes they would put an entire village under curfew and require every male to go to the marketplace to be flogged, especially if that community formerly supported the ZNP [Zanzibar Nationalist Party] or ZPPP [Zanzibar and Pemba People's Party]. My own village [Mtambwe] was once put under curfew, and the police came there and dragged all the men from their homes, including my father. They were led to the school where the police stood in two lines facing each other. Each man was told to pass through the lines, and every policeman beat him with a club or anything that was handy. My father was beaten in this way and afterward was bleeding seriously. Nobody was allowed in or out of the village, so all the beaten men were denied medical treatment. My own brother had to come secretly by canoe to smuggle medicine to my father. Unfortunately, my father never fully recovered from that experience; for him, that was the beginning of years of poor health and sickness. (Burgess 2009: 197-198)

Pembans still refer to the period from the Revolution to around 1968 as 'siku za bakora', 'the days of the cane', describing this as a systematic campaign of humiliation by a government that was bent on disciplining the island's population and quelling perceived resistance to the Revolution (Arnold 2003: 292-297). Ali Sultan was a willing participant in the early days of this campaign, which he justifies with reference to the need to restore social discipline and establish the new socialist paradise. As a minister in Karume's government he was both unwilling and unable to resist its perpetuation, except by undertaking individual acts of leniency, one of which Maalim Seif describes (Burgess 2009: 200). And although he correctly identifies some of the disastrous political and economic decisions that the dictatorial Karume made, his understanding of their causes and consequences remains questionable. This is particularly evident in his account of the policies that led to recurrent food shortages, when he says that "I believe that Karume had the right intentions, but the results were negative. There was widespread hunger, although no one actually died because in the rural areas people had cassava and bananas" (Burgess 2009: 127). This is not how Pembans remember the suffering that culminated in the island-wide famine of 1971-72, and Maalim Seif's description of their resort to famine foods and smuggling is echoed in other accounts (Arnold 2003: 332-337; Walsh 2009b; Burgess 2009: 195-196). Memories of these and other insults are integral components of contemporary traumas (cf. Walsh 2009a) and the anger that sustains the political opposition in Pemba. As Lord Acton's (corrupted) saying goes, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And, I might add, its corrosive effects can't be shrugged off in a memoir or drunk away on an overnight train.


Arnold, Nathalie 2003. Wazee Wakijua Mambo / Elders Used to Know Things! Occult Powers and Revolutionary History in Pemba, Zanzibar. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University.

Burgess, Thomas G. 2009. Race, Revolution, and the Struggle for Human Rights in Zanzibar: The Memoirs of Ali Sultan Issa and Seif Sharif Hamad. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Walsh, Martin 2009a. The politicisation of Popobawa: changing explanations of a collective panic in Zanzibar. Journal of Humanities 1 (1): 23-33.

Walsh, Martin 2009b. The use of wild and cultivated plants as famine foods on Pemba island, Zanzibar. Études Océan Indien (Special issue: Plantes et sociétés dans l’océan Indien occidental) 42/43: 217-241.