Sunday, 30 May 2010


Mumiani and chinjachinja were once the very stuff of urban legend in East Africa, and they haven’t entirely remained in the graves that historians implicitly consign them to.

Although Luise White in Speaking with Vampires (2000) claims these two terms for blood-takers to have been synonymous in everday use, etymology and distribution suggest that this hasn’t always been the case. Mumiani is a coastal Swahili term with an Indian Ocean pedigree that can refer both to the imagined drawers of blood as well as the medicine made from it; while chinjachinja and its variants is a a rather more literal name for the supposed perpetrators of these and other crimes. The reduplicated Swahili verb kuchinjachinja means ‘to slaughter, cut throats again and again’, and by extension ‘kill repeatedly, commit mass murder’. I first heard stories about the wachinjachinja of the colonial era and after in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania in the early 1980s, and it’s a name that seems to have a much wider currency up-country.

In October 2000 I asked a 34 year-old Zanzibari woman what she understood by mumiani and chinjachinja. There is, she said, an obvious difference. The mumiani take blood and sell it, but don’t kill their victims, leaving them with some blood in their bodies. The chinjachinja, however, kill and cut up their victims for their own purposes (whatever these may be). She remembered mumiani from Zanzibar. When she was a child there was a European couple living alone at Gymkhana (near Kilimani and the cemetery), where they had a large garden with a lot of trees in it. They were said to be mumiani and children were told not to pass there at dusk or after. This warning was repeated by a lot of people; and in the same context she and other children were also told not to let strangers escort them anywhere.

More recently, in the last couple of years (i.e. between 1998 and 2000), she had heard a story about chinjachinja in Dar es Salaam. A rich man with a large house in Oyster Bay (she didn’t know whether he was European or not) was said to have helpers who enticed women there with money. He has sex with them, then drugged, killed and cut them up. He kept the heads, breasts and genitalia of his victims, but chopped the rest of their bodies into pieces and flushed them into the sea down a drain. One day a woman who was a habitual drug-user brought to his house. One of the guards there had some connection with and knew her. When her host slipped pills into her drink she was unaffected, and while he was taking a bath she saw the heads of previous victims in his fridge. The friendly guard came and told her to run away with him, and she did. They told the police who went to the house that same night. But the killer was long gone, and only some of the evidence of his killing remained – the body parts that he kept.

My Zanzibari informant heard this last tale in a hair salon in Dar and relayed it to me in a hotel on the Msasani Peninusla, just round the corner from one of the city’s most notorious expatriate pick-up bars and a road leading down to Oyster Bay that turns into a mecca for kerb-crawlers after dark. Whereas her memory of mumiani in post-revolutionary Zanzibar conjured up warnings from the colonial (and perhaps even precolonial) past, this story of a chinjachinja in Dar had all the flavour and ingredients of a contemporary urban legend – and what better place than a modern hair salon to hear it. There’s nothing about ‘vampires’* or blood-suckers here – who knows why the killer wanted to kill and dismember his female victims in this way? The parts he is said to have kept suggest a sexual motive, and make this a moral tale about the exploitation of vulnerable women by wealthy (and often foreign) men, a reflection of the setting in which it was told. And the gruesome picture it paints is uncomfortably close to the known practice of real mass-murderers, including the case of Bradford’s ‘crossbow cannibal’ that is filling the British Sunday papers as I write.

* Speaking with Vampires is a catchy title for a great book but Luise White’s generic use of ‘vampire’ is open to question, as are a number of her observations on etymology and translation. And she is wrong when says that “[t]here are no words in the languages of the people I write about for blood-drinker or blood-taker” (2000: 10). Swahili mnyonya-damu, ‘blood-sucker’, is one for a start.

Sunday, 23 May 2010


Last year (2009) Nature Kenya / the East Africa Natural History Society (EANHS) published its Checklist of the Birds of Dakatcha Woodland, an Important Bird Area (IBA) in the hinterland of Malindi on the Kenya coast. The woodland is home to a number of globally threatened and near-threatened bird species and is itself threatened by illegal commercial agricultural development. One of the birds under threat graces the checklist’s cover: the beautiful Fischer’s Turaco (Tauraco fischeri), known as kulukulu in the Giriama (= Giryama) language. This is the first checklist of its kind in Kenya to include the vernacular names of birds recorded and cross-checked by local community members. It was edited by Fleur Ng’weno, the Honorary Secretary of the EANHS, and I played a minor role by reviewing the Giriama names and advising on a consistent orthography.

I’d been keeping a file of bird names in Giriama and other Mijikenda languages since 1992, when I met ornithologist John Fanshawe in Mombasa and we discussed the possibility of working on my largely dictionary-derived list together with David Ngala, a colleague of John’s at the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Reserve. Unfortunately other work took us both away from the Kenya coast and nothing came of this planned collaboration, although we didn’t entirely give up on the idea and I continued adding to my list of Mijikenda names. I never did get to meet David, and so was delighted to see that he was one of the main contributors to the Dakatcha checklist. The matching of local names with reliable ornithological identifications transformed my untidy lexical collection, and I’ve typed up a working list of Giriama names incorporating the new information from Dakatcha. Linguistic and ethnobiological research like this won’t by itself save endangered flora and fauna, but experience suggests that it does have a part to play in combatting the ignorance of local knowledge and practice that all too often accompanies extractive development.

Afterword, 29 July 2010

Further information and up-to-date news on the land grab that is threatening Dakatcha woodland is available on the A Rocha Kenya website: see for example this recent post on the use of violence against conservation staff and a reporter. ActionAid is running an appeal for international support against the commercial cultivation of Jatropha curcas at Dakatcha, part of its wider campaign against biofuel production. Resources on the problem of land grabs in Africa can be dowloaded from the Oxfam pages on land rights in Africa maintained by Robin Palmer.