Saturday, 25 September 2010


On 14 June 2007, the Hon. Ame Pandu Ame, MP for Nungwi constituency in Zanzibar, asked the following question in the Tanzanian parliament:

Given that Zanzibar is part of Tanzania, and that some animals have now disappeared from the islands, such as Ader's Duiker (Paa-Nunga), Impala (Swala), Zebra (Pundamilia), and Ostrich (Mbuni):-

Does the government not see that there is a need to take these animals (which aren't dangerous to man) over to the islands so that people can see them there?*

The Hon. Member's knowledge of his own islands' fauna was evidently on par with that of the brains behind the "Rare Animals of Zanzibar" series of stamps that was issued in the mid-1980s. Two of the mammals depicted, a rhinoceros and a pangolin, have never occurred in the wild in Zanzibar, at least not since Unguja became an island at the end of the last Ice Age. The same applies to impala, zebra, and ostrich. And although Ader's duiker (Cephalophus adersi) is classed as critically endangered, a small population still survives on Unguja island.

The Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Professor Jumanne Abdallah Maghembe, was quick to set the record straight. He began his reply as follows:

Honourable Speaker, please allow me to inform your respected Parliament that impala, zebra, and ostrich are not native to Zanzibar, but were taken there in 1980 for a show. Once the show was over, they were put into a zoo in the forest at Dole Masingini.

Honourable Speaker, because of poor management and lack of expertise, the animals broke out of their enclosures time and time again and escaped into people's farms, where they damaged crops before being killed.*

Prof. Maghembe went on to explain that there were currently no plans to import and release such animals into the wild in Zanzibar, and gave the obvious ecological and other reasons for not doing so. He also gave an update on the status of the near-endemic Ader's duiker. "The only animal thought to have disappeared from the forests of Zanzibar", he added, "is the Zanzibar leopard (Panthera pardus adersi ["adders" in the original])."

I don't know what motivated the CCM MP's question: by and large Zanzibar manages its own natural resources without reference to the mainland, and Zanzibar's wildlife isn't a normal topic of debate in the national parliament. But I do know that the liberalisation of the economy and growth of (eco)tourism in Zanzibar has made people aware of the money-making potential of zoos and animal enclosures in a way that the state-controlled experiment at Masingini could never have done. Mohammed Ayoub Haji's Zala Park, a small zoo that is best known for its reptiles, was opened in Muungoni village, close to Jozani Forest, in the mid-1990s. For a long time this was the only facility of its kind, but more recently Zanzibar's political and economic elite have begun to muscle in on the action. There's now at least one private zoo on Unguja owned by a prominent businessman. Latest on the scene is Zanzibar Park, located on a 20-acre site by the Mwera road, 3 km east of Zanzibar town. This zoo's flashy website suggests that it's a step up from Zala Park in ambition and scale -- perhaps not surprising, given that it's said to be owned by Zanzibar's First Lady, Shadya Amani Karume. It opened to the public in October 2009, and houses at least some of the species mentioned by Hon. Ame in his parliamentary question.

One animal that's unlikely to appear in Zanzibar Park anytime soon is the Zanzibar leopard. As Prof. Maghembe suggested, some zoologists think that it's extinct, though this is by no means certain (Goldman and Walsh 2002). But lack of scientific corroboration hasn't stopped the rural inhabitants of Unguja from seeing this island endemic, or believing that leopards are still being kept and used by witches (wachawi) to frighten their fellow villagers and attack their livestock (Goldman and Walsh 1997; Walsh and Goldman 2007). Leopard-keeping narratives are so pervasive and persuasive that some foreign researchers have fallen for them and gone in search of domesticated leopards. Needless to say, these kept leopard chases have always proved futile. Likewise proposals emanating from the Government of Zanzibar and local conservationists that call for leopard-keepers to display or sell their leopards for display to tourists and other fee-paying members of the public (Ame 2003). Helle Goldman and I have written about this at greater length in a recent workshop paper (Walsh and Goldman 2010), and both the abstract and now part of the text can be seen on our Zanzibar leopard blog.

Afterword (image), 13 February 2011

from the Humphrey Winterton Collection
An undated postcard from the studio of J. B. Coutinho in Zanzibar (not a wild rhino, alas!)...

(Citation: Rhinoceros, Zanzibar. Winterton Collection of East African Photographs, Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies, Northwestern University, Evanston. Object 43-1-43-1.

* My translation from the Swahili.


Ame, Mwantanga 2003. Serikali iko tayari kununua chui. Zanzibar Leo, Sunday 13 April 2003, 6.

Goldman, Helle and Martin Walsh 1997. A Leopard in Jeopardy: An Anthropological Survey of Practices and Beliefs which Threaten the Survival of the Zanzibar Leopard (Panthera pardus adersi). Zanzibar Forestry Technical Paper No. 63, Jozani Chwaka Bay Conservation Project, Commission for Natural Resources, Zanzibar.

Goldman, Helle and Martin Walsh 2002. Is the Zanzibar leopard (Panthera pardus adersi) extinct? Journal of East African Natural History 91 (1/2): 15-25.

Walsh, Martin and Helle Goldman 2007. Killing the king: the demonization and extermination of the Zanzibar leopard / Tuer le roi: la diabolisation et l’extermination du leopard de Zanzibar. In Edmond Dounias, Elisabeth Motte-Florac and Margaret Dunham (eds.) Le symbolisme des animaux: L'animal, clef de voûte de la relation entre l'homme et la nature? / Animal symbolism: Animals, keystone of the relationship between man and nature? Paris: Éditions de l’IRD. 1133-1182.

Walsh, Martin and Helle Goldman 2010. Chasing imaginary leopards: science, witchcraft and the politics of conservation in Zanzibar. Paper prepared for the VIII European Swahili Workshop, Contemporary Issues in Swahili Ethnography, University of Oxford, 19-21 September 2010.

Sunday, 12 September 2010


Last week I received my copy of a paper written with archaeologist Stephanie Wynne-Jones and just published in the journal History in Africa. It's about the changing role of slavery in the stories that local people tell about the past in Shimoni, in south-east Kenya. Here's the beginning of our paper, preferably read while listening to Roger Whittaker's "melodramatic warblings" (Trillo 2002: 514):

When Kenya-born singer-songwriter Roger Whittaker sang these doleful words in 1983, the village of Shimoni was a relatively quiet backwater on the southern Kenya coast, known primarily for its deep-sea fishing club. It is now a much larger and busier place, where tourists come to see the 'slave cave' that gives Shimoni its name (Swahili shimo-ni, "at the cave"), as well embark on boat trips to Wasini Island and the nearby Kisite-Mpunguti Marine National Park [...]. Whittaker’s song played a significant role in this development, by bringing Shimoni and its caves to wider attention, and focusing on one of a number of narratives about the caves' past usage. The lyrics of "Shimoni" did not simply embellish a local tale, but (re)created it in the image of metanarratives about the history of slavery on the East African coast. As we will argue in this paper, these metarratives now dominate reconstructions of the past in Shimoni, and are reinforced by the activities and institutions that constitute and promote the caves as an important site of cultural heritage. (Wynne-Jones and Walsh 2010: 247-248)

While Stephanie did most of the hard work, including tracking down Whittaker's lyrics, I thoroughly enjoyed my part in our joint research, which mainly comprised rummaging through old books, field notes, and my memory of the days when "Shimoni" was inflicted on the Kenyan population more often than it is now. This rummaging (I can't resist using the word twice) brought forth a series of visual delights that thrilled me even more than the aural experience of hearing Whittaker's song for the first time in many years. Here, then, are some of the images that I'd like to include in the deluxe multimedia reissue of our paper, when the world is ready for it...

Ernest Hemingway at Shimoni Camp in February 1954, after falling into a fire

The issue of Sports Illustrated which includes Robert F. Jones' seminal article about Shimoni

Front and back of Pemba Channel Fishing Club brochure with updated prices

Shimoni Reef Fishing Lodge brochure, c.1986

Wasin Island dhow trip brochure, c.1986

Kisite Dhow Safaris brochure, c.1986

Daily Nation article opening with that song, the cave, and slaves (August 1988)


Jones, Robert F. 1982. Passage to the past. Sports Illustrated 56 (5) (8 February): 92-108.

Okumu, Victoria 1988. Women strive to improve their lot. Daily Nation (Nairobi), Friday 12 August: 13.

Trillo, Richard 2002. The Rough Guide to Kenya (7th edition, updated by Okigbo Ojukwu and Daniel Jacobs). London: Rough Guides Ltd.

Wynne-Jones, Stephanie and Martin Walsh 2010. Heritage, tourism, and slavery at Shimoni: narrative and metanarrative on the East African Coast. History in Africa 37: 247-273.

Thursday, 2 September 2010


Despite its inaccessibility (it remains untranslated and copies are hard to obtain), Vinigi Grottanelli’s Pescatori dell’Oceano indiano (1955) is generally agreed to be one of the best studies of a rural Swahili-speaking community. It’s our principal ethnographic source on the Bajuni (aka Gunya, aka Tikuu), whose traditional territory comprised a long string of coastal settlements and islands between Kismayu (Somalia) in the north and the Lamu archipelago (Kenya) in the south. And the political turmoil of recent decades in Somalia has turned it into a valuable historical document, a record of a way of life that for thousands of Bajuni has been shattered by persecution and conflict.

The Bajuni minority in Somalia didn’t have a very good time during the regime of Mohamed Siad Barre (1969-91), suffering discrimination and a variety of indignities. From 1974 fishermen had their fishing gear and boats confiscated and were compelled to join government cooperatives, while some were force to move off the Bajuni islands (Abby 2005: 14). But matters went from bad to worse following the outbreak of the Somali civil war and the overthrow of Siad Barre in January 1991. Bajuni joined the general exodus of victimised groups from Somalia, and many of them fled to UNHCR refugee camps in and around Mombasa, where the Kwa Jomvu camp became their main home until it was finally closed down in 1998.

At the time I was living in Mombasa, and remember the influx of refugees – most noticeably those who were installed in St. Anne’s, near the Manor Hotel – and the flood of cheap computer equipment that also came into the port as Mogadishu descended further into chaos. Knowing that many of the refugees had come from Brava, Kismayu and elsewhere on the southern Somali coast, I realised that this might provide an opportunity to do some research on the northernmost dialects of Swahili, Mwiini (= Bravanese) and Bajuni. The linguist Derek Nurse was planning a visit to East Africa, and I suggested this possibility to him in a letter written in May 1992. But his primary target then in Kenya was the little-known Sabaki language Ilwana: he’d already studied Bajuni and had access to enough Mwiini data to be going on with (cf. Nurse and Hinnebusch 1993: 5-7).

Conducting linguistic research with Swahili-speaking refugees in Kenya might have been tricky in those early days, politically and research-permission-wise at least. The subsequent emigration of large numbers of Bajuni and others to Europe and North America has perhaps made it easier, though a generation has now grown up in a very different linguistic and cultural environment from that of their original homeland. Asylum-seekers’ histories of displacement, including their knowledge of language and place, are of special interest to the immigration authorities processing their claims and the civil society organisations and lawyers defending their rights (cf. Allen 2008). Since 2004 Derek Nurse has engaged with numerous cases of refugees claiming to Bajuni from Somalia, and this work has seen him return to research that he began in northern Kenya in 1978 (Nurse 1980).

The academic fruits of this are now online in his Bajuni Database. This comprises a general overview of ‘Bajuni: people, society, geography, history, language’, a Bajuni lexicon, a grammatical sketch (that updates Nurse 1982), and three maps (one of the whole Bajuni coast, plus sketch maps of Chovae and Chula islands). These aren’t polished documents, but are very useful nonetheless. The overview – part of which is a gazetteer of Bajuni villages down to the Kenya border – is of particular interest. Very few Bajuni remain in Somalia, and their world is clearly not what it was in the days before the dictatorship of Siad Barre and the Somali Civil War. Current prospects for research on the south Somali coast and Bajuni islands don’t look good, and recording what we know of this lost world and its former inhabitants is the best we can do. It is also important for the Bajuni diaspora, and a poignant reminder of the widespread suffering that the Somali conflict has caused.


Abby, Abdi 2005. Field Research Project on Minorities in Somalia. Unpublished report, Oxford House, London, October 2005.

Allen, Brian 2008. The Bajuni people of southern Somalia and the asylum process. The Researcher (published by The Refugee Documentation Centre, Dublin) 3 (1): 2.

Grottanelli, Vinigi L. 1955. Pescatori dell’Oceano indiano: saggio etnologico preliminare sui Bagiuni, Bantu costieri dell’Oltregiuba. Rome: Cremonese.

Nurse, Derek 1980. Bajuni historical linguistics. Kenya Past and Present 12: 34-43.

Nurse, Derek 1982. The Swahili dialects of Somalia and the northern Kenya coast. In M.-F. Rombi (ed.) Etudes sur le Bantu Oriental (Comores, Tanzanie, Somalie, et Kenya. Paris: SELAF. 73-l46.

Nurse, Derek 2010. Bajuni Database. Online at

Nurse, Derek and Thomas J. Hinnebusch 1993. Swahili and Sabaki: A Linguistic History. Berkeley: University of California Press.