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.

Saturday, 2 October 2010


Ernest Hemingway, Serengeti Plain, January 1934 (JFK Library)
For many years I've wanted to write something about 'bad Swahili', the mangled snippets of the language that appear with depresssing frequency in the works of otherwise literate European and American writers striving to add local spice to their fictional and factional accounts of life in East Africa. My principal inspiration was Ernest Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa, his lightly fictionalised account of a hunting safari in northern Tanganyika in early 1934. When I first read this book in Mombasa I was deeply unimpressed by its subject matter as well as the smattering of misspelled and ungrammatical Swahili that Hemingway used to colour his tale. Rather like the self-indulgent travel diaries of contemporary overlanders, it dwells too long on personal experiences and relationships, and caricatures Africans and their own relationship to the environment in which it is set. Instead my sympathies lie with the Austrian plantation manager 'Kandisky', who describes Hemingway's hunting as "this silliness of kudu" (2004a: 17) and invites him to "take a safari to study the natives" (2004a: 21). The real-life 'Kandisky', Hans Koritschoner, followed his own advice, and became the Tanganyika government sociologist Hans Cory, though commentators on Hemingway's book have generally missed this connection (e.g. Ondaatje 2003: 124-125).*

Researching a recent paper (see my post on Heritage, tourism, and slavery at Shimoni) brought me back to Hemingway, and a month ago I picked up a copy of Christopher Ondaatje's Hemingway in Africa (2003). Ondaatje's own mistranscribed Swahili ("Jumbo, habari, poleya safari") reminded me of Hemingway's, and I then bought new copies of the books that I'd left behind in Mombasa so that I could have another look. There certainly is some bad Swahili in Green Hills of Africa. Here are some of the misspelled words and phrases (all converted to lower case and italicised), with correct forms and glosses shown in parenthesis: b'wana (bwana, master), b'wana m'kumba (bwana mkubwa, big boss), doumi (dume, male), faro (faru, rhinoceros), manamouki (mwanamke, woman), m'uzuri (mzuri, good), n'dio (ndiyo, yes, it is), tarahalla (palahala, sable antelope), tendalla (tandala, kudu). Hemingway refers a number of times to his use of a dictionary when trying to communicate with Africans (2004a: 96, 115, 122, 129, 155, 156, 163, 165). This was probably A. C. Madan's English-Swahili Dictionary (first published in 1884), which is known to have been in Hemingway's library in 1941. Indeed the library list suggests that he may have owned two copies of it, or perhaps both the English-Swahili and Swahili-English volumes, the latter published in 1903 (Brasch and Sigman 2000: 238, No. 4147). Madan was a reliable source, and his work provided the foundation for Frederick Johnson's A Standard Swahili-English Dictionary (1939), which Hemingway obtained later, together with other works on Swahili. If Hemingway had used Madan then he shouldn't have made so many mistakes. But on his own account he couldn't always find the words that he was looking for, and he may well have misheard some of the terms that his hunting companions used, including the place names and other proper nouns that he also gets wrong. The insertion of an apostrophe to denote syllabic nasals in word-initial position (m'- and n'-) was once a relatively common practice, and Hemingway may well have picked this up from other sources. In his later story 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro' (2004b) it's notable that he (or his editor) gets the transcription of Bwana right.

Hemingway's hunting party, February 1934 (JFK Library)
So much for Hemingway's mistakes. More interesting, perhaps, is the evidence that Hemingway was reflecting contemporary Swahili usage, and in particular the pidginised variety of Swahili sometimes referred to as Kiset(t)la, the simplified idiom used by European settlers to communicate with their African employees, and vice versa. In his study of Kisetla, linguist Anthony Vitale declared that "The African novels of Hemingway (e.g., The Green Hills of Africa) and Robert Ruark (e.g., Uhuru, Something of Value) abound with utterances in KiSetla" (1980: 65, fn. 9). In Hemingway's case this is something of an exaggeration - most single Swahili words that he uses can't be construed as belonging to any specific idiom - but there are some words and phrases in his text that can be identified as typical Kisetla forms. These include lack of proper noun class prefixes and agreements (Wakamba instead of Kikamba, the Kamba language; manamouki kubwa sana instead of mwanamke mkubwa sana, or preferably jike kubwa sana, very large female), the use of hapana as a generalised negative (hapana m'uzuri for si nzuri, it's no good), and use of the simple imperative as a generalised verb form (piga for amepigwa, s/he's hit; piga m'uzuri for mpigie vizuri, hit him/her properly). These words and phrases are put in the mouths of both the European narrator and his African companions, suggesting a shared usage. Indeed Hemingway was well aware that he was using a pidginised Swahili, and makes this explicit when he writes: "I got the dictionary out of my pocket and made a sentence in pigeon Swahili" (2004a: 96), 'pigeon' being a variant of the now more common linguistic term 'pidgin'.

Hemingway's first East African safari took place in the decade that the existence of Kisetla and related Swahili pidgins in Kenya was first brought to general attention. A translation of the Gospel of Mark into 'Kitchen Swahili' was published 1931. A humorous article on 'Kisettla' ("by J. W.") was printed in the East African Standard in 1932 and later circulated as an illustrated pamphlet. In 1933 a language teaching manual was written for the King's African Rifles, using the soldiers' own idiom which is referred to variously as KiKAR, Kikeya, and Kivita (Newell 1933; Mutonya and Parsons 2004). The first of many editions of F. H. Le Breton's Up-Country Swahili Exercises for the Soldier, Settler, Miner, Merchant, and their Wives was published in 1936. Although it didn't pretend to describe Kisetla, it did reproduce many of its best-known features, including those mentioned above and others, such as the the generalised use of mingi to mean 'many'. This was no doubt the kind of Swahili spoken between the Kenya-based Europeans and Africans in the Hemingways' party, as well as the up-country Tanganyikans that they came across who were also able to converse in the pidginised lingua franca. Snatches of it embellish films made in East Africa from this time onwards, including the Hollywood movies inspired by Hemingway's own work (Carrier 2010). And despite the inroads made by modern education and the media, something like it can still be heard in up-country Kenya and in particular settings elsewhere in East Africa. It is used, for example, by some Asian shop-keepers when addressing their African staff and customers, and is frequently caricatured. Even Christopher Ondaatje slips into pidgin practice when he reports saying "Pole kusumbua, wewe", translated as "Sorry for causing you trouble" (2003: 108). The meagre literature on Swahili pidgins refers to different varieties, including Kihindi, Kishamba, and others already mentioned above. But these remain largely unresearched, and it may be that they are best thought of as a continuum of forms with a common core. And I haven't touched on Hemingway's second trip and later writings about Africa. Hii ni kazi mingi sana, mimi hapana taka fanya sasa.

* In his family history, written in 1956, Hans Cory referred to his encounter with the Hemingways and his appearance in Green Hills of Africa: "I am Kandinsky [sic], and though the conversation did not take place exactly as quoted, the events happened as described, and the breakdown of my lorry, etc. is true. Hemingway and his wife were very kind to me. I was their guest for three days, and we had many amusing and interesting conversations."

My thanks to Helle Goldman and Ray Abrahams for sharing their own thoughts and experiences of bad and pidgin Swahili with me, and to Neil Carrier for the additional inspiration provided by his recent workshop paper and presentation on the use and abuse of Swahili in Hollywood movies. The usual disclaimer applies.


Brasch, James D. and Joseph Sigman 2000 [1981]. Hemingway's Library: A Composite Record (electronic edition). Boston: John F. Kennedy Library.

Carrier, Neil 2010. Kiswahili Hollywood style: linguistic use and abuse in the movies. Paper presented to 
the VIII European Swahili Workshop, Contemporary Issues in Swahili Ethnography, University of Oxford, 19-21 September 2010.

Cory [Koritschoner], Hans 1956. Our Family Chronicles. Online in the archive of The Institute on World War II and the Human Experience, Florida State University.

Hemingway, Ernest 2004a [1935]. Green Hills of Africa. London: Arrow Books.

Hemingway, Ernest 2004b [1936]. The Snows of Kilimanjaro. In Hemingway, E. The Snows of Kilimanjaro. London: Arrow Books.

Le Breton, F. H. 1951 [1936]. Up-Country Swahili Exercises for the Soldier, Settler, Miner, Merchant, and their Wives and for all who deal with up-country natives without interpreters (11th edition). Richmond, Surrey: R. W. Simpson and Co.

Madan, Arthur Cornwallis 1884. English-Swahili Dictionary. Oxford.

Madan, Arthur Cornwallis 1903. Swahili-English Dictionary. Oxford.

Mutonya, Mungai and Timothy H. Parsons 2004. KiKAR: a Swahili variety in Kenya's colonial army. Journal of African Languages and Linguistics 25: 111-125.

Newell, H. W. 1933. Notes on Ki-Swahili as Spoken by the K.A.R.. Manuscript in the Kenya National Archives, Nairobi. [cited in Mutonya and Parsons 2004: 125]

Ondaatje, Christopher 2003. Hemingway in Africa: The Last Safari. Toronto: HarperCollins.

Vitale, Anthony J. 1980. Kisetla: linguistic and sociolinguistic aspects of a pidgin Swahili of Kenya. Anthropological Linguistics 22 (2): 47-65.

Wilkes, Hamilton Paget (translator) 1931. Habari Njema: kama aliandikwa kwa mkona [sic] ya Mariko. London: British and Foreign Bible Society.

W., J. Undated [1932.] Kisettla. (Pamphlet.) [Nairobi:] The East African Standard. [some sources give the reference as The Kenya Weekly News, 23 December 1955, 24-25.]