Sunday, 21 July 2019


by Martin Walsh

Mhamadi Khamis Makame
My last post, ‘Burning the Golden weaver’s nest’, was about an unusual ingredient in the treatment of possession-related  illness in Makunduchi, in the south-east of Unguja island. Fumigation and steaming are common components in traditional medical practice in Zanzibar. They are also essential in the invocation of possessory spirits, as Hassan Gora Haji describes in his recent PhD dissertation on the songs that accompany spirit possession rituals on Tumbatu island and elsewhere in northern Unguja.

Here is part of his description of kupigwa nyungu, ‘to be given a vapour-bath’:

Nyungu [literally ‘clay pot’] is a mixture of medicinal plants which are boiled together and used to fumigate oneself […]. But according to waganga, traditional doctors, nyungu is a kind of medicine for steaming which is made with a mix of the leaves of seven different plants. These plants vary from mganga to mganga or from one kind of spirit possession treatment to another. […] The nyungu medicine is used to attract the spirit so that it comes as soon as it is called.” (Haji 2018: 54; my translation).

Crouching under a mat
On 18 October 2007, when working on the Gray Brothers’ documentary The Nightmare (Para Docs Productions, 2008), I took the crew to film a series of interviews about a recent Popobawa panic in Potoa. Afterwards, one of my in-laws demonstrated the use of nyungu medicine for the camera. His patient was a young boy who had been sent to him for treatment, and had been staying there for some time. As both of them crouched under a mat, Mzee Mhamadi held a bunch of steaming leaves under the boy’s nose and encouraged him to inhale the vapour.
After this demonstration, Mzee Mhamadi listed the seven plants that he would have used if he had been doing this for real. He described this as a nyungu mix for treating treating jinamizi, which is loosely translated as ‘nightmare’, but often refers to more specific phenomena, such as the frightening hallucinations that can accompany sleep paralysis and manifest as incubi or succubi.

Inhaling the vapour
Here are the seven ingredients, listed in the order in which he gave them and identified with the help of available botanical glossaries of Swahili plant names in Zanzibar:

1. muwakikali, Horsewood, Clausena anisata (Willd.) Hook.f. ex Benth. (family Rutaceae).
2. mnanuzi, Orange Climber, Toddalia asiatica (L.) Lam. (family Rutaceae).
3. mchakuzi, Uvaria acuminata Oliv. (family Annonaceae).
4. mbaazi, Pigeon Pea, Cajanus cajan (L.) Millsp. (family Leguminosae).
5. kivumbazi, Ocimum spp. including Basil, Ocimum basilicum L. (family Lamiaceae).
6. mpera, Guava, Psidium guajava L. (family Myrtaceae).
7. mchakati, Mallotus oppositifolius (Geiseler) Müll.Arg. (family Euphorbiaceae).

The last of these botanical identifications is the least certain: Heine and Legère (1995: 107) also record mchakati as Leucas sp. (family Lamiaceae) and Acalypha ornata Hochst. ex A.Rich. (family Euphorbiaceae).

The nyungu medicine
Most of these plants, including the cultigens, are used in a variety of medicinal and ritual preparations in Zanzibar, and some are well known as traditional medicines more widely. According to Heine and Legère, waganga consider Horsewood to be “one of their most useful plants” (1995: 244), while they and other authors give different examples of its use.

Ingrams describes the use of Orange Climber roots in a “Hadimu” (south and east Unguja) ritual for “Calling a devil for possession” that is somewhat different from the northern Unguja (Tumbatu) practices already described:

“Take a piece of mnanuzi root, and three of muiza jini [mwizajini, Coffee senna, Senna occidentalis] […] and boil together in a new pot. When it boils, place a pad on the patient’s head (to stop burning) and place the pot on top of it. The patient will then shake her head, but the pot will not fall down. The medicine man then gives the patient some of the mixture to drink. The devil will now come, and though he may go away for short periods, will always come back. After this the medicine man will drop the muiza jini down a ruined well, so that it is out of the way of mischief-makers, and the other root will be fastened to the leg of the possessed person, where it will stay for seven days.” (1931: 453)

Listing the ingredients
Elsewhere Ingrams discusses the magical significance of the numbers 3, 4, and 7 in Zanzibar, and parallels further afield (1931: 478).

As Hassan Gora Haji makes clear in his dissertation, the herbal steam bath is only one part of a spirit possession or healing ritual, which may also involve specific incantations. Ingrams also records a sample of these. I didn’t get another opportunity to ask Mzee Mhamadi more about this, and alas he is no longer with us, though I’m told that at least some of his medicinal knowledge has been passed on.

In memory of Mhamadi Khamis Makame, and with thanks to Adam Gray for sending me unused footage from the filming of The Nightmare. All of the images in this post are taken from that footage.


Haji, Hassan Gora 2018. Uchambuzi wa Nyimbo za Uganga wa Pepo Zanzibar: Mtindo na Dhima Zake. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Chui Kikuu cha Taifa cha Zanzibar (SUZA).

During filming
Heine, Bernd and Karsten Legère 1995. Swahili Plants: An Ethnobotanical Survey. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.

Ingrams, W.H. 1931. Zanzibar: Its History and People. London: H.F. & G. Witherby.

Kombo, Yussuf H. 2017. Jozani Natural Forest: Zanzibar Treasures in Wild (2nd edition). Zanzibar.

Legère, Karsten 2003. Plant names from north Zanzibar. Africa & Asia (Göteborg) 3: 123-146.

Williams, R.O. 1949. The Useful and Ornamental Plants in Zanzibar and Pemba. Zanzibar: Zanzibar: Protectorate.

Thursday, 18 July 2019


by Martin Walsh

On a recent trip to Zanzibar, one of the books I picked up at the incomparable Masomo Bookshop was a primer of Kae (Kikae), the dialect of Makunduchi on the south of Unguja island. Rukia M. Issa’s Chowea: Kifahamu Kikae Lugha ya Wamakunduchi was published in Zanzibar last year. It’s a fascinating addition to the literature on this local idiom, which is now better known than most rural Swahili dialects.

The main title, Chowea, is the equivalent of Standard Swahili sema, and literally means “speak!” – by implication in Kae. It’s written in Teach Yourself style, with each chapter focusing on a particular aspect of village life and the vocabulary associated with it, beginning with everyday greetings and ending with the language of Makunduchi’s famous New Year ritual, Mwaka Kogwa.

It’s this organisation by lexical fields that I find most appealing, not least because it allows for the introduction of words and phrases that don’t find their way into the more conventionally ordered vocabularies of Kae.

The chapter on traditional medicine is a case in point, and full of intriguing information. My favourite so far is the phrase “Jumba la ndege Mnana”, “The weaver bird’s nest” (literally “large house”), which is glossed “Likichomwa hufanywa mafusho na kufukizwa mgonjwa mwenye maradhi hasa yanayo ambatana na shetani”, “When burnt it produces healing vapours used to fumigate a sick person, especially someone with an illness associated with a possessory spirit” (p. 91).

A subsequent example corrects and expands the phrase and illustrates its use: “Jumba lya ndege ya mnana kavu hutendwa mafuso ya wana. Jumba la ndege aina ya mnana lililo kavu hufanyiwa mafusho ya watoto” (p. 96). In other words, “The dry weaver bird’s nest produces medicinal fumes for treating children”.

African Golden Weaver in the Zanzibar Museum (photo: Martin Walsh)
Mnana is the name of the African or Eastern Golden Weaver, Ploceus subaureus Smith 1839. The subspecies aureoflavus is a highly gregarious and common bird on the island that typically builds a tightly-woven oval or spherical nest with grass or reed strips. Breeding can occur at any time of the year, and disused dry nests are presumably readily available. I’m unaware of any other record of their use for fumigation, or indeed similar practices being reported elsewhere.

Fumigation with the steam from herbal concoctions is a regular feature of exorcism and healing rituals in Zanzibar, but I’ve no idea why this brightly-coloured weaver’s nest is used in some contexts, and what those circumstances are. I presume that there is much more to be learned about this.

As the cover of Chowea reminds us, the culmination of the public festival of Mwaka Kogwa is the burning of a hut (kibanda) constructed of dry palm leaves or crop residues for this purpose. It is set alight by an elder of ceremonies – the mkuu wa Mwaka in Rukia Issa’s account – who immediately rushes out and runs into the bush, while people set about extinguishing the fire. The idea is that the evil spirits at the heart of Makunduchi will follow after him, thus cleansing the village for another year.

It’s tempting to see a parallel between the burning of the weaver’s nest and the community purification ritual, though there’s no evidence that participants draw any comparison between them, either consciously or subconsciously.  As already noted, we lack information on this kind of exorcism, and while existing descriptions of Mwaka Kogwa focus on its history and politics, they are comparatively weak on the analysis of its symbolism and local significance.

Photo 776701, (c) Peter Steward, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC)

BAKIZA 2012. Kamusi la Lahaja ya Kimakunduchi. Zanzibar: Baraza la Kiswahili la Zanzibar (BAKIZA).

Chum, Haji 1994. Msamiati wa Pekee wa Kikae: Kae Specific Vocabulary. Uppsala: Nordic Association of African Studies.

Echtler, Magnus 2008. Changing Rituals: The New Year's Festival in Makunduchi, Zanzibar, Since Colonial Times. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Bayreuth.

Issa, Rukia M. 2018. Chowea: Kifahamu Kikae Lugha ya Wamakunduchi. Zanzibar: Intercolor Printers.

Pakenham, R.H.W. 1959. Kiswahili names of birds and beasts in the Zanzibar Protectorate. Swahili 29 (1): 34-54.

Pakenham, R.H.W. 1979. The Birds of Zanzibar and Pemba. B.O.U. Check-list No. 2. London: British Ornithologists' Union.

Racine-Issa, Odile 2002. Description du Kikae, parler Swahili du sud de Zanzibar, suivi de cinq contes. Leuven and Paris: Éditions Peeters.

Walsh, Martin 2011. Elephant dung and expelling spirits. East African Notes and Records, 13 February 2011. Online at

Sunday, 12 May 2019


Dockers unloading cement, Malindi, Zanzibar, July 2006 (photo: Martin Walsh)
Continuing the theme of recent posts (‘An orange seller in Zanzibar’, ‘The political cover that wasn’t’), here’s another of my favourite snaps, also taken in July 2006. I’d been on a short dhow trip with other participants in the conference ‘Sails of History: Citizens of the Sea?’, coordinated by Professor Abdul Sheriff as part of the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF), and this was part of the scene that greeted us as we returned to the port at Malindi: dockers unloading dusty bags of Simba cement from a rusting boat dubbed the Arafat, which had presumably brought them across from the works at Tanga.

The Arafat in port (photo: Martin Walsh)
This photo once featured on the website of the Department of Social Anthropology in the University of Cambridge. I was teaching there at the time, and offered it when staff and students were asked to submit images to illustrate the diversity of places in which they worked. The department now has a photographic competition for graduate students: I doubt that this image or any of the others shown here would be shortlisted for any kind of prize, and not just because they were taken with a relatively inexpensive Olympus camera. I like it, however, because it shows people at work in one of Zanzibar Town’s most important occupations: loading and unloading goods at the port.

This is not the Zanzibar of picture-postcards and coffee-table books (I’ve got lots of those images too), but the hard grind of manual labour on the waterfront that many visitors will only catch a glimpse of when porters hustle for their trade as they step off the ferry from Dar es Salaam. What they may not know is that dockworkers have played a critical role in the political as well as economic history of Zanzibar. Action by employees of the African Wharfage Company (AWC) which began in August 1948 led to a General Strike that only ended in mid-September when efforts to suppress it failed and the colonial authorities and British-owned AWC began to give in to the strikers’ demands.

Dockers in close-up (photo: Martin Walsh)
As Andrew Coulson has remarked, the Zanzibar General Strike represented the most effective challenge to colonial authority in the pre-Independence period. It was a vital moment in the development of organised labour and political consciousness in Zanzibar, especially for the many mainlanders in the urban workforce. It is probably no accident that the man who emerged as the leader of the Zanzibar Revolution in January 1964 and who became the islands’ first President, Abeid Amani Karume, came from the same immigrant and urban milieu, having been a sailor and then the leader of a syndicate of small boat owners.

What the dockers in my photo thought about this history, and now it translated into their own political affiliations, I can only guess. Given current sensitivities, these are not topics that can be easily studied and written about by academic researchers and journalists.

Further reading

Clayton, Anthony 1976. The general strike in Zanzibar, 1948. Journal of African History 17 (3): 417-434.

Clayton, Anthony 1981. The Zanzibar Revolution and its Aftermath. London: Hurst.

Coulson, Andrew 2013. Tanzania: A Political Economy (2nd edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Glassman, Jonathon 2011. War of Words, War of Stones: Racial Thought and Violence in Colonial Zanzibar. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Hadjivayanis, George and Ed Ferguson 1991. The development of a colonial working class. In Abdul Sheriff and Ed Ferguson (eds.) Zanzibar Under Colonial Rule. London: James Currey. 188-219.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019


by Martin Walsh

A street scene in Forodhani, Zanzibar, July 2006 (photo: Martin Walsh)
My last post, ‘An orange seller in Zanzibar’, was about an image I’d suggested for the cover of Ahmad Kipacha’s Journal of Humanities, when I was helping him format the first issue so that it could be published online by the University of Dodoma. At the same time, I also proposed a second image: a photograph of what I thought was a fairly typical street scene in Stone Town, Zanzibar. I’d taken this in July 2006 in Forodhani, walking the route that I’d followed countless times in the mid-1990s when I worked in the Ministry of Agriculture offices nearby.

Mock-up of a cover for the first issue
The photo is dominated by the beautiful façade of a building that had clearly seen better days, as had most of those in the surrounding area. The crumbling plaster on its lower walls boasts a few fading political posters that look equally ancient, though they must have been pasted up during a recent election campaign. One of the posters depicts Professor Ibrahim Lipumba, national chairman of the opposition Civic United Front (CUF) and regular candidate for the Tanzanian presidency. Others are graced by the face of Seif Sharif Hamad, his then counterpart and perennial presidential hopeful in Zanzibar. Seif was the darling of CUF-supporting denizens of Stone Town, who had evidently strung up the bunting in party colours that criss-crosses the square in the foreground.
I was quite fond of this photograph, and not just because of its allusion to events discussed in my paper on ‘The politicisation of Popobawa’, which was appearing in the journal. But I was naïve to think that it would be a perfect cover for the first issue. Quite the opposite: it was obviously impolitic to associate the new journal, and so the university, with an image of opposition to the ruling party, Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), which dominated the national assembly down the road. But no harm was done. My photo was deleted, leaving the journal with a cover that was naked but for a swirl of colour. Ironically, it then transpired that for technical reasons the university was unable to post the issue online. Instead I offered to upload it to my Scribd account, where it’s now been viewed more than 4,500 times.

Hats off to the multi-talented Ahmad Kipacha, who had the bright idea and put all the hard work into developing the Journal of Humanities, which was unfortunately short-lived. He had nothing at all to do with my daft choice of image, or indeed anything that I’ve written here.


Kipacha, Ahmad (ed.) 2009. Journal of Humanities (Dodoma) 1 (1).

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