Nuclear Family Life
Nuclear family ties are close ties in all respects. The division of labor is clear and sharp. The mother/wife with the assistance of the family daughters (and, in most even moderately prosperous families, the family servant) cares for all household needs, and the father/husband, generally the only family member with paid employment, is the source of the family exchequer. In some families, there is rent-producing property belonging to either or both spouses adding to family income, and if there are children with paid jobs, they contribute most of their earnings until they marry. Even married children are expected to make some contribution toward the living expenses of their parents and dependent siblings and to help with the costs of educating the latter.
Socially, family members spend a good part of every day together. However, the women and younger children are in the house a good deal more than the men and older boys. The family takes its meals from the common kitchen, though in many families the male and female members do not actually eat together. The wife/mother or a daughter/sister brings food to the husband/father and sons/brothers who eat and leave the table (or, more traditionally, mat) in the living room, at which time the servers eat the remaining food, usually in the kitchen. In some families now, I was told, the whole group eats together, but I have never actually seen this and am told it is not common.
The separation of the sexes, an explicit value, leads to the nuclear family itself being separated for a good part of every day, and this is furthered by the sharp division of labor. Men are never to set foot in a kitchen. Swahili lore has it, a boy who goes into the kitchen after puberty will pay for it by having rain on his wedding day.
The most common joint family activity is talking together (44% of the families surveyed chose this as the main nuclear family activity; see chap. 5).
There is some constraint on fathers talking with daughters, and several informants have told me that until two or three decades ago, it was common for daughters to avoid any face-to-face contact with their fathers. Thus, daughters did not remain in the same room as their fathers and a daughter would only converse with her father by addressing him through the door from outside the room he was in.
Such avoidance is not common now, but there is still constraint so that, for example, when the family television is on, the daughters of the household usually sit together, often with the mother, on one side of the room while sons sit with their father on the other side. The separation of women from men affects not only the daughter but also the mother/wife. A grown, married woman typically and usually has a rich social life with her female kin and neighbors, but her movements are restricted and much of her time is spent at home or visiting in the homes of nearby kin and friends. Women venture out to buy their own clothing and make small purchases from the tiny food and sundries shops (called reshun ) scattered throughout Old Town. The main shopping for groceries, meat, fish, and other household supplies is done by the men of the house.
The sons spend more time away from the family home than anyone else, playing with their male kin and neighbors when they are young and going off to school and work as they mature. The daughters spend a fair amount of time with their same sex kin and neighbors, but they are more restricted in what they do than their brothers are and one rarely sees girls and young women outside their houses.
Both boys and girls attend religious school (chuo, pl. vyuo ) beginning at the age of 5 or so and generally attend for at least a year or two as they learn to read the Koran and to write, usually with limited ability, in Arabic. These schools are timed so that the older children can attend secular school, but many religious schools have long sessions on the days when the secular schools are closed.
Children all shinda (spend the day) with kin in other households, but this is of limited importance for boys who, although they continue to visit, mainly stop spending a whole day at the house of a kinsman when they are old enough to spend their time playing soccer and wandering around the neighborhood with other boys of their age. For girls, the days at the houses of kin are their main opportunity to leave the family home, and they generally continue this more-or-less supervised, daylong kin visiting until marriage.
The Division of Activity by Gender in the Family and Generally
The supervision of girls has become less strict in the 1980s than it was even in the 1970s. Many now go to the same secular schools that their brothers do, and some young women now get jobs in offices and shops after finishing
school and before marriage. A few women continue working after marriage, but almost all stop paid employment when the first child is born. There is still, however, a good deal of concern about girls' activities on the part of their parents and grown siblings. The explicit reason for this is fear that the girl may indulge her sexual appetites before marriage. "Having a daughter," a middle-aged Swahili father told me, "is like having an egg in your hand. You cannot be careless for a minute without it being ruined forever."
Men and boys are free to roam the city as they wish but ideally should avoid bad company and late hours. men and boys attend the mosque, go to work, chat with friends, and some—now a minority but formerly a much larger percentage—regularly attend small-scale men's gatherings (baraza) that generally take place at the same time and in the same location. The Swahili men understand themselves to be very sociable, and whether in a baraza or not, they stop to chat with kin, neighbors, and acquaintances whenever they seen them. There was a very strong value on men "being known" among other men which still exists if, perhaps, somewhat less explicitly than I was told was the case some decades ago.
Men, like their wives, sisters, and daughters, however, are almost always at home at mealtimes. Houses are generally locked up at the completion of the evening prayer (isha, rarely later than 8:30), and the entire family retires early. It is quite rare to see middle-aged Swahili men on the streets after the last prayer, but small groups of Swahili young men can be seen on street corners chatting until 11:00 or, sometimes, a little later.
Other than chatting on the streets, the main activity outside the home is attending cinemas. There are two in Old Town which show mainly American and European films (preferred by many community members who attend films) and another showing exclusively Indian films which some Swahili attend. It is now fairly generally accepted for men and boys to go to cinemas, and some men even go with their wives. Conservatives view this attendance with something between caution and alarm, but that view seems less prevalent in the community at the end of the 1980s than it was at the beginning of the decade and earlier.
During the holy month of Ramadhan, the Old Town area is transformed. The streets, usually deserted in the early evening, teem with men and boys, and the usually darkened, quiet houses are full of music, talk, and life. Following the afternoon prayer (magharibi ) when the sun goes down, everyone eats the first food of the day (futari, traditionally a date) and goes home to prepare for the main meal (daku ), which is eaten sometime after the final prayer (isha) but generally at 10:30 or 11:00. Following the meal, people amuse themselves with games, music, or visiting with neighbors. The streets are full of men and boys chatting or playing checkers or cards (but not for money since gambling is forbidden in Islam), and women's voices ring from the houses. Some families spend this festive time together, but mainly the
men and women celebrate separately. After the brief sleep characteristic of Ramadhan, some families eat a heavy breakfast to sustain them through the day of fasting to come, but others sleep a bit longer and have only tea and whatever snacks are available just before dawn and the reinstitution of the fast.
It will be clear from this brief sketch of leisure activities that men and women, boys and girls have quite different activities: the women's center in the home and the men's outside. Nor is this only a matter of the separation of the sexes. Proper men should go around visiting and be known to the community. Women should stay near their houses and those of their close kin. Women do not veil their faces any longer, although it is only in the 1980s that they have ceased doing so, but they should not be seen in public.