The Swahili in Contemporary Mombasa
Mombasa is a major city, the most active seaport on the East African coast. The city proper is an island, a rectangular bit of land roughly three by five miles. It is set within the jaws of the coastline but is completely separated from the mainland by a narrow semicircular inlet of the Indian Ocean (each part of the inlet is called a "creek" locally) which surrounds the island on three sides. This is nowhere very wide, and on each side it has narrow parts that separate the island and the mainland by only a few hundred yards or less. The island's ocean-facing east side is entirely within the north-south line of the coast and thus completely sheltered from the open ocean while offering entrances to its harbors through the north and south creeks.
The island has been connected to the mainland beginning with a railroad bridge in 1896 and, since the 1930s, by a causeway on the east, a bridge on the north (a new one was built here in 1977), and a car ferry on the south (DeBlij 1968:39–40). Ships have been calling at the Old Port on the northeast side of the island for centuries. And Kilindini Harbor, the new port on the western side, now seethes with activity as cranes unload the endlessly arriving cargoes that supply imports and carry away exports not only for Kenya but also for Uganda, Burundi, Ruanda, and parts of Tanzania.
The city is, and long has been, as cosmopolitan as would be expected
of a major port. The Old Port, in the Swahili section, is now used mainly by fishermen, local boats, and the coastal trade, but for centuries and as recently as the 1970s, it was the stopping place of traders from Arabia, India, Persia, and Somalia. The single masts of their dhows bristled from the port every year during the period when the monsoons blew out of the north, and their goods were being traded from Mombasa into the interior long before the Portuguese conquered the city in the sixteenth century.
The once vigorous dhow trade has declined after many centuries of great activity to a few coastal boats as of the 1980s (Martin 1978), but the streets of the city continue to be crowded with people from an impressive assortment of nations. One sees Arabs from different regions of what is now Yemen, Oman, and Kuwait as well as Iranians, Indians, Pakistanis, Europeans, Americans, and Japanese. In addition, of course, there are Africans from the coastal, Mijikena, peoples and many of the inland ethnic groups throughout Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and farther afield.
The occasional Swahili man is seen walking in this crush, but in his work clothes—sport shirt and slacks—he looks like every other middle-class Mombasan, and after work, when he wears his ankle-length white kanzu (the famous Arab-style "night shirt" or djellaba) and gleaming kofia (an intricately decorated skullcap), it is hard for outsiders to distinguish him from the Arabs. Swahili women are not often seen on the streets, but when they appear, their full-length, black veils (buibui in Swahili), leaving only their faces and hands uncovered, make them indistinguishable from Arab women but quite different from the women of other Muslim groups who wear colored veils or anklelength gowns with face cloths.
The Swahili man's kanzu has a distinctive beige design embroidered on the yoke, and the kofia is embroidered in off-white rather than the darker colors favored by Muslim men of other ethnic groups. Both of these characteristics are apparent only on close examination and, as with many contemporary symbols of Swahili group membership, are muted and meaningful mainly to those who know to look for them.
Most students of the Swahili agree that, like the members of other communities of their group, the Mombasa Swahili, at least after the period when they can be identified as the Theneshara Taifa (see below), were understood by their neighbors as being of a somewhat medial ancestry. Thus, one of the leading students of the Swahili language wrote, "Regarded as 'Arabs' by many up-country Africans, they are deemed not-wholly Arabs by those Arabs of 'pure' descent who frequent the island, and occupy, so it seems to me, an anomalous position between Arab and African" (Whitely 1955:11).
Even members of other local ethnic groups sometimes fail to identify Swahili for what they are. For example, while walking down the Digo Road on the western edge of Old Town, the Swahili section of the city, with two men from the Mijikenda group, I saw two Swahili friends dressed in kanzu
and kofia walking on the other side of the broad street. "What tribe are those men?" I asked my companions, both native-born Mombasans. "Arabs," they replied with confident error.
Despite the difficulty many Mombasans from other groups have identifying them, the Swahili have been part of the city longer than any other group. Old Town was the first settled area on the island and is now crowded and rundown. Its narrow streets admit only the smallest cars, and its houses virtually touch one another.
Members of the Swahili ethnic group founded what is now the city of Mombasa not less than seven centuries ago, but the founders were members of a Swahili community different from the one now living there. As will be described below, the Swahili group, organized as it now is into two major sections or confederations that are jointly referred to as the Theneshara Taifa, or Twelve Tribes, has existed since the seventeenth century. However, they finished settling in their present neighborhoods in what is now called Old Town as recently as the nineteenth century (Berg 1968:45–48, Cooper 1977:98).