Investigating Terms Concerning Expectations and Relationships
To study the terms characterizing individuals and relationships, I began by compiling a list of seventy words and phrases referring to character and behavior. These were originally taken from conversations with various community members. Each term was discussed with three different male informants of high prestige who were native to the community. Each was asked to comment and provide any additional terms he could think of. After analyzing the results of this (Swartz 1985), I discussed these same terms with three older women (one in her fifties, two in their sixties) in the same way on a later field trip (1988). The results of the discussions with the women confirmed my hypothesis that there was little gender-based difference in the models for behavior which can be seen in the uses of the terms.
After eliminating alternate terms and phrases for the same traits and behavior, I have twenty-nine remaining. Each of these is considered below.
The Swahili are very private people, one of whose main values is sitara . This can be glossed as "secrecy" or "privacy" with an implication that honor can be maintained only if the specifics of life are kept secret. The basic unit for the sharing of secrets is the household group (usually including a nuclear family and often no one else), and this is expressed in a fairly commonly heard proverb, Nyumba yasitara mambo : lit. The house hides the things that happen, with "things that happen" referring to unfavorable and undesirable events.
This pervasive concern with concealing even the most ordinary aspects of life applies to family members and forms an active force in much of what everyone does. The values suggested by this term not only apply in relations with neighbors and fellow community members but with anthropologists as well. These understandings affect the way community members treat one another and limited my ability to observe and discuss community life.
The next terms to be considered are unusual in two respects. First, they concern the broadest sorts of expectations applying in all public relationships involving adults. Second, they are positive in that getting or having what they refer to is unquestionably desirable and positively evaluated by everyone I
talked to. A proverb notes, with respect to positive attributes, Jina jema hung'aa gizani : [A] good name (always or as a regular thing) shines in [the] dark.
No term is more laden with emotion and value than uungwana , referring to the quality of being a noble as opposed to being a slave. It is most often heard as mwungwana , meaning a noble person. To say someone is not a mwungwana is a profound insult, which, if accepted, bars the individual and his or her family members from marriage with those who are considered waungwana (pl. of mwungwana). Being a mwungwana always involves the belief that the person so characterized has no slave forebears. This is both a necessary and a sufficient condition in that if one is believed to have slave-free ancestry, one is a mwungwana even if, because of bad behavior, one is a wretched example of the category. This does not, however, mean that category membership is not evaluated according to the performance of certain kinds of behavior and the avoidance of others.
Thus, a mwungwana always shows utu (civilization or refined behavior) and avoids brash, noisy, demanding behavior if he wishes to be evaluated positively. Waungwana do not eat cornmeal (or, if they do, let no one know they do), gossip, raise their voices, or squabble with those beneath them. Silence is said to be the anger of a mwungwana, and the general understanding is that a mwungwana, something all community members must be if they are fully part of the community, behaves with restraint, a concern for high standards, and an abiding concern with the rights of others.
Fakhri refers to an attribute informants say is indispensable for honored standing in the community, and, in strict usage, only waungwana can be characterized in this way. My senior male informants, all of whom speak excellent English, as a substantial majority of the community does, say that the English words most fully approximating its meaning are honor, prestige, and dignity. The utu required for being a mwungwana is essential for fakhri, but being a mwungwana is not sufficient for having fakhri. The absence of both slave ancestry and grossly unacceptable behavior makes one a mwungwana, but more positive qualities are needed for fakhri. The most important and obvious of these is the active respect of senior community members.
Fakhri mainly comes from notable accomplishments in religion, education, politics, or the professions. It can, however, be based in personal character and demeanor. A man or woman who is admired for his or her consistently impressive behavior over a period of years may win fakhri despite not having university degrees, great religious learning, wealth, or power.
A person who has fakhri has what really matters even if he is poor to the point of having no regular place to live and only an indefinite source of food, as some learned, holy men (sheikh is the term used for such a person) might. Further, if you are without fakhri, not even a shiny Mercedes and a new two-story house will redeem you. A person whose money comes from sin—a bar
owner, a person profiting from selling fermented coconut toddy, a pimp—may be rich, but he will not have fakhri if people know the source of his wealth. Even building a mosque may not win him the esteem and respect referred to by the term "fakhri."
Fakhri has few synonyms or modifiers. There is little elaboration of the idea as far as vocabulary is concerned. It is a highly desirable condition, and everyone knows that it is. There are, as we will see, a variety of ways to get it, but there is little embellishment of the basic idea. It may be that the Eskimos have many names for the snow that is the base for much of what they do, but the Swahili have only one name for what observation shows to be one of the most significant—publicly, the most significant—parts of life for them.
Women are most concerned with their fakhri with their female neighbors (the women of their mtaa), while men's fakhri is affected far more by their relations throughout the Old Town community. Women gain fakhri according to their relationships with and evaluation by their neighbors. Men's fakhri has a broader base, depending, as it does, on all their relations throughout the community.
Women in their relations with one another are benefited in meeting expectations if their husbands provide them with sufficient funds to dress and ornament themselves well. A woman who succeeds in getting her husband to provide her with the needed funds for proper dress, ornament, and the staging of reasonably impressive weddings and funerals is well along to having at least a minimum of fakhri. Unless a man is viewed as a great sheikh, he must find employment, almost always outside the immediate community, that will pay him enough to allow him to dress properly and to entertain his fellows on great occasions.
Men's fakhri, however, appears independent of providing funds for wives in that a man receives no honor for a wife who has high prestige among women and loses none if she has a low standing with her peers. The division of the sexes, in fact, makes it almost impossible for men to know what women are doing save through the reports of their wives, and, similarly, women depend on hearsay for their knowledge of the doings of men.
All men are expected to be pious and, preferably, learned in the holy works. When small, everyone goes to religious school to learn sufficient Arabic to be able to read the Koran and pray, but ever-increasing knowledge of religious matters is an important source of male fakhri that is less open to women who may, however, contribute to their fakhri by their general piety. The idea that there could be a female sheikh was viewed as risible by the women I asked about it.
Children who do well in secular school and who demonstrate general competence in life's affairs—especially boys but also, in the women's domain, girls—are much admired and are a source of fakhri for their mothers and,
less, their fathers. However, children's attainments should never be mentioned since this is understood to incite hasadi (jealousy) and the evil eye (mato ), which can lead to the admired child losing his admirable ways or, even, his life.
Women are viewed—and view themselves, as best I can tell—as emotionally freer, less logical, and less tied to the practical concerns of life (especially money) than men are. According to both male and female informants, this is women's proper state, and although women who are careful planners and successful in business (there are currently several who are) are admired, they may also be feared by members of both sexes (but evidence about this from women is conflicting). I have heard of a number of these businesswomen that they dominate their husbands, which is said by members of both sexes to be a bad thing and contrary to Islam.
Men derive much of their fakhri from their dignity, which entails not suffering others to act as though they are being deferred to. So, for example, if two men take tea together in a teahouse, there is sometimes a spirited discussion of who should pay, especially if one feels that the other's paying would indicate his acceptance of the other's largess. Men are reluctant to accept anything that appears to be charity, and even children will not accept clothing that has been used by another unless the first user was a same-sex sibling.
Part of the tension between men and women stems from women's inclination to push their husbands to spend freely on rituals, clothing, and jewelry and the men's fear that lack of money may put them in a position where they cannot always defend their prestige. Similarly, men fear that knowledge of their poverty (which may or may not be real) may be spread through the gossiping of women. A man does not lose fakhri for being poor but only for being known to engage in the behavior associated with poverty such as eating cornmeal. Although women also prize being "nobles," men fear that the women's garrulousness together with their weak, as men see it, commitment to fakhri many undermine both their own honor and that of the men associated with them. There is a proverb that men sometimes repeat which brings together their fear of women's talkative natures and their scorn for women's commitment to the standards of fakhri: Hakuna mwanamke mwungwana : (There is no woman [who is a] noble).
Adabu is the only other term concerning general standing in the community. This one, more than fakhri, has to do with relations between people according to their respective statuses and, also, their prestige.
Adabu can be glossed as "proper relations and behavior between superiors and inferiors." In standard Swahili, adabu is often glossed as "manners," and a book entitled Adabu Njema was used as a sort of manners guide in Tanzanian schools in the latter part of the colonial period and the early years of independence. For the native speakers in Mombasa, however, the meaning is much narrower. Broadly, the term refers to being properly deferential to
superiors and, at the other side of asymmetrical relationships, not being unwarrantedly overbearing with inferiors. In fact, the term is mostly used for a young person who deals with his elders with unfailing respect. Adabu implies a hierarchy in social relations, and experience with the group shows that this hierarchy involves both age and fakhri. A young person with adabu treats all older people with a certain deference but is far more circumspect and respectful in behavior toward an older person with firmly established fakhri than with one who has little.