Some General Understandings of the World and Relationships
The Swahili share what they say is the general Muslim belief that the world has been disintegrating steadily since the days of the Prophet in the seventh century. Several have told me that they believe that their group may be among the leaders in this disintegration because of what they understand as their poverty and the pervasive, destructive influence of the outside, Christian and Indian, worlds. It is not without significance that I collected more words referring to personality traits and general behavioral characteristics that are disapproved than words referring to approved traits and characteristics. It is notable that it is in relationships involving seniors and juniors, the fakhri-adabu relationships, that decline is thought by at least some group members to have been most serious.
Not all aspects of interpersonal relationships are taken to have changed equally. Interpersonal conflict is understood as having altered rather less than meeting expectations in hierarchical relationships has. Fighting and open quarreling are not at all common among men, although men who have acquitted themselves well in a fight are at least covertly admired. Overtly, they are in danger of being characterized as muhuni unless the fight is with an outsider, was clearly started by the other or, preferably, was started by both.
In relations within the community, amity is the general expectation. There are no descriptive words for those who promote amity unless the already considered complex words concerning manners, respect, deference, and honor can be looked on as doing that. There are, however, a number of terms concerned with failures to meet expectations that, if met, would contribute to amity.
Characterizations of Conflict Bringers
Gossip and tale-mongering among women is common, the men say, and the negative words regarding bringing conflict into interpersonal relations focus around gossiping. Fidhuli , a person skilled in insulting others, is feared, and the unwary are warned against associating with such people, but there is also a bit of admiration for the hurler of especially pointed insults. The underlying understandings, of course, involve the expectation that insults will be avoided, and a person who does not meet this general expectation is negatively evaluated to the point of being considered dangerous. If, however, the
fidhuli does it well, there is admiration—and one cannot avoid seeing the admiration in people's comments about a skilled fidhuli—for the aptness of the insults rather as there is admiration for a skillful thief.
Kufye means easily insulted and offended. It is a trait, most commonly found in women but present in some men, that is little admired. It exists in a nearly dialectical relation with fidhuli in that your skill as an insulter is related to my perception of insult, while my reluctance to be affronted limits your ability to insult. The implication that there is a value on interpreting what others do as meeting expectations rather than the reverse when there is a doubt is supported by informants who say that a reluctance to view others as having failed to behave properly is part of the valued haya.
Insults come not only from things said but also from failures to meet expectations. If a woman fails to notice another's new dress (and women do quite openly comment on one another's clothing at weddings), the wearer might be insulted because her expectation that her dress would be admired was not met. Such an insult, however, would often be viewed as an indication of kufye unless the neglect were pointed. A person with kufye is one who holds unshared expectations of a particular kind. It is interesting and instructive to contrast this with the sensitivity of the person having the valued trait, haya.
The person with haya is sensitive to indications that expectations are not being met because his or her haya would result in a loss of self-esteem should that happen. Such suffering due to haya is admirable, while that of the person with kufye is not. The person with kufye makes everyone a fidhuli, a skilled insulter, and puts in question everyone's ability to meet expectations, while a person with haya shows how proper regard for real expectations and their fulfillment can operate to bring credit to the individual and to make his or her social relationships more satisfying.
Insults, Conflict, and Secrecy/Privacy
Insults and being offended by them are connected to a central value in all close Swahili relationships, sitara. This highly desired condition involving concealing a substantial proportion of all information concerning self and family was mentioned above. This condition, sitara, is based on siri , secret[s], and is connected to insults and offense by the fact that others' ability to shame or insult depends on their knowing about the life and activities of the insulted and his or her family. Being accused of being kufye, too easily insulted, or any other undesirable trait, depends, as informants explicitly formulate it, on people knowing about what you do. If you conceal what you do by maintaining sitara, you are protected so that, quite literally, one cannot have too many secrets. To have siri is not so much an admirable trait, the
way having haya is. Rather, it is a prudent and sensible one whose absence is "idiocy" (upumbafu).
With "privacy" or "secrecy" there can be little basis for insults or, to carry this further, for "shame" (aibu), a singularly important process to be considered at length in the next chapter. It is worth nothing that the only Swahili dictionary written in the Swahili language (Akida et al. 1981) defines "sitara" as "hali ya kuficha jambo la aibu" ([the] condition of hiding [a] thing [i.e., matter, source of] shame). The state of having sitara is obviously a desirable one from the perspective taken by the Swahili I know. Openness is not valued, as far as I could determine, by any community member, although there was substantial variation in how much people wanted hidden and how vigorous they were in doing that.
The importance of privacy and concealment is seen further in the disapproving term, mwazirifu (lit. exposer), referring to someone who talks quite openly about shameful things in the family. Children and elderly widows are said to be the usual "exposers," both because they talk too freely with anyone who will listen to them and because they go to people's houses at mealtimes and accept food. This last is viewed with horror by the family of the one who does it, because it is understood to imply that there is not enough food at their own houses. Worse yet, an exposer may go to people's houses and actually ask for food.
Such people spoil the privacy/secrecy, sitara, of their families and provide the material the insulters can use and the thin-skinned can be offended by. The mdaku is an outsider who seeks the facts the "exposer" is quite ready to give away. This last creature, like the first, provides the ammunition for insult.
Insults, Honor, and Expectations
It will be apparent that the insulting, the revelation of shortcomings in the family of the target of the insults, is closely related to the whole complex of understandings focusing around honor (fakhri) examined above. Insults are not easily attached to those with fakhri. When this honor is based on piety or excellence of character, what insults can reach the honored one? When it is based on style of dress, elegance of manner, or success in worldly things, the insults can only be effective if they attempt to attack character. In short, a person with fakhri is, by virtue of having it, less open to harm by insult because he or she meets rather demanding expectations of at least one important kind. Insults and fakhri are opposed sets of understanding and both depend on how expectations are met.
Insults reduce fakhri through implying or saying explicitly that the expectations bringing honor have not been met. In fact, most of the qualities that
confer honor (fakhri) are qualities that meet broad expectations in social relationships, and failure to meet them makes such relationships difficult. There are people who are understood to impede others' social relationships by making these others believe that their expectations of partners in social relationships are not being met. Such people are called sabasi , and their specialty is trouble making.
A sabasi causes quarrels between people by telling each of them that the other is saying bad things about him or her. The closest English counterparts to this are "troublemaker," "tale bearer," or the almost archaic and only vaguely appropriate "buttinsky." The sabasi functions in a community where there are a variety of understandings alerting those who share them to the possibility that others are maligning them. The term itself seems to stir negative feelings in those who told me about it.
An aspect of interpersonal relations that is not clearly suggested in any of the above but which is a vital concern in relationships is found in the trait called hasadi , jealousy. Any positive quality a person seems to have may induce this jealousy, and this is very much the same as regards honor. The trait is much invoked in Swahili ethnopsychology and points to some of the central expectations in several multiplex relationships.
One such understanding is that everyone has hasadi and that it is normal to be jealous to a certain extent but that some people carry this to pathological extremes. Such people have a constant predisposition to it, husudu , (to) covet. This trait is often attributed to a less rewarded brother by a brother who feels more rewarded (by parents or by life), but the suspicion of coveting is widespread and by no means limited to siblings or other close kin.
Covetous people are much feared in that they are understood to feel that anything the object of their jealousy gets is rightfully theirs. These people are dangerous in that they are understood to retaliate by telling bad stories about the objects of their jealousy and, less openly mentioned but vital, in other ways.
The "other ways" include a quite involuntary evil eye called, simply, jito , or "eye." This jito operates to harm any object of open admiration. The cautionary tale is told, for example, of a mwadhin (the one who calls others to prayer) with a beautiful voice.
A person with jito was visiting Old Town and heard a mwadhin issuing the call to prayer. As the call was being issued, someone remarked to the visitor that the mwadhin's voice was beautiful. In midcall, the voice was stilled as the visitor's "eye," acting without conscious intention on his part, silenced it forever by making the mwadhin mute.
The part of coveting in Swahili social relationships and its relationship to the expectation that group members keep group, usually family, affairs to themselves is now clearer. We have seen that it is considered important to keep knowledge of the shortcomings of one's family from reaching the atten-
tion of "insulters" and that this is connected to sitara, with disapproval being accorded those who give away the secrets from the inside and those who try to dig them out from the outside with inquisitiveness. We now see it is also important—sometimes a matter of survival—to keep the family strengths and successes private as well. Failing to do so can arouse jealousy and the revenge of the jealous (hasadi) in the form of bad stories circulated and, even, the dire effects of the evil eye, jito.