The Power of "Aibu"
In the Swahili language "aibu" most nearly approximates what I have just defined as "shame." "Aibu" refers to dishonor, disgrace, loss of standing, and shame according to the three main Swahili dictionaries (Akida et al. 1981; Johnson 1959 ; Krapf 1882). "Aibu" can be used in the broad and abstract sense in which English speakers use "shame," as in "Everyone tries to avoid shame" as well as in the somewhat narrower and more specific adjectival form, "It is shameful to cheat." The distinction between an act or quality that produces shame and the emotion that is shame is empirically and lexically difficult to make.
"Aibu," more than "shame," is used as a trope in which the act that produces the emotion of shame is mentioned but where the reference is actually to the emotion. A person is said to reveal his aibu when he tells of acts that produce shame, but since those who are insensitive to shame can mention acts that for others would be the source of aibu and, their detractors say, do so without aibu, it is clearly the emotion that is the central reference of the word "aibu." I will follow highly literate, English-speaking Swahili and use both "aibu" and "shame," with the latter being mainly reserved for the broad and abstract sense of the term.
So far as I know, there is no word in English that refers solely and specifically to what I have called "the emotional discomfort" that is the core of my definition of "shame," and the same is true of the Swahili language. "Anxiety" in English and wasiwasi or mashaka in Swahili refer to the emotional state, but the words by themselves can refer to bad feelings resulting from many different sources. In the Swahili language, more than in English, the word used for what I have defined as "shame" is used in direct reference to acts. Thus, one can say in Swahili, "His clothes fell open revealing his nakedness. What a shame!" without meaning "Isn't that too bad" or "What a pity." The Swahili usage just alluded to refers to the production of emotional discomfort in the one involved and not sympathy or any other reaction by observers. I will follow Swahili usage here with the understanding that the named acts are a trope for the discomfort they are taken to entail.
Wikans (1984) argues that honor may not be the direct opposite of shame, and this is mainly true for the Mombasa Swahili. As has been seen, fakhri, which can be glossed as "honor," is accorded individuals on the basis of their active, recognized adherence to shared values and cannot be won by the absence of aibu-producing behavior alone. Conversely, being without notable fakhri does not necessarily mean that the individual is filled with aibu. Informants all agree that virtuous but undistinguished people can be low in both shame and honor. People with fakhri are deeply concerned about aibu, and such concern is an essential part of having honor, but they are not free of shame because of their honor.
Those with honor are viewed as only relatively free from aibu. "Relatively" free because, informants all agree, no one is without aibu, and since the people with fakhri are very sensitive to aibu, the fact that they avoid most aibu-producing activities does not guarantee, indeed will not prevent, their having some aibu. The somewhat complex relationship between shame and honor will be seen as a source of power for prestigious men as recognized agents of cultural conformity, but for now it needs only to be clear that "aibu" cannot be taken to refer to the complete absence of fakhri.
Swahili individuals do not readily discuss aibu, their own or anyone else's. Men say that women discuss the aibu of their fellows quite readily, and at least some of my women informants agree. Men and women who consider themselves nobles also say that slaves and their contemporary descendants gossiped about everyone and, specifically, that this gossip was mainly concerned with people's aibu. Regardless of status, actors do not mention their own aibu at all readily, if ever, and all agree it is better not to mention the aibu of others either.
In fact, aibu are treated so circumspectly that their social manifestation is difficult or impossible to see under most circumstances. As among the Omani Arabs described by Wikans (1984:646 et seq.), overt expression of disapproval is not normally manifested. Even adulterers, drunks, and others whose aibu are serious and renowned, are generally treated just as everyone else is.
There are, however, circumstances, especially quarrels, when actors' aibu are openly mentioned. There is also a particular sort of person, a fidhuli , who is believed to have extensive knowledge of the aibu of his associates and who, if even slightly provoked, speaks of them publicly. We will return later to fidhuli and quarrels and their vital role in the operation of shame. For now, it is important to note the general reluctance to discuss aibu since that reluctance plays a part in the way shame operates in this group. The reluctance to mention aibu is part of a general Swahili emphasis on privacy, concealment, and secrecy. This emphasis is itself an important indicator of the importance attached to aibu in this society.