Secrecy and Shame
One of the most cherished ideals for a substantial proportion of the community is privacy or secrecy. "Siri," a noun used where English speakers might use verbs such as "protect," "keep private," "shelter," or "conceal" is a word often used in connection with this ideal. Bushes growing in front of a house's windows are said to provide "siri" for the house and its occupants. When a man dies, his widow sometimes laments that her siri is gone and wonders where it will come from now that the source of her prestige, personal protection, and material support is gone.
The opposite of siri is aziri , which refers to exposure in the widest sense. Aziri is what happens when clothes fall open to reveal the naked body, and it is also the word used to refer to having one's private deeds revealed publicly. Aziri is something to be avoided. Community members speak of it with enough feeling so that to say it is dreaded is not to put the matter too strongly.
Swahili go to considerable lengths to achieve siri and avoid aziri. People whom I know well are reluctant to tell me the names of their children or, even, how many they have. The remarkable reticence to provide information on who lives in which house and how the residents were related is, discussions show, explicitly aimed at maintaining siri and avoiding aziri.
How far this can go is shown by an attempt to get data about the ordinary course of family life and how it was seen to be changing. As part of this, in summer 1984, I paid youthful informants to tell me about their views regarding the differences between Swahili community life as it was in the past and as it is at present. I asked them to focus their attention on family matters and did not press them to talk about quarrels, improprieties, or anything that might cause them discomfort. I had some success with my limited objectives, but experience with two brothers shows something of the extent of secretiveness about family affairs.
The oldest brother came to one session and told me the names of the members of his immediate family but said he thought it would be better to keep the names of his grandparents "private." He did not keep his next appointment with me, and his brother told me that he—the elder—thought he should "protect family honor" by not talking to me. The younger brother (only a year separates this young man from his 18-year-old elder) came to several sessions but eventually failed to keep appointments. We had talked about the various places the family had lived in the course of his father's career as a school headmaster who was transferred around the country and about the ways he and his older brother helped his parents in household duties and in disciplining two younger siblings, ages ten and seven. No other matters were broached, but even these were enough to bring the brothers to discontinue participation.
The fact that one of the most dangerous and undesirable sorts of people in this society is a mdaku , a curious and inquisitive person, indicates the seriousness attached to keeping things private and out of general knowledge. Even the members of the socially disapproved category of boys and young men called "mahuni," whose behavior is generally understood as consistently contrary to accepted standards and whose indifference to the opinions of others is a central defining trait, show the pervasiveness of concern about aibu in the slogans written on the walls of their hideaways (gahden):
Tazama lako : lit. Watch yours, meaning Mind your own business.
Mtana wanatazama, usiku watalala : lit. In the daytime they watch [us], [but] at night they will sleep.
Informants agreed that these slogans show a concern about aibu despite
the fact that the young men in the gahden take pride in being outside their natal community and flouting its standards. Informants say that although people differ in their sensitivity to aibu and in their concern about it, no one is without some concern. The founder of the branch of Sunni Islam followed by the Swahili, Imam Shafi, advises the faithful in a poem given me:
Watch you tongue and
don't mention the aibu of other people.
Everyone of you, from the top of
your head to your toes, is all aibu.
The other people don't have a tongue,
they have tongues.
If your eye spies out someone else's
aibu, say to your eye:
"Oh my eye, look, the other people have eyes."
Whatever else aibu may be, it is ubiquitous and public knowledge of the acts that produce it is what actors see as providing the full emotional force that it has. It may well be, as Spiro says, that undiscovered shameful acts (whether committed or contemplated) continue to torment their perpetrators because the punishment that would end them has not been delivered (1958: 409). Still, the Swahili are uniform in indicating that a central defense against the undesirable consequences of aibu is keeping it secret or, at least, shielding it from public view.
That this may be, as Spiro's argument would suggest, a trading of psychic pain for social gain by concealing the aibu from public view is indicated by several further types of evidence.
One indication of this is the bitterness I have heard in Swahili complaints about false friends who induce you to tell them your aibu but never mention their own. Another and more explicit type of indication of the importance of concealment in preventing aibu is found in proverbs. The proverbs concerning shame that I collected are of two types: one emphasizes the importance of keeping personal matters private, and the other focuses on the readiness of people to gossip and the danger of that gossip. This danger, informants make clear, stems from the aibu the object of the gossip may suffer.
Concerning the importance of concealment, a widely quoted proverb says, Nyumba yasitara mambo : The house conceals [unfavorable] matters.
This proverb is used both to advise people to keep important matters within the family and, more often, to say that because you do not know about a family's aibu it should not be concluded that they have none. The latter point is also made by the proverb, Kila nyumba inaondoa geneza : Every house has a bier come out of it.
The idea that one should be careful about telling personal matters to people
is contained in the proverb, Penye kuku wengi, usimwage mtame : Where there are many chickens, don't spill millet.
This last proverb also makes clear that people are understood to relish the aibu of others. A number of proverbs dramatize the danger in other people's talk, and although aibu is not mentioned specifically, informants are unanimous in saying that this danger is in revealing, or inventing, it.
Ulimi arobaini, fimbo arobaini : Forty tongues [are] forty spears.
Ulimi unanuma kuliko meno : The tongue wounds [worse] than the teeth.
Ulimi hauna dawa : [For what the] tongue [does] there is no medicine.
Shimo la ulimi mkono haufutiki : A hole [dug by] the tongue cannot be filled by the hand.
This emphasis on secrecy is evidence of what informants say directly and explicitly: aibu can only do its full harm to a person or family if it is generally known. The fact that even the disaffected young men who are known for their indifference to general standards are concerned about concealing their activities is taken as some indication that concern about aibu is very general in the group, not just to members of a few status categories.