Asserting Arab Ethnicity and Its Effect on the Community
Whatever their gain by asserting it, my hypothesis is that the effect of the employment of the claim to Arab, rather than Swahili, status by some Twelve Tribes members was to disrupt the long-standing organization of the community. That is, the insistence on an Arab identity by some members of each of the sections united the remaining members of the sections with each other across section lines in opposition to those in both sections who claimed the identity. This realignment, I maintain, is a major factor in the weakening of the community in that it undermined the long-standing relationships within and between sections that had served as the basis for community structure since the Three Tribes joined the Nine Tribes on Mombasa island centuries before.
The details of the conflict between those emphasizing their Omani origins and other members of the community in both sections are tangled and baroque. In part, the complexity is based in the fact that there were, and are, Omanis who live in Old Town who are not Swahili. These families follow the Ibathi canon of Islam, the men wear beards, and their patrilateral, and in some cases even matrilateral, forebears came from Oman or elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region not more, in most cases, than two or three generations ago. These families speak Arabic in their homes, and although they associate with their Twelve Tribes neighbors, they are not considered by any community members to be Swahili.
The Swahili Arabs, however, are a different group, and none of the religious, linguistic, or descent characteristics just noted for the Omanis is true
of them. The fact that the neighboring Bantu-speaking peoples (the Giriama, Digo, and the others who are jointly referred to as "Nyika" by the Swahili) refer to both Swahili and Arabs (whether assimilated or not) as Wazomba indicates that from the outside, at least, the differences between the two are not always obvious or salient.
The distinction between the groups is not always an easy one to make from any perspective; this difficulty lies, in fact, at the heart of the conflict within the community that became serious and disruptive in the 1920s. Members of the Swahili Arab group denied the validity of any distinction between themselves and less assimilated immigrants from Oman. They, the Swahili Arabs, insisted that they were members of the same group as the Zanzibar Arabs. They claimed that this membership entitled them to the considerable privileges accorded the latter group under colonial rule.
This claim was mainly accepted by the Zanzibar Arab government and the British who advised and, in the twentieth century, succeeded them, and it won for the Swahili Arabs advantages not open to other community members. This was so, informants report, under the administration of the sultan up to 1895 and it continued under the colonial administration when the Mombasa area was administered by a special arm of the Kenya Colony government, called the "Arab Administration," whose highest officials were Zanzibar Arabs.