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Dunia, Bwana: [The way the] world [is], Sir

This book is concerned with the world of the Mombasa Swahili. At the same time, there is an important focus on theoretical issues, especially those dealing with how culture works. But its empirical focus is on the Swahili of Mombasa, and it seeks to describe some aspects of their lives.

The saying "Dunia, Bwana " is used by community members to indicate that reality is as it is. In this life, it implies, one must expect that people are, at best, no better than they should be. Although things work, often they do not work just as one would like them to. In Paradise, where God rules directly, it implies, pious Muslims know that truth, justice, and virtue reign. In this world, where humans are in charge, things, real as they are, fall substantially short of that.

The Mombasa Swahili are a prepossessing people. They have lived where they are now for many centuries, and their way of life is one they, and other peoples who know them, characterize as having utu , a word that can only be glossed as "civilization" or "humanness." It is no accident, no artifact of the ethnographic enterprise, to find that the Swahili view themselves as truly civilized and "human" beyond many others of our species.

Their influence on the peoples they have had contact with over the centuries has been a profound and lasting one. They are the residents and probable founders of what may be East Africa's greatest entrepôt. Their trading with other groups over centuries has carried their influence beyond that of other communities far larger than theirs. Their deep allegiance to Islam has made them a very conscious part of one of the earth's most influential traditions, and their language is the lingua franca for most of eastern and some of central Africa.


The culture of this impressive group endures down the length of the East African coast and on the islands as far into the Indian Ocean as the Comoros. The Swahili of Mombasa have close ties with the other members of their ethnic group along the coast, but they are a proud and distinctive community. Despite economic and political upheavals of significant magnitude over the centuries, including, especially, the period from World War I until the present, their culture has retained its vitality and the community its coherence.

I count it a privilege to have had the opportunity to live among them and to chronicle some of the bases for their way of life. The friends I have in this community are among those I value most among all the people I have ever met. In some respects, this study was more difficult than the others I have undertaken, but the hospitality and charm of the community members, in addition to the challenging data, provided substantial compensation.

This book is based on what I have seen and heard in my eight field trips (1975–76, 1977, 1980, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1987, and 1988) totaling twenty-four months in Old Town, the Swahili section of Mombasa. The observations, discussions, and interviews that provided my data were based on an approach to culture that aims at tracing its operation in everyday life by giving particular attention to statuses and how they operate to distribute and organize culture as well as to guide interpersonal relations. The conceptual and theoretical orientation that led to this approach is adumbrated in the first chapter and presented more fully and generally in the final one. This orientation is intended to illuminate the findings and, optimally, to be useful in understanding the cultures of other social groups.

The data presented here are as they were collected, with the exception that individuals' names have been omitted or changed to protect them from possible embarrassment. Details about individuals such as their occupations, exact family size, or place of residence have also been altered for the same reason. Researchers who need to know the nature of these latter changes may consult my field notes, but actual names have been removed from them.

Despite my respect and affection for the Mombasa Swahili, I cannot characterize them as forthcoming or easy to study. This is a community in which most members value privacy a very great deal, and no amount of association with them changes this materially. Some men with whom I had spent hours over coffee on scores of occasions and with whom I felt I was on very good terms would not tell me how many children they had or what their wives' names were, much less discuss any but the most superficial aspects of their social lives.

This study exists only because everyone in the group does not share the dedication to privacy ("secrecy" is another word that comes readily to mind) that many do. A number of men and some women were willing to talk frankly about their lives but only after I had been in the community for a long period


and most people knew who I was and that I was a serious student of their way of life, with proper respect for their beliefs and values.

My study might have been much easier and the results fuller if I had been able to live with a Swahili family. This, however, was impossible during my first field trip with my wife and three sons, as no one had room for all of us. Subsequently, although many were kind and hospitable, I could find no one who would house a solitary, outside man during my solitary, summer stays. Part of this is due to the difficulties in having an unrelated male in the house, but another part is probably due to my unavoidable reputation for asking questions. A woman field-worker would probably have had more access to Swahili home life, and I look forward to the results of such a researcher's work.

When I worked among the Bena of southern Tanzania and the Trukese in Micronesia, I lived in villages, and much of community life unfolded in open and public ways that made clear to everyone, even resident ethnographers, what was happening in families, neighborhoods, and among close associates generally. But the Mombasa Swahili are an urban people, and they spend a great deal of each day in their houses, as urban people do in many other societies. What goes on there is generally concealed from all those not directly involved. There is a Swahili proverb that says, Nyumba husetiri mambo : [The] house [regularly or usually or as an expected thing] conceals [embarrassing or shameful] events.

This emphasis on privacy often makes getting information painfully difficult and renders such things as a proper door-to-door census or a random sample survey quite impossible. If people whom one knows well are unwilling to say how many children they have and what the children's names are, it is not surprising that those who answer knocks on their doors will tell nothing whatever to an interviewer whose interests and objectives are unknown. I did manage to get a sample of more than a hundred families who responded to a questionnaire that included census information (see table 1, chap. 5) and, for a subsample of that group, information on beliefs and values concerning the nuclear family, its members, and their relationships. I also succeeded in getting survey information concerning the relations between generations and concerning illness and its treatment.

Some of these data were obtained with the help of young men and women from the community. They, as well as some of the people who allowed themselves to be interviewed, were paid. There are definite disadvantages in paying informants, but without payment, much of the information I collected would have eluded me.

Over the years, my research in Mombasa has been supported by the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Institutes of Mental Health, the National Geographic Society, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the Research Committee of the Academic Senate of the Univer-


sity of California, San Diego, and the Biomedical Research Fund of that same institution. I am grateful for the generous support of these agencies without which this study could not possibly have been done.

Only a small proportion of the data in this study come from the questionnaire sort of interviews that provided the basis for the survey of beliefs and values concerning the nuclear family, generational relations, and illness.

The main source of data was intensive, completely informal "interviews" about a very wide variety of matters concerned with community life. These interviews are indistinguishable from discussions, save that I encouraged my companions to do most of the talking and followed their lead in choosing topics whenever that was possible. I did much of this interviewing myself, but my wife, Audrey M. R. Swartz, and Prof. Joshua J. Akong'a of Moi University contributed importantly during the 1975–76 visit. I am much indebted to them for their help.

My friend, Sheikh Yahya Ali Omar, has been my mentor and guide during much of this study. His endless help with the subtleties of the Swahili language provided an invaluable resource, and his brilliant insights into many aspects of his own society contributed vitally to my understanding of that community. I note his contributions throughout the book as appropriate, but it is impossible to express fully my gratitude to him.

My dear friend and mentor, the late Mohammed Suleman Mazrui (Abu Suleman), was a patient and generous guide from the first days I arrived in Old Town until his much felt passing. Similarly, the late Kamal Khan was a valued and generous friend whose knowledge of Swahili utenzi (epic poems) provided perspectives I would otherwise not have had. Thabit Hamisi Suleiman, his wife, Miriam, and their children were most generous in their help. Bwan Dumila and Mwenye Karama are matabibu (herbal doctors) who stand out among my informants on Swahili medical belief and practice and who asked that they be mentioned by their real names. The same is true of Shumi Yusef and her family who were unfailingly kind and helpful to me, as was Bi Rukia Ali and her family. My friend, Sh. Rashid Azzan, cheered and supported me when I was tired and discouraged.

I cannot thank all my friends individually, but my gratitude to them is lasting and deep.

This book is the result of a research plan that I followed for more than a decade and probably will continue to use as a guide. Some of the approaches and propositions found in the book and some of the data have been published as papers, but no chapter here is a republication of any of my earlier work in an unaltered form. Every chapter has its own contribution to make to the overall thesis of the book, and only three of the chapters, 5, 6, and 9, develop arguments that have substantial similarities to earlier publications (Swartz 1982b , 1984, and 1988, respectively). Each of these chapters, like all the others, also contain new data that have not appeared previously. Chapter 7


includes some of the data and argument found in Swartz 1985 but takes as its central theoretical issue a concern that is barely touched on in the earlier paper. The same is true of chapter 10, which draws on data and analysis found in Swartz 1982c and 1983 but emphasizes and develops a theoretical issue that is fundamentally different from the ones that occupy the papers.

In its early stages, this manuscript has benefited from the comments of Myron Aronoff, Michael Meeker, Michael Murphy, Fitz John Porter Poole, Melford E. Spiro, Donald F. Tuzin, and H. U. E. Thoden Van Velzen. Carol Eastman gave me the benefit of her advice and her deep understanding of Swahili language and culture. Ronald Cohen lent his wide knowledge of Africa and of the theoretical issues that are of concern here. The University of California Press copy editor, Sheila Berg, is that rarest of gems, an intelligent and forbearant editor with a sense for style and argument. As with the other kind people who helped in various aspects of this study, they are not responsible for what is said here. They are, however, to be credited for serious attempts to make it better than it is.


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