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2 Akher Zamani Mombasa Swahili History and Contemporary Society
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The Coming of the Two-Section Community: 1500–1836

By the time the Portuguese arrived in the first decade of the sixteenth century, the post-Shirazi period of the Mombasa Swahili community had begun. It was an era of instability and rapid change, with the Portuguese arrival occurring at the same time the city was attacked by the cannibalistic Zimba (ibid., 45). Having survived this, the Mombasans mounted an attack on the Portuguese and their Malindi allies the year after the Europeans arrived, but this was a debacle (ibid.). The defeat ended forever the Mombasa Shirazi[3] reign and led to the formation of the two-section organization, called the Twelve Tribes, that has characterized the Mombasa community for the three and a half centuries leading up to and including the present (ibid., 42–44; Nurse and Spear 1985:4–5).

The Shirazi rulers of Malindi were allied with the Portuguese and ruled in conjunction with them from 1593 until 1632, when the acquisitive Portuguese captains took control of Mombasa into their own hands (Berg 1968:45)


without, however, establishing a stable peace in the area (ibid., 50). The descendants of this Malindi dynasty became integrated into the Mombasa community and now number themselves among the Tisa Taifa , or Nine Tribes, confederation or section, which, largely because of its Shirazi connections and its earlier presence on Mombasa island, considers itself senior to the other Twelve Tribes section, the Thelatha Taifa , or Three Tribes (ibid., 45–46).

While the political situation remained unstable on the coast as a whole throughout the sixteenth century,[4] sometime around 1600, various immigrant groups joined the Mvita "tribe"[5] already living on Mombasa island. Like the other tribes that make up the Twelve Tribes, the Mvita are a collection of Swahili partrilines not claiming a common ancestor but tracing its origins to a common, earlier location. They believe their ancestral area was in the north, and they claim ties of kinship and marriage with the Malindi Sherazi rulers. The Mvita settled in the area on the eastern side of the island in a location overlapping with what Berg (1968:48) refers to as the "southern portion of the [older] Shirazi town," and it was there that they were joined by other "tribes" to form what became the Nine Tribes section of the Mombasa Swahili community.

At the beginning of the formation of the Nine Tribes confederation, the Kilindini tribe, which was to become a major part of the other Mombasa Swahili section, the Three Tribes, was still living in mainland villages some distance to the south of Mombasa (ibid., 46).[6] This collection of patrilines did not migrate to the island and join the Mvita as some other Swahili groups were doing in the late sixteenth century. In fact, the Kilindini declined an invitation from the sheikh of the Nine Tribes to join the latter confederation, which was already well established on Mombasa island (ibid.).

Instead, the Kilindini first moved north to a mainland area immediately south of the island. Only after affiliating with two other Swahili "tribes" to form what became the Three Tribes sometime between 1593 and 1632 did they move onto the island where they founded the independent city of Kilindini, in the western area now occupied by the modern seaport (ibid., 47).[7] The settlements of the two confederations were initially—and for two centuries after that—separated by about two miles of unoccupied bush and fields.

When the groups that were the nucleus of the Three Tribe section moved to Mombasa island from the mainland, according to Berg, their presence led to "a breakdown in the Mombasa state system that enabled the Thelatha Taifa (Three Tribes) to feel a sense of autonomy on the island" (ibid., 48). Now the Nine Tribes no longer absorbed all immigrants since the newer Three Tribes grouping not only remained separate but had its own parallel political structure.

In both confederations, newcomer families retained their identity as separate descent lines (mbari , sing. and pl.) and banded together into "tribes" according to common areas of origin and shared political leaders. The Three


Tribes, as we have seen, came onto the island from the mainland at the beginning of the seventeenth century with all of its three subgroupings already formed and in association with each other.

It was not until the end of the eighteenth century that the senior section, the Nine Tribes or Tisa Taifa, had acquired its full complement of constituent groups. Although further Swahili immigrants, almost all from the north and mainly single men, continued to arrive in Mombasa (ibid.)—in fact, they are still arriving—following the beginning of the eighteenth century, they were included in one or the other of the existing mbari rather than forming new ones. An immigrant man's family belonged to the mbari of his wife's family (Cooper 1977:98, but cf. Eastman 1988:5).[8]

The Nine Tribes, which counting the most recent addition, Bajun, actually number ten, are, and for centuries have been, composed of the following tribes (Taifa): Mvita, Jomvu, Kilifi, Mtwapa, Pate, Shaka, Paza, Bajun, and Katwa.

The Three Tribes are, similarly, made up of the Kilindini, Changamwe, and Tangana.

All of the tribes had the same basic political organization with a leader, or "sheikh," from a particular descent line in the tribe and each mbari (i.e., descent line) having the senior man of its senior family serve as a subordinate leader and adviser (called mzee , pl. wazee ) to the tribe's sheikh. It is not entirely clear whether the two sections had established rulers for the entire section before the Busaidi took control of the city in 1837 (Berg 1968:52), but from the time each of them established their separate communities on Mombasa island until about the time of the declaration of a British protectorate in 1894, the two groupings—Nine Tribes and Three Tribes—maintained separate identities under a considerable variety of regimes that ruled the city and beyond. Each of the confederations came to have a leader, a tamim , who was always chosen from a particular descent line in the Tangana Tribe for the Three Tribes and a designated line in the Mvita Tribe for the Nine Tribes (Kindy 1972:47–49).

The Twelve Tribes were subordinate to outsiders from the sixteenth century onward. A partial summary of the succession of the regimes that ruled Mombasa from the sixteenth century to the eighteenth century is provided by Berg (1968:49) and shows the variety of regimes that controlled the Swahili community and its sections:

Between the end of the Shirazi dynasty and the beginning of the Mazrui hegemony, Mombasa was ruled by an uneasy condominium administered by the Sheikhs of Malindi and the Portuguese Captains of Mombasa (1593–1631), by the Captains of Mombasa alone (1632–1698), and by various representatives of the [Yarubi] Imam of Muscat (1698–1735) with a brief reversion to Portuguese control in 1728–1729.


This summary omits the brief presence of the Turks and the three times Mombasa was sacked during the sixteenth century, including the last by the cannibalistic Zimba. In 1588, these Bantu speakers from the southern part of what is now Malawi brought "a destruction of the utmost horror" (Freeman-Grenville 1963:138–139) on Mombasa. Shortly after the Zimba, as Salim puts it, "literally ate their way northwards up to Malindi" (i.e., through and including Mombasa) the city was set upon by the Galla from the north (Salim 1973:21). By 1593, this general destruction along the coast led the Portuguese to reorganize their administration and make Mombasa a captaincy separate from that of Mozambique.

In the mid-seventeenth century when the Portuguese established themselves in East Africa, they also took Muscat in Oman (Pouwells 1987:97–98). When the Omani under the Yarubi imam, Sultan ibn Saif, overthrew the Portuguese in Muscat, the people of Mombasa sent a delegation to the Omani asking that they be relieved by their coreligionists from the "iron yoke and the injustices" of the Europeans (Lambert 1958:42). The Yarubi mounted a number of raids on the Portuguese in the following decades, and, finally, in 1696, a large Omani fleet laid siege to Fort Jesus, the Portuguese citadel (it still stands in Mombasa in Kibuokoni). Two years later, the fort fell, bringing victory to the Omani (Pouwells 1987:98). This event was a further stimulus to Omani immigration. "Many Arab soldiers and their descendants remain[ed] on the Coast, first as garrisons . . . and later as permanent settlers" (Lambert 1958:42).

During the Yarubi rule that followed their victory, the tribes of the Mombasa Swahili had not yet settled into the contiguous neighborhoods that have characterized the city for the past century and a half. Unlike this still-present arrangement, the two sections of the community continued to occupy noncontiguous areas separated by unoccupied land and were united only by their being subject to the same foreign authority (Berg 1968:50–51). Competition between the confederations for power and position within the imam's government continued to be sufficiently strong to lead, on several occasions, to armed clashes (ibid.).

In 1735, Yarubi rule on the East African coast was overthrown by the Mazrui, who had been brought to the East African coast by the imam's government as soldiers and governors. Once established as rulers in Mombasa, the Mazrui mediated between the two Swahili sections. Their efforts, including the granting of considerable autonomy to each of them, managed to bring relative peace between them. Outsiders' attacks on the city helped consolidate the Nine Tribes with the Three Tribes and draw them closer together, "but bridging the gap between them required 150 years and a foreign dynasty" (ibid., 50).

The absence of conflict between the two sections was not, and did not


remain, a notable feature of the Mombasa Swahili community. Soon after the beginning of their suzerainty, the Yarubi ruler in Mombasa, Salah bin Mohammed al-Hadhrami, in alliance with the Nine Tribes, drove the Three Tribes off the island, and they took refuge with kin in mainland villages (ibid.). The Mazrui ruler who succeeded Salah, Mohammed bin Athman, invited the Three Tribes back to the island and reestablished his and the Mazrui government's ties with that section (ibid., 51).

Active conflicts and ultimate reconciliations between the two sections of the Twelve Tribes are common in that group's long history. What seems to have been the last armed clash occurred about ten years after the incident just mentioned. In this case, the Three Tribes conspired with one of the Mijikenda peoples, the Duruma, with whom they maintained a patron-client relationship, as they also did with the Digo (ibid., 47–48),[9] until the end of the last century, to restore Mazrui rule after it was disrupted by the assassination of the local Mazrui ruler. This murder was committed by agents of the new Omani dynasty on Zanzibar, the Busaidi, with the collaboration of members of the Nine Tribes confederation (ibid., 50–52).

Despite their role as mediators, the Mazrui rulers often sided with the Three Tribes. This can be seen in the fact that their wazir , or local subordinate ruler, was always chosen from a descent line in the Kilindini Taifa, a Three Tribes constituent (ibid., 52). Because of the ties between the Mazrui and the Three Tribes, the Nine Tribes were often at odds with their Mazrui rulers (ibid.). On one occasion, the Nine Tribes, at the prompting of members of their constituent Kilifi "tribe" who wished to assault the Three Tribes and their Mazrui allies but who did not themselves want to be involved in a civil war, called in kin and allies from the island of Pate. These raiders sailed to the Three Tribes Mombasa island settlement of Kilindini where they surprised the residents and burned their town before sailing to safety (ibid., 51).

Once again, the ensuing conflict was ended when a new Mazrui ruler succeeded to power in the city and reconciled the two parties. The end of armed fighting, however, did not mean the beginning of concord and unity between the Mombasa Swahili sections (ibid.). In fact, quarreling and intrigue can only have been said to have ended, if it has ended,[10] in the 1970s with the decline of the community as an active group and the concomitant change in affiliation of some section members (discussed below).

Mazrui rule lasted more than 150 years, continuing into the nineteenth century during which, as Berg notes, Mombasa enjoyed a period of power and influence unrivaled since the first Shirazi dynasty (ibid., 52). Under the Mazrui, the coast from Tanga to the Bajun Islands was subject to or dependent on the city, with the important islands of Pate and Pemba under its control for part of this period. The great Mombasa poet, Muyaka (now so called by community members with a taste for poetry but whose full name is Muyaka bin Mwinyi Haji), celebrated this period in his epics (Knappert 1979).


The heroic and powerful image of the city that comes from Muyaka's poems and from the oral history of this period offers a sharp contrast with the comparatively powerless and far less affluent present. This may be part of the basis for the view, to be examined below, expressed by several of those most concerned with the prestige and standing of the community, that it is now and long has been in a state of decline which has accelerated over the decades of the current century.

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