previous sub-section
3 The Brotherhood of Coconuts Unity, Conflict, and Narrowing Loyalties
next sub-section

New Community Divisions

The Swahili Arabs took considerable pains to align themselves with the Zanzibaris in ways beyond simply asserting common ethnicity. Sh. Hyder Kindy, who was personally involved, gives a lengthy account of some of the key events concerning the assertion of the alignment in the 1920s in his Life and Politics in Mombasa (1972:26–45). The accounts I have received from three other participants in the events substantially agree with Kindy, but they, and I, do not agree that all of those he identifies as "Arabs" are, in fact, what I am calling "Zanzibar Arabs" or Omani. Some of them were Swahili Arabs, and they and their families are Twelve Tribes members with all the social, cultural, and linguistic traits appropriate to members of that community.

Under colonial rule, the political advantages of being classified as "nonnative" were substantial, and the stronger position of Arabs was clear to the Swahili as it was to everyone else. Thus, despite an initial rebuff, in 1921, many men from the Twelve Tribes, both Swahili Arabs and others, joined with resident Zanzibar Arabs in a political group called the Coast Arab Association (Salim 1973:180–187, Stroebel 1979:40) with the intention of increasing their ability to influence the colonial government (Kindy 1972:29–31). In 1927, the liwali (chief administrator) of the coast, a Zanzibar Arab


named Ali Salim (later Sir Ali) who opposed and was opposed by the association, chose it as the venue for the announcement that Twelve Tribes members were not Arabs and would not be allowed to vote for the Arab representative on the Legislative Council (ibid., 30).

This led Twelve Tribes members who did not claim Arab ethnicity to form their own political group, the Afro-Asian Association (ibid.). It also led to a high level of conflict between those who emphasized their Arab ethnicity (both Swahili and Zanzibar Arabs) and those who did not (ibid., 31–45). There was even a cessation of communitywide prayer (ibid., 31). Formerly, the men of the Nine Tribes and the men of the Three Tribes alternated the Friday noon prayer between the main Three Tribes mosque and the main Nine Tribes mosque. In 1929, however, a Three Tribes man rose and denounced "the Arabs" and advised everyone to avoid going to the Nine Tribes mosque any longer since it was where "the Arabs" prayed. This despite the Muslim injunction that the whole community pray together at least at the Friday noon prayer (ibid., 31–32).

The appeal was effective, and most of the other Twelve Tribes members, including some Nine Tribes members who did not claim Omani origins, prayed every Friday in the Three Tribes mosque. Those emphasizing their Arab connections remained in the Nine Tribes mosque, with few others joining them there (ibid.).

This breach in Nine Tribes solidarity was also a blow at the unity of the sections as such in that for the most important prayer of the week, the men of the community no longer assembled according to section divisions. There was a limited unity between members of the two sections who did not claim Arab status, but the structure that had characterized the community for centuries was seriously impaired.

"Natives" and "Nonnatives"

The strain on the community resulting from the separation of segments of the sections and the reuniting of these segments according to ethnic ties rather than section allegiance was continued and reinforced by the ability of some members to achieve what was, under British rule, the politically and economically more desirable status of Arab. The interest in doing this is seen in the fact that continued appeals from Swahili to the colonial government led, in 1934, to the ruling that

persons who could prove before a magistrate that one parent was of nonnative descent could press a claim for nonnative status, thus opening the possibility for Twelve Tribes claims. . . . Until World War II bickering continued about whether Twelve Tribes persons should be allowed to claim Arab status as nonnatives. Technically, "Swahili" were given Arab status in 1952, but relations between the two communities remained strained (Stroebel 1979:40–41).


The interest in being classified as an "Arab," that is, a nonnative, which had provided tax benefits for decades, received further impetus with the outbreak of World War II when food rationing was instituted. Those classified as natives were given coupons to buy cornmeal, while those classified as Arabs were, like Asians, allowed to buy rice (Kindy 1972:109). This was especially significant because of the meanings attached to rice and to cornmeal. For the Mombasa Swahili, eating cornmeal is inappropriate for proper group members. True Swahili of noble birth (waungwana , sing. mwungwana ), that is, those without slave forebears, simply do not eat simi , the heavy cornmeal paste[3] eaten throughout East Africa or, at least, do not let it be known that they do. Rice is the starch suitable to waungwana, and not to have it is a degrading and shameful indication of abject poverty and/or low taste.

Informants report that even for those who received it, the rationing did not provide enough rice for it to be the dietary staple, as the Twelve Tribes members I know insist it must be. Still, being closed off from legal access to the noble grain while their fellow group members, the ones claiming Omani origin, had it was an extremely bitter experience that is remembered with rancor more than forty years later.

Crucially for the thesis being developed here, the resentment went not only to the government[4] but also, and mainly, to the group members who claimed Omani roots. Again, this united part of the Nine Tribes with most of the Three Tribes against the Swahili Arab subgroup drawn from both.

Section Competitions

The rationing and the earlier blows to section unity affected the ability of the sections to unify and compete with one another. Nevertheless, until the early 1960s, the members of the Three Tribes and the Nine Tribes did engage in such sectionally based competitions as team card games, various sports, and marching societies (quaride ) that competed in precision of marching, elegance of uniform, and the skill of their bands. These primarily male activities were paralleled by competitions between women's dancing societies, called vyama .

Continuing until independence in 1963 was what several male informants have said was the most basic and fundamental expression of community life: the performance of a men's dance called tware and a related one called diriji . A large proportion of the men from each section, including the "Arabs," participated in these. In tware, the men from each side formed two lines, one for the Nine Tribes and one for the Three Tribes, facing one another. To the measured beat of the tambourine-like tware drum, each side attempted to outdo the other in the gleaming whiteness of their gowns and kofia (white skullcaps worn by Muslims) and in the elegance and grace of their movements in this very restrained dance.


No prize was awarded; in fact, no judgment was made. But each side assessed its own performance against that of the other and decided for itself who had been the most "noble." And "noble" is the word for this dance. It is performed in celebration of the marriage or circumcision of Twelve Tribes members but only for those who are understood to be descended from forebears all of whom were free men and women (i.e., waungwana). Moreover, only those with this sort of family background were allowed to participate in the dance.

A similar sort of dance, diriji, was also held and was seen, informants say, as another expression of community life. It, too, was restricted to those considered waungwana and was performed by the confederations in opposition to one another.

Many of the most important relations between women in the community were, like the men's dances, carried out in sectionally organized groups. This is so despite the existence of a group made up of all the "noble" old women, the wamiji (miji refers to city; wa - is the suffix for nouns referring to humans). This group acted as the ritual guardians of the community without respect to section lines, condemning improper ceremonial and ritual behavior and lending their presence to important celebrations regardless of section membership. Old men had the same title but seem not to have actively involved themselves as the women did (Stroebel 1979:80–84).

Like the wamiji, section lines were not regarded for the weddings, funerals, and circumcisions that were the center of their social life in this sexually segregated society. Women invited all community members of their gender to the rites. This was so even though those who cooperated most closely with one another in the laborious and elaborate preparations for these ceremonies were almost always from the same neighborhood and, therefore, section.

But this does not mean that sectional opposition had no part in female activities. In women's social lives, the competition between the sections came out most clearly in the women's dancing societies, or vyama (sing. chama ).[5] There were a number of these societies, but the two main ones were based on section membership (ibid., 160–164). In a way somewhat similar to the men's marching societies, the women's competition involved elegance of costume, skill in dancing, and excellence of music between section-based groups whose members included the descendants of slaves as well as women whose forebears were understood to include only waungwana.

The women's competition went beyond those of the men. In addition to dancing skill, they also competed in the excellence and lavishness of the food presented at their dances, the elegance of their clothing and jewelry, and, especially, in the mordant wit of the songs reviling members of the competing group. These were sung at the dances and dealt with such embarrassments of the opposite section as one of its men having elephantiasis of the testicles, the pretensions to high social standing despite having a slave fore-


bear of one of its families, and the sexual indiscretion of one of its women. Men, especially older and more prestigious ones, disapproved of these women's competitions, but since they were mainly carried out within the confines of the women's separate groups whose activities were not held in the men's presence, their disapproval only kept their own wives and daughters out.

Unity Through Competition and Its End

The pervasiveness of conflict or, at least, of sharp competition, which was sometimes difficult to differentiate, between the two sections continued in a variety of forms for roughly three decades after the end of World War II. It was mainly in competition that the whole community came together. The important joint prayer on Friday was no more, but the men's dances, dirigi and, especially, tware, exhibited and affirmed some of the most prized values for men in the context of a competitive unity. The other competitions and oppositional joint appearances did not have the dignity and value-heavy significance for community coherence that tware had and the joint prayer had had, but they did bring community members together in actively functioning alignments that took in all parts of the group.

These sorts of activities, however, received a serious blow from a single, dramatic event in the early 1940s when the long-standing contests between sectionally based women's dancing groups escalated into street fighting involving the police (ibid., 177–181). This happened in some part because of changes in the women's understandings of what limits there were on their public behavior. Particularly at issue was the extent to which they were willing to be guided by the understandings men (i.e., their husbands, fathers, and brothers) had of how they should behave, especially how they could express themselves publicly.

The most prestigious men in the community had always looked on the women's societies as unacceptable expressions of tendencies in the community that they deplored: the public appearance of women, direct and open attacks on the private lives of community members, and the participation of waungwana and the descendants of slaves in common groups. They opposed the latter because the women's organizations did not practice the exclusion of those of other than "noble" birth as the men's dances did.

The riot shocked both men and women, but it did not surprise the senior men—or so some of them told me—who deplored the women's organizations and their activities from the outset. The most important consequence of the excesses of the women's dancing competitions for the future of the community was the unfavorable light it cast on all competitions, including the traditional ones between sections.

The women's riot led directly, informants have told me, to the abandon-


ment by members of the Twelve Tribes community of this whole type of competition. This is an exaggeration since, in fact, the men's dances, card games, and such went on for as long as two decades after the riot, and some of the boys' soccer teams are still sectionally based.[6] Nevertheless, it is probably true that the riot gave all competition a more worrisome connotation. It is a matter of fact that the experience is cited forty-five years later as an example of the foolishness and danger of competition, especially between women, given the widely shared understanding that they are uncontrollably emotional.[7]

previous sub-section
3 The Brotherhood of Coconuts Unity, Conflict, and Narrowing Loyalties
next sub-section