Preferred Citation: Swartz, Marc J. The Way the World Is: Cultural Processes and Social Relations among the Mombasa Swahili. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.

4 He Who Eats with You Kinship, Family, and Neighborhood

Swahili Kinship

As table 1 shows, Swahili kin terms do not distinguish cross from parallel cousins, but they do have different terms for matrilateral as opposed to patrilateral parents' siblings. As noted earlier, the Mombasa Swahili have no unilineal descent groups despite the use of the term "clan" by English-speaking group members. In fact, the only groups of this sort with members living in Old Town are those made up of Arab immigrants who are either fairly recent arrivals from the Persian Gulf or members of the Mazrui group, which has been in East Africa for a very long time but retains its clan, sensu stricto , organization.

The patrilineal mbari is often referred to as a "clan" in the literature (e.g., Pouwells 1987:79). Mbari are not localized (and may never have been), do not and never did own property, are not exogamous, and, in short, have none of the attributes of a clan other than a belief in relationship through fathers (not always excluding fathers' sisters' offspring). For the Mombasa Swahili, in fact, there are no corporate unilineal descent groups.

As far as contemporary relevance of the mbari is concerned, there is no activity of any kind attributed to them in the last four decades or more prior to which they are said to have played a minor role in wedding rituals.[2] I could find only a few elderly people who knew which of the mbari they belonged to, and a number of younger informants said they were not even familiar with the word "mbari."

The extended family is commonly referred to as mlango (lit., door), but ukoo is also used even though it refers to the nuclear family in some contexts. The mlango is basically an ego-centered category of bilaterally related kin whose members do little or nothing requiring organization or general participation. Ad hoc groupings, usually made up of women kin and neighbors, form for particular, limited purposes (mainly to prepare for and participate in weddings, funerals, the now very rarely publicly celebrated circumcisions [tohara ], and maulidi, or public readings of the life of the Prophet followed by refreshments). These activities aside, group activities limited to or arranged by kin drawn from beyond the nuclear family are nonexistent. Participation in such jointly arranged activity as is carried out depends as much on the affectional ties and current interests of members as it does on their kin statuses, and unrelated neighbors are often as prominent in them as kin are.


Save for living parents and their dependent children, who share the proceeds from wealth inherited by one of the parents, property ownership is virtually never shared among kin, even siblings. When a father or mother leaves land, a house, or an apartment building to his or her children, it is either sold and the money divided according to Islamic inheritance laws or the building or land is physically partitioned so that each heir has his or her share as separate, personal property.

People of means sometimes create trusts (wakf ) supervised according to Islamic law to benefit their children and grandchildren. Several informants said that this was done to conserve the property (only its income is available to the heirs) and, also, to lessen the chances that an adult brother (or, rarely, some other surviving kin) of the deceased would misappropriate the inheritance while serving as the children's guardian until they reached their majority.

Disputes about inheritance are settled by local kadhis (judges of Islamic courts) according to Koranic principles. A Swahili language book presenting the principles of the Islamic laws (sheria ) of inheritance is taken as the final arbiter of disputes and is consulted both by kadhis and by lay persons concerned with questions of inheritance (Kasim el Mazrui 1952).

Parents and Children

There are some generalities regarding relations among kin[3] that can be inferred from informants' statements and observed behavior. These include respect and deference for parental generation kin which diminishes somewhat as the ego generation kin reach adulthood but does not disappear until and unless the parental generation kin becomes senile (pishwa ), and even then some indications of respect and deference are retained. Outside the nuclear family, there is general similarity in behavior toward parental generation kin regardless of sex, although, given the pervasive division of the sexes and the isolation of women (tawa ), there is generally more interaction within one's own sex.

Relations between mothers and children are usually closer, freer of conflict, and less restricted than relations between fathers and children. Fathers are said—including, sometimes, by themselves—more often to get along well with daughters than with sons. In fact, boys and young men rather often make use of their sisters' good relations with their father to get the father to do things the sons want him to do. A daughter asking her father to do something is likelier than a son, several informants say, to succeed even if what she wants is for her brother.

Some young men report excellent relations with their fathers, and observation in these cases is in accord with their reports. Others, however, say that although the father-son relationship is warm and close when the boy



Table 1.
Kin Terms



Table 1.


is small, as adolescence approaches, the relationship becomes more distant and/or characterized by conflict.

I have talked to a number of adolescent boys and young men who have critical, even bitter, things to say about their fathers. A number of sons criticized their fathers for being too strict, too old-fashioned, and too unwilling to provide needed funds. I have never heard a girl or young woman criticize her father. However, several have told me that their parents (wazee ) are too strict or old-fashioned but without being willing (or able?) to differentiate between their fathers and their mothers in this respect. Aside from whatever share they have of the general criticism of parents, mothers are not, in my experience, subject to open criticism by either daughters or sons.

A few boys and young men leave their homes before they marry, and the reasons given are uniformly based on difficulties in getting along with their father or, somewhat more commonly, their mother's husband whom she married either following divorce or the biological father's death. In all seven of the cases of this sort that I was able to record, the son visited his mother even though, as in two instances, the husband/father told her not to see him.

As will be seen below, mothers almost always have greater involvement than fathers in their children's lives. In some families, the fathers are mainly peripheral to the children's activities except for providing (or refusing) money for these activities, including schooling.

Relations between parents and children are by no means free of conflict. Mothers' day-to-day relations with their daughters are fraught with conflict, and much of the most colorful obscenity in the Swahili language (and it is a language rich in abusive resources) is directed by mothers at their daughters (Swartz 1990a , 1990b ). I have no evidence to indicate that fathers and sons or fathers and daughters exchange insults, but tensions in these relations—often related to differences regarding the use of money—frequently are expressed in silences and withdrawal.

Some conflict is taken as natural. A proverb says Pesa zikiwa mfukoni haziwati kugongana (Money that is in [a] pocket does not stop knocking together). This emphasizes the inevitable and constant minor conflict among those who are close to one another (in the same pocket) and the harmlessness of that conflict. Another proverb asserts that the familiarity that allows minor conflict is strengthened by that conflict: "Nyoko, nyoko—ni faida ya kuonana " (Mother, mother [this is an archaic form that appears only as part of fairly mild obscene insults and refers to that insult here]—is [to the] advantage of [a] relationship).

But the recognition that some strife is natural and harmless in parent-child (and other household) relationships does not obviate the fact that serious ruptures can and do occur. As noted, there are sons who leave the parental home before marriage and not in order to work at a distant job. I know of no Swahili woman who has left her parents' home as dissatisfied sons sometimes do, but


the restrictions on women are such that departures are extremely difficult unless the woman marries or goes to the house of a kinswoman, in which case I would not be likely to hear that family trouble was at the root of the move.

As understood among the Swahili, it is a tenet of Islam that a child cannot go to heaven if the parent does not have radhi for the child when the parent dies. "Radhi" means a blessing and comes, informants report, from the parents' satisfaction with the child's behavior. A parent cannot control radhi; it is a natural consequence of the child's behavior, and a child who has behaved intolerably toward a parent will not get radhi regardless of how great the parent's love for him or her may be. Radhi need not be given explicitly, and at death a parent may give or withhold it without necessarily knowing that it has been given or withheld.

Since the Swahili, including the members of the younger generation, are almost all deeply religious Muslims, the importance of radhi would seem a significant resource for parents in their relations with their children. To some extent this is true, and an element of children's general wish to please their parents is, they say explicitly, based in concern about this blessing.[4] Much more active in shaping relations with parents, however, are the very strong bonds that unite parents and children. A mother is said to feel deep sympathy and love for her children because of kitei (Johnson 1959 [1939] renders this as kite ), the pain she suffers at the birth of her child. Sometimes a person who refuses a child's request or withholds sympathy from a child is told, "Hukuzaa " (You have not given birth). Even fathers are said to have given birth and to have sympathy and love for a child because of this.[5]

Although fathers are said genuinely to love their children, some part of this is understood—at least by some male informants—as a consequence of their love for the child's mother, their wife. A proverb used mainly with respect to stepchildren but explicitly said to apply to own children as well maintains that a man who loves a woman must also love her children: Mtu akipenda koa, hupenda na kilicho ndani ([A] person [who], if [he] loves [the] oyster shell [customarily or usually] loves that which is inside [it]).

Mother's Siblings and Father's Siblings

The mother's brother, mjomba , occupies a fairly distinctive position in the parental generation, and informants agree that this man is more likely to be sympathetic and helpful than a father's brother, Baba ya pili [lit., second father] or Baba mdogo [lit., little father]. Several informants say that if one's father dies while one is young, it is better to be in the charge of a mother's brother than a father's brother because, given the partrilateral emphasis in Islamic inheritance laws, the former is not in a position to try to appropriate your share of your dead father's estate as the latter is. Further, and at least


as important, there is more likely to be "love" (upendo ) on the mother's side of the family. The mother's brother's wife is referred to by a distinctive term, mkaza mjombe .

Like mother's brother, father's sister is referred to by a term, shangazi , that distinguishes her from other kin of the parental generation, although there is no distinctive term for her husband. However, no particular distinctive qualities in the relations between people of either sex and their father's sisters were observed or reported by informants. If anything, it is my impression that mother's sisters play an active role in people's lives more often than father's sisters do. When I mentioned this impression to informants, they uniformly agreed and said that it was due to the fact that when children are small, they go with their mothers when the latter go visiting. Since mothers visit their sisters more often than their husbands' sisters, the children become more accustomed (zoea ) to them and, therefore, have closer relations with them.

Siblings and Cousins

Own generation kin are treated quite differently according to sex. There is often a good deal of interaction among same sex, same generation kin, although it is my impression that sisters, sisters' daughters, and similarly related women are more likely to spend a great deal of time together than comparably related men.

Still, in many families, brothers are together a good deal before they marry. The elder serves as a mentor for the younger, and the younger helps the elder in whatever tasks the latter may be involved in. With marriage and the beginning of their own families, relations become more formal and distant, and sometimes competitiveness, even mutual hostility, emerges.

Relations between sisters are frequently close and warm in childhood when they are almost constantly together as a consequence of the isolation of women, which led—and, to a slightly lesser extent, still leads—to girls and young women spending much of their time in their own house and those of female relatives and neighbors whom they visit with their mother. After marriage, relations between sisters generally remain quite positive and lack the competitiveness that sometimes is seen between brothers.

Brothers and sisters are together less as children than are same sex siblings, since while the girls stay in the home when they are not in school, the boys, after the age of seven or eight, are either in school or wandering the neighborhood and playing games with other boys. There is some conflict between brothers and sisters deriving from brothers attempting to control their sisters, especially with regard to the sisters being allowed to go out of the house. Sisters often depend on their brothers to do errands for them which involve going outside, and brothers depend on their sisters for part of the cooking, cleaning, and mending they require. As might be expected, this


work for brothers by sisters sometimes leads to resentment, but it also serves as a check on brothers' attempts to control their sisters' activities.

Matrilateral Association and Affection

Several informants have said that both men and women are closer to their mother's kin than to their father's as a consequence of closer emotional ties to the mother and of going with her to visit her kin when they were young. My observations (as well as the data in the survey reported in chap. 5) tend to bear this out. Nevertheless, beyond the confines of the nuclear family, common interests and personal affections are the most powerful determinants of which kin associate often and closely with one another and which have more distant relations.

In accord with this, group members consistently affirm that there is no general difference in one's relations with father's brother's children, mother's brother's children, father's sister's children, and mother's sister's children. All own generation kin can be referred to as ndugu (the same term, in fact, is used for all kin regardless of generation or nature of relationship), but there are terms that distinguish between brothers (kaka and mdogo are fairly common) and sisters (dada or the more Arabized ukhti ).

There are limited terminological differences found in alternate terms which distinguish the children of one sort of parents' sibling from another and from own siblings, but there is little basis for believing that these differences have much sociological or psychological significance. They seem mostly to be used to clarify a relationship for the benefit of visitors or anthropologists. The alternate terms are used only in reference and clarification and mean, literally, "child of mother's brother," "child of father's brother," and so on.

Cousin marriage is quite common, and more than a third of all the marriages about which I could collect genealogical information were between kin.[6] I have been told that it does not matter if the cousin you marry is related to you through your father or through your mother (although a number of informants are quite emphatic about how important the difference is to "Arabs"), but that it is slightly better to marry someone who is not the child of an actual sibling of either parent. In fact, two marriages about which I have relatively full data involved the child of a parent's true sibling, and neither of these caused any observable comment.

4 He Who Eats with You Kinship, Family, and Neighborhood

Preferred Citation: Swartz, Marc J. The Way the World Is: Cultural Processes and Social Relations among the Mombasa Swahili. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.