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.

8 Tongues are Spears Shame and Differentiated Conformity

Aibu without Personal Belief in Having Erred

Actors surely do not need an abstract understanding of culture's operation for social life to continue any more than they need a knowledge of physiology


to digest food. The fact that they are, willy-nilly, guided by culture makes shame a socially, as opposed to only personally, effective force. The importance of the cultural, as opposed to purely personal, element is emphasized by informants telling me that a person need not believe he has done anything wrong in order for him to have been involved in an aibu. An example will make this clear.

When a marriage takes place, it is usual for a drum to be put in front of the new wife's parent's house. This drum is beaten on the nuptial night to signal that the wife was a virgin and that the husband was successful in deflowering her. Many men view this practice as shameful, an aibu, because, they say, it concerns very intimate affairs about which the community need know nothing. Still, they say, they have no choice other than to allow the drum to be put out because the women—the wives, mothers, and sisters—think it is aibu not to have the drum.

It might be argued that the drum's presence is due to the women's concern about aibu and that the men accept it because of their concern for the sensibilities of their female kin rather than about their own aibu. Taking this view might seem to obviate the need to view aibu as occurring regardless of the actor's own evaluation of his behavior. This would seem to preserve the position that shame is invariably a consequence of the actor's understanding that he or she has violated one or more values, but it does not.

If we accept or reject what Swahili informants say, that aibu result from others' evaluations of your behavior regardless of your own understandings of it, or, as just suggested, we say that aibu influences behavior through intermediates whose aibu is of concern, the result for analysis is the same. This is that we need to know a good deal about understandings concerning who applies what standards to whom, in addition to the content of the values involved, when considering the shamefulness of particular behaviors.

In fact, it is through actors' knowledge of which people apply what standards to whom that a good part of the shame system works. It is not only feeling bad that lets actors know what standards apply but also knowing what is expected of others and what the others expect of the actor. The shame system has the same basis as the social system as a whole: the actors' sharing with one another at least some understandings about what people in different categories should do and actually will do in various circumstances.

These shared understandings enable actors to know not only what consequences their own behavior will have for their prestige and honor but also how they will be affected by the misbehavior of others. A young man, for example, was sitting with a group of friends when his father's brother, a ne'er-do-well, walked by. The uncle was very shabbily dressed, itself a shameful thing in this community, and, worst of all, was barefoot. After the uncle had passed, the young man said to his friends, "My father was the only one of those children who amounted to anything."

The significance of the young man's statement, of course, was that he


knew what standards his friends would apply to his father's brother and what evaluation that would produce for the man. He also knew how that evaluation might affect his own honor and prestige with his peers.

There is nothing surprising about the young man knowing these things. They are the sorts of knowledge that make social life possible. Still, it is worth underlining their existence so that it can be seen clearly that shame involves a more complex cultural foundation than would be the case if it were necessary to consider nothing but what values are shared and what constitutes their violation. The young man's uncle violated a value concerning proper dress, and that is a part of the aibu the young man sought to avoid with his remark. To understand the incident, it is also necessary to examine the cultural elements that establish the nature of the relationship between the boy and his uncle and, given that relationship, the standards for judging the boy because of the uncle's behavior.

To take a more common but still similar problem, informants of both sexes and all social standings agree that the elderly mothers and aunts who often spend their last years living with a child and his or her spouse are a source of concern because of the aibu they might bring. The possibility that these women may go to neighbors' houses and accept tea or food and talk about the poor or scanty food in the houses of their sons or daughters is understood as real and frightening by their children. The feared "begging" does not shame the old women in their children's view; they are seen as being beyond shame. It is the shame that would come to the children from the implication that they do not or cannot care for their aged parent that is frightening.

It might seem that the old women show by their behavior that the children are violating accepted ideals of care and that once that is known, the shame in the situation is accounted for. This, however, misses a vital aspect of how shame works. This is that those who care for an aged parent need to have a full understanding of how others will judge the behavior of the old mother and of how this judgment will reflect on them. The children's concern about their aged kinswoman is based, in other words, in a more complex set of understandings than simply the ideal understanding (value) that may concern neighbors.

Both regarding the shabby father's brother and the resident old mothers, individuals suffer aibu, or fear they might, because of the behavior of other people rather than directly because of their own behavior alone. These instances were adduced to show that simply saying shame comes from the violation of values fails to take account of the fullness of social life and of the complex tasks culture must accomplish if it is to provide a basis for it. Taking a final example from the other side of my contention that feeling you have done something wrong is not a necessary condition for aibu, let us consider a man who felt he did something terribly wrong but who, nevertheless, was not judged to have committed an aibu.


A boy of about eight years very much wanted a bicycle. Many of his friends had them, and he asked his father for one repeatedly, but the father delayed getting it. One day the little boy went swimming in the ocean and drowned. The father was disconsolate. Long after the child's death he mourned the failure to give his son the bicycle he wanted. He obviously understood his failure to provide the bicycle as a grave omission, but it was not, informants agree, an aibu. It was, rather, a clear instance of guilt.

The last case shows that internalized values, in this case manifested in treatment of a son, are not always a sufficient condition for experiencing what is considered shame in this society. With regard to the marriage drum, the converse was seen: that internalized values are not a necessary condition for shame to be felt. This does not imply that internalized values are irrelevant to shame but only that they are but one element sometimes involved in a complex situation. Given the contingent nature of the role of internalized values, it is important to note that they cannot be assumed to be any more crucial or central to understanding shame's operation than such wider considerations as the statuses of those involved as judges and judged.

8 Tongues are Spears Shame and Differentiated Conformity

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.