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

Statuses as the Basis for Judgment

The understandings in statuses of what can be expected of members are the bases for determining aibu both by the members and by those who judge them. That is, each status has as one of its sets of associated understand-


ings a series concerned with how its members should and should not behave and another set concerned with how people in relations with status members should and should not behave. These sets provide the foundation for differential assessments of aibu by different sanctioners, with these assessments equally affected by the statuses of those judged. The acts and their circumstances indisputably are, obviously, what is judged, but the statuses of both the sanctioners and those being judged determine what the judgment will be.

Most commonly, people in interaction with one another agree on the standards that apply to their relationship, and, in that relationship, each is in a position, in the view of the other, to serve as sanctioner for behavior in that relationship. Every now and again, however, relationships come about in which there is little or no agreement about applicable standards. These are instructive in showing how important such agreement, the result of cultural distribution, is. An example of a relationship lacking the results of the usual cultural distribution will make this clear.

Two Swahili brothers married and brought their wives to a house the brothers had inherited. One brother had married the daughter of one of the community's most prestigious men; the other had married a woman from the section of town that is renowned for its toughness, willingness to do manual labor (as fishermen, at least), and contempt for the "refinement" that marks the behavior of Swahili from the other sections of town. The sisters-in-law lived together for a time in an atmosphere that became progressively charged.

The wife from the "tough" section of town responded to any of the disagreements that joint living arrangements produced by saying such things to the more aristocratic wife as "Look at you! What man could love a woman with a behind like yours!" When more seriously provoked by her husband's brother's wife, the lower-class woman would bind up her clothing in a way that is understood as a sign of readiness to fight. The other wife was appalled by this behavior, which was quite foreign to her previous experience and contrary to what she understood to be acceptable. Eventually, the wife with the more delicate sensibilities got her husband to move out of the house and to take her to a place of her own where she was removed from her sister-in-law and the latter's shocking behavior.

As an insightful and perceptive informant told me in discussing this story, what the "tough" wife thought of as prestigious, the high-born wife viewed as aibu. The high-born wife could not bring herself to answer her sister-in-law in kind and was reduced to tears and shame by the latter's behavior. The women of the highest stratum of Swahili society are rarely seen, and for them meekness and gentle manners are a considerable virtue, both in their own eyes and in the eyes of their social peers. The women of the stratum from which the combative and insulting wife came are quite different: they admire bold and aggressive behavior in themselves and in their associates.


Both of the brother's wives shared Swahili values about personal dignity, autonomy, and rights of possession (the women quarreled mainly over who cooked what and when and with whose utensils and food). Their understandings about what procedures to follow in defending their rights and dignity and about how to evaluate the behavior shown by the other in that defense were, however, quite different. The differences between them in approach and evaluation were not only personal; each shared her view with many or most of the women of her stratum of the community.

The women of the "refined" status would—and did—judge their peer as having behaved admirably and the behavior of the woman of the "tough" group as having been shameful, while the women of the "tough" group would—and did—make opposite judgments. The question of where shame lies resolves itself into asking who the sanctioners of the behavior are. Their decisions, we see, depend on both their own statuses and the status of the one being judged. In the usual course of events in this society, actors as different in relevant statuses as the sisters-in-law in the above case do not engage in prolonged and close interaction.

Brothers do not often share a house after marriage, nor do they usually marry women of such different backgrounds. Having been brough together, however, the differences between the women's understandings were so great that interaction finally became impossible and they had to separate.[3] Their ability to deal with one another, including their ability to judge one another's behavior along the lines of what was aibu and what was not, was too limited to make continued interaction supportable.

The case of the sisters-in-law, like the example of the judgment of men with secret wives, shows the importance of cultural distribution in the shame process. These two sets of data make clear how there can be a variety of different sanctioners whose views of what is aibu and what is not can be quite different depending on both the statuses of the sanctioners and the statuses of those 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.