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.


11 The Dynamics of Swahili Culture A Status-Centered View

1. This "basis for evaluation" is usually the behavior in the interaction, but sometimes it also includes accounts or other indications of the behavior of others not now in interaction.

2. The initial definition is also faulty in its failure to note explicitly that "culture" includes all understandings shared by any two group members. This omission has been dealt with in the discussions of the culture concept in chap. 1, chap. 5, and earlier in this chapter.

3. The few men who would talk to me about sexual matters agreed that sex with

a wife may be more restrained than is desirable, with this being especially true if she is a kinswoman, as the "main" wife is in a large minority of marriages. A suria, a "slave" wife, which is what most secret wives are, is never a true member of the Swahili community. She is often the child of a family once owned by a Swahili family, sometimes that of her husband. She does not command the deference a kin wife does and may not share the understanding, mentioned by several men, that a woman should not show pleasure lest she be thought an mkware, a woman with a strong--and dangerous--interest in sex. Since men are actually married (it requires only a single other male believer to solemnize a marriage) to their "secret wives," there is no sin involved however enraged the ''main" wife and her family would be should they find out about the marriage.

4. It may well be that no one needs to hold an understanding in order for it to be an effective influence on behavior so long as there is a belief that such an understanding is held by others. The Bena of Tanzania believe sorcery to be common, and many of their fellows practice it. Much of what many members of this group do is influenced by the understanding that sorcerers exist and have a body of understandings they follow in order to harm others (Swartz 1969).

It may well be, however, that, in fact, there are no developed understandings concerned with the details of ensorcelling people. That this may be so is suggested by the fact that all accused sorcerers denied that they knew anything about, much less practiced, sorcery. This denial would be expected since sorcery is severely punished, but the absence is also suggested by the fact that a number of Bena, having unable to find instruction in sorcery locally, had traveled hundreds of miles to the coast in the belief that sorcery techniques could be learned there. These travelers returned disappointed, complaining that they could find no one to instruct them there either. At the same time, people from the coast come to the Bena area to learn magic, and they too returned home having learned nothing except that sorcery.

5. Spiro's distinctions among levels of holding cultural elements is crucial here. "Sharing" understandings may entail holding understandings in such a way that they instigate behavior or, as here, involve nothing more than believing others hold the understandings. I am speaking of the latter as "not sharing," in the sense that sharing would involve at least some commitment to and influence by the understanding.

6. Gearing (1976 a : 184-187), 1976 b ) presents a strong case for the importance of interaction, "transaction" in "encounters" is how he phrases it, as a means whereby the cognitive mappings of different individuals come to change through association with one another, i.e., as they influence one another.

7. Statuses are always important to establishing situations and generally so outweigh other factors that they often seem to do it by themselves. The setting, the clothing of those involved, or even the kind of speech used can be important in establishing a situation, but these are almost always status identifiers and not independent determinants. If men always assumed the status "worshiper" when in a mosque, the setting would be a prior determinant of the situation. Since, however, other considerations affect the statuses assumed in the mosque (where men lounge and chat between prayers and where, sometimes, homeless men sleep at night), this setting is only a very partial status determinant as many other things are. Statuses are not, of course, assumed at whim. Sometimes they are produced by events external to the relationships of those present, and these events are the main determinant of the statuses and of the situation.

If the roof of the mosque were to fall in during prayer, the statuses of the worshipers would quickly become something else and the situation would cease to be one of prayer.

8. Group members never explicitly mention the understandings about how one should dress when asked what understandings are broadly shared. These understandings are almost surely part of that very large class that are similar to the rules of language in being broadly shared and followed but neither explicit nor consciously available without the prompting provided by the actual situation.

9. Ritual seems a likely source of tokens meeting the requirements just noted. In many rituals, those involved see others behaving in ways highly similar to their own, indicating a similarity of understanding fundamental to mutual prediction. More than this the similar behaviors--speech, singing, body movements--are concerned with the sacred, suggesting to at least some of those involved that the common actions imply that they are united in having similar views about nothing less than the nature of the supernatural and the meanings of existence. This believed-in similarity may well serve as an important foundation for confidence in the predictability of coparticipants in the rituals. Unlike Tuzin's residence "rules," behavior outside the exchange of tokens (i.e., in extraritual settings) is unlikely to contradict the tokens' import in any direct and unambiguous way. This is so because the ritual entails no directly observable behaviors beyond those involved in its own performance.

10. Holy and Stuchlik's (1981:26-30) discussion of the influence on social life of what they call "folk models" examines the ability of these models to influence and be influenced by other behaviors. I quite agree with the view about the dialectical relationship between models and action. Which relationship terms the Swahili use in which settings has to do with who is involved, what the goals of those involved are, and what their salient statuses are in the relationship in question. My interest, however, is to call attention to the ways cultural models presented through relationship terms operate to enhance awareness of and formity to common standards in interaction. I do not wish to suggest that their "political" significance (i.e., how they are used in individuals' pursuit of their own goals) be overlooked but only that their broadly cultural importance be noted.

11. The evaluation made by the mother is of "son as employee," which is a combination of the two statuses "son" and ''employee" and uses expectations from both. The son, however, need not combine expectations from the two statuses in guiding his behavior as an employee, though it is common enough for actors to combine expectations in multiplex roles with the expectations they are guided by in the statuses they occupy in simplex roles.

12. The term "wazima," mature person, is not limited to those who are what I call "arbiters." Anyone who is 35 or so is an mzima (plural wazima ), but only the most prestigious men among these are in the category I call arbiters.

13. This is the situation Gluckman with Mitchell and Barnes (1963) tellingly portrayed in showing that the village headman could not "win." If what he did pleased his colonial superiors, it displeased his village constituents and vice versa. Academic department heads sometimes portray themselves as in the same, impossible situation with respect to their colleagues, on the one hand, and the administration of the university, on the other.

14. It may be that in other societies evaluations in simplex relationships are as weighty, or even more so, than those in multiplex relationships. The values involving "independence" in "modern" cities suggest this, although the urban Swahili do not show it.

15. What leads people to make such interpretations is an extremely vital and, so far, unanswered question. Like legitimacy in politics, where "legitimacy" is used to refer to such beliefs as that a leader will "bring peace," "promote justice,'' or "establish general prosperity," the processes whereby general expectations are established and continued, as well as those by which they are deracinated, are little understood and deserve investigation.

16. The similarity between "general expectations" and "legitimacy," as well as between "specific expectations" and "coercion," as I have used the concepts in political analysis (e.g., Swartz 1967:30-37, 1975), is intended. I hope to explore their similarities further in subsequent studies.

17. It may be that people have different identifying understandings that lead to similar conclusions. That is, although it is true that all Swahili--and surely members of all other communities--identify those who are closest to them with unfailing reliability and are very frequently identified similarly by those others, it may be that different individuals use different means for doing this. If there were a substantial number of highly correlated "signs," such a finding would not be surprising. Thus, A recognizes B as a "friend" because B tells A things that would be shameful if told to others. B recognizes A as a "friend" because B can ask A for money or food whenever he wants to. The understandings that lead to these identifications are different, but they are highly correlated. Anyone you can ask for money or food is also someone who can be told things without shame and vice versa.

18. One of the most frequently used of these is the rather surprising, given who says it, "Your mother's cunt."

19. The established practice of calling cultural products "material culture" is not only a contradiction in terms but also blunts analysis by failing to direct attention to the consequences of the understandings that guide people in producing and using the products.


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.