By Abdul Sheriff

The documentary on Asian Memories in East Africa resonated with me very deeply as a Swahili-speaking Zanzibari, of Indian Origin if you must know, though I could not help also notice the contradictions or variations that are inherent in such a situation. This was very well expressed by one of the speakers in the documentary who suggested the title of my piece – Identity is a journey. What I can add is that it is also a spectrum and not a fixed point in that arc of socio-cultural interactions across the vast Indian Ocean. We should not be surprised to find ourselves at different points along that arc.

In one sense, it is strange that we have to belabour this point, but we have to do it because we are often confronted by a paradigm that is based on the assumption of pure races, tribes, cultures, civilisations, languages, etc. Here I can point to one of the speakers in the documentary who boldly asserted that Kiswahili was a pure language without a single word from any other language, when even the word Swahili is of Arabic origin. More than a quarter of our spoken Kiswahili is of Arabic, Persian, Indian, and now even European origin, which do not make it any less Swahili. The same holds true of English, Hindi, Arabic, and any other international language.

For the rest of the speakers, the spirit was one of trans-oceanic intercultural experience, aided by the common medium of the Indian Ocean and its monsoons – one of the Swahili men rightly said that if he were to wake up and find that the sea had dried up, he would conclude that he had died in his sleep, and so would I. The ocean and the monsoons have been bringing different peoples into a constant dialogue between civilisations over many millennia, not to create yet another pure Indian Ocean culture, but one that that is varied even within a single port city around this vast ocean. Variety is itself of the essence.

There is no doubt that Indian cuisine has had a major impact on Swahili cuisine, which is increasing with the new introduction of north Indian tandoori – but a Mswahili woman may object very strenuously if someone were to suggest that chapatti was not a Swahili bread. But to say that all our dishes are of Indian origin is to go way over the top – we also know of bokoboko, shorba, and mseto even if the last resembles the Indian kichdi; there are more than 20 varieties of breads in Zanzibar, including mkate wa mofa from the Yemen, wa ajemu from Iran, while muhogo wa nazi, samaki wa kupaka, and ndizi mbichi are Swahili specialities even if they are spiced with Indian herbs, etc.  Coffee and tea drinkers are well aware that it is the blend that brings out the best in all these beverages.

Identity, not only of the people but also of things associated with them, is therefore indeed a journey, and there is in any journey a departure and an arrival. However, in the title if not necessarily in the whole documentary, there is an emphasis of Asian memories, of what we remember where some came from, as opposed to what we have all become in Africa.

And here, there may be a difference between the Swahili coast which has been in contact across the Indian Ocean for several millennia, where there may have been more complete fusion to create a Swahili culture in which to bear an Omani surname creates no confusion that the late Ahmed Sheikh Nabahani was one of the foremost Swahili poets.  

On the other hand, in the interior where some of the people who came to build the railway during the colonial period dropped their anchors, especially in settler-dominated Kenya where racial segregation was the norm, educating them in racially segregated schools, such integration and assimilation was hindered, forcing them to live in racial ghettos, confining some to duka & jiko (shop & kitchen) or setla Kiswahili.

It is particularly in this context that this effort by the Asian-African Heritage Trust has to be commended by making an effort to cut across the colonial racial divides and build bridges to bring together people across the spectrum by making such a documentary that was directed by Njenga Karugia and Khamis Ramadhani, and which brought in people who were of Swahili, Arab, Indian origin, without having to declare their separate identities, sharing a common experience of a pan-oceanic civilisation in their different ways. It is an experience that I can share.

Last modified on Tuesday, 05 February 2019 04:19

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