African Voices, African Lives: Personal Narratives from a Swahili Village


By Pat Caplan
London and New York: Routledge 1997

People with illnesses or problems consult shamans who are possessed by spirits. African Voices, African Lives explores the world of 'Mohammed', a Swahili peasant living n the coast of Tanzania. Through his own words - some written, some spoken - we glimpse the changing world he inhabits, which includes the invisible but ubiquitous spirits of land and sea, who play a significant role in his life. Other voices, too, are heard, principally those of Mohammedâs wife 'Mwahadia', and one of their daughters, 'Subira', giving their own perspectives on events.

Pat Caplan, an anthropologist, has been working in this area for almost three decades during which she has developed close personal ties with Mohammed and members of his family, as both she and they have moved through their respective life courses. Here she acts as translator, interpreter and facilitator of their voices, allowing them to speak for themselves. At the same time she utilises her own knowledge of Swahili society, gathered from intensive fieldwork over a long period, to provide relevant background and so assist the reader to a fuller understanding of the rich tapestries which are their lives.

A man holds a Kortanic reading (hitima) in memory of his dead children.By utilising a mixture of styles - narrative and life history, ethnographic observation, and the diary kept by Mohammed at the anthropologist's request - this book makes an important contribution to current debates in anthropology by grappling with issues of 'personal narratives', authorial authority and reflexive ethnographic writing.

Other publications concerning Mohammed and his family include:

  • 1992 "Sex and Spirits: a Swahili informant and his diary". ASA volume Anthropology and Autobiography, edited Judith Okely and Helen Callaway, London and New York: Routledge: 64-81 (also as "Un informateur et son journal: esprits et sexe" in F. Le Guennec Coppens et Pat Caplan (eds.) Les Swahili entre Afrique et Arabie. Paris: Credu Karthala, l992: 75-94)
  • 1997 'Everyday tale of Swahili folk' Arcadia column in Financial Times weekend section, 28/6/97, p.20.
  • 1999b 'Anthropology, History and Personal Narratives: Reflections on Writing 'African Voices, African Lives'. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th series vol. 9.