Swahili Modernities: Identity, Development and Power on the Coast of East Africa


Edited by Pat Caplan and Farouk Topan
Africa World Press 2004

Classroom at Mafia Island's newly-opened secondary school, Kitomondo Mafia, Tanzania, 1994.This volume arises out of the fifth conference in an on-going series of interdisciplinary Anglo-French Workshops, held alternately in Paris and London. The first of these took place in 1987 and its theme was 'Social Stratification in Swahili Society' (Parkin and Constantin 1989). Two years later, a conference was held on 'Networks and Exchanges in the Coastal Societies of East Africa' (Le Guennec-Coppens and Caplan, 1991). The third conference was held in October 1992, and its theme was 'Continuity and Autonomy in Swahili Communities: inland influences and strategies of self-determination' (Parkin 1994). In 1995, the conference took place in Paris, with the theme of 'Authority and Power in the Coastal Societies of East Africa (Le Guennec Coppens and Parkin 1998). Most of the scholars who presented papers at these gatherings were either British or French, although a small number were of East African origin.

The fifth conference was not held until 2001 in London, and it was decided that this time scholars would be invited from a wider spectrum of countries: France, Britain, Norway, America, Kenya, Tanzania, although several people currently working in Europe were from further afield: Mexico, Canada, Zanzibar, Kenya. The theme which the organisers chose was that of 'Modernity and the Swahili' and the call for papers read as follows:

The theme of 'The Swahili and Modernity' will encourage us to consider the concepts of modernity and modernization in relation to the Swahili-speakers of the Coast and Islands of East Africa. How have the dramatic changes of recent years, including the influx of up-country migrants and the tourist boom, affected Swahili culture and society? What have been the effects of such factors as structural adjustment programmes, multi-party democracy, and political contestations?

We wanted to think about modernity, in all its many senses, in relation to the Swahili coast of East Africa. Our choice of this term in no way posited the existence of the usual counterpart to modernity - 'tradition', since noone working on this area could possibly imagine that the Swahili have, for at least the last millenium, lived in a timeless 'traditional' society, much less one isolated from the wider world. We did not want to participate in the kinds of narratives which locate people on one side or the other of a dualistic divide of modern/traditional and which tends to place Africa in the latter category. Rather, we wanted explorations of the impact of recent historical changes on the East Coast: globalization and its concomitant, localization; development and under-development; political changes, conflict and contests; and local understandings of and strivings towards the elusive goal of modernity.

During the two-day conference, thirteen papers were presented to an enthusiastic audience, several of whom had travelled long distances to attend. Sadly, one participant, Christine Walley, could not be present as she was due to fly out on September 11th 2001 from the USA, but her paper was discussed at the conference and is included in this volume.

Our contributors came from a range of disciplines: language and literature (Topan, Musau, Amidu, Mlacha, Saavedra), anthropology (Larsen, Caplan, Walley, Beckerleg, Le Guennec-Coppens, Saleh), and political science (Cameron). Furthermore, they had carried out research along the length and breadth of the East African littoral from Lamu in the north to the Comoros Islands in the far south: Amidu in Lamu, Beckerleg in Malindi, Cameron, Larsen and Saleh in Zanzibar, Mlacha in Bagamoyo, Caplan and Walley in Mafia, and Le Guennec in the Comoros. All of us were aware that the East Coast is simultaneously many places and it is precisely the mixture of sameness and difference which made this conference, like the ones preceding it, so fascinating.

We are grateful to the British Academy and to the School of Oriental and African Studies for supporting this conference financially, to the contributors for their cooperation and contributions, and to Lionel Caplan for assisting with proof-reading.

Chapter 1: Introduction: Swahili modernities: identity and power on the East African coast Pat Caplan

Part 1: From Malindi to the Comoros: local-level case studies of Swahili modernities
Chapter 2. Modernity has been Swahili-ised: the case of Malindi Susan Beckerleg
Chapter 3. Cultural Pluralism in a coastal town of East Africa: a study of Bagamoyo Shabaan Mlacha
Chapter 4. 'Struggling to be modern': recent letters from Mafia Island Pat Caplan
Chapter 5. 'Our ancestors used to bury their development in the ground': modernity and the meaning of development within the Mafia Island Marine Park Christine Walley
Chapter 6. The monetisation of matrimonial prestations in the Comorian Great Marriage Francoise Le Guennec-Coppens, trans Pat Caplan

Part 2: Focus on Zanzibar
Chapter 7. Political violence, ethnicity and the agrarian question in Zanzibar Greg Cameron
Chapter 8. Change, Continuity and contestation: the politics of modern identities in Zanzibarn Kjersti Larsen
Chapter 9. 'Going with the times': conflicting Swahili norms and values today Mohamed Saleh

Part 3. Modernities and Identities in Swahili Texts: Poetry, Songs and Plays
Chapter 10. Political Poetry among the Swahili: the Kimondo verses of Lamu Assibi Amidu
Chapter 11. Taarab songs as a reflection of the changing socio-political reality of the Swahili Paul Musau
Chapter 12. Modernity or adaptability? The incorporation of foreign words into Swahili poetry on the even of colonisation Jose Arturo Saavedra
Chapter 13. From Mwana Kupona to Mwavita: female status and power in Swahili literature Farouk Topan


  • Le Guennec Coppens and Pat Caplan (eds.), 1991 Les Swahili entre Afrique et Arabie Karthala, Paris, CREDU Nairobi.
  • Le Guennec-Coppens, F. and David Parkin (eds.), 1998. Autorite et pouvoir chez les Swahili. Karthala, Paris IFRA Nairobi.
  • Parkin, David, (ed.), 1994. Continuity and Autonomy in Swahili Communities: inland influences and strategies of self-determination. Beitrage zu Afrikanstik Band 48, Wien, London SOAS.
  • Parkin, David and Francois Constantin (eds.), 1989 Social Stratification in Swahili Society special edition of Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 59. 2.