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October 2001

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Swahili Coast

By Robert Caputo
Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, Comoros, Mombasa, Mogadishu, Bombay, Mangalore. . . ." The names of places strewn along the rim of the Indian Ocean tripped like a melody off the old sailor's tongue. "I visited them all and more. From here in Africa we sailed with ivory, mangrove, coconuts, tortoise and cowrie shells. From Arabia we brought dates, whale oil, carpets, and incense. From India pots, glassware, and cloth. Trade was our life, you see."
Bwana Shafi Ahmed and I sat on the porch of the old fort in Lamu. Through an arched gateway we could see off into the harbor, dotted with lateen-rigged dhows. They carried people and goods to and from this island, just eight miles long and three miles wide—part of an archipelago off the far northern coast of Kenya. Below us in the town square groups of men, most wearing kofia caps and kanzu robes, sat talking in the shade. Boys with pushcarts scurried past donkeys laden with wares. Women, some covered head to toe in black bui-buis that revealed little more than their eyes, hastened by and disappeared into narrow alleyways. A call to afternoon prayer from a nearby mosque soared over the din of voices, braying animals, and clattering hooves. It was a scene that has changed little since Ahmed, who said he was "not less than 65 years old," left Lamu at the age of 15 and went to sea.
"Lamu prospered in those days," he said. "The wind in our sails made us rich, just as it did our ancestors. In the season, dozens of foreign dhows would arrive—booms a hundred feet long or more, great sails white against the sky. And at night! Hundreds of dhows big and small anchored in the harbor, their cooking fires shining like stars in the night.
"Oh, life at sea was hard work," he continued. "It could take us a month to sail from here to India—15 men in a 60-foot (18 meter) boat. Sometimes we would run into storms so bad we'd lose all hope of surviving. Sharks would ram the boat, nearly capsizing it. But the world was so big for us—seeing how other people lived, making friends in many different lands. The pleasures of being a sailor. . . ." A glimmer of fond remembrance lit
up the old man's eyes as he excused himself and headed off to the mosque. "We will talk more of this later."
In its prime Lamu was one of a string of ports that stretched along the East African coast from Mogadishu to present-day Mozambique—ports that evolved into powerful city-states as they grew rich from Indian Ocean trade. For more than 2,000 years sailors like Ahmed sailed in and out of these ports on the monsoon winds. Arabian sailors arriving in Africa found good harbors, a sea full of fish, fertile land, and opportunities for trade.
Many of the Arabian sailors stayed to marry local women, and the melding is evident in the faces of the people who live here. Indeed, the interplay of African and Arabian languages and customs—the mingling of blood and ideas that permeated every aspect of life—created an urban and mercantile culture, embodied in the town of Lamu, that is unique to this coast. Even its name, Swahili, is an adaptation of the Arabic word for coast, sawahil.
The Swahili city-states flourished between the 12th and 18th centuries, when ships from Arabia, India, and even China called at their ports to carry away the goods that made the Swahili rich—gold, ivory, slaves brought from the African interior, and agricultural products grown on slave-labor plantations owned by the towns' wealthy merchants.
Until the 1970s and early '80s, when Ahmed sailed, Lamu's most important export was mangrove. Cut in the extensive swamps of its archipelago, the long, straight poles—termite- and rotproof—were used locally for building houses and were shipped to treeless Arabia as well. Huge stacks of mangrove poles lined the waterfront; their harvest and shipping provided not just export earnings but also jobs for hundreds of people.
"Dhows could carry only a limited amount of mangrove and could sail to Arabia only from July to September, on the Kusi winds," explained Hussein Soud El-Maawy, one of the men I met one evening sitting outside a seafront mosque discussing Lamu's affairs. "So it was a sustainable trade. But in the 1980s bigger ships started coming. Of course they could carry hundreds and hundreds of tons and could go and come any time of year. The swamps were very soon overcut. Now there is a ban on mangrove export. But it does not matter; the market is gone anyway. With the oil boom the Arabs can afford to import steel for their houses."
Lamu's harbor is too shallow for modern freighters and too far from Kenya's population centers to be useful as a port anymore. That function was taken over by Mombasa, another former Swahili city-state to the south. When the mangrove trade declined, Lamu further deteriorated economically.
"There isn't much work here," said El-Maawy. "Many of our young people have been forced to leave to look for jobs—to the mainland, even to Arabia. Without an economy we cannot survive. And of course those who leave can easily forget our way of life."
In recent years the romance of the old town and the lure of the beach have attracted tourists, who are now an important part of Lamu's economy.
"But tourism is a double-edged sword," El-Maawy said. "People come here because they like to see the way we live. We are very traditional, even conservative. We do not drink alcohol; we prefer that people dress modestly. The tourists bring money, which we need, but they also bring influences that are difficult for our young people to resist. Just recently I had to ask a visitor to please wear a shirt while he was in town.
"And the tourists attract people from the mainland who are after their money too. Between our young people leaving and others coming from the mainland, only about 50 percent of the population is actually from Lamu. This puts us in danger: The tourists help us survive, but their money and ways may kill the thing they come here to see. We elders must walk a fine line between accommodating them and maintaining our traditions."
Lamu, geographically isolated, has managed to survive into modern times with many of its customs and traditions intact. Most of the other city-states have disappeared—the coast is littered with the ruins of what were once prosperous and populous towns.
The few towns besides Lamu that have survived bear little resemblance to the places they were. I visited Mombasa, once one of the most powerful city-states, but could find little of its original Swahili character. Now Kenya's main seaport, its old town has been swallowed up by urban sprawl. Malindi, also on the Kenyan coast, became a popular tourist destination in the 1970s and lost itself to resorts and the influences of tourist money so feared in Lamu. Swahili people I spoke with everywhere lamented the loss but saw it as the inevitable price of joining the modern mainstream.
Only on the island of Zanzibar, which once dominated the entire coast, did I find a modern city that still protects its Swahili roots.
Zanzibar, along with neighboring Pemba Island, joined with Tanganyika in 1964 to form the United Republic of Tanzania and is only 40 miles (64 kilometers) from Dar es Salaam, the capital. Zanzibar City is a political and administrative hub, a modern city of 160,000 people heavily involved in modern commerce. Freighters as well as dhows call in the harbor.     
"We are a seafaring and merchant people, nurtured by contact," Professor Abdul Sheriff explained when I met him in a café overlooking the Indian Ocean. "We are a blend that has occurred over a very long time in a natural way, an organic growing together of external and internal influences. In the past it was a blend of African and Arab. Now it is a blend of traditional and modern. All you have to do is look around to see it."
The blending of which Sheriff spoke is everywhere present in Stone Town, the old part of Zanzibar City. Like Lamu, Stone Town is a maze of alleys and looming coral-block houses that does not permit cars—though you have to watch out for the motorcycles that roar through the narrow streets.
The men who sit outside the Stone Town mosques in the evenings show the same mingling of cultures as those in Lamu. And not just from the distant past:
"I was born in Oman, in Arabia, but I left there when I was a boy," Abdallah Sleyum told me in a small coffee shop off one of the alleys. "I sailed in an Omani dhow for two years, then took a Zanzibar boat full of cloves to Bombay. Then I settled in Bombay for five years, sailing between southern Indian ports. In 1949 I settled here and married. Since then I have been a Zanzibari."
I wondered if it had been difficult to be accepted in Zanzibar, if people treated him as an outsider.
"Not at all," he replied. "It is the history of this place. If you adopt the culture and learn the language, you will be accepted. And it is easy to learn the language if you marry."
Sleyum is part of a long tradition: Omani Arabs played a major role in the history of the East African coast. Omani forces ended Portugal's brutal 200-year occupation of the coast in 1698, only to set themselves up as colonizers in Portugal's stead. By conquest and treaty they united independent city-states, including Lamu and Mombasa, into a single, if fairly loose, political and economic entity for the only time in their history. The fort in Lamu where I'd talked with Bwana Shafi Ahmed was completed in 1821 as a garrison for Omani soldiers seeking control of the northern part of their realm.
The Omani rulers introduced cloves and greatly increased the slave trade. By the mid-1800s some 50,000 Africans were sold in Zanzibar's notorious slave market each year, and about half of the population of Zanzibar and Pemba Islands—which together produced 95 percent of the world's cloves— were slaves. So lucrative was the East African trade that the Sultan of Oman moved his capital to Zanzibar in 1832, establishing a dynasty that lasted there until 1964.
Zanzibar was a center for exploration as well. It was here that Livingstone, Stanley, Burton, and other Western explorers recruited porters and guides, stocked up on supplies and trade goods, and set off in search of the source of the Nile. And it was to here, weary, that they returned. They were intrepid men—some spending years exploring the African interior—but they all followed trails well-worn by slave and ivory traders, and all of them would likely have perished from disease or starvation if not for the aid of the Zanzibaris.
I too would have been lost without the aid of the Zanzibaris—if only in the alleyways of Stone Town. In Lamu I could just head downhill and know I would eventually run into the sea. But Stone Town is flat and much larger, with alleys that twist and turn in a serpentine maze. I wandered map in hand and frequently asked directions. The locals were always helpful—a merchant sitting outside his shop, a passerby, the men playing dominoes in a square—and they were always amused when I showed up
a few minutes later having walked in a circle. But what a wonderful place to get lost.
Most of the buildings in Stone Town were built in the 19th century, during the time when the sultan's agents penetrated deep into the African interior and established entrepôts as far away as Ujiji, on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. The buildings are full of history. Beit al-Ajaib (House of Wonders), once the sultan's palace, hints at the island's former prosperity, its four veranda-encircled stories still dominating the waterfront. Not far away, run-down and unmarked, stands the house of Tippu Tib, Africa's most notorious ivory and slave trader. The Anglican cathedral, built in 1877, occupies the site of the old slave market—the altar stands where the whipping post was, the crucifix is said to be made of wood from the tree that marks the place where David Livingstone's heart is buried, the tower bell was the gift of a Muslim sultan.
The great wooden doors on many of Stone Town's houses bear carved inscriptions with Arabian and Indian motifs. Intricate latticework balconies speak of the time, not so long ago, when women remained hidden. It is behind these reminders of the past that the unique character of Zanzibar is revealed. One great door opened on a shop selling spices from the island's gardens, another on an air-conditioned business center offering fax and Internet connections.
"The trick is to find a balance," one young man told me. "I have an education and a professional job, but I share a common feeling with the old men. I go to the tarab to hear traditional music, and I go to the disco. Sometimes I wear a kanzu, sometimes Western dress. The elders worry about this, but we do not see it as a contradiction."
"Old people always feel threatened by new things—not just here but all over the world," said Sheriff when I asked him about modern influences. "They feel that culture is a fragile thing, to be preserved intact. But you have to remember that Swahili is a dynamic culture. It has never been pure. Since the beginning, it has incorporated foreign elements, and it will continue to do so."
The dynamic nature of Swahili culture was fully evident when I returned to Lamu for Maulidi, the celebration of the Prophet Muhammad's birthday. The day is celebrated all over the Muslim world, but Lamu is famous for both the piety and the gaiety of its four-day observance, which combines traditional prayers and sermons with popular entertainment. Thousands of visitors throng the town—not just from villages on other islands in the archipelago but from mainland Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, Somalia. I even met a group of pilgrims from Canada.
"We are proud of our Maulidi. It helps preserve our culture, and it helps us maintain our identification with the larger Swahili world," explained my friend Hussein Soud El-Maawy. "It is the only time we gather together. We talk about the teachings of Habib Swaleh, the holy man who first introduced music and dance to our Maulidi—a heretical idea at the time. But he knew these elements would bring more people to hear about Islam."
Lamu was transformed for the event: The alleys were swept clean and draped with lights and bright banners. Dhows flying brilliantly colored flags anchored along the waterfront. Newcomers announced their arrival with singing and blowing of horns. Crowds of Lamuans flocked to the water to greet their visitors and hear the latest news. All wore their finest clothes; the women's hands and feet bore elaborate henna designs.
The festivities began quietly with small celebrations in private households. But soon thousands of people moved to an open area near the Riyadha mosque. After that the days were filled with donkey and dhow races, soccer, poetry readings, a traditional board game called bao, and henna-painting competitions.
In the late afternoons everyone gathered at the mosque. They danced until six, then ate and gathered for lectures and prayers, when the boisterous crowd transformed into an orderly congregation. On Thursday, for the recitation of the Grand Maulidi, the prayers continued long into the night.
On Friday afternoon the men gathered in neighborhood or village groups in the square to begin a procession to the tomb of Habib Swaleh in a cemetery south of town. They set off at four playing drums and tambourines, waving banners and palm fronds, each group singing and playing its way through narrow alleys lined with cheering onlookers. At the tomb all waited quietly as the elders paid their respects to Lamu's holy man.
The final procession back to the square was a more lively affair—the men marching along the waterfront, where it seemed that every woman in Lamu had lined up to watch. Caught up in the joyous crowd, I thought how odd it was that this same celebration was once feared as heretical—a threat to tradition. And I remembered what Professor Sheriff in Zanzibar had said about culture and change: "Swahili history is about adaptation and incorporation. We have always been middlemen—between the land and the sea, the producers and the buyers, the African and the Arabian. That is not a concern; it is our strength. We will survive. Oh, Swahili culture may not be quite the same tomorrow as today, but then nothing living is."


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