Identity is a journey

Volume 15, Issue 3 | Published 21/01/2019  

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.