On Being Swahili In Gurnah’s Fiction: A Brief Note

          The identity of the Swahili has long been a subject of discussion and debate among the peoples of the East African region, particularly of the coast, and among scholars of Swahili, both Western and non-Western. An oft-quoted article by Carol Eastman poses the question in its very title: ‘Who are the Waswahili?’ (1971: 228-236). Unsurprisingly, she does not succeed in answering the question fully: this is not because her data was insufficient or her analysis flawed, but because the very nature of being Swahili eludes categorisation. In common with peoples of similar multicultural and multi-ethnic backrounds, the Swahili do not possess a neat and clear identity. As Parkin once remarked, ‘[the] Swahili-speaking peoples stand out from others in East Africa as basking in a parade of paradoxes’ (1994:1). One such ‘paradox’ he alludes to is the fluidity of Swahili identity where the same individual may be considered an ‘African’ in one context, an ‘Arab’ in another and a ‘Swahili’ in yet a third.

          Such fluidity has its source in East African coastal history where, for centuries, the Monsoons have enabled mainly Arabs and Persians to come to its various cities as traders but also for the men to settle, have relationships, set up homes and produce generations of ethnically mixed people, the Swahili, with a distinct coastal culture, perceptions, and worldview strongly shaped by Islam. Western powers brought Christianity and, parallel with it, colonial rule (or vice versa at some places). And from the 19th century onwards the British, in particular, introduced into coastal society — indeed in East Africa as a whole — a system of social stratification, a ‘pyramid’ of race and privileges, with Europeans at the top, followed by Asians (Indians), then Arabs, with Africans, including the Swahili, at the bottom. This ‘divide and rule’ imposition created even newer rifts out of the older ‘cosmopolitan’ arrangements that had prevailed in the coastal cities where, despite their differences, the races had co-existed peacefully on the whole, even if at times uneasily.

          If the racial (or racist) ‘pyramid’ had simply been an administrative tool, introduced by the colonial rulers to enable them to better respond to the socio-economic and educational needs of the respective peoples, it might have been accepted as such. But, invidiously, the pyramid instead invested its strata with rights and privileges that decreased downwards. The result was a jostling for upward mobility among some people: some ‘Arabs’ (in Kenya) succeeded in moving upwards into the ‘Asian’ stratum, prompting a few ‘Swahili’ individuals at the bottom of the pyramid also to claim ‘Arab’ ancestry and to be allowed to join them. The most devastating effect of racial division, however, was felt in politics, and most acutely during the pre-independence decades of ‘political awakening’ in Zanzibar, Gurnah’s (and my) home town.  Race was turned into a political weapon (Glassman 2011) that was used ruthlessly to gain power and control. The Zanzibar Revolution of January 1964 is often – and deliberately — portrayed in racial terms: the ‘Africans’ overthrowing ‘Arab’ rule, a portrayal that ignores a phenomenon known in Zanzibar as kuchanganya damu, ‘the mixing of blood’; such portrayal also obscure the causes of the Revolution, and the identity of the many thousands of  ‘Arabs’ who were massacred.

          I have dwelt on this perception of Swahili identity as it is, to me, a significant dimension of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s fictional writing. Gurnah draws from a reservoir filled by currents of a triple heritage, to borrow Ali Mazrui’s phrase from his TV series of the early 1980s (The Africans)but, perhaps, only the phrase as the three categories have shifted and changed over these decades.  The triple heritage could  now be identified as:  Swahili identity and culture (which subsumes being African, Muslim or Christian); European colonialism and postcolonialism; and transmodern globalisation. The streams are not frozen in time, but flow and meander through history to contemporary periods, moulding Gurnah’s characters and narrative. This is symbolized, for instance, in the character of Salim in Gravel Heart, a young man from Zanzibar, now studying Literature in England. In a self-congratulatory moment, he says to himself teasingly: ‘…you proper Indian Ocean boy’ (117). Salim’s identity has transcended the island, the nation, and region, and aligns itself to an even larger unit, the Indian Ocean, and not just ordinarily but as a proper boy. What does this mean? And, perhaps more to the point, where and how has Salim acquired this new perception of himself? Gurnah leaves it to us, readers, to work out the threads of transoceanic linkages (A sort of a clue is that Salim’s father lives in Kuala Lampur, and his uncle lives in Rome as Tanzania’s Ambassador to Italy).

          I end this brief piece with a quotation from Gurnah’s novel, Desertion, on the nature of stories. Perhaps the nature of Swahili identity and being Swahili can be better understood by replacing the words ‘story’ and ‘stories’ by ‘identity’ and ‘identities’ in the following passage:

‘There is, as you can see, an I in this story, but it is not a story about me. It is about all of us, about Farida and Amin and our parents and Jamila. It is about how one story contains many and how they belong not to us but are part of the random currents of our time, and about how stories capture us and entangle us for all time’ (Desertion 120).


Eastman, Carol. 1971. ‘Who are the Waswahili?’ Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Jul., 1971), pp. 228-236

Glassman, Jonathon. 2011. War of Words, War of Stones. Racial Thought and Violence in Colonial Zanzibar. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Parkin, David. 1994 Continuity and autonomy in Swahili communities. Inland influences and strategies of self-determination. Wien: Beitrage zur Afrikanistik, London: School of Oriental & African Studies

Topan, Farouk. 2006. ‘From coastal to global: erosion of the Swahili “paradox”’. In Roman Loimeier and Rüdiger Seesemann (eds.), The Global Worlds of the Swahili. Interfaces of Islam, identity and spaces in 19th century and 20th-century East Africa. Berlin: Lit Verlag, pp. 55-66


  • Professor Emeritus, Aga Khan University; he has also taught at SOAS, University of London, and at the Universities of Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, and Riyadh.

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