August 12, 2008

Bagamoyo (Swahili for "lay down your heart")

Bagamoyo was one of the principal coastal centers (entrepot's for you fancy-schmancy academic types) of the ivory and slave trades, especially throughout the late nineteenth century. Thousands of Arabs, as well as Nyamwezi and Manyema porters traced and retraced this route with their caravans. Through the caravans, many Africans from 'upcountry' settled on the coast and converted to Islam. By the late 1800s there was a substantial community of Africans who traced their origins to the Eastern Congo.
Among this group was an enslaved man who would rise to prominence as one of the most prominent Sufi sheikhs in all of East Africa. Sheikh Ramiya was captured by slave traders and brought to the coast at an early age. Eventually he won his freedom, a little bit of land, and at the same time managed to get an Islamic education and receive the ijaza from a visiting sheikh of the Qadirriya.(The Qadirriya tariqa is a Sufi order introduced to East Africa by Said Umar al-Qulatairi who is buried in Zanzibar at Welezo) Under Ramiya's leadership the Qadirriya at Bagamoyo was tranformed into one of the most active and dynamic organizations fighting for the rights of Africans during the colonial period. Ramiya was acknowledged by both Arabs and Africans as the town's most knowledgeable sheikh and his fame spread due to his inclusive practices, such as permitting drums in the masjid and allowing women to perform the thikr (a ritual of God-remembrance that involved, for the Qadirriya, recitation of the names of Allah in a state of hyperventilation). Ramiya also became renowned for his generosity to his murids--providing them with emergency loans, housing, and work. Yet Ramiya existed outside of the usual channels of Islamic power, which tended to agglomerate with the powerful Arabs who owned property and plantations around Bagamoyo. Therefore, he often ran into opposition for his theological stances and principled commitment to African advancement.
During the nationalist struggle, Ramiya's son Sheikh Muhammed Ramiya, continued his legacy, and the Qadirriya became the base for political organizing by the nationalist forces on a mass scale in Bagamoyo. It was the Sheikh who Julius Nyerere first approached for help in spreading TANU membership in Bagamoyo. And by all accounts the Qadirriya murids were some of the first and most enthusiastic participants in TANU's mass mobilization. My friend and colleage Dr. Zeinab Abdul-Magd made the helpful point of connecting the activities of the Qadirriya with other Sufi organizing on behalf of nationalist movements in North Africa (for example the Sanussiya in Libya). It seems that, much like the Black church in the Black Freedom Movement in America, the Sufi tariqas provided not only spiritual, but practical and financial support for African liberationist causes.
I took a day trip to Bagamoyo from Dar-es-Salaam and I was not disappointed. After a cramped hour-long bus ride, I was escorted around town and given a tour (in Swahili, I half-understood) of the town, which included a visit to the house of Sheikh Mjembe, who, if I am not mistaken, is the child of Sheikh Muhammed Ramiya's sister. After walking around the town until early afternoon, my guide Issa and I parted ways. He had to go to class, and I decided to undertake the seven kilometer walk (one way) to see the Kaole ruins. The walk to the ruins is very beautiful, along a dirt road that was filled with children coming home from school. You then pass through the village of Kaole (which is older than Bagamoyo itself and was once the principal harbor) before arriving at the ruins , which include several tombs of the sharifas, (Arabic ashraf), descendants of the prophet Muhammed. There is also two very old mosques, one from the 13th and the other from the 15th century.
On the way back, with the sun beginning to set, I passed a group of wazee sitting in front of a masjid, and they invited me inside to pray. I did, and then one of them, a Mr. Mrisho Salaaba Mbezi (yellow shirt in the pictures), took me to see three other sharifa tombs dating back to the 15th century. They are unmarked from the road and I would have not known of them but for his help. Mzee Mrisho took of his shoes, lit incense and squatted in front of the principal grave (the white one you see in the picture) and recited al-Fatiha and several other Suras. The names of the deceased are Sharif Abdul Hamani Mapanga, Sharif Abdul Hamani Hassani, and Sharif Abass Hassan, a.k.a. Sharif Ahmed Badawi.
Bagamoyo does not seem to suffer from the tourist overload plaguing Zanzibar, and overall seems more relaxed and prosperous. I wondered if this relative comfort is due to Bagamoyo's efforts on behalf of TANU and its subsequent reaping of rewards post-independence. Or perhaps its related to the fact that President Kikwete was born nearby. Whatever the case, Bagamoyo would be an interesting place to do more research, following up August Nimt'z pioneering work: Islam and Politics in East Africa: the Sufi Order in Tanzania, which despite its title, is primarily a study of Bagamoyo.


زينب أبو المجد August 14, 2008 at 4:38 PM  

Dr. Nate Mathews, as usual, your very well-written traveler/sufi account captured my full attention and kept me reading! Thanks for the citation.

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