January 24, 2013

"Admiring Silence" (book review)

I asked one of Azanian Sea's readers, Anne Chappel, who is one of Abdulrazak Gurnah's biggest fans, to review one of his works. Here is her review of Admiring Silence.

Admiring Silence
Admiring Silence, published in 1996, is Abdulrazak Gurnah's fifth book. It is a story of loss. And a story of stories: of the many layers and inventions created by the unnamed story teller as he travels between Zanzibar and the UK.
We start with him in physical pain, a pain that 'reeked of loneliness and terror'. From this introduction we hear his story; of the culture shock of hisUK arrival, his successful studies, falling in love with Emma and having a child with her. He then recounts the story of his childhood in Zanzibar and the fleeing of the island after the revolution – an account that is later changed. Place and memory are of great importance as they inform us about the narrator as he struggles to find a sense of home. He is unhappy in his adopted country, which he has come to know through the woman he loves and through his gruelling teaching job. Nor is he at home in the country of his childhood where he chooses to hide the facts of his English life until it becomes a family crisis.
At one stage he says, 'As if I was not already lost and stolen and shipwrecked and mangled beyond recognition anyway'. The narrator weaves fantastical ‘colonial’ type stories around himself, both for protection and to mock the xenophobia of Emma's father. Likewise, the stories he tells Emma about his past, are twisted and fabricated.
 'I was allowed so much room, that I could only fill it with invention’. His ‘alienness’ is important to Emma (she uses it to get back at her conservative parents) and once the baby comes his only way to get attention from her is to act the fool.  The stories have run out.
When he returns to Zanzibar he is overwhelmed, 'I felt my eyes watering at the clarity of memory which had preserved these pictures so effortlessly, without renewal or exertion’. He now tells us a different story of his childhood.  His dissembling continues: he does not want to reveal the details of his life in London; his common law wife and teenage daughter. Faced with his family’s delight at his homecoming he treads the line of least resistance. 'I was keen not to be seen to have changed beyond recognition, not to be thought alien.' And he seeks out from his mother another story – of what happened to his father, who left the family before he was born and caused shame to the family. His family had stayed behind and suffered through the days of hardship post the 1964 revolution.
He is invited to visit the Permanent Secretary to the Minister of Culture. 'They were at ease with one another and with themselves.' He has lost this comfort, so he performs and mocks them in their ‘stolen’ houses.  The strange job he is offered and declines is to translate the great books of the western world. Meanwhile, he dallies with his mother’s plans for him to marry a girl half his age (a girl also trying to escape her lot in Zanzibar for educational purposes). But he knows that it cannot be, for he is already committed.
The elegance of the language draws you into the many layers of Admiring Silence as it takes you on these humourless wanderings. When our narrator returns to London, having been told that he is 'lost' to his Zanzibar family, he is further lost as Emma leaves him. And that is when he comes to occupy a 'fragile silence'. Maybe in this silence he will come to find comfort in who and where he is. For on this final occasion he does write home to share his sad news. Maybe a fragile truth is emerging. We are not to know.
Admiring Silence appears to be a simple story, not much momentous happens and yet it covers a wide complex canvas and raises interesting issues. One of them is the return of a prodigal son to his homeland that has changed and suffered so much in the twenty years since his departure. ‘You should have brought us (rice and sugar)…instead of the chocolates and bottles of perfume’, his sister complains. The sewers are blocked, water and power intermittent. Roadblocks, corrupt police and politicians are facts of life.
Gurnah's language is luminous, simple and powerful, almost poetry at times. He has an ability to speak of the heart, revealing people in all their rawness. You can open this book at any point and be enthralled.

Anne Chappel was born in Mwanza and grew up in Tanganyika where her father worked for the British Government. In 1956 the family moved to Pemba and then Zanzibar where they lived until the January 1964 Revolution. She went to university in NatalSouth Africa and studied Politics & Economics and then obtained a teaching qualification. She then did a second degree in Commerce and specialised in computers. This led to a career in Business Modeling. In 1987 Anne moved with her husband to Australia and she is now retired in AdelaideSouth Australia. She is a keen student of African history, in particular the history of Zanzibar. Over the years Anne has written many travel articles for newspapers and magazines - recently for the East African in-flight magazine on various aspects of Zanzibar. Short stories and a local history book have been written and published and she is now working on the biography of her father and a novel set in Zanzibar.


January 20, 2013

The Camel's Hump (folklore in Oman)

by Kiera Lewis
From my first moments in Muttrah, I fell in love with the seaside and the romantic way the sun sets over the mountains. The smell of the sea air commingling with the scent of bakhoor (incense) gave me a taste of Arabia. Now, three years later, I'm back in Oman studying the intricate rhythms of oral storytelling and the ways in which a story can reveal how a society views the world; how these features are treasured as inherent elements of the culture and way of life. The salience of this kind of research is unmatched. In a world rife with violence and war, due at least in part to misunderstanding and differing fundamental belief systems about the world, it is relevant to study the underlying assumptions that guide societies around the globe. This becomes a mechanism for more effective international endeavours in government, business and humanitarian aid. Only with an understanding of the lens through which a people experience reality, can truly meaningful and respectful international relations be forged. One indirect way that a culture reveals it’s fundamental belief system is through the stories that are perpetuated to teach future generations how to be in that society.

After three months of preliminary research in Oman and Zanzibar, Tanzania (a former Omani dominion), I still know very little about the oral tradition here and the "units of worldview" embedded in the details of each tale.* Each storyteller adds and revises the story to fit the lesson or imagery that is needed for the moment. To focus the scope of my research, I began by reading Omani folktales translated into English, more than seventy to date. After identifying the major themes and motifs, I started to analyze them alongside historical and cultural documents on Oman. At this point, I have enough background knowledge to feel confident listening to storytellers share the stories in Arabic that had been passed on to them. Though I’m still at the initial stages of this process, some patterns have emerged. Specifically, the notion of sufficiency seems consistent throughout Omani folktales, daily life, and history. I will call it an Omani “principle of sufficiency” insofar as it seems to be at least one element of a fundamental belief system whereby one must act in accordance with what is sufficient to yield satisfactory results for herself and others, but need not extend beyond this point. That is to say, doing what is enough and achieving contentment. In reality, this appears in daily behaviors like taking only the food that you need or learning the skill that is sufficient to support your family, and a sense of contentment and plenty that one finds in Omanis.
Some examples of this principle come up in a few Omani proverbs, which advise one to be thankful for what one has received, not to waste resources, and to break fasting by eating simple food such as onion. By the same token, a famous folktale from Muttrah tells of a young man who receives just two dinars from his grandmother for a long journey. Throughout his trip his finds that everyone gifts him with riches, fine clothing, food and even a horse because his parents are "very kind people", and so he keeps the two dinars in his pocket, never needing
to spend them. Eventually he meets the beautiful daughter of the Sultan, and wins her love by his modest disposition and manner of eating; taking only small portions of each item placed before him; just enough to satiate his hunger. This story, then, extols an ideal way of being in this society and characterizes desirable qualities in a mate using the “principle of sufficiency”. This attribute might find its roots in the geography of the country, one of mostly arid to semi-arid desert which necessitates carrying only what is needed and exerting oneself just enough to satisfy needs. Much in the way of the camel.

If the camel is a metaphor for life here in the Arabian peninsula, then Omanis appear to be the camel’s hump; resilient, complacent and sufficient to maintain stability. But to make any true conclusions, this initial analysis calls for an an intensive investigation not only of folktales and proverbs of Oman, but also the folk speech and history of the people. As a case study for worldview studies, Oman could reveal implications for the broader geo-anthropological order on the Arabian peninsula and yield critical information that could develop stronger international ties between the United States and Arabia.
*The term “units of worldview” was first coined and published in The Journal of American Folklore,Vol 84., No. 331. Toward New Perspectives in Folklore (Jan-Mar., 1971), 93-103. “Folk Ideas as Units of Worldview” by folklorist Alan Dundes in 1971.
Kiera Lewis is a 23 year old Vermont native who is currently doing research on Omani Folklore and implications for worldview and national character. As an undergraduate she studied Continental and Analytic Philosophy as well as Arabic, Spanish and French. She enjoys learning languages and acquiring new tools for the study of human existence. Kiera plans to continue her current research when she returns to the US in the form of a documentary film of Omani folktales and also expects to return to Oman during her postgraduate work to learn more in the field of Folkloristics. Her passion is in travel and dance, as well as learning about other cultures. She is documenting her experience and lessons in Oman and beyond on her blog and you can follow her to at Criticalfindings.wordpress.net. Kiera can also be reached by email at kiera.lewis11@gmail.com 


The Mombasa Republican Council: Separatist Extremists or Legitimate Protestors?

by Nate Mathews
As I stepped out into the steamy humid Mombasa dawn, into a waiting taxi at Mombasa International Airport, I wasn't thinking about politics, or religion for that matter. But with a name like Prophet, my driver seemed destined to deliver a particular message. As we drove through the Mombasa morning, the acrid smell of burning trash piercing my nostrils, he shared some definite ideas about Mombasa's political situation. Apropos of nothing, he began speaking about the Mombasa Republican Council, a group of "extremists" who "were trying to destroy Kenya." They had, according to him, repeatedly said "they were not part of Kenya, until President Kibaki had no choice but "to go in there and start busting some heads" to "teach them a lesson." I asked my driver how long this was. "2 months ago, after they were banned."

I was fascinated by this rather pointed condemnation. I had been unaware of the recent rise to prominence and notoriety of the MRC, and I resolved to find out more in my short trip. I started with Paul Goldsmith's ominous sounding  MRC Conflict Assessment Report. The report is an excellent place to begin contextualizing the history of the Kenya Coast and the tangled threads that led to the present situation.
 The MRC issue is also heating up just as the country begans its long breath-holding leading up to the important March 2013 elections.

Colonialism and the Sultanate of Zanzibar
Back up a little for a brief review of history. The coast of Kenya has always had a different sense of historical identity than the rest of Kenya, and was treated as such by the British. Since the 1800s parts of it had been ruled by various Omani families. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Busaidi royal family under Said bin Sultan brought it under the control of the Sultanate of Zanzibar. In 1888, the 10 mile strip of coast was leased to the Imperial British East Africa Company. In 1895, in an agreement between the Sultan and the British Crown, the coast becoming a Protectorate as the Sultanate of Zanzibar was, while the rest of Kenya became a colony. In the early 1900s, British interests shifted inland, and they shifted their colonial capital to Nairobi. Thus from the beginning of the British colonial project, seperate administrative regimes characterized coast and interior.

Kenyan Independence and Mwambao
 As Kenyan independence approached, the status of the coast again became an issue. For various reasons, the Coast lagged behind other areas of Kenya in development and education. At least part of the reason was due to the reluctance of Muslims to send their children to colonial or missionary schools.  So while a generation of upcountry people took advantage of educational opportunities under the colonial system, coastal people were bypassed. Upcountry people moved down to the coast to take advantage of job opportunities, changing the demographics of the coastal towns. Coastal residents worried about the disposition of their lands. Swahili and Arab townsmen, fearing loss of representation and privilege, formed political parties to advocate for the rights of coastal people. The various parties can be grouped under a general "movement" called Mwambao, which called for autonomy and sovereignty for the Coast, or for its unification with Zanzibar. But Mombasa's economic importance to the rest of Kenya made this political outcome highly unlikely. In late 1961, the Robertson Commission recommended that the Coast be joined to mainland Kenya before independence. In response, On December 17, 1961,  Mijikenda leader Ronald Ngala lowered the red flag of the Sultan of Zanzibar at Malindi, a Kenyan coastal town. 

Coastal communities themselves were deeply divided, and unable to unite behind a single platform or identity. KANU and KADU, the two largest political parties in Kenya leading up to independence, were both united in their opposition to mwambao.The 1963 Memorandum of Understanding between the Sultan of Zanzibar and Jomo Kenyatta that formally transferred sovereignty over the coast to 
independent Kenya retained the outlines of the 1895 agreement:

1) Insure complete freedom of religion, especially  for Muslim subjects, and 
preservation of their religious buildings and institutions;  

2) the Chief Kadhi will have jurisdiction over questions of Muslim law relating to 
personal status (marriage, divorce, inheritance);  

3) administrative officers in Muslim areas should be, “so far as is reasonably 

4) Muslim children should be instructed in Arabic,  “so far as is reasonably 

5)  “The freehold titles to land in the coast region that are already registered will 
at all times be recognized, steps will be taken to ensure the continuation of 
the procedure for the registration of new freehold  titles and rights of 
freeholders will at all times be preserved save in  so far as it may be 
necessary to acquire freehold land for public purposes, in which event full and 
prompt compensation will be paid.”

Nationalism and the Entrenchment of Colonial Borders
In the 1960s, Kenya also faced demands from Somalia to cede part of its territory in the northeast. Unlike most post-colonial African states, which were and are divided by ethnicity and language, Somalia faced a situation of internal ethnic and linguistic unity, with a good number of Somalis actually living beyond the colonial borders.

But Kenya violently quelled the secessionists, indicating that it would be willing to use force to maintain the territorial integrity of Kenya. The idea of the territorial integrity of colonial boundaries was something that emerged from the more conservative political vision of OAU members, who sought guarantees that what they viewed as "radical" Pan-African activism of states like Ghana would not affect their own bases of power. 

The Land Issue
It is well known that the Kenyan president throughout the state's recent history possessed final say over the disposition of land on the coast. President Kenyatta in particular used coastal land to reward independence fighters and other supporters, at the expense of locals. Thousands of acres of land were  declared state property and made a patrimony of the former president, a tool of political patronage. This is well known even by upcountry people residing on the Coast.

Tourism and the Marginalization of the Swahili
Despite the Coast being one of Kenya's top tourist destinations, and a base for the ever popular safaris to the major game parks, the local people have not enjoyed the economic benefits of tourism. Tourism dollars have not translated into substantial advances in education and development, and in fact have only eroded coastal people's control over the land. Far more upcountry people work in the tourist industry on the coast--as guides, drivers, cooks, builders, and souvenir sellers--than do coastal people.

The Mombasa Republican Council
The MRC has been around in one form or another since the late 1990s. The MRC's cry of "Pwani sio Kenya" is indicative of this tangled history and intense grievances. But it is also a strategy to get themselves heard, albeit a non-starting strategy in the eyes of most Kenyans.  The MRC claims to possess documents separate 50-year lease agreement signed by Kenyan Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta and his Zanzibar counterpart Mohamed Shante in which the Kenyan coastal strip is integrated into Kenya. The MRC claims that this lease expires next year, when the coastal strip should ‘regain’ its independence.The group has been banned and unbanned various times over the past few years, its leaders have been beaten by police, imprisoned and arrested, and generally treated as an extremely dangerous threat by other Kenyan leaders. MRC supporters, unlike most Kenyans, have greeted the new 2012 Constitution with cynicism, arguing that it doesn't reflect their interests. There is a deep-seated well of frusturation on the Coast that secessionist sentiments play into. Not all coastal people support secession, but any coastal person with some familiarity with the situation is aware of the pressing need for change that will empower coastal residents.

Islamism in East Africa
Does the MRC have links to militas like al-Shabaab or more militant transnational groups like al-Qaeda? The evidence for such links is extremely tenuous, although upcountry Kenyans often link the seperatists with al-Shabaab, mostly because (I think) their idea of the threat of Islamic militancy is primarily represented through the symbol of that specter in modern day Kenya (also connected with Kenya's brief incursion into Somalia during Operation Linda Nchi).

MRC is frequently linked to Uamsho, another separatist oriented group in Zanzibar, although it seems Uamsho has a much clearer social agenda related to the "Islamization" of Zanzibar island, than does the MRC, which is far from being a Muslim-only group. As the many media commentators have observed, the common thread linking these movements are social problems like unemployment, poverty and economic and social marginalization. Despite the tremendous wealth entering Coast Province through tourism and trade, coastal residents have benefited little from development projects mainly designed to serve foreign tourists. I saw concrete evidence of this driving through the countryside south of Malindi, where mile after mile of coastal resorts with Italian names were in various stages of construction, while people live in abject poverty sometimes only a few hundred yards away.

What provokes most anxiety in ordinary  upcountry Kenyans who live on the coast, many of whom are struggling to make a living just as much as the Swahili and other indigenous coastal groups, is xenophobic, anti-Christian, anti-mainlander/upcountry undercurrent to the MRC protests. It fuels irrational fears by these Christian coastal residents of Muslim dominance or foreign, Arab control of Kenya. 

The sad reality is that the Kenyan economy is already controlled by foreigners. Its economy is dependent on foreign aid and tourism, a fact which I believe will play some significant role in the upcoming election. Kenya's dependence on the West means that the election of Kenyatta and Ruto would throw its economy and political situation into further disarray, given their situation at the ICC. But that is another story. 

Analysts urge Kenyan leaders to address the grievances (if not the demand for secession) of MRC while remaining alert that it does not develop into an armed rebel group. In the 2007-08 election violence, elites often armed youth brigades to commit destabilizing acts of violence. Youth sympathetic to the MRC could very well be drawn into post-election violence. 

In my opinion 1) the coast will not cease to be a part of Kenya because Kenyan elites will not allow it 2) MRC can succeed in demands for autonomy and development if they moderate their secessionist stance while retaining the unity of their base 3)In addition to development projects and education for coastal residents, some sort of cultural program of understanding should be put into place to develop deeper ties of mutual understanding between coastal and upcountry communities.

What do you think?

For more on mwambao, see James Brennan, "Lowering the Sultan's Flag: Sovereignty and Decolonization in Coastal Kenya." Comparative Studies in Society and History 2008: 50(4), 831-861.

For more on Muslims and their relationship to nationalism and politics in Kenya, see Hassan Ndovu. "Muslim Relations in the Politics of Nationalism and Secession in Kenya." PAS Working Paper 18. http://www.northwestern.edu/african-studies/docs/working-papers/Hassan-Muslims%20and%20Secessionism%20in%20Kenya-FINAL.pdf


Gedi Ruins, south of Malindi, Kenya Coast

The ruins of Gedi, an 13th or 14th century Swahili town, lie just south of Malindi, east of the Malindi-Mombasa road junction with the modern town of Gedi. The town was originally called Kilimani, but when bands of migrant Oromo from the north settled in the town in the 16th century, they renamed the town "Gedi" which means "precious" in Oromo. Or so said our able local guide. All the guidebook phrases about this being "Kenya's most important archaeological site" may be overblown, but the atmosphere here is thick with a presence, neither ominous nor helpful, just...watchful. The ruins lie in the midst of what was once a vast forest, and wildlife are frequent visitors to the site.

This was Swahili material culture and civilization at its apex, an elegant trading city along what was once likely the coast (the coastline has shifted over the centuries), with a population of perhaps 3000, a magnificent palace with barazas for men and women and an elegant bathing area, several large mosques once lit by oil lamps, chinese ceramics embedded in rich homes as symbols of wealth and status, and an absolutely unique style of fluted pillar tomb architecture. Above the doorway of the Great mosque, engraved in stone, is a spearhead--perhaps indicative of how indigenous Islam had become for the Swahili communities of the coast well before the coming of the first major Omanis migrations in the 17th and 18th centuries. Another must-see for travelers to the Kenya Coast.


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