‘Going with the Times’ Conflicting Swahili Norms and Values Today

30 09 2009

By Mohamed Ahmed Saleh

in Pat Caplan and Farouk Topan, Swahili Modernity: identity, culture, and politics on the East Coast of Africa, Africa World Press, USA, 2004, p. 145-155.

Kwenda na wakati (literally ‘to go with the times’) is a frequently used phrase which seems to sum up the notion of modernity in Swahili today. In practice, this concept largely refers to corruption and is thus in total contradiction to such norms and values as heshima (respect), uaminifu (honesty), uadilifu (ethics) and ari (honour), all of which have, up to a very recent period, formed the principal moral foundations of Swahili identity and culture. In the present context of Tanzania (of which Zanzibar is an integral part) where corruption is rife to be ‘modern’ means to be able to deviate from the above-mentioned fundamental principles.

This chapter will attempt to look at the evolution during the last four decades
of this new concept of modernity in Tanzania, with particular emphasis on Zanzibar.

It will highlight the impact of foreign influences, such as the socio-political and cultural hegemony of mainland Tanzania, the impact of structural adjustment programmes, as well as the adoption of alien patterns and modes of life, which arrived with in the isles with the tourist boom. The chapter considers whether the development of corruption as an important political and socio-economic institution in post-colonial Tanzania should be considered to be an inevitable part of modernity, or whether people still consider, as in the past, that honesty is the most important social and moral value which defines a person’s existence and worth.
Zanzibari Swahili Identity and Culture: Norms and Values
Geographically and culturally, Zanzibar belongs to that string of islands which extends all along the east African coast, from Lamu to Comoros, where for many centuries Swahili culture and civilisation took shape and flourished(1).

Zanzibar developed into an important melting pot, where migrants from the Arabian peninsular, Persian Gulf, Indian sub-continent, as well as people from other parts of the globe, whether they were initially, invaders or merchants, were integrated in the society and ultimately became part of the social, cultural as well as political construction underlying Zanzibari Swahili identity and culture.

Zanzibar remained by all standards a cultural community, representing a very rich repertoire with multiple compartments within which one can identify different origins in what is now a homogenous Zanzibari Swahili culture. Heshima (respect), uaminifu (honesty), uadilifu (ethics) and ari (honour) are among the major components of this culture transmitted from one generation to another.
The above-mentioned traditional norms and values have always played an
important role in the society and constituted the stabilising factor which allowed the spirit of tolerance to take shape in the Swahili communities of Zanzibar. As an important component of Zanzibari culture, tolerance, which reflects in it heshima (respect), uaminifu (honesty) and uadilifu (ethics), played a vital role in merging together all the different elements of Zanzibari cosmopolitan society.

By discouraging all kinds of discrimination and encouraging mutual understanding tolerance was an important source of strength for Zanzibaris(2). Heshima (respect), uaminifu (honesty), uadilifu (ethics) and ari (honour) were the ideals which each and every Zanzibari family wished to acquire and identified with in order to build-up their good reputation.

As an essential source of recognition in the society, these norms and values were never the attributes of money but of moral and good conduct. One was
never judged by material wealth but by his/her behaviour as well as by his/her wisdom and his/her intellectual contribution to the society. Hence, heshima (respect), uaminifu (honesty), uadilifu (ethics) and ari (honour) were not only the abstract concepts of the Swahili language, but they constituted the basis of day-to-day life in the society. They were the fundamentals of one’s utu, which could literally be translated as dignity and integrity, or even, more than that, i.e. gentleness and goodness for utu also includes in its concept finer qualities of one’s humanity.

Traditional teachings encourage people to be kind and hospitable: they indicate that a good deed lasts and it is hard to erase its effects, while the evil deed never lasts nor is tolerated for long. The major Swahili norms and values connote an attitude of self-restraint. They encourage people to learn by themselves to be self-content and to avoid acts which could compromise their worth and reputation in the society, especially with regard to money. It was a common practice for parents to advise their children to be satisfied
with a small measure and dissuade them from acquiring great gain by wrongful means. It is very clear here that corruption was unacceptable in the society. It was a phenomenon which could tarnish one’s image. This argument is further reinforced by the famous Swahili proverb ‘si hoja kitu bora utu’ which literally means that ‘one’s dignity and integrity is more worthwhile than material object’. Traditional teachings encouraged each and everyone in the society to abstain from greed and the vulgar pleasures of the World. This was why in the eyes of the society, ‘mstaarabu’ a civilised person, was the one who was not only enlightened, self-disciplined and
cherishing his/her utu (dignity and integrity), but also the one who would never tarnish his/her image in exchange for material objects. In this sense corruption in Zanzibari society was synonymous with selling one’s soul. Zanzibari society firmly believed that one’s lawful means of livelihood, even if humble were superior to wealth, which was tainted.

Although, greed and corruption have always existed in all societies, the
Swahili communities of Zanzibar, have their own social system of checks and
balances, hence of discouraging their ramification. This societal control is developed and inculcated into the society in the process of socialisation of the majority of Zanzibaris. Islam, being the religion of the majority of the population, (about 95%), constituted the backdrop and the major reference of the whole process of cultural enlightenment. Starting right from birth the process of socialisation is conducted through the observation of different passage rites as well as religious and moral teachings. Parents have an absolute moral obligation towards God of assuring religious education of their children up to the age of puberty. It is only after this age that parents cease to be accountable for all the deeds of their children, if the latter are
brought-up in conformity with religious obligations. Parents who do not properly assume their religious duty towards their children share the responsibility of all the sins the latter might commit during the rest of their lives.

Similarly, parents have a moral obligation towards society of moulding their
children in such a way that they fit into the pre-established social system, i.e. abide by the code of good conduct in society. ‘Heshima na adabu’ literally courtesy and respect are an integral part of this code of conduct. They are not only due to one’s parents who, according to moral teachings, come next after God in the hierarchical order, but also are to be extended to the rest of the members of society. The Swahili would frequently repeat to their children that one does not pay to be courteous to father and mother. Courtesy is due to all senior to you in years and no less to your contemporaries. While it is acknowledged in the society that courtesy can be the source of friendship and happiness, on the contrary, arrogance is considered to be the source of misfortune, for it produces the fruit of enmity. This is why the Swahili say
asiefunzwa na mamae hufunzwa na ulimwengu’, which literally means s/he who was not well brought-up by his/her mother (parents) will be taught a lesson by the World.

The Swahili widely believe that a person who is burdened with too many curses has no salvation and will end up in damnation. Conscious of their religious and moral obligations towards God and society, Zanzibaris always make sure that they take all the necessary steps to prepare their children to hold fast to devotion and to bring them-up as respected members of the
society. They would always look at their religion in a holistic perspective, i.e., as a fundamental element which lights up the soul and envelops one’s whole personality.

Corruption has always been seen as a source of misfortune as it acts against the fundamental principles of the society, i.e., uaminifu (honesty) and uadilifu (ethics), two major components of what is commonly known as imani, (faith, uprightness and integrity). Imani presupposes constant effort to surpass one’s ego and acquire a capacity of consideration and generosity in the most positive way towards others. It goes even further by encouraging the development of the spirit of sacrifice for others, for small as the sacrifice may be one should never be found lacking. Some of these religious and moral principles are initiated very early in life through different rituals, one among them is kushindiliwa(3). This ritual takes place at birth. It consists of putting a thumb on the neck of a newborn while repeating to him/her that s/he has to
be humble in life, resist temptations and all what is beyond his/her means, and should not be jealous or envious of others. It encourages in its teachings humility, humbleness, and moderation, restraint from greed, temptation and jealousy.

Through customary rites and moral teachings one is brought up to understand life in all its complexities and to believe in the universality of the human race. Honour and pride are among the ideals that are highly valued by the society and are left open for each and every member of the society to strive to acquire. They are the major proofs of one’s worth. These ideals are not contradictory with the other fundamental values of the society, heshima (respect), uaminifu (honesty), uadilifu (ethics) and utu (dignity/integrity). They are in fact complementary and are combined together against shame.

Modernity or Cultural Degeneration?

Growing up in Zanzibar in the 1960s, I can still recall parents, especially
mothers, being very much preoccupied in making sure that their children did not play with wahuni. The latter is a plural of mhuni, which according to John Middleton (1992:192) stands for vagabond. However, in reality mhuni surpasses the notion of vagabond. It connotes bad manners, but also and especially a person who was not well brought-up and who in many ways does not respect the norms and values of the society. Today, when I happen to talk with friends with whom I grew up in Zanzibar, we still wonder who mhuni among us was then, and nobody can come up with an answer, for none of us was a mhuni. This kind of societal pressure was part of traditional efforts of avoiding shame, which was frowned upon in the society, by assuring a descent up-bringing for children and their development of good manners.
Today, it could sound nostalgic to say that for many Zanzibaris the pre-kwenda na wakati (‘going with the times’) period is considered to be that of imani (faith and uprightness) characterised by utu and uadilifu (dignity, integrity and ethics). It was the period when the fundamental values of the society had their place and were well respected. It was the period when people were very much conscious of their honour and would never have dared under any circumstances to compromise their integrity and dignity for the purpose of gaining money or other material benefits.

This was particularly so when Zanzibar was an important centre of gravity,
i.e., a political, economic and cultural centre with its own elite who could influence ideas and give an orientation to its society. It is important to remember here that Zanzibar was one of the important centres of learning in East Africa in religious sciences as well as secular studies. Zanzibari religious scholars studied in Zanzibar, Hadhramaut (Yemen), El Azhar (Egypt), as well as in Medina (Saudi Arabia), and also taught in some of those centres. Other Zanzibari scholars and cadres were trained in Makerere (Uganda) and in Indian, British and American Universities. This allowed them to establish an important exchange network with different religious and secular centres of learning. Up to early 1960s Zanzibar was in the forefront of intellectual
achievement in the region. This was in terms of the production of religious as well as secular learning material. An influential amount of Swahili literature was produced in the country. Zanzibari authors were famous not only in East Africa but also in all the rest of Swahili speaking world. More than 40 journals were produced in Zanzibar since the foundation of the first Gazette of East Africa in 1892(4). Zanzibari Radio programmes were very popular inside and outside the borders of the country. This was the time when it was commonly said ‘if you play the flute at Zanzibar, all Africa as far as the Lakes dances’ (Ingrams:1942:10).

The revolution in Zanzibar, and the subsequent union between Zanzibar and
Tanganyika into the United Republic of Tanzania, meant a transfer of the centre of power from Zanzibar to Dar Es Salaam, Tanganyika. Furthermore, the postrevolutionary policies of Zanzibar were not at all favourable in maintaining Zanzibari elites in the country. A substantial number of them had to flee from the country to avoid persecution and some were killed, thus leaving an important vacuum which could not be filled. This situation was further accentuated in the aftermath of the revolution by the absence, to date, of free mass media and any other literary or intellectual production free of the ruling party political ideology in Zanzibar. This situation has provoked a major social and cultural erosion in the Zanzibari society.

Stripped off of their major elements of inspiration Zanzibaris were subsequently forced to look at the mainland where their rulers were getting their inspiration. Gradually the mainland’s political and cultural hegemony started to take shape in the islands, initially through their Zanzibari protégés in power who served as their transmission belt and ultimately, through their control on social, cultural and political institutions of Zanzibar. They have an upper hand and an absolute control on the mass media, the educational curriculum as well as on the daily life communication policies. For instance Kwenda na wakati (‘to go with the times’) in this context would be to adapt to the mainland’s way of life, including language. One can see in the daily usage of the Zanzibari Swahili that it is being highly influenced by mainland dialects.

Paradoxically, Zanzibari dialect ‘kiunguja’ was the origin of the standard Swahili language and yet today the Zanzibaris like other Swahilis do not have any control on its evolution, which is being largely determined by mainland dialects. The Swahili spoken in Pemba ‘Kipemba’ had a distinct and particular regional character. It is now disappearing and being replaced by the Swahili spoken in the mainland, particularly Dar Es Salaam. What is most shocking for many Zanzibaris as well as other Swahilis is the imposition in the Swahili language of new words without taking into consideration cultural sensibilities of the Swahili people, who are to be distinguished here with non-Swahili, Swahili speaking population. For instance, the word kusimikwa ‘erected’ created and used by the priests inside the church is being forced now into the language as an accepted word of the vocabulary. For Swahilis this word has a clear sexual connotation and cannot be used in public. Hence, they cannot
understand why they should substitute the existing words kutawadhishwa or
kuapishwa ‘to take oath’ by kusimikwa ‘erected’. Their general feeling is that their language is being corrupted.

During the last four decades Zanzibari Swahili society has been going through
rapid political, social and cultural mutations, which make one wonder whether the new trend leads to the modernity, cultural transformation or degeneration of traditional norms and values?. For instance, today, the spirit of ari (honour) which existed from the time immemorial is challenged by the new spirit of kwenda na wakati (‘to go with the times’). This new concept of modernity has a negative connotation and is in conflicting relation with Zanzibari Swahili traditional norms and values. Modernity in the context of most Swahili societies was more in terms of material and technological innovations or the adoption and transformation of new cultural elements to suit the new needs of the society without destroying its fundamental basis.

The Zanzibari were always in tune with what was going on in the rest of the world. For instance, Zanzibari tailors and dress-makers would be inspired
by and adopt new fashions from places such as Middle East, Europe or America, and give them a local Zanzibari touch. This was very much true with other things too.

Nevertheless, all this was possible and took place when Zanzibar was still the
metropolis of the region and Zanzibaris had their social and cultural destiny in their hands. This is clearly pointed out by Abdul Sheriff (1996): ‘Zanzibaris saw themselves as a distinct race. They developed, modified and elaborated the Kiswahili language until it had spread far and wide into the interior of the mainland. They took great pride in their poetry, their music, their cuisine and their attire. They developed sophisticated court manners, entertained lavishly and were often generous to a fault’.

Being a maritime civilization, nurtured by contacts Swahilis have been always exposed to different aspects of modernity throughout their history. They are known to have been a dynamic people, adapting to new social, economic and political realities of the time. This was one of their important strengths which allowed them to overcome different invasions and to keep on going up to the present time. In this sense, Kwenda na Wakati ‘Going with the Times’ taken as a notion of modernity could simply sound as a déjà vu; for modernity is not at all a new phenomenon in Swahili coastal societies. This argument has some rationality, but, it is very much limited in its scope, for the prevailing situation is more complex than it appears. In spite of different mutations which took place in Swahili communities throughout history, most of their traditional norms and values which formed the core of their identity and culture survived. The Swahili had a particular relationship with money.
There were a lot of taboos surrounding money relationship and no one was ready to be given a feeling that s/he was bought. Just few years ago one had to be very careful when it came to giving money to someone in Zanzibar. People would not accept money if they were made to understand that they were being bribed or were being paid, for example, for their hospitality or generosity. I can still recall an incident when a European woman was a guest in a Zanzibari family. After having spent few weeks with her Zanzibari hosts she thought that she could repay their hospitality with money, and consequently provoked a big crisis. The host family were very hurt thinking that their guest was trying to insult them. They threw back the money in her

face and told her that if she wanted to pay she should have gone to a hotel. There were a number of similar incidents then, but today the situation is totally different.

Historically, the notion kwenda na wakati ‘going with the times’ has never
been used in the Swahili language to connote dynamism in the society. It is a newly introduced concept which developed in Tanzania during the last two decades. Its development occurred in parallel with the rapid development of corruption in the society. Economic recession which led to the introduction of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP), the rapid development of tourism and new patterns of consumerism have had a tremendous impact in the society. The new needs as well as the ordinary necessities of daily life transformed Zanzibari society from once well known and hospitable people to profit oriented and money minded fellows. For instance, in a very short period of less than two decades all the taboos related to money are no longer observed. An important breach, which could be termed as a generational conflict, is developing between the elders who would like to preserve the
fundamental values of the society and the young people who are struggling to assure their day-to-day survival through all means.

As I have stated earlier, in the present context of Tanzania where corruption is rife, kwenda na wakati or to be ‘modern’ means being able to deviate from the fundamental principles of Swahili culture. In post-colonial Tanzania corruption has gradually developed to become an important political and socio-economic institution.

Tanzania is in the list of the most corrupt nations in the World. The 1999 findings put Tanzania at the seventh position, after Cameroon, Nigeria, Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Honduras(5). Thus whereas in the past honesty was an important social and moral value of one’s existence and worth, in today Tanzania it is the contrary situation which prevails. Cheating has become part of strategy for survival in many aspects of life. An informal specialised vocabulary has been developing in the Swahili language with particular relation to corruption. Today it is seldom to obtain any administrative service in Tanzania without bribing a civil servant. There is no
election without the use of fraud and intimidation. Ordinary people are left without any moral references except those that they observe from their rulers who are all struggling to maintain their status and excessive standard of living through illegal means, i.e., corruption. Hence, in Tanzania today, honesty is becoming more and more a thing of the past and corruption is becoming an important element of political, economic and social interactions in the society.

Zanzibari Diaspora: Repository of Traditional Norms and Values

Post-revolutionary policies have deprived Zanzibar of its elites -intellectuals
and others-, and the desperate political and economic situation in the country at the present time forces many Zanzibari to look for a better life outside the islands. The most common destinations of Zanzibari emigrants are the Arabian Gulf countries, Europe (especially the U.K and Scandinavia), and North America (Canada and USA).

These countries constitute today the repository of Zanzibari culture, for it is a common phenomenon among emigrant populations to re-emphasise their traditional and cultural values everywhere they go. Zanzibaris of the Diaspora are no exception.

As Mazrui and Shariff (1994) noted ‘identity is in fact, a process by which power and status are negotiated, disinheritance and oppression legitimised, and liberation struggles waged. Intellectual debates on the identity of a particular people, therefore are seldom free of political underpinnings revolving around struggles of dominance and liberation of subjection
and autonomy’.

Zanzibaris of the Diaspora constitute an important political force in the
defence of the identity of their islands and in the struggle for the restoration of democratic rights in the country. Since the early 1980s, for the first time in the history of the country, Zanzibaris of the Diaspora and those remaining in Zanzibar managed to work together to make sure that their country remains in the map of the world.

They continue to maintain their Zanzibari identity. They identify themselves with Zanzibar, and maintain social and cultural networks. They make efforts to reproduce Zanzibari patterns: they have their baraza(6), groups of taarab, speak swahili with their children, maintain and transmit to their children Zanzibari cooking methods and adornments. They regularly exchange information on Zanzibar. They meet to recite prayers in case of a death of a friend or a relative back home. They exchange cassettes of political meetings, taarab or weddings. A substantial number of urban families depend for their livelihood on remittances from the members of their families who live and work abroad. Remittance economy helped to a certain extent to avoid social
explosions in the country.

Hence, Zanzibaris of the Diaspora, particularly those who left before the major economic crisis which started at the end of 1970s and continues to date, are somehow still living in accordance with the traditions and values which were once part of the Zanzibari way of life and pride. They are the repository of their ancestral traditions and cultures. All these elements could very well be an object of comparative study in the future to see how far the
spirit of kwenda na wakati (‘to go with the times’) has managed to transform the traditional norms and values of Zanzibari Swahili society, and also to see how far the same norms and values managed to survive without being totally destroyed by those of the host countries.
(1) The Swahili cultural influence extends about 3000 kilometres all along the East African Coast, from Brava (Somalia) up to Sofala (Mozambique), including adjacent islands, notably Lamu, Mombasa, Pemba and Unguja (Zanzibar), Mafia, Kilwa and the Comoros. See Middleton, John (1992), The World of the Swahili; Penrad, Jean-Claude (1995), ‘Zanzibar, Les Cités Swahili: Rivages imaginaries et découverte d’un espace’; Saleh, Mohamed Ahmed (1996), ‘Zanzibar et le monde Swahili’; Hall, Richard (1996), The Empires of the Monsoon; and Lodhi, Abdulaziz (2000), Oriental Influences in Swahili: A Study of Language and Culture Contacts.
(2) This aspect is developed in my article ‘Tolerance: The Principal Foundation of the Cosmopolitan Society of Zanzibar’, (2002), Cultures of the World Journal, Barcelona, Spain. See also Saleh, Mohamed Ahmed (1997), ‘Kiswahili: Patience, humilité et dépassement moral’; Al-Barwany, Ali Muhsin (1997), Conflicts and Harmony in Zanzibar; Bakari, Mohamed Ali (2001), The
Democratisation Process in Zanzibar: A Retarded Transition.
(3) Apprenticing of sentiment of humility, of reservation, of moderation and of self-retaining. It is a common action in the whole Swahili World; see Saleh,
Mohamed Ahmed, (1995), Les Pêcheurs de Zanzibar: Transformations socioéconomiques et permanence d’un système de représentation, Mémoire pour le Diplôme d’Etudes Approfondies, EHESS, Paris, p. 81.
(4) Nuru, government weekly and Jukwaa owned by a businessman, a staunch ally of the ruling party, are the only allowed local newspapers of Zanzibar.
(5) Odhiambo, Nicodemus (October 30, 1999) Panafrican News Agency,
(6) Defined as a place of public audience or reception, a veranda, a stone seat in the entrance hall or against the wall outside a house or a raised platform with stone seats and sometimes roofed over in front of the house, for receiving visitors, holding an audience, transacting business, for gossiping in, etc. It is a male place of socialization par excellence with contrast to ua (courtyard), where female members of the society get together for their talks and their domestic activities. See Saleh, Mohamed Ahmed (1997), ‘Zanzibari Diaspora: Identity and Nationalism’

Al-Barwany, Ali Muhsin, (1997), Conflict and Harmony in Zanzibar, (Memoirs), Dubai.
Bakari, Mohamed Ali, (2001), The Democratisation Process in Zanzibar: A Retarded Transition, Hamburg, Institute of African Affairs.
Hall, Richard, (1996), Empires of the Monsoon: A History of the Indian Ocean and Its Invaders, London, Harper Collins Publishers.
Ingrams, W.H (1942), Arabia and the Isles, London, John Murray.
Lodhi, Abdulaziz, (2000), Oriental Influences in Swahili : A Study in Language and Culture Contacts, Göteborg, Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis.
Mazrui, Alamin and Shariff, Ibrahim Noor, (1994), The Swahili : Idiom and Identity of an African People, Trenton, New Jersey, Africa World Press, Inc.
Middleton, John, (1992), The World of the Swahili: An African Mercantile
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Pearson, Michael, (1998), Port Cities and Intruders. The Swahili Coast, India, and Portugal in the Early Modern Era, Baltimore and London, The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Penrad, Jean-Claude, (1995), ‘Zanzibar, Les Cités Swahili : Rivages imaginaires et découverte d’un espace’, Journal des Anthropologues, Paris, 61/62, automne.
Saleh, Mohamed Ahmed, (1995), Les Pêcheurs de Zanzibar: Transformations socioéconomiques et permanence d’un système de représentation, Mémoire pour le Diplôme d’Etudes Approfondies, EHESS, Paris,
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Paris, Trimestriel N° 177, janvier – mars, La documentation
Française, pp. 17-29.
Saleh, Mohamed Ahmed, (1997), ‘Zanzibari Diaspora: Identity and Nationalism’, Western Indian Ocean A Cultural Corridor, Stockholm, Department of Social Anthropology of Stockholm University.
Saleh, Mohamed Ahmed, (1997), ‘Kiswahili : Patience, humilité et dépassement moral’, Dire la Tolérance, Paris, UNESCO – Praxiling, pp. 65-66.
Saleh, Mohamed Ahmed, (2002), ‘Tolerance: The Principal Foundation of the
Cosmopolitan Society of Zanzibar’, Cultures of the World Journal, March, Barcelona, Spain.
Sheriff, Abdul, (1996), Historical Zanzibar – Romance of the Ages, London, HSP Publications.




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