Ethnography of East Africa and the Swahili Coast

ANTH 403B.003 with Vinay Kamat.

The geo-political entity known as East Africa comprises the present nations of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. In the anthropological literature, this region is often described as the cradle of humanity. The so-called Swahili Coast on the edge of the Indian Ocean, which includes several historically significant trading towns and cities such as Lamu, Malindi, Mombassa (coastal Kenya), Tanga, Dar es Salaam, Kilwa, Mtwara, (coastal Tanzania) and the islands of Zanzibar (Unguja) and Pemba has been, and continues to remain, one of the most productive contexts for historical, cultural and ethnographic studies. Among the best known, historically and ethnographically grounded monographs based on studies conducted in this region include John Middleton’s (1992) classic The World of the Swahili: an African Mercantile Civilization, John Middleton’s (2004) African Merchants of the Indian Ocean: Swahili of the East African Coast, Pat Caplan’s (1997) African Voices, African Lives: Personal Narratives from a Swahili Village, Kelly Askew’s (2002) Performing the Nation: Swahili Music and Cultural Politics in Tanzania, Janet McKintosh’s (2009) The Edge of Islam: Power, Personhood and Ethnoreligious Boundries on the Kenya Coast, Christine Walley’s (2004) Rough Waters. Nature and Development in an East African Marine Park, Pat Caplan and Farouk Topan’s (2004) edited volume Swahili Modernities: Culture, Politics and Identity on the East Coast of Africa, and more recently, Giblin and Monson’s (2010) edited collection on the Maji Maji war.

These studies have engaged topics such as the slave trade, long distance migration, colonialism, nationalism, independence movements, religion, identity politics, music, gender, sexuality, health, ecotourism and conservation, and so forth. In the western popular imagination, East Africa invokes images of wild life and safaris, the Serengeti National Park, the Masaai warriors, Mount Kilimanjaro, and the Dhows along the exotic spice island of Zanzibar (unguja). This course, however, is designed to go beyond the trope of “the exotic and the authentic”– and focus on the everyday lifeworlds of the peoples who inhabit East Africa’s Swahili coast. But how does one reference the Swahili Coast? Who are the Swahili-speaking peoples of the East African coast? Is there a distinct Swahili identity? What do we mean by Swahili culture and Swahili lifeworlds? Is there a distinct Swahili Philosophy? Why has the Swahili coast played such an important role in the historical and political consciousness of the peoples of East Africa and the African continent in general? Why do East Africa and the Swahili Coast continue to fascinate historians and anthropologists (archeologists and ethnographers included) and provide the context for their research and writing?

This course is designed precisely to explore the historical, political and ethnographic context of the Swahili Coast and the peoples who inhabit this region, and the region’s significance for the development of anthropological theory and practice. The course draws on interdisciplinary and ethnographic literature and focuses on the Swahili peoples, their history, political lives and cultures. The course will provide students with an opportunity to appreciate this region’s role in world history and the flourishing of anthropological and ethnographic literature about East Africa in general. Through a discussion of the assigned readings, films and in-class group presentations, students will explore the analytical links between issues of historical and anthropological interest such as colonialism, kinship, ethnic relations, religion, gender, sexuality, health, among others, as highlighted in historically-grounded ethnographies of small-scale coastal communities and the wider historical and political contexts and processes in which they are embedded.

The course is divided into two sections. The first half of the course will focus on the geographic, historical and political aspects of East Africa. Students will engage relevant scholarship concerning the historical and social construction of East Africa. They will become familiar with the region’s geography and history by reading some key texts and articles. The second half of the class will focus on the historically grounded ethnographic literature pertaining to the Swahili Coast. Students will read book length ethnographies such as Janet McKintosh’s (2009) The Edge of Islam: Power, Personhood and Ethnoreligious Boundries on the Kenya Coast, and ethnographically grounded research papers and articles such as, for example, Katrina Thompson’s (2011) Zanzibari Women’s discursive and sexual agency, that will enable them to appreciate “the world of the Swahili.” They will examine the roles that women have played in the economy, politics and religion and how these roles have changed with the spread of Islam in East Africa, European conquest and colonialism, and finally independence and globalism. The capstone project will be a 15 page research paper analyzing some aspects of the Swahili’s Coast’s history and ethnography, and will include an exposition and an academic argument.

Students who register for this course should be aware that the course involves a substantial amount of reading approximately (50-80 pages per week), in-class discussions and writing. Everyone is expected to have read the week’s readings before class. Students who have not been previously, substantially exposed to the historical and ethnographic literature on Africa must consult with the instructor at the start of the course so that arrangements can be made to discuss additional required reading.

Course Goals 

  1. To contextualize East African history in regional, continental, and global perspective (for example, long distance trade between East Africa and India), especially in the context of globalization and neoliberal politics.
  2. To develop awareness and sensitivity among the students to the region’s history, diversity and its place in global politics, and to investigate western depictions/preconceived notions about East Africa as emblematic of “wild life and safari”, and the Swahili Coast as inhabited by peoples who are dogmatic and “stuck in the past.”
  3. To consider how and why historians, political scientists, linguistic and cultural anthropologists write about the Swahili Coast.
  4. To learn to critically evaluate the literature from and about East Africa and particularly the Swahili Coast.
  5. To sharpen students’ abilities to express their thoughts through reading, speaking, researching, and writing about East Africa, and particularly the Swahili Coast.
  6. To cultivate students’ skills in analytical thinking, engaging discussion, and expressing ideas in a non-threatening, non-intimidating environment.
  7. To understand current events in East Africa in global, historical context.

The course will address student-specific interests and further academic skills through independently researching, presenting, and writing an original research paper.

Syllabus for ANTH 403. Ethnography of East Africa and the Swahili Coast. 2017