Avaes Mohammad

Kenya: MOMBASA AND THE SWAHILI PROFESSOR (080509)

In Uncategorized on May 14, 2009 at 11:16 am

080509

Mombasa and The Swahili Professor

My second time in Mombasa I didn’t arrive alone either. I certainly set off from Nairobi alone but when the bus stopped half way for tea and snacks I met a woman called Naseem at the café bar.

‘Hello! Jambo! Salaam! Hello…Jambo Bwana…haa Jambo…where can I order brother? Where do I order? Hello? Brother where can I go to order?…some food?…Chai’

‘Chai!’

‘Haa chai…’

[He points. At the bar. Where I already am.]

‘Where? Here? Hello! Hello brother…where can I… ’

Naseem was stood next to me and while smirking told me in English which end of the bar to order at before grabbing an attendants attention for me in Kiswahili. I finally ordered. One chai and one boiled egg. Not the most balanced meal but what I felt like nonetheless.


‘Where are you from?’

‘England.’

‘Oh. I used to live in England.’

‘Yeah? Where?’

‘Cambridge.’

The first in a series of rapid succession lies.

‘Oh Yeah? I was in Cambridge for two years, just before I came here.’

‘Where?’

‘You know Mill Rd right? Just off it…Ross St.’

[Pause]

’Where’s Mill Rd?

‘Where all the shops and restaurants are?!’

[She looks at me like I’m the one that’s lying]

‘You know…Just off Parkers Piece?’

[beat] ‘Oh…[beat]… yeah.’

She then told me she was married. To later tell me she was engaged. To later tell me she was going to be engaged. She then told me the kids waiting for her at the table were hers. To later tell me they were her sisters.

‘Are you Khojo (a particular type of Indian Muslim)?’

‘No. I’m Kutchi.’

[In Kutchi] ‘I’m Kutchi too!’

Instantly she feels a kinship towards me. The safety barriers of cordiality usually maintained between strangers are promptly knocked out of the way like an annoyance.

[alternating between Kutchi and English as it suits her] ‘Why’s you hair so long? It doesn’t look nice. You look like a girl. Look…don’t take it wrong ways huh? I’m saying it to you like a sister…don’t take offence…but you should cut it. Cut it really! You look like a hippy. And do you pray? From your face you don’t look like you pray.’

[in Kutchi] ‘Do you pray?’

[in Kutchi] ’God be praised, I pray five times a day’

[In Kutchi] ‘Add a couple on for me too then’

[in Kutchi] ‘Uh-Uh! It doesn’t work like that!’

I feel like my Mother’s sent an agent to do her work while she’s not here but it’s also cute that she can say all this to me after only a moments’ introduction. We sit and eat together. Naseem and God knows whose kids have chicken and chips while I sit peeling my boiled egg.

‘Where are you staying in Mombasa?’

‘Dunno. My Mum’s got family there but I’m gonna check into a guest house I reckon. Figure out which one when I get there’

‘We’ve just opened a guest house in Mombasa.’

Turns out it’s literally around a very short corner from where my Mum’s Uncle Husseini lives; where I stayed when I visited Mombasa a couple of weeks ago. Also turns out Naseems’ family are very close friends of my Mum’s Uncles’ family. This I discover later as she pretends she’s never heard of them when I mention them all by name. The coincidences make me smile though and I like coincidences so I say yes. I’ll stay at her guest house. It’s in Old Town too, which is where I wanna be, so when the bus pulls into Mombasa that night I walk off with Naseem and the two children of mysterious origins to be escorted into a part of the city I’m already a little familiar with.

Ever since I’ve been in Kenya I’ve really been looked after. I feel like an esteemed guest here. Wherever I’ve been in this country, I’ve been taken care of. I’ve been nursed. My steps have been cushioned. I don’t feel a stranger here. We arrive at the guest house and it’s ridiculously close to Husseini’s house. He’ll be pissed when he discovers I’m not staying with him and I’m just around the corner. I want to see Mombasa on my own though. I hope he won’t be too offended.

I spend my time in Mombasa mainly walking through the streets of Old Town and taking pictures. Stopping for Kahawa (local strong black coffee). Writing. I wanna be sure I know where my Mum’s old houses are so I can find them on my own in the future; show them to my kids one day maybe and so I retrace the footsteps I’d left with my Mum a couple of weeks ago.

One early afternoon, I’m walking through a street in Old Town looking for this great café I discovered a couple of weeks ago called Jahaazi. Their coffee is okay but they have the best samosas, spiced potatoes and chutney. As I walk into the café, donning Ray Bans, hair at all angles, rucksack weighing me down, everyones cup floats midair while they follow me with their gazes. An elderly well groomed fella, dressed in an elegant Arabic long overshirt (jub’a) and a Swahili hat is looking the most intently. I know who he is. He’s even on the same chair. He doesn’t know me though.

The Swahili Professor

The Swahili Professor

‘Keysey ho? Saroo che?’

He utters the few Urdu and Gujerati greetings he knows, trying to confirm his version of my identity.

‘Bilkul theek! Aap keysey ho?’

‘Theek thaak!’

Satisfied enough with his powers of identification, he relaxes back into his chair and his hovering cup of coffee makes it up to his lips.

‘Are you a Professor?’

‘Sorry?’

The woman sat next to him holding a stack of books repeats on my behalf in Kiswahili. He seems flattered that I, a strange stranger should know this about him.

‘Yes. I am. But come here…I can’t hear from so far away’

I walk over to him. There are no chairs available so I kneel before him. Whilst humoured at this scene, I give him my hand.

‘As Salaam-o-alaikum. My name is Avaes Mohammad. I’m from England’

‘Wa’alaikum As-Salaam! England?’

‘Yeah…I’m travelling…and I’m a Writer…I know you’re a Professor because I was here with my mother’s uncle two weeks ago. He lives in Old Town.’

‘Oh…he lives here…’

‘Yeah. When we here so were you. That’s when he told me you were a professor of Swahili culture. He’d seen you on T.V.’

He blushes.

‘Ohhho…I see!’

‘I’ve received a grant from the English Arts Council…’

‘Oh…’

‘….yeah…er…to visit the countries of my cultural heritage. My mother is from Mombasa. She was born here and so this is where I’ve started. In Old Town. Then I hope to go to Zanzibar. My Grandfather was born there…her father.’

‘Well then you are a native!’

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t the slightest bit flattered, even touched by this statement. I smiled.

‘er…thank you…then I’ll go to India and then to Pakistan. My father was born in Pakistan…’

‘Aaahhh!’

‘As you’re a professor of Swahili Culture I’d really love to speak with you for a while. I’m interested in the culture here and would love to hear what you have to say about it. If you have the time? Whenever you have the time!’

He’s been holding my hand warmly, close to his chest all this while. He lets go.

‘Well today is Friday. So meet me at 9 o’clock tomorrow.’

‘Here?’

‘Yes.’

‘Excellent. That’s great. That would be a great help absolutely. Thank you. Asanti Sana!’

‘No problem. This is my job.’

Ten minutes to nine the next day I’m waiting outside Jahaazi café while it’s being cleaned inside. I’m being watched with intrigue as people walk past. A local guide sits next to me and we talk about my forthcoming journey to Zanzibar. He also talks about Manchester United. Across one of these charming alleys, in between the ornate wooden balconies carved with elaborate and detailed designs, the origins of which can be traced centuries back, stands a huge banner for Liverpool Football Club. The words ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ underneath the club’s emblem.

‘I’m going to tear it! Just watch…I’ll rip down the Liverpool and tear it then leave pieces in the street. Just see!! You’ll never walk alone?!! What is this stupid? Who walks alone? Nobody walks alone…we all walk with friends isn’t it?!’

The professor arrives.

‘As-salaam-o-alaikum!’

‘Wa’alaikum salaam. [Beat] Anees? Arees?’

‘Avaes’

‘Avaes!’

We walk inside and he rests himself against some cushions. After showing me his most recent paper and ordering coffee, we begin. I speak into my dictophone…

‘Interview on the Second of May 2009, Old Town Mombasa, with Professor Ahmed Shaikh Nabhany, of the National Museums of Kenya.’

My attempt at getting the ball rolling is quite clumsy. I get across that I’m interested particularly with Swahili culture, the culture of the coast of East Africa and its surrounding islands, as it’s the culture of my Mother. Even more clumsily however, I attempt to explain that what with multiculturalism and all that, you know, coz London’s like one of the most multicultural places in the world like, if not the most multicultural place in the world, then Swahili culture, the way it’s used all these different components and that, to create something new like…that’s really…interesting. For me. And for England!!

I’m suddenly an ambassador for the Royal London Multicultural Institute (is there one? There should be!) and I’m speaking on behalf of all my countryfolk. I shall be heard by decree of Her Majesty!

After his patient ‘uh-hms’, he clears his throat:

‘Now let us talk about the original Swahili Culture because as you know you can’t enter a house through the window. You enter the house through the door…’

Like I’m being whipped through time all the way back to the origins of man, The Professor explains the four original groups of African languages and gently walks me down the branch that began with Congo Kodofanian. Stopping to gaze a while at each of its junctions, each of it’s branches, we arrive finally at the penultimate Bantu Clan, from which Swahili came. He explains it was the Arabs that gave the name Swahili, originating from the Arabic word for Coast, Saahil. The Swahili therefore, are The People of the Coast. The original Bantu name was Wangozi. He spoke of the ‘Sewn Boats’ that were observed here by a Greek traveller from the days of old, boats that had no nails, instead fibres were used to sew it together. These boats he said, were used to trade with the Arabian Gulf and with India. Green turtle shells were exported, as were Ivory, Tamarind, Rhino horns and from India they imported water pots, spices, furniture and clothes. A Kiswahili proverb states: ‘In India people went naked so they could supply us with clothes’. From the lands of Arabia, they imported dates and perfume. As such, there was a long history of contact and interaction between these peoples, sharing their cuisine, their language, their clothes. He then spoke of the three groups, the three ways in which you might be considered a Swahili:

  1. If both your parents were original Swahilis, i.e., with lineage traceable back to the Bantu clan.
  2. If you married an original Swahili.
  3. If you consciously decide you want to adopt the Swahili Culture. In this case a grand ceremony is held, you’re accepted as a Swahili brother or sister, but you must renounce all associations with your previous culture, including language and accept Islam.

I asked if he thinks whether of the three contributing components to Swahili culture, Indian, Bantu and Arab, does one dominate? I asked this I suppose because I personally felt the Arab component did. He replied diplomatically, enigmatically, that the Swahili were a clever people and took only the best of everything. After 45 minutes of talking continuously, he declared ’I think this is enough for this time. I’ve talked a lot I think!’

I thanked him for his time and expressed my appreciation for having increased my understanding. He replied that in Islam it was a person’s duty to seek knowledge even if he or she had to travel as far as China and he was glad he could help me. Then he went to get a new Swahili hat sewn.

I have to confess, I’m not sure about his defining categories of Swahili people though. It seems too purist, too inward and I’m not sure culture works like that. To me, if it’s raining outside you get wet whether you wanted to or not. If you walk through a perfume shop you inevitably leave smelling a little sweeter, whether the shopowner intended you to or not. If all you hear is Hip-Hop, even in Surrey, you can’t help but say Yo, regardless of how baggy your jeans are. And if you moved to Mombasa from a faraway land, didn’t intermarry and still kept your original religion and language, surely you couldn’t avoid but be infected by the humble, courteous and beautifully elegant ways of the Swahili people.

Hearing Professor Ahmed Shaikh Nabhany speak was illuminating however and did make me think about culture and multiculture differently. It seemed that the strength of Swahili culture and an important reason why people of Indian, Arab and Bantu origin could identify with it together, was intermarriage. If people hadn’t intermarried themselves, they had an aunt or uncle that had and that’s really brought people together here. I like this. In a naive, idealistic kind of way maybe it’s like saying: ‘Love is all you need’.

Admittedly, I was a little cynical about the strong Arab influence over the Swahili culture. I was concerned it had made its place at the expense of Bantu and Indian cultures in an imperialistic kind of way. Arabs had conquered here and developed a gruesome trade in Black African Slaves on the Swahili coast. But I was interested to learn that what I saw as an imposition of Arab culture could also be seen as a celebration of Muslim culture, which hadn’t arrived with any imperial conquest. According to the professor, The Swahili were Muslim way before any such attack. They pride themselves on being among the first to accept the message of the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) as it travelled from Arabia with the first Muslim refugees into Ethiopia. The message of Mohammad was subsequently spread into Somalia and then into the Kenyan coast. The Swahili were Muslim even before some Arabs were.

Also, consider this for a crazy idea: If people in London were all to fall in love with each other en masse tomorrow, without care for race, etc. and had lots of babies then wouldn’t it would be unrealistic to assume that the new resultant culture created should equally represent all its constituent parts?

What I love about Swahili culture is that all these people of different origins collectively declare the same identity which they all feel they have contributed to. Not just adopted.

Before he’d decided he spoke enough, The Professor attempted to put the whole culture/identity debate into context for me by quoting a lovely verse from the Qur’an: ‘O People, We created you male and female and then grouped you into tribes and nations, only so you may know each other.’

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