Recently my blogging partner, Haytham, and I got to talking about the question of the Swahili woman’s identity; Swahili referring to the people of the Coastal part of East Africa. We both have Swahili roots and spent part (for me) and all (for him) of our childhood in the Coastal towns of Lamu and Mombasa respectively. We are both part of a social activism group geared towards the people of Mombasa and our daily exchanges of ideas on how to improve the welfare of our communities had taken on the more personal issue of identity.
“How would you describe your experience as a Swahili woman?” he asked.
“It’s complicated.” I replied.
Owing to my mixed race background (Swahili and American), I have never had a straightforward answer to the question of personal identity. I grew up eating coconut curries and potato salad, listened to both Bhalo and Pharaoh Sanders, and wore the traditional leso over a pair of classic Levis. My childhood was one filled with the celebration of both cultures. We also travelled quite a bit when I was younger and a visit to new towns often translated to cultural immersion experiences. My American father who, by the way is an anthropologist, made sure to instill in his children a sense of wonderment, curiosity, and objective acceptance of other cultures. In other words, he raised us to reflect the sum total of our global multi-cultural experiences.
By the time most Swahili girls were wearing the abaya and had learnt how to cook complicated Swahili foods, I was still in my tshirt and jeans, and was just beginning to master the art of chai making (which is really just boiling water and milk with a few spices and tea leaves-not exactly rocket science!) I moved to Lamu for a few months after graduating high school and went to live with my grandmother. Those few months were quite a lesson in comparative cultures to my growing mind. As per the mainstream Swahili tradition, adolescent girls were to stay out of the public eye save for the necessary trips to school and the shops. On top of that, their social excursions were to be chaperoned by adults; usually mothers or aunts, or by immediate male relatives; usually brothers. The issue of dating was completely out of the question-any association with an unrelated male resulted in severe reprehension and tighter confinement. Of course attraction to the opposite sex is a normal rite of passage to all teenagers and few can escape its allure. Secret dating was alive and well and in an age where mobile technology hadn’t developed, love letters scribbled on bits of paper furtively moved around from lover to lover. The secrecy surrounding the forbidden love heightened emotional tensions and many a times, I was witness to teenage girl mini-conferences, complete with tears of breakups and sighs of make-ups.
When my uncle wanted to restrict my outdoor activities, my bibi (grandmother) firmly defended my independence. “She is not like your daughters,” Bibi said. “She is also American, so we have to respect her innate need for personal freedom and space.” I was, and still am, grateful to Bibi for standing up for me because taking walks by the sea front were not only enjoyable, they were necessary for my sanity. I loved living in Lamu, but the American in me (that part that considers the exercise of personal autonomy as necessary as breathing in oxygen) often felt suffocated living in a town that insisted on strict adherence to the social norms.
I had deep philosophical issues (from a teenage perspective anyway):
Why must it always be the women that cook?
Why can boys go out anytime, no questions asked, but girls can’t?
Why can boys swim in the ocean, ALONE, ALL THE TIME. Why is swimming a once-in-a-blue-moon event for girls?
My teenage personal identity was largely derived from immature and insecurity based conclusions, an anti-thesis of sorts, to the prevailing social culture that I was living in. My alter ego was a strong-headed but quiet rebel, one who lived only within the walls of my private thoughts. I wanted to challenge the status quo, but I was too scared to vocalize my personal opinions. Or perhaps it was more of my loyalty to my culture that made me stand by it; the kind that compares to disliking a behavior in your mother but loving her nonetheless because you are of her.
When I moved to the USA late in my teens, its celebration of individuality was like a breath of fresh air. I could be whoever I wanted to be and no one was stopping me. My American uncle, concerned that I was going to cave into peer pressures and abandon my Swahili identity, pulled me aside to insist “always be true to who you are.” But I didn’t need convincing. Ironically, coming to America brought me closer to Kenya, closer to my Swahili heritage. Having been removed from the Swahili environment, I now saw the culture with from a different vantage point.
“Re-vision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction – is for woman more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves.”
― Adrienne Richa
Hindsight is 20/20, and looking back I realize that I had reduced the Swahili culture to a set of ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ geared to favor one gender over another. Regrettably, I had incorrectly assumed that Swahili women are oppressed. But an objective revision of my culture challenged my pre-held assumptions. Over the years, I changed the definition of ‘oppressed woman who cooks for others’ to ‘mother: nurturer of family’, and ‘dictator head of household’ to ‘father: protector of family.’ Am I endorsing patriarchy, a social system which gives ultimate power to men? No. I believe that social roles produce order in the society, however I don’t believe in an ‘either, or’ mentality in which men and women are assigned to strictly defined roles at the expense of curtailing others’ individual contributions in society. Case in point: The Prophet Muhammad led humanity to Islam AND mended his own clothes. His wife Khadija was a pious wife AND ran her own business.
What makes me who I am is the fact that I am poised between two countries, two languages, and two distinct cultural traditions. To disregard one culture for the other would be the same as deeming one leg more important than the other. I find that what gives me the greatest sense of authentic identification is when I incorporate the best of each culture into my life. My journey as a Swahili woman has been full of twists and turns, but it has led me to these reflections on identity: beauty in femininity, sacredness in motherhood, and companionship in marriage.