Swahili Modernities: Identity, Power and Development on the East African Coast

Caplan, Pat and Topan, Farouk, eds. 2006. Swahili Modernities: Identity, Power and Development on the East African Coast. Africa World Press. ISBN 978-1592210466 [Edited Book]

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Abstract or Description

This volume arises out of the fifth conference in an on-going series of interdisciplinary Anglo-French Workshops, held alternately in Paris and London. The first of these took place in 1987 and its theme was 'Social Stratification in Swahili Society' (Parkin and Constantin 1989). Two years later, a conference was held on 'Networks and Exchanges in the Coastal Societies of East Africa' (Le Guennec-Coppens and Caplan, 1991). The third conference was held in October 1992, and its theme was 'Continuity and Autonomy in Swahili Communities: inland influences and strategies of self-determination' (Parkin 1994). In 1995, the conference took place in Paris, with the theme of 'Authority and Power in the Coastal Societies of East Africa (Le Guennec Coppens and Parkin 1998). Most of the scholars who presented papers at these gatherings were either British or French, although a small number were of East African origin.

The fifth conference was not held until 2001 in London, and it was decided that this time scholars would be invited from a wider spectrum of countries: France, Britain, Norway, America, Kenya, Tanzania, although several people currently working in Europe were from further afield: Mexico, Canada, Zanzibar, Kenya. The theme which the organisers chose was that of 'Modernity and the Swahili' and the call for papers read as follows:

The theme of 'The Swahili and Modernity' will encourage us to consider the concepts of modernity and modernization in relation to the Swahili-speakers of the Coast and Islands of East Africa. How have the dramatic changes of recent years, including the influx of up-country migrants and the tourist boom, affected Swahili culture and society? What have been the effects of such factors as structural adjustment programmes, multi-party democracy, and political contestations?

We wanted to think about modernity, in all its many senses, in relation to the Swahili coast of East Africa. Our choice of this term in no way posited the existence of the usual counterpart to modernity - 'tradition', since noone working on this area could possibly imagine that the Swahili have, for at least the last millenium, lived in a timeless 'traditional' society, much less one isolated from the wider world. We did not want to participate in the kinds of narratives which locate people on one side or the other of a dualistic divide of modern/traditional and which tends to place Africa in the latter category. Rather, we wanted explorations of the impact of recent historical changes on the East Coast: globalization and its concomitant, localization; development and under-development; political changes, conflict and contests; and local understandings of and strivings towards the elusive goal of modernity.

During the two-day conference, thirteen papers were presented to an enthusiastic audience, several of whom had travelled long distances to attend. Sadly, one participant, Christine Walley, could not be present as she was due to fly out on September 11th 2001 from the USA, but her paper was discussed at the conference and is included in this volume.

Our contributors came from a range of disciplines: language and literature (Topan, Musau, Amidu, Mlacha, Saavedra), anthropology (Larsen, Caplan, Walley, Beckerleg, Le Guennec-Coppens, Saleh), and political science (Cameron). Furthermore, they had carried out research along the length and breadth of the East African littoral from Lamu in the north to the Comoros Islands in the far south: Amidu in Lamu, Beckerleg in Malindi, Cameron, Larsen and Saleh in Zanzibar, Mlacha in Bagamoyo, Caplan and Walley in Mafia, and Le Guennec in the Comoros. All of us were aware that the East Coast is simultaneously many places and it is precisely the mixture of sameness and difference which made this conference, like the ones preceding it, so fascinating.

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Edited Book

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April 2006

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15 Jun 2015 11:27

Last Modified:

16 Jun 2017 10:59



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