‘But the coast, of course, is quite different’: academic and local ideas about the East African littoral’

Caplan, Pat. 2007. ‘But the coast, of course, is quite different’: academic and local ideas about the East African littoral’. Journal of Eastern African Studies, 1(2), pp. 305-320. ISSN 1753-1055 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

In recent years, anthropology has paid much attention to the concept of identity. Identity politics is a shifting and complex area, but the trick is to claim the right identity at the right time. This article discusses some of the issues associated with this topic on the coast of East Africa. The quotation in the title is a phrase I often heard when a student studying Swahili in the early 1960s. The East Coast was considered to be different from the rest of East Africa – otherwise known as ‘up-country’ – because it had a long history and impressive material remains as well as a written language with its own literature. What it did not have, unlike the rest of East Africa, were ‘tribes’. In the postcolonial period, ‘tribalism’ has provided a popular and simplistic explanation in the mass media for the conflicts and wars in Africa. Historians, political scientists and anthropologists have argued, however, that modern ‘tribalism’ does not represent indigenous polities but rather the fall-out from the introduction of modern political systems and conflicts over resources. Given all of these factors, why, in the late twentieth century, should there have been calls for the Swahili to be recognised as a ‘tribe’? Seeking answers to this question takes us to an old debate – who are the waSwahili? – sometimes phrased as ‘Is there such an entity as the Swahili?’ In the first section of this article, I consider the arguments of those who have maintained that the Swahili are not a single people, and in the second discuss the contrary case. The third section considers some of the reasons for such differences in approach, including historiography, identity politics, and the relative positions of authors.

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Date Deposited:

16 May 2016 15:25

Last Modified:

16 Jun 2017 10:59

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Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.



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