THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Endangered archives blog

12 December 2014

KNOW YOUR CULTURE! OR ELSE…

Kenya Jamhuri Day, 12 December 2014

The Riyadha Mosque in Lamu, Kenya, is home to a collection of Islamic manuscripts that documents and preserves the teaching traditions of the Lamu archipelago from c.1850 to 1950. In the EAP online collection, under the unassuming name of EAP466/1/18, can be found a 241-page compilation of prayers, litanies and invocations. It is prefaced by an inscription, framed by an ochre and black geometrical pattern, which reads, somewhat ominously: “This book, what is in it, is in it. Whomsoever does not know what is in it, may the dog pee in his mouth.”

Cover page of the manuscript
EAP466/1/18

When they were copied some time in the mid-19th century, these texts had been handed down through generations, and were well known in the wider Swahili world - indeed in the Islamic world as a whole. In the volume, we find for example the Mawlid Barzanji, authored in the 18th century, and widely recited in East Africa to this day. It narrates the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, including the “heavenly handmaidens” who according to popular tradition attended his mother Amina. Knowledge of this type of text constituted what it meant to be a member of coastal Muslim community in 19th-century Lamu, through a “core curriculum” that regulated individual and collective practice of Islam. In short, knowing these texts made you part of mainstream culture. Failure to acquire this knowledge could mean social exclusion – or, more often, non-inclusion if you were an outsider to Lamu society. The consequences, as indicated by the inscription, could be dire.

A first assumption here is to interpret this threat as an eccentric liberty taken by the copyist, perhaps a poke at a madrasa (Islamic school) teacher who may have used these exact words during class. However, unusual though it may be, a similar worded warning can be found in at least one other manuscript from the Swahili coast, again cautioning against unwanted attention from dogs. The message is clear: Know you culture, your religion – and your identity – or else face exclusion.

As the volume stands today in the Riyadha library, it is owned by the mosque but forms part of the heritage of Lamu Muslim society, and that of the wider Swahili world. It is also part of the national heritage of Kenya. As Kenya celebrates its 50th Jamhuri (Republic) Day, it is sadly not in an atmosphere of tranquillity. The Westgate attacks in Nairobi in 2013 brought the world’s attention to Jihadist-style terrorism within Kenya’s border, but also to the looting by the security personnel in the wake of the killings. However, the mistrust between the coastal population and the authorities has simmered for years, and caused rifts between sections of the costal Swahilis. Religious leaders have been assassinated, attempts at cultural and religious dialogue have stalled under the threat of violence. Couple this with large-scale foreign and domestic investment, land-grabbing, corruption, the continuing turmoil in Somalia and the expansion of al-Shabbab on the coast, Kenya is facing challenges that threatens its stability and – ultimately – even its unity.

As has been shown in recent studies, access to, and use of heritage (including scientific research), is often unequally distributed and represented in the national narratives when new nations are formed. Jamhuri day is a nationwide day of celebration of Kenya’s freedom, but also of its diversity, its multiple and parallel pasts. As coastal Kenya struggles to express its perceived marginalisation, it can look to its own rich past, and to the various ways in which it incorporated new populations into Swahili society. From this vantage point, the coast may find new ways to represent itself in the national narrative of Kenya in the coming 50 years. The message from a 19th-century copyist can still be relevant. 

Click on the link if you would like to read more about the manuscript collection at Riyadha Mosque 

Dr. Anne K. Bang, Chr. Michelsen Institute, Norway

Grant holder EAP466

 

 

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