‘The Ocean Shapes Our Social Behaviour’ –Wives of Fishermen in Kilwa Kisiwani Island, Tanzania Narrate

Elgidius Ichumbaki, Edward Pollard, Jean-Christophe Comte

The Kisima Project

Sources of fresh water are vital, and also social places, for the Kilwa Kisiwani maritime community, as it is the case amongst many other communities. A team of researchers from the University of Dar es Salaam, University of Aberdeen, and Ireland’s Discovery Programme continue to investigate the role of freshwater wells, and seawater intrusion, in the Swahili civilization that flourished between the 11th and 18th centuries, and the lessons it may yield in terms of sustainable development. We undertake this project at Kilwa Kisiwani inhabited by an island community exploiting the Indian Ocean environment along the southern coast of Tanzania. Along with archaeological surveys and excavations, we are recording narratives, myths, stories, and other forms of intangible heritage that are linked to groundwater use, salinity and freshwater management within the Island.

A team of archaeologists and geologists at one of the historic well in Kilwa Kisiwani

Figure 1: A team of archaeologists and geologists at one of the historic well in Kilwa Kisiwani

Photo by E. Ichumbaki

In various discussions and interviews we have held with local women fetching water at the wells, we have noticed that in addition to being social places, freshwater wells are centres where women, the majority of whom are wives of fishermen, narrate to one another ‘the rewards’ and ‘the cruelties’ they face. The benefits and obstacles they encounter are part and parcel of their lives, which emanate from being ‘sea people’. Considering this scenario, we aimed to answer the question ‘what does the ocean/sea mean to the wives of fishermen’ concentrating at various wells to fetch water?’ Interestingly, we have found that memories, narratives, stories, songs, and other forms of intangible heritage linked to navigation and fishing activities continue to shape the Islanders’ daily behaviour. Here, we report our findings.

Women have informed the research team that what the fishermen say, narrate or sing as they travel from the beach to the ocean, undertake fishing activities, navigate back to the beach, land their dhows, and sell fish on the beach has shaped the women’s behaviour within the Island.

‘If you cheat your husband and his friends find out about your behaviour, they will inform him accordingly. His friends will not tell him directly but through singing various songs. They do so as they are on the way to go for fishing, in the ocean as they fish, on the way back from fishing, or at the beach selling their fish. When this situation happens, you (wife) are humiliated and your husband is ashamed of your behaviour too’—one woman informed the team.

A team of researchers and a group of women discussing various Kisima project issues.

Figure 2: A team of researchers and a group of women discussing various Kisima project issues.

Photo by Neema Munisi.

Javern Tenga (with an orange reflector), a student from the University of Dar es Salaam measuring the water-depth at the great-well—the main water supply in the Island

Figure 3: Javern Tenga (with an orange reflector), a student from the University of Dar es Salaam measuring the water-depth at the great-well—the main water supply in the Island.

Photo by Jean-Christophe Comte

‘Although foreigners may see the song as totally unrelated to the fishing activities, for the Islanders, the message is clear to everyone,’ another woman narrates. She further informed that, “the song mentions a name of a lady given a name of ‘meno ya chauma’ (biting teeth) or that she has bad habits.” As singing continues, the fishing crew evaluate themselves and if one realizes that it is his wife who cheated him, he divorces her upon returning home.

One woman added that, because of this scenario, women in the island of Kilwa Kisiwani are very careful to ‘misbehave’ especially when their husbands have gone out fishing. ‘If you don’t respect yourself, thinking that your husband is away fishing and that your acts will not be known, then, you will suffer the consequences,’ another woman insisted.

Apart from the songs that concern marriage, there are other songs and narratives which shape the daily lives of both fishermen and their families. For example, there are songs, which warn people of the island to be extra careful such as if an accident happens, they are in position to rescue each other as they navigate from the island to the mainland. ‘We are not allowed to continue carrying anything while in the boat. Be it luggage or children, as soon as we get into the boat, we must lay it down. Doing that is important so that if anything happens, then, other members in the boat will rescue you and/or your child,’ says one woman. These views from a woman residing in the island is shared by a fisherman who insists that ‘getting into the boat with shoes is like being against the voyage to where others intend to go.’

The ocean seems to have shaped people on the island to live communal lives by sharing the few resources they obtain from the ocean. ‘All newly-built fishing vessels or purchased nets must be acknowledged by many villagers; so, the first and/or second catch are distributed to neighbours of a villager who make the vessel and/or purchase new nets. According to over twenty interviewed women, the purpose of offering the first catch is to ‘give life to the new vessel or net’ so that it gains recognition in the society’.

Among the songs accompanying fishing activities is one that raises awareness of the marine resources that are protected within Tanzanian laws. Some of the fishermen, for instance, as they go for fishing, sing songs which remind them not to fish the protected marine resources. “Turtles are undesirable, totally undesirable; Whales are desirable? No undesirable! Dolphin is undesirable, very undesirable” some fishermen sing as they go fishing.

Some songs and other narratives warn young fishermen to be careful and avoid dangerous fish. ‘When you plan fishing, do not go alone. Going fishing as a group will save you from being attacked by venomous fish such as a stingray or stonefish. Even if you get stung, your companions will save you’ says one fisherman. Indeed, these stories, narratives and songs, which are linked to the fishing activities, seem to have been and continue to shape the lives and behaviour of people in Kilwa Kisiwani.

As it is today, islanders, whose daily life is supported by groundwater, Kilwa Kisiwani’s civilization was at a much larger scale supported by the use of groundwater through the 26 water wells the Kisima Project have located distributed across the island. Today, most of the known wells are dry and of those who remain in use by the small fishing community, most are too saline for drinking. Kisima project is trying to gather archaeological and hydrological evidence to understand the role of groundwater and saline intrusion, another direct influence of the ocean on islanders’ daily life, on the rise and fall of Kilwa Kisiwani great civilization and use the lessons learnt to inform future water security.

The island of Kilwa Kisiwani is located about 300 km south of Dar es Salaam adjacent to the Tanzanian coast. An ancient town on this island reflects the fact that the inhabitants of the Swahili coast were key players in the transoceanic Indian Ocean trade. Between the 11th and 18th centuries AD, Kilwa Kisiwani was a wealthy port that regularly served as the hub of trade between the Indian Ocean and the interior of eastern Africa. Products such as cloth, glass beads, perfumes, Chinese porcelain, silver, Persian faience and carnelian were imported in exchange for ivory, gold, animal hides and mangrove timber. As a result of this, in 1331, the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta considered Kilwa Kisiwani as ‘one of the most beautiful cities of the world’.

The gereza (fort), part of the remaining monuments indicative of civilization in Kilwa Kisiwani Island

Figure 4: The gereza (fort), part of the remaining monuments indicative of civilization in Kilwa Kisiwani Island.

Photo by Elgidius Ichumbaki

Kilwa Kisiwani’s cultural significance is exceptional and transcends national (Tanzania) boundaries. The island (and its monuments) is of common importance for present and future generations of humanity. It was because of this importance that in 1981, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee inscribed the Ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani on the World Heritage List.

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