SOME ASPECTS OF CELEBRATIONS IN THE SWAHILI CULTURE The Swahili community, like many other human societies in this world, celebrates, with ceremony and rituals, their triumphs, joys and even sorrows. The most common occasions are influenced by religious and political groups commemorating their founders, saints and heroes with feasts and dancing. The agricultural season is punctuated with festivals of planting and harvesting. Birth, circumcision, marriage and death provide occasions for rites of passage. During such an occasion people think more deeply than in everyday life.
Some examples of religious celebrations, celebrations of increase and the rites of passage are described in this article. Birth Once a lady is discovered to be pregnant, arrangements are made for a special prayer to be said, known as ‘kutia hijabuni’. A religious teacher with his disciples will be invited, usually to the house of the lady’s parents, to recite certain chapters from the Quran. The pregnant lady is dressed in a khanga, facing Mecca, surrounded by these disciples and their teacher. In certain Swahili towns, for example in Malindi, millet, popcorn or rice are used to strike the lady after every sentence recited.
Initially a coconut which has been holed through will be rotated around her head. Then she washes her face, wrists and feet with coconut water. The flesh of the coconut and the remaining popcorn will be eaten by small children. The ceremony ends with a small feast. The only other celebration connected with birth comes when the baby is delivered. Talisman and the smearing of khol on the infant’s face are used to protect it from bad omens sometimes brought by animals. For example, an owl passing at night over a house where there is a new born baby can be the cause of an illness called ‘Ugonjwa wa Kitoto’.
An owl is called ‘ndege la watoto’ (children’s’ bird) or ‘ndege chimvi’ (bird of misfortune). As a protection, a human effigy called ‘kinyago’ (watchman) is erected on the roof and hence owls will avoid that particular roof top. A healthy baby on reaching the age of one month or forty days is taken outside to see the sun and is then introduced to every corner of the house. Initiation Initiation can be explained like this: ‘ To mature, we all have to die from a previous state, to enter an unknown state full of ordeal, growth, chance and choice and to be reborn finally as persons in control of our lives at a more challenging level’.
In Swahili society the celebrations take the form of circumcision for boys and rites of puberty for girls. 1 Girls The novices are assembled in a secluded enclosure, usually in a house, where they are given instructions in sacred or secret knowledge. The girls’ instructor is called ‘kungwi’ or ‘somo’. She is an experienced woman who imparts sex education to a young marriageable girl. In the past the period of tutelage lasted from puberty to consummation of the marriage, which took place in the presence of the Kungwi. The Kungwi would also give the bride beauty treatment such as hair washing, perfuming and massage.
Nowadays, much of the body beautifying is not done by the Kungwi but by her age-mates. Therefore some girls consider the role of the Kungwi or somo as more symbolic than real. Boys In Swahili culture circumcision is only for boys. Boys are circumcised between the ages of three and twelve, depending on the time needed for the parents to raise the money for the celebrations. The parents invite all their relatives and friends to participate in the festivities which consist of feasting, dances and Maulidi readings (poems praising the Prophet Mohammed).
After the readings the boys are circumcised by an expert then given over to a paternal aunt who takes care of them. The boys are now referred to as ‘Mabwana harusi’ and the ceremony is sometimes called ‘harusi ndogo’ or small wedding. For about seven days afterwards the boys are visited by their age-mates and they play indoor games together. In Pate the circumcision of the princes was officially announced by blowing the ‘siwa’. Siwa is a large ivory, brass or wooden side-blown horn kept by Sultans or town elders. There was some special significance in the sounding of the Siwa at a circumcision in Pate.
Up till about the late 19th century, the succession of the Sultanate was limited to those so honored. It is still remembered that in the 17th century one Sultan in Pate refused the usage of the Siwa to his daughter’s son, so the daughter, Mwanadarini, made a Siwa of her own. Maulidi Celebration of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed is observed annually throughout the Muslim world by the Maulidi celebration. In Lamu it is also applied to many other rituals such as circumcision, marriages, a happy return from a journey or something else that has occasioned a celebration. At the big Riadha Mosque in Lamu, Maulidi is read n the last Thursday of Rabiul-Awal which changes in date each year. It is attended by visitors from Zanzibar, Somalia, Uganda, Tanzania, Comoro Islands and many other towns and villages on the Kenyan coast. The population of Lamu tends to double in that week. In front of the mosque, groups perform various male dances such as ‘goma la panga’, ‘uta’, ‘kirumbizi’, ‘Mdurange’ and nowadays the Giriama dance ‘Mwanzele’ has become an integral part of 2 the Maulidi celebrations. Maulidi is read on Thursday night between 8 pm and 11 pm, and is attended by both males and females. Friday is the day of Ziyara, a visit to the cemetery.
A shrine or tomb is a place of worship hallowed or honoured because of its association with a superhuman, invisible power such as a deity, ancestor, saint or spirit. Therefore the Ziyara on Friday to Habib Swalehe’s shrine is intended to bring blessings on his followers. After the Ziyara, groups from each village parade along the streets back to the Riadha Mosque. People sing praises of the Prophet Mohammed loudly while deeply involved in a dance called ‘Zefe’; again it is a male dance. Women who are present do not participate but, clad in buibuis, watch the men and the boys dancing.
Other ceremonies, such as rain or disease, are performed by leading a bull through the town followed by the sacrifice of the bull, the meat of which is eaten at the communal meal. This feast takes place outside the town. In Lamu it is at a place near the graveyard called Wiyoni. Celebration of Increase A well ordered ritual directed with good intent by human beings to God or ancestors is believed to bring good returns in the form of abundant harvest or plentiful supply. A Swahili farmer, particularly a Bajuni, before he begins cutting the bush says a special prayer.
Sometimes sacrifices are made to safeguard the farmers from any evil eye. The clearing goes on for two months before the long rains. After the cutting is completed, on the eve of burning the bush, a big celebration called Vave takes place, lasting the whole night. People, male and female gather at the site reciting poems praising their hero ancestors and praying for good yields during the year. The time to fire the bush is prescribed by a highly experienced astrologer. A successful burning of the bush symbolizes good fortune in the new season.
This achievement is witnessed by dancers moving from house to house in the village dancing a special ngoma called ‘Randa’. This still takes place in the Lamu area. Dances also mark the times of planting and harvesting. Wedding Celebrations The most colorful and joyful celebrations in the Swahili Culture are the wedding festivities. One thing that Swahili parents want to witness most in their lifetime is the wedding of their daughter or son. Parents would constantly urge their son to marry. In traditional Lamu society, children were often promised in marriage at an early age.
Marriageable age used to be fifteen years for girls and twenty for boys, but today due to economic conditions it is probably twenty for girls and twenty-five for boys, or even more. A woman is not supposed to marry an inferior woman. Hence the role of parents, in selecting the wives for their sons and husbands for their daughters was vitally important. 3 The selection was based on the ‘ukoo’ (clan) and the integrity and financial status of the suitor. Some families still cling to marriage between cousins, but to some extent this system is giving way to modernization, as young people associate at school and so get to know each other.
In a society where sexes are separated, marriage is the only socially approved way for a man and a woman to have relations freely. The choice of the fiancee having been made, the parents of the boy and other relatives make the proposal (posa) to the girl’s parents and they also discuss the dowry (mahari). Mahari in Islamic law is as little Kshs. 50 but this has gone higher than Kshs 40,000 in Lamu town, because it is this money that buys modern requirements for the couple. The wedding ceremony is conducted in the mosque early in the morning about 6 am by the Khadi after he has assured himself of the girl’s consent.
Then Maulidi Barzanji is read and people are served halwa (sweet meat) and coffee. Celebrations for the wedding would have started the night before, with the ladies dancing the chakacha, lelemama etc the whole night. Men would have stayed awake listening to ‘Taarab’ – an orchestra. On the afternoon after the nikah or wedding ceremony, the Kirumbizi or stick dance is performed by men, watched by the groom and his friends. The same day, in the evening, the groom will go in procession through the streets to the bride’s house. This is called ‘Kutia Ndani’ (entering inside).
In poetic language it means ‘the deflowering of the virgin’. At the bride’s house the groom and his companions are served a heavy meal which is known as ‘Sinia ya Bwana Harusi’ – the plate of the groom. After the dinner, the Kungwi will help the groom to undress and give him a chance to be with his wife perhaps for the first time. Once the marriage is consummated the husband presents ‘Hidaya’ – a gift of money or jewels. ‘Lima’, a big feast is arranged next day for the relatives and friends of the bride and groom. Here pilau or biriani rice is served. In the evening the bride will be displayed in the presence of women.
She will have been beautified and henna applied to hands and feet. For economic reasons the practice of ‘fungate’ or honeymoon ceremony has been on the decline. Death To complete the rites of passage, the Swahili also celebrate the funeral. The dead body is cleaned in a special room by removing the impurities from the digestive system into the ‘ufoko’ – a hole dug through the floor and covered later. The body is then washed and perfumed ready for burial. Ladies would be everywhere in the house, some reciting prayers while the closest relatives would be mourning deeply and sometimes very loudly.
The body, tied in a white cotton sheet called ‘sanda’, is wrapped in a mat and placed in a Jeneza or coffin. It is then taken to the mosque for special prayers, then carried through the street to the graveyard and buried at a depth of six or seven feet, facing Mecca. After this the men say prayers in the mosque, while the women pray at home for three days. If it is a lady who has lost her husband she will have a mourning period for about four 4 months and ten days – ‘edda’. During this period she is not supposed to be seen by any man, other than close relatives. Edda is ended by a heavy feast.
Conclusion Celebrations which are usually public performances, mark important events in the life of an individual or a community. Celebrations of joyous events are festivals; more solemn celebrations commemorate death, martyrdom, or glorious defeat. Though the community may seem divided by rank, class, role, gender or age, in the celebrations they identify themselves as one ethnic group, the Waswahili, culturally united by the celebrations discussed above. Adapted, with thanks, from an article by Athman L. Omar (1987), Curator, Lamu Museum, for a ‘Know Kenya Course’ presentation. T. Bagajah, 2009 Updated August. 2010 5