The Ruins at Kunduchi

by Geoffrey Clarfield (February 2011)

As I stood in the middle of the ruins, three women calmly hacked away at the bushes and secondary growth in the baobab forest that surrounded us. They were wearing turbans and printed cloths of many colors wrapped around their breasts and torsos. Apart from the sound of the waves, the hack hack of their pangas (Swahili for machete) was the only sound that cut the morning air.

I greeted them in Swahili. Hamjambo often roughly translated as hello (in the plural) but really a greeting that was designed no doubt to reassure the greeted and which literally means, “There is no problem?” They replied Hatujambo, “we have no problem” and they continued to do what African women have been doing for centuries, chop down the forest, plant a garden, bear the children, raise the many that live and bury as many of those who often die a few days or months after childbirth, take care of the children until they marry and have the peculiar preindustrial satisfaction that is denied to my generation of being assured that someone will respectfully take care of you when you are old.

A few hundred yards away from this remnant piece of coastal baobab forest the bushes stopped abruptly and the white sands of the Indian Ocean covered the remaining distance that led to the green and blue waters beyond. The bay was filled with small fishing boats with single sails and pontoons (evidence of an ancient Indonesian penetration of the East African coast).

In the distance I could see a large jahazi, the Swahili word for those long wooden sailing ships with their lateen sails. When I was a young boy in the fifties (and when National Geographic magazine still printed black and white pictures) I had read that these ships were still following the rhythms of the monsoons on their annual trips back and forth from the coasts of East Africa to the coasts of India.

I imagined that the jahazi that was slowly moving down the coast was perhaps on its way south to the old Swahili port of Kilwa and had began its journey on the island of Zanzibar, or farther north on Pemba or Mafia islands. Many jahazis still rely on wind power alone and no engine can be found on large numbers of these hand-made, wooden boats. The purpose of the trip may have been to offload mangrove poles for the building industry, 'illegally' cut from the dwindling mangrove forests of the coast (but part of a ship and shore building tradition over a thousand years old). Perhaps they were simply fishing or maybe they were engaged in some sort of smuggling of goods between Zanzibar and the larger markets of mainland Tanzania – once a territory called Tanganyika – literally translated as the bush or 'nyika' beyond Tanga, a Swahili enclave on the northern coast.

Just over a hundred years ago, not far from the place I stood, the grandfathers and great grandfathers of these sons of Sindbad would have still been ferrying slaves from the mainland, right under the noses of the British Navy. Perhaps the women who were patiently chopping away at the trees around me were the granddaughters of those slaves who were freed by the British and were allowed to settle in new villages on the coast, far from their places of birth in the interior-villages with names like “Freetown.”

I have been told that the slave trade didn't end here until after the British won German East Africa (now Tanzania) from the Kaiser after WWI, a year before my father was born. There are writers who argue that the slave trade is alive and well and that it is one of the hidden causes of the civil war in the southern Sudan which has pitched 'black' Africans against 'white' Arabs.

The Kunduchi ruins are part of a series of Swahili ruins that dot the Indian Ocean coastline from Somalia to Mozambique and which have only recently attracted the attention of the archaeologist's spade, which has begun to reveal the houses, tombs and sacred places of these seafaring people.

Scholars do not agree much about Swahili origins. The Swahili themselves were and are quick to announce that they descend from noble Arab and Persian families who many centuries ago left their homes in and around the Persian Gulf and settled the islands and harbors of the East African coast. There they mingled with the local tribes, converting none to Islam except those individuals that they no doubt chose to marry. It is difficult to prove, but one can easily imagine a steady stream of young male adventurers settling the coast, marrying local women and creating a culture whose feet were in Africa and whose head was in the Middle East.

20 % of the words of Swahili come from the Arabic language. Yet the grammar of the language is purely Bantu, and the remaining 80% of the language speaks strongly for the influence of local tribes and customs. No doubt the Arabic language of the settlers was maintained for religious and legal purposes as the daily language of the women's and children's world suffused the sons of the settlers, until it became the mother tongue of those born of Africa, not Arabia. 

As I looked around the tombs, mosques and ruined structures that surrounded me I was struck by some of the peculiarities of these stone buildings-peculiarities that give them their unique Swahili character. Many of the buildings were made of coral blocks quarried from the nearby coral reefs giving the impression that the coral used in the buildings was only mildly transformed by human ingenuity and, instead of providing homes for tropical fish provided the habitations of these peoples at the highest end of the ladder of creation.

Had I shared this insight with a medieval Swahili he might very well affirm my observation suggesting that it was God's justice that greater creatures like man should use the houses of the lesser creatures like fish and coral.

Pillared tombs are peculiar to the East African coast and they are another unique Swahili architectural feature. One can only speculate as to their symbolism. It is written in the Quran that God created the heavens and suspended them above the earth without the use of pillars Yet it is most likely that these pillars subtly attest to the virility and success of the men who lie buried beneath them.

These men must have been personages of substance, traders who believed that wealth was a blessing and who perhaps  hoped to be remembered by their descendants in perpetuity, a distinctively African hope, whereby it is felt that eternal life is better guaranteed by the survival of your name through your children's children's children  and which is still stronger than the world view preached by contemporary Moslem and Christian preachers who tell their potential African converts that they will gain eternal life through Jesus or, that they will enter the sensual heaven that so many Islamic authorities have belabored to explain in more exalted, metaphorical terms.

One of the purposes of the pillar tombs was to provide a place where the fine porcelain bowls that belonged to the deceased during his lifetime could be displayed in perpetuity. Archaeologists believe that the knob at the top of one pillar tomb at Kunduchi is thought to represent a turban. On many of the tombs one can still see recesses where porcelain bowls and plates were once set into the plaster.

A few of these bowls have survived. One can be seen in the National Museum in Dar es Salaam a few kilometers south of Kunduchi. Not surprisingly it is an eighteenth century piece of Chinese porcelain, with the Chinese symbol for 'long life' featured in the center of the bowl. During the nineteenth century, long after the Dutch had established their trading routes in the Indian Ocean from the Cape to the Spice Islands, the Dutch began to supplant these Chinese wares with their own, hand painted floral bowls and which soon became part of the dish displays that are part of the decorative walls of 19th century traditional Swahili houses. Many of them decorate the walls of my kitchen.

There is one more, hard to define, peculiarity of Swahili architecture that has intrigued me for years. In the numerous articles by archaeologists and historians who are slowly unraveling the history of the coast there is little explanation given to it. It is the collective effect of the stepped, almost ziggurat like walls of some Swahili tombs, of the uncanny resemblance between the courtyard of ancient Roman houses and that of the houses of Swahili traders on islands like Lamu and a certain angularity in the ornamental and non representative carvings and surface design in Swahili structures but  that characterizes Islamic art no matter where it is found. The combined effect of these features gives one a hint of the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean – the Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians and Israelites and their cultural relatives, the ancient Ethiopians.

During the last thirty years it has become politically incorrect to suggest that African cultures and civilizations were strongly influenced by the agricultural societies of the ancient Mediterranean and the Near East, in partly justified reaction to colonial scholars who saw any signs of complex civilization in Africa as a result of northern influence.

It may be time to reconsider the hidden assumption of what is no doubt an ideologically motivated desire by baby boom scholars who reached maturity during the civil rights movement of the sixties to establish rapport and sympathy with the subjects of their lifetime research in the countries of the developing world, but which at the same time has tended to downplay the contribution of the Old World to the growth and development of traditional Africa.

It is not too much to argue that in the wholesale digestion of Byzantine civilization that scholars such as the late Gustave Von Grunebaum have argued are at the basis of the medieval Islamic synthesis, an echo of the more ancient Mediterranean architectural models adopted and modified by the Moslems could have found their  way into the visual vocabulary of Swahili architecture. I suspect that such is the case.

The ancient tombs that are found at Kunduchi are not mute. The men who were buried there were sufficiently literate (as so many traders must be) and concerned about their reputation both here and in the hereafter, that they had inscriptions added to their tombs. One inscription tells us:

This is the tomb of the Muslim…al Haji…son of Sultan Mwenye Mtumaini…and he lived in the world…he died in the year 1081 (1670-71) after the flight of the Prophet whom God blesses.

The Swahili were a trading society, some might even say a maritime Republic, similar in structure to that of Venice. Whether they be Christian, Muslim or pagan (like the ancient Phoenicians) maritime societies have a tendency to be more forward looking and open to change than those societies based on agriculture. They are run by councils of successful traders who rarely give their allegiance to kings, sultans or despots. Among the Swahili, the Sultan was often simply the greatest trader in the area-and there was more than one sultan strung across a variety of island republics.

Travel widens horizons and traders are always looking for new ways of doing things. It was the lateen sail and their access to medieval Islamic geographical, technological and medical knowledge that gave the Swahili their ability to move from India to Africa on a yearly basis. The tall tales of Sindbad ensured that those who were not familiar with the families and navigators of the Indian Ocean would be sufficiently scared to stay away from their domain.

As one reads through historical sources, sketchy as they may seem, there has always been a tendency for maritime societies to be slightly more tolerant of women. Since their men move frequently and were away for long periods of time only the wealthiest could be confined to their homes – the work of the farmed garden, the mosque and trips to the market would ensure that women moved about a fair amount. Indeed, the veil has never been very popular among the Swahili and a divorced woman does not bring about the same dishonor to her extended family as she might in Arabia. There is at Kunduchi evidence of just this kind of female toleration.

On tomb number 6 we read:

This is the tomb of the Muslim…and she is the Mawlana, daughter of as-Sultan son of…son of..Mohamed al Barawi and she lived in the world 41 years.

In the seventeenth century forty one years was not young and, the fact that a family took the resources necessary to construct a stone tomb and inscription suggests that at least those women who were not slaves, were women of status if not perhaps wealth and power as well.

The coming of the Portugese in the time of Vasco De Gama and their temporary conquest of the Swahili city states was the first blow to a society that acted as the go between for the human cargo, elephant tusks and feathers that came out of Africa and the luxury products of China and India that came to the coast in return. Soon after the Portugese entry, the Dutch, and then finally the English entered and became the new masters of the Indian Ocean.

The English, once having gone through the first industrial revolution, had no more need for slaves and they soon became committed to wiping out the practice wherever they could. There are still Marxists who argue that the English established their colonies and protectorates in East Africa to suck the wealth out of the region and to harness it to the expanding market for English industrial goods.

But it is more likely that the English war against the Swahili and Omani slavers of the Indian Ocean in the late nineteenth century pushed them most unwillingly into the internal affairs of the tribes of the interior and the kingdoms of Uganda. This ultimately led to their defeat of the Germans in East Africa during WWI, to the establishment of the protectorate of Tanganyika and soon after to the ongoing democratic experiment that is now the United Republic of Tanzania.

When the explorer Sir Richard Burton spent six days at Kunduchi in February 1859, before he went south to Kilwa, he made no mention of the mosque and the old graves. Perhaps in those days they were concealed by dense undergrowth. Or, maybe in those days Kunduchi village was no different than many of the sleepy Swahili fishing villages that dotted the Indian Ocean coast and he did not consider it worth mentioning.

There is no doubt that by then the glorious tombs and mosques had fallen into disrepair. No doubt many of the porcelain bowls had been adopted by the living for their own purposes and the preindustrial cycle of life continued. No more porcelain bowls remain on site and the last were taken by grave robbers a few years ago. 

However, one aspect of Kunduchi has continued from the past. It took me about half an hour to figure out just what it was, since I was busy with my camera and guide book, but it became clear to me within a short period of my arrival at the site and as I wandered from one ruined monument to another, that I was trespassing across a living graveyard.

The first sign of this graveyard was shown to me when in kneeling down to take a picture of one of the old tombs I stubbed my toe against a small, rectangular cut piece of stone with Arabic writing on it. I then looked around and realized that the spaces between the tombs and the ancient buildings were covered with small tombstones from recent burials.

Some of the tombstones had inscriptions in Arabic letters and some were in Swahili in Latin script. Many of the tombstones had the bottom of an old green bottle jammed up beside the tombstone. Far too many have this feature for it to be accidental. Perhaps the custom of placing porcelain bowl offerings on the tombs of the dead has maintained itself in this modified  post industrial way in modest imitation of the great Swahili traders of the past-green being the color of Islam.

As I walked around the site once more, this time with my eyes on the ground, I noticed that there were some very recent graves as well as some freshly dug graves that couldn't have been more than a few days, or a few weeks old. I looked down at one tombstone and saw that it marked the grave of a young boy who was born on March 21/97, who had died and had been buried on March 22/97. As I strolled out of the ruined grove I gave one more look at the women cutting wood and wondered if any one of them, or their relatives nearby, had given birth to this boy whose gravestone was the most recent addition to the ruins at Kunduchi.     


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