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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

On tomb number 6 we read:

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.

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.

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