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‘WHOEVER LEAVES THEIR TRADITIONS IS A SLAVE’: CONTEMPORARY NOTIONS OF SERVITUDE IN AN EAST AFRICAN TOWN

Abstract
ABSTRACT

This article examines contemporary discourses on and conceptions of utumwa or ‘slavery’ on the Indian Ocean island of Lamu. It discusses how residents of this Swahili town use historical understandings of servitude as moral rather than mere physical subjugation to formulate judgements on current processes of change within the town. Central to the discussion are ideologies of uungwana (civilization) and heshima (respectability) that historically shaped social stratification in Lamu, and particularly the enduring views that an embodiment of heshima and its visible mediation within material practices facilitate a distinction between nobleman and slave. By examining how these norms are currently incorporated within everyday assessments of young people's public behaviour, I argue that the moral ideologies that shaped social structure during the era of slavery meaningfully influence ascriptions of social standing within contemporary Lamu. Specifically, the article explores how discourses about utumwa are grafted onto contemporary moral assessments of ‘beach boys’ or Lamu youth working in the local tourism industry. I suggest that the ideologies of utumwa, and the moral values that accompany it, motivate and facilitate the discursive constructions of beach boys’ work as idleness rather than gainful employment.

RÉSUMÉ

Cet article examine les discours contemporains et les conceptions de l’utumwa (ou « esclavage ») sur l’île de Lamu, dans l’océan Indien. Il traite de la manière dont les résidents de cette ville swahili utilisent des interprétations historiques de la servitude en tant que subjugation morale plutôt que purement physique pour formuler des jugements sur les processus de changement actuels dans la ville. Cette discussion a pour élément central les idéologies de l’uungwana (civilisation) et de l’heshima (respectabilité) qui ont historiquement façonné la stratification sociale à Lamu, et en particulier l’opinion persistante qu’une incarnation de l’heshima et sa médiation visible dans les pratiques matérielles facilitent une distinction entre le noble et l’esclave. En examinant comment ces normes sont actuellement intégrées dans le comportement public des jeunes, l’auteur soutient que les idéologies morales qui ont façonné la structure sociale au temps de l’esclavage influencent de manière significative les attributions de statut social dans le Lamu contemporain. L’article explore en particulier la manière dont les discours sur l’utumwa se greffent sur les évaluations morales contemporaines des « beach boys », terme désignant les jeunes de Lamu qui travaillent dans le secteur du tourisme local. L’auteur suggère que les idéologies de l’utumwa, ainsi que les valeurs morales qui l’accompagnent, motivent et facilitent les constructions discursives du travail de ces jeunes en tant qu’activité oisive plutôt que d’emploi rémunéré.

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Africa
  • ISSN: 0001-9720
  • EISSN: 1750-0184
  • URL: /core/journals/africa
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