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Texts on Textiles: Proverbiality as Characteristic of Equivocal Communication at the East

African Coast (Swahili)


Author(s): Rose Marie Beck
Source: Journal of African Cultural Studies, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Dec., 2005), pp. 131-160
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
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Journal
of African
Cultural
Studies,
Volume
17,
Number
2,
December
2005,
pp.
131-160
SRoutledge
STaylor&Francis Group
Texts on
textiles:
proverbiality
as
characteristic
of equivocal
communication
at the East
African
coast
(Swahili)*
ROSE MARIE BECK
(Universitait
Frankfurt)
ABSTRACT This article
argues
that
proverbiality may
be understood to include
more than abstract
properties of
short,
poetically
condensed texts.
Rather,
prover-
biality
is seen as a characteristic
of
a
specific
communicative
strategy
in which
equivocation plays
a
major
role. The
proverb itself
is
perceived
as its
manifes-
tation. The
empirical
material on which this
hypothesis
is based consists
of
case
studies
of interpersonal
communication
by
means
of
the
wrap
cloth
kanga from
the East
African
coast
(Swahili).
The
kanga
has
proverbial
texts
printed
on
it,
whose
topics
are
subject
to
speech prohibitions:
love,
conflict
and exhortative
sayings.
The cloths are used to
'say' something
while
'saying' nothing.
On the
background of
studies on
proverb performance
Bavelas'
(1990)
model on
equiv-
ocal communication is used to
explain
the 'how'
of kanga-communication.
In
order to
explain
the
'why'
it is combined with some
aspects of
Brown & Levinson's
(1987) politeness theory.
In the case
of
the
kanga, equivocation
reaches
amazing
dimensions,
ambiguating
not
only
the
four
elements
of addressing person,
content,
addresee,
and context
(Bavelas),
but also to the
medium,
the
kanga,
which is at the
core
of
the
ambiguation processes surrounding
the
kanga.
A
focus
is set on how
exactly
the elements are
ambiguated.
As to the
'why',
it 'works'
only
in close social
relationships,
crosses hierarchies
(of age,
descent,
gender),
and touches on
socially
sensitive
topics,
as is
expected of
avoidance-communication.
Overall,
it is a com-
municative
genre
which
affirms
and subverts rather than
transforms
and violates
rules,
expressing
the
arrangement of
women in a
patriarchal society.
1. Introduction
This
paper
takes as its
starting point
the
assumption
that a
deeper understanding
of
proverb
use
crucially depends
on the
understanding
of its embeddedness
within discourse. I thus follow the
position
of Dell
Hymes' Ethnography of
Speaking/Communication
(1962),
and
specifically
Kwesi Yankah's The Proverb
*
This article is based on my Ph.D. thesis, University of Cologne, Cologne (published as
Beck
2001).
ISSN
1369-6815 print; 1469-9346 online/05/020131-30
?
2005 Journal of African Cultural Studies
DOI: 10.1080/13696850500448246
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132 Rose Marie Beck
in the Context
ofAkan
Rhetoric
(1989).
Because of the
specific properties
of the
material
analyzed
here - the communicative uses of the East African
wrap
cloth
kanga
with its
proverbial inscriptions printed
on it - I
postulate
to start with
the communicative event
itself,
focusing
rather on
proverb practice
as social
action. Discourse
(or language use)
then
appears
as but one
aspect,
next to the
cultural
setting,
the
relationship
of the
interactants,
their individual
history,
their
position
within
society,
the
specific
situation,
expectations
tied to the situation
and the
interactants,
etc. This
approach
leads
away
from the classical notion of
'proverb'.'
Rather,
communicative action is defined in certain situations
by
its stra-
tegic
use of characteristics of
proverbiality
-
especially equivocation.
The
proverb
itself is no more than its
(textual)
manifestation. Within this framework a number of
themes
prevalent
in
paremiology,
such as 'out-of-context'
(Seitel
1981:
124),
the
notion of the
proverb
as citation
(Penfield 1983),
and the fixedness and the
style
of the
proverb (Taylor
1931;
Yankah
1986, 1994;
Matta
1988)
can be
reinterpreted.
The
specific
characteristics of
my
material,
as can be traced most
clearly
in the
case studies
(see below),
have necessitated this view.
Kanga
communication
differs
fundamentally
from
'proverb practice' (Yankah) by
the almost total
absence of
spoken language: by wearing
a
kanga
in the
presence
of others or
giving
it as a
gift,
the text is
merely
shown or
presented. Apart
from
this,
women
may speak
about the communicative action
itself,
but never about the
text or its
meaning.2
More
clearly
than other
proverbial genres,
the
kanga
is
marked
by
the
incompleteness
of its
meaning, connecting
issues of
power
and
language
in
ways
that form recurrent
pattern
in Swahili
society (Parkin 2000,
Beck
2003a, 2003b,
Askew
2002,
Fair
1998a, 1998b,
Ntarangwi 2003). Also,
from
my corpus
of ca. 2200
inscriptions
which are
printed
on the cloth and serve
as the core of
proverbial expression, only
about 10% can be traced in collections
of
proverbs (Scheven 1981;
Farsi
1958),
others
clearly
showed no
proverbial
traits. From a local
(male) point
of
view,
the
inscriptions
are not
proverbs,
but
proverbial.3
To turn around the
perspective
to the communicative event allowed
for the search of characteristics of
proverbiality.
All
kangas, notwithstanding
the
inscriptions, may
be used in similar communicative
ways. My hypothesis
is
therefore,
that the communicative
genre kanga
is
proverbial
as a whole.
The material on which this
study
is based was collected
during
two field
stays
in
Mombasa
(1994/1995,
1996)
and
completed by
researches in various archives in
Kenya,
the Netherlands and Switzerland. It consists of 43 case
studies,
ca 200
hypothetical
contexts of
inscriptions
and over 2200 texts from a
period
of ca
100
years.
In
addition,
there is some
photographic
material and a collection of
ca 250
kangas.
The case studies are
mainly
based on accounts of women from
1 For a concise overview see Mieder & Dundes (1981), Mieder (1994).
2
Even
-
or especially when directly asked in the field situation, women would refuse to
answer, or more
politely,
lie or
change
the
topic
of discussion.
3
S.A.M. Khamis in a comment on a
paper given
on kanga on the occasion of the 10th
Swahili
Colloquium, Bayreuth 1997, and later on
by
various (male) Swahili scholars at a
conference of the SFB 560 in
Bayreuth
2003.
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Texts on textiles:
equivocal
communication on the Swahili coast 133
Mombasa
regarding
incidents of
kanga use.4 In some
cases I was involved
myself
in the communicative events.
2. The
kanga
The
kanga (also leso)
was the first
factory-printed imported
cloth on the East
African
coast,
most
probably
Zanzibar. It was the
product
of
political
and eco-
nomical relations between
Europe
and the US on the one hand and
Oman, Zanzibar,
the East African coast and the Indian Ocean on the other.
Regarding
the form and
iconography,
as it is known
today,
our earliest evidence dates from ca
1880.5
The
proverbial inscriptions,
which are
printed
on the lower third of the
cloth,
appeared
around 1890.
They
were
printed by English,
Dutch and Swiss textile
printers,
later
also in India and
Japan,
and after
Independence locally
in
Kenya
and
Tanzania,
too.
From
early
on Indian merchants in Dar es
Salaam,
Zanzibar and Mombasa installed
themselves as mediators between the factories overseas and the local customers
(Linnebuhr
1994:
11-17;
Beck
2000a, 2000b).
From a local
perspective
the immense success of the cloth is
closely
connected
to the abolition of
slavery (officially
1873,
but
effectively
in the
1890s)6
and the
emancipation
of former slaves
(from
the late 1870s
on). By wearing
this cloth
the 'new' Swahili
people
could
display
their
integration
into Muslim Swahili
society
on their bodies: Women could cover their heads with the cloth
according
to local
interpretations
of Muslim dress
codes,
which as slaves
they
were not
allowed to do
(Fair
1998a:
67-68).
The
iconography
of the
patterns emerged
under the influence of Islamic iconoclasm with the absence of
living beings
and
the
prevalence
of floral and
geometric
motifs. The
inscriptions
showed their knowl-
edge
of Swahili
poetry
and
poetics, especially
the notion of
ambiguity (ma fumbo,
cf. Shariff
1988). However,
the
kanga
did not
only
conform to dominant ideals of
coastal
society,
but reformulated and reassessed them: The cloth is used
mainly
as a
wrap
for
women,
and has
many
uses in
everyday
contexts. Its ritual
uses,
such as
spirit possession
and initiation
dances,
have been
declining
in the
past years.
The
iconography
shows
independent developments
with the choice of motifs of
local,
4
Field research was
impeded by
at least three factors.
First,
the
kanga
as a communica-
tive means is a sensitive
topic
in Swahili Muslim coastal
society.
Second,
coastal
society
is
very private.
Third,
there is a
general
resistance to Western researchers at the
coast,
not
only
because
they abound,
but rather because
people
fear that their
society
is
depicted
in a
demeaning
manner.
People
neither wished to be observed nor filmed.
5
Archives of
Vlisco,
Helmond
(Netherlands),
Glarner Textilmuseum Ndifels
(Switzer-
land).
6 The
history
of the abolition of
slavery
is
complex.
In 1873 it was
officially
abolished
with a
treaty
between Great Britain and the Sultanate of Zanzibar (Biermann 1993,
p. 179), but the abolishion was not carried
through consequently
in the whole Eastern
African trade area (Sheriff 1987: 232ff), even under German colonial
rule. On Zanzibar
itself, slavery
was
effectively
abolished in 1897, in Mombasa 1907 (Middleton 1992, p.
48). However, the slave-master
relationships
were
mainly
turned into a clientelized
relationships (client/dependent-patron) (Fair 2001:
ch.1,
see also
e.g.
Glassmann
1994, Cooper 1980).
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134 Rose Marie Beck
and
partly
lower class
origin,
like card
games
or
agricultural products,
such as
cashew
nuts, cloves,
jasmine
etc. Or we find
clocks,
airplanes,
cars,
glasses,
furniture etc.
represented
on the
kanga,
which
points
to the innovative
potential
of the cloth. As to the
inscriptions, they
often
formally
conform to
poetic
ideals,
but their content in
many
cases touches on
topics
not
approved
of
by society,
such as
sexuality
and
love,
jealousy
and
quarreling.
From a local
perspective
the
kanga
is a
symbol
of
integration
and exclusion at the same
time,
of dominance
and
subordination,
and its
gendered expressions.
Today
women of all classes wear
kanga, although
the contexts in which and the
way they
do so
may
differ. The cloth is
clearly gendered, whereby
female
gender,
as in
any patriarchal society,
is subordinated to the male
gender
and
belongs
to a
cultural domain of lower esteem.
3.
Communicating
with
kanga
Basically,
there are two
ways
which are used to communicate with
kanga:
either a
woman wears a
kanga
for others to
see,
respectively
a woman is seen to wear a
certain
kanga
and understood to
communicate;
or a
kanga
is
given
as a
gift,
usually
at certain occasions such as
customary
festivals
(marriage,
end of
mourning
period,
eda,
the birth of a
baby), religious
festivals
(Idd
al
Fitr,
Idd al
Hadj),
or as
farewell
gifts
for someone
travelling.
Women
(and
from here on I will
only speak
about women
living
in a
Muslim,
Swahili
mother-tongue
context in
Mombasa)
don't
voluntarily
admit to
having
communicated with
kanga, although
all of them knew how and could tell
anecdotes about incidents
involving
the cloth. The refusal to
speak
about this
kind of communication throws
light
on its social esteem in
general (see below).
The texts
usually
formulate what is
culturally
considered to be
inappropriate
or
impossible
to
speak
about
openly: quarreling
in
general
but
especially
on the
grounds
of
jealousy
or
envy,
conflicts between wife and husband or
among
in-
laws,
gossip,
and
sexuality. Many inscriptions
also contain maxims and
good
wishes.7 Because of the
topics
formulated with the
kanga,
and because the
communication turns
power-relations upside
down,
as will be shown
below,
it is
socially inappropriate
to use
kanga.
The dominant cultural discourse holds that
(powerless)
women with low social
position
communicate in this
way.
And in
fact,
in a
corpus
of 33
cases,
two-thirds show a
preference
for communication
from
below,
i.e. the
addressing party
was
younger
than the
addressee,
was
female,
of lesser descent.
The
following
three case studies focus on who communicated with
whom,
the
relationship
of the
interactants,
their individual
history
and
position
within
society.
It is a reconstruction of the individual incident, drawing
on the social
and cultural dimensions involved, leaving out, for the moment, questions
of
proverbiality.
SBoth thematic domains can be understood to
belong
to
strategies
of
negative
and
posi-
tive
politeness (Brown
& Levinson
1987).
For further discussion see below.
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Texts on textiles:
equivocal
communication on the Swahili coast 135
3.1.
Hakuna ml ezi
ashindaye
mama - 'No
parent
exceeds the
mother's
This
kanga
was
given
to Asma
by
her
sister-in-law,
Bisma. Asma was so
angry
about this that she refused to
speak
to Bisma for a
long
time.
In order to understand
why
Bisma
gave
the
kanga
and
why
Asma was so
angry,
we have to reconstruct the
family
situation in which both women lived and the
social valuation of their
way
of
living.
Bisma was the second wife of Asma's elder
brother,
who had from his first
marriage
a
boy
who
grew up
with Asma. With Bisma he had four
very
small children.
Asma,
who was not
married,
lived in the household of her elder
sister,
but had taken
up
fostering
the
boy.
While Bisma had
problems
of her own with her children and
could
scarcely manage
to take care of them
(her
husband had
migrated
to the
Arab Emirates to work and was
hardly
able to
support
his
family financially),
Asma had a hard time with the
boy
who was obstinate and
engaged
in
company
his
family
did not
approve
of. The
relationship
between Asma and Bisma was not
easy
either,
for
personal
reasons,
but also because as an in-law Bisma had a
difficult
position
toward
Asma,
and Asma as an unmarried woman had a difficult
position
in
society
in
general.
On first
sight
one
might interpret
that Bisma accuses Asma that she is no
proper
mother to the
boy:
The terms mlezi
'parent'
and mama 'mother' are
opposed
in the
inscription.
Mlezi is a noun from
-lea
'bring up,
rear a
child,
act as a
child's
guardian' (Baba
Malaika
1991)
and refers to social
parentship.
While
mama 'mother' has a
variety
of
meanings,
from
'parent'
to a deferential address
toward married
women,
it
may
also,
and does in this
context,
imply biological
mothership.
Therefore the
implications
of the text with
respect
to Asma would
be that she was
'only'
the foster mother and could never be as
'good'
for the
boy
as his
biological
mother.
Bisma,
on the other
hand,
as a 'true'
mother,
would know how to be a foster mother. This
interpretation,
however,
was not sat-
isfactory,
because Bisma ran the risk that she claimed to be a better mother for the
boy
and thus would be
given
the
boy
for
fostering.
It was
absolutely
clear that she
did not want the
boy
on her
hands,
with her small children and the
necessity
to
secure their existence almost on her
own,
she was not
capable
to do so. The
key
to the
understanding
of the
meaning
of the
kanga
lies in the wider context
Asma lived
in,
namely
in the household of her elder sister.
Her elder
sister, Fatma,
lived a
happy marriage.
Her children had
already grown
and done
well,
too. One
day
Fatma went to visit her
sister-in-law, Bisma,
where
she found that one of the children was
very
sick and lived under
deplorable
circumstances. She decided to
bring
it back
home,
took the
baby
to a doctor and
nursed it back to health. When her brother came for a
holiday,
she informed him
that his wife was not
caring properly
for her children and had
actually
risked the
life of his
youngest
child.
SThis case was related to me in June 1996. In order to protect the identity and
privacy
of
the women involved a certain amount of information is left out here. Names and other
details have been
changed.
This
pertains
to the other case studies as well.
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136 Rose Marie Beck
Fatma herself
interpreted
the
kanga
on the
background
of this
episode:
Bisma
used the
kanga
in order to defend herself.
By playing
off the two terms mle z i
(social parent)
and mama
(biological mother) against
each
other,
she criticized
the two sisters for
intruding
into what she saw as her own business.
Although
the
kanga was,
in the
end,
directed towards
Fatma,
it was
necessary
to
give
it
to Asma. Had she
given
it
directly
to
Fatma,
nothing
would have
happened,
because the
message
would be in
keeping
with Fatma's social
position:
She was
a successful
parent
and mother. The
kanga
would have been a
compliment,
not
a criticism. But Bisma had assumed that the whole
family
knew of Fatma's accusa-
tion that she had failed as a mother.
By giving
the
kanga
to
Asma,
Bisma set off a
process
of
interpretation,
which at first was an attack on Asma' s social
position
and
her abilities as a mother and thus established as one
goal
of the communicative
interaction a
negative
connotation of conflict.
Although
this
interpretation
would
not
satisfy,
the connotation would remain and the
'right'
conclusions
eventually
be drawn. The sister's
interpretation
was in the end: 'Just because
you (Asma
and/or
Fatma)
are a more or less successful
(foster) mother,
don't think that
you
are in a
position
to accuse
me,
a "true"
mother.'
By criticizing
the
younger,
more vulnerable
sister,
she also found a
way
to criticize her elder sister-in-law.
Who,
by
the
way,
was rather
unimpressed by
the whole
incident,
in contrast to
Asma,
who was left
fuming.
Analytically
we can
say
that,
though
the
person giving
the
gift
and the
person
addressing
a
message
is
identical,
we have to discern between the
person receiving
the
gift
from the addressees of the
message.
Fatma was not
given
the
kanga
and
was not
present
in that
part
of the communicative interaction
'giving
a
gift'.
On the
other
hand,
Asma was not
directly
involved in the conflict between Fatma and
Bisma. The
position
of the
addressee(s)
oscillates and the construction of the
message
is
absolutely dependent
on this oscillation. In other
words,
the oscillation
is a
necessary part
of the communicative act here. At the same time it is a source for
equivocation.
Equivocation
in
communication,
when used
strategically (see below),
is said to
be the result of a social situation of conflict
(Bavelas
et al.
1990),
i.e. of a situation
where one wants to
say something
but at the same time wants to
say nothing.
The
conflict for Bisma was
provoked by
Fatma's criticism. Because Fatma was older
and the sister of her
husband,
she had a more
powerful position
in relation to
Bisma. Bisma had the choice between three
strategies.
First,
say nothing,
but
this would also have meant that she could not defend herself.
Second,
openly
con-
front
Fatma,
but this would have been a bad
choice,
because she risked her
position
in several
ways.
It is
very
rude in
general
to
quarrel,
and even more
so,
to
quarrel
with
one's in-laws.
In the
worst case she could risk her
marriage
and her social
existence, in the best case she would weaken her
(already
rather
weak) position
with the
in-law-family
and be further known as a
quarrelsome person.
Instead Bisma chose the third
way
that
gave
her several
possibilities
at the same
time. First, she could be offensive, and even
aggressive,
without
having
to be so
openly. Second, she could defend her
position,
without
running
the risk of
being
held accountable. Had someone asked her
why
she had
given
this
specific
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equivocal
communication on the Swahili coast 137
kanga
- which is done
only
at a
high
social cost
(see
case
example
in
3.2)
- she
could have
hedged by saying
that it was the
only kanga
she could
afford,
or that
she didn't know what it
'said',
etc. And
third,
she had the last word in the
affair,
because,
it would be
very
difficult to
reply
in
any way
to this
kanga.
3.2. Ataka
yote
hukosa
gote
- 'Who wants
all,
loses all'
About fifteen
years ago,9
Ms Hafswa was
given
a
kanga by
her
neighbour,
Ms Yasmin. It had the
inscription
Ataka
yote
hukosa
yote
- 'Who wants
all,
usually
loses all'. Ms Hafswa
got very angry
and went to confront Ms Yasmin
and ask her
why
she
gave
this
particular kanga.
But Ms Yasmin denied a commu-
nicative intention
by saying
that because she was illiterate she didn't know the
meaning
of the
inscription.
Ms Hafswa did not believe Ms
Yasmin,
because it is
common
knowledge
that even illiterate women take
part
in
kanga-communication.
But she had to
retreat,
fuming
and with
feelings
of utter
impotence
and loss of
dignity.
The incident occurred
shortly
before Ms Hafswa
separated
from her
husband,
a
distinguished
member of the
community.
With the
gift
of this
kanga
she felt that
the blame for the breakdown of her
marriage
was
put
on
her,
but also that
people
gossiped
about her. She saw this
gift
as an
unjustified
intrusion into her
privacy,
and also that the other woman had
probably
been
jealous
and was now
rejoicing
at
what she saw as her failure.
The
giving
of the
gift
is
culturally
defined to indicate a communicative intention.
However,
Ms Yasmin denied a communicative intention and was evasive with
the
pretext
of
illiteracy. By doing
so she refused to
acknowledge
a communicative
contract that is
usually required
to
grant
that at least two actors
implicitly
or
expli-
citly agree
to
get
involved with each other in a certain situation and to
negotiate
the
meaning
of the interaction
(Knapp
et al. 1994:
8).
The task of
interpretation
of the
situation is thus
radically
shifted to Ms Hafswa. She has to decide
by
herself,
whether
something
was meant or not.
Actually
she can
only speculate
as to what
the
neighbour
wanted to
'say',
she would
apply
her
memory
of their
relationship,
of her
expectations regarding
the
neighbour,
and of her social
position.
Because of
the little information she
has,
she will more
likely
focus on what was not
'said'
than
on what was 'said'
(Bavelas
et al. 1990:
57).
In the
light
of the
knowledge
that communication
by
means of
kanga
is seen as
socially inadequate
and contains
aspects
of
powerlessness,
this
example
shows how
power
is a
prevalent topic
in this
genre.
When Ms Hafswa went to confront Ms
Yasmin,
she
acknowledged
not
only
that for her the
kanga
had a
message,
but
also that she was hurt
by
it. In a
way
she
gave up
her
privacy
- of her
marriage
and her
feelings
- and thus was
very
vulnerable. At the same
time,
by confronting
her,
she accused Ms Yasmin of
having
behaved in a
socially inappropriate way.
Ms
Yasmin on the other
hand,
denied her involvement and
thus
appeared
to have acted
in a
respectable
manner. All of a sudden, Ms Hafswa was the one who acted in a
socially inappropriate way:
She
accepted
that was
part
of this communication,
accepted
to communicate in this
way,
and thus
accepted
that she
belonged
to the
powerless part
of the
society.
Moreover she was the one who
appeared
to accuse
9
This case was
reported
to me
by
Ms Hafswa in
May 1996, Mombasa.
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138 Rose Marie Beck
and slander others
thereby instigating
a
quarrel.
Ms Yasmin was in the
position
where the one that
pokes
around in other
people's
lives
by socially inappropriate
means
gets away
clean,
while Ms Hafswa as the victim of the other woman's
actions had to take the blame.
One of the central features of communication with the
kanga
is its immense
possibility
to
equivocate,
to leave
ambiguous
or even to render unclear whether
the
addressing party actually
did communicate or
not,
whether the addressed
got
the
message
or
not,
what was
meant,
what the
inscription
referred to and to
whom,
etc. This makes the
genre particularly powerful,
because the
implicit
aspects
are focused in the
process
of the
interpretation
and construction of
meaning (Bavelas
et al. 1990:
57).
The
following example
illustrates this
well,
too.
3.3. Nilidhani
mwenzangu
kumbe mke
mwenzangu
-
'I
thought [you were] my friend,
but,
lo!
[you are] my co-wife'
A
woman'o
went to visit her
mother,
who lived elsewhere on the coast. After a
period
she returned back home and found that
during
her absence her best friend had started
an affair with her husband. She was
very angry
at
this,
but had no
proof.
So she
went to the market and looked for a
kanga,
which she
bought:
Nilidhani
mwenzangu
kumbe mke
mwenzangu
-
'I
thought [you were] my
friend, but,
lo!
[you are] my
co-wife'.
It was an
expensive kanga
of recent
design.
At the
next occasion when she went out in the
vicinity,
she dressed in her new cloth. On
purpose
she
passed
in front of the house of her rival. When I asked her whether
she believed that the
message
had reached
'home',
she meant that if the rival had
not seen the
kanga herself,
she would have been told about it.
(I
assume that the
woman had
passed
the house in a
conspicuous way,
for
instance,
speaking
or
walking
in an
exaggerated way.)
Kinetic and other non-verbal
strategies
in
kanga-communication
serve as
indicators of communicative intent
(on
the side of the
addressor)
and as
interpretive
cues
(on
the side of the
addressee)."
Nevertheless
they
remain within the
scope
of
the
'unsaid',just
as the
inscription
on the
kanga
is 'unsaid'. This is in line with the
general
aims of
kanga-communication, namely
to
prevent being
held
responsible
for a communicative action. The woman in this
example
could
always deny
a com-
municative intention
by rejecting
the
interpretation
of the addressee. She would
argue
that the cloth is
new,
in
fashion,
has a beautiful
pattern
or attractive
colors;
probably
it is the
only
one that is clean at the moment
(though
this is
rarely
the
case,
because women use the
kanga
as a means of
saving).
The cloth
is
simultaneously
used in a double
way:
as an
everyday
dress and as a medium
of communication. In a
pointed way
we
may say
that a woman can communicate
on two levels at the same time. A conversation in a
shop
or
among
other women
may
take
place
while she shows the kanga as a communicative
sign.
The two
levels are not
necessarily
connected with each other in
any way
-
except
for the
10
This case is based on the account of the protagonist herself, Oct. 1994, Mombasa.
"
Because of the specific problems of my field research where it was not possible to
directly
observe or
video-tape
such interactions, non-verbal
aspects
of the communi-
cation cannot be included in the
analysis.
I am aware of this lack.
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equivocal
communication on the Swahili coast 139
wearer. The addressee
(or
a
substitute)
must be
present
at some
time,
but to the
onlooker it is
impossible
to tell when this is the case. Because
everybody
is,
at
first,
an
onlooker,
one must draw on information not
present
at the time of the
sighting
of such a
kanga,
like the
interpersonal history
and
relationship,
looming
conflicts
etc.,
to decide whether one is
implied
as addressee or not. This
is another
important
source of
equivocation.
4. Theoretical
background
4.1. Communication
Among
the
many positions possible
when
talking
about
communication,
three
aspects are most important for the understanding of the use of kanga:
(1)
Communication with the
kanga
is in most cases
interpersonal,12
which
implies
that an interaction is defined
by (a) minimally
two
interactants,
who
(b)
are
intentionally
directed towards each
other,
who
(c) agree
to take
up
both the
position
of
subject
and
object
in an
ongoing
interaction,
and who
(d)
in their communicative
actions,
consider both their own and the other's
position (Knapp
et al. 1994:
8).
A
specific
communicative interaction is understood as
negotiation
over its
necessary
and relevant
requirements,
as their concrete definition in the interac-
tive
process.
Such
requirements
are
(at least) (a)
the basic elements of
participants,
medium, content,
situation and contexts and
(b)
the
complex
relationships
between the elements based on
conventionality, intentionality,
reciprocity
and
responsibility.
(2)
Communication as social interaction constitutes
society
on the
background
of
generally approved, historically
established and
culturally
formed
patterns
of
interaction.13 The notion of 'communicative
genre'
is
helpful
here:
The
elementary
function of communicative
genres
in social life is to
organize,
routinize,
and render
(more
or
less) obligatory
the solutions to recurrent communi-
cative
problems.
....
The communicative
problems
for which such solutions tend to
be
socially established,
are in the main
those,
which are
important
for the
maintenance of a
given
social order
(Bergmann
& Luckmann 1995:
291).
Such
patterns
or communicative
genres
are
subject
to constant reenactment and
redefinition and thus allow for a focus on transformation
processes.
It
gives
also rise
to the
question,
for what reasons a communicative
genre may
be used.
(3) Refuting
the
assumption
of an idealized
speaker,
hearer or
situation,
as is
unfortunately
often the case in models on communication
(e.g. Soraya
1998:
15),
narrative accounts of events
involving kanga
use form the basis of the
analysis.
While some academic traditions offer
elaborate toolboxes
for the
12
Exceptions are some kinds of politically motivated uses, for instance where the fol-
lowers of one
party
or one candidate wear a kanga with the
respective symbols
printed
on them. A similar use
may
be the
wearing
of commemorative cloth. On com-
memorative cloth see
Spencer (1982).
13 For a wider discussion on communication as social action see eg. Anderson & Meyer
(1988); Clark (1996); Fussell & Kreuz
(1998); Soraya, (1998).
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140 Rose Marie Beck
analysis
of 'actual' events as
they
are
captured
on video or
tape (as
is a standard
in
ethnomethodological
or conversation
analytical schools)
this has not been
possible
for
kanga
communication. Not
only
is it
prohibited
for women in
Swahili
society
to be filmed or
photographed,
the
privacy
of such events
renders
video-taping virtually impossible.
Nevertheless,
the
analysis
of
kanga
communication
attempts
the reconstruction of the social event itself.
4.2.
Strategic ambiguity
In
communication,
ambiguity
is
omnipresent.
The most
important
reason is the
'natural'
underspecification
of terms
(Lenke
et al. 1995:
88),
the
ability
of
metaphor
and other
analogous arguments
to
prevent
definiteness
(Hiilzer-Vogt
1995;
Heine
et al.
1991;
Lieber
1984;
Bearth
2000),
the indefiniteness of certain non-verbal
aspects
such as facial
expressions
or
gestures,
etc. Such
ambiguities
are often
compensated by
conventions,
i.e. with
regard
to communicative
patterns
or
genres.14
The
pervasiveness
of
ambiguity
is an
important
resource for
strategic
uses,
i.e.
behavioural
techniques
with
clearly
instrumental character
(Lenke
et al. 1995:
29).
If a
message
is
strategically ambiguous,
then it is
produced
with the communicative
aim that certain
aspects
of the
message
remain or are rendered unclear.
Usually
the
content or the
meaning
of a
message
cannot be reconstructed from the
specific
com-
municative
situation,
but the addressee must draw on further
information,
mostly
from the wider contexts which are
only implicitely present (as
has become clear
from the first and third case
study above).
Therefore
strategic ambiguity
or
equivocation
arises from the social situation in
which the addressor finds
her/himself
(Bavelas 1983,
Bavelas & Smith
1982,
Bavelas et al.
1990),
for
example
when a
person
assumes that
she/he
better
say
nothing,
but still feels the need to
say something.'5
Such interactional dilemmas
are determined
by
the
respective
social situation of the
interlocutors,
their
status,
their mutual
relationship,
the kind of
imposition
contained
by
a
message,
the
sensitivity
of a
topic
in a
specific
culture,
and the ideas about communication
in a
given
culture
(cf.
also Brown & Levinson's
interpersonal variables).
These factors determine whether to use
strategic ambiguity
and to what
degree.
Equivocation
can be described
by
the
way
the basic elements of communication
are defined or
'qualified':
[...]
all
messages
should
convey, explicitly
or
implicitly,
sender, content, receiver,
and context. In a perfectly straightforward message, it would be clear that I am
14
In certain common situations
people may
fall back on
culturally
defined and well-known
ways
to communicate. For instance, when
buying
bread from the
bakery,
it constitutes
no
problem
to
point
to bread and
say something
to the like of 'the one with the brown
crust'. In this situation it is
unnecessary
to be more
precise (cf. Ungeheuer
1987 cited in
Lenke et al. 1995: 83-89).
5
Such a situation is described in the literature as face
threatening (Brown
& Levinson
1987),
as
interpersonal
conflict (Bavelas et al. 1990: 56f; Bavelas 1983),
as
temporary
double-bind (Watzlawick
et al. 1967:
180f)
or
generally
as interactional
dilemma/inter-
actional
paradox (Daly
et al. 1994; Wilder & Collins 1994).
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equivocal
communication on the Swahili coast 141
saying
this to
you
in this situation.
'Disqualified' messages
would be those that
render one or more of these four basic
aspects
unclear.
(Bavelas
1983:
313,
emphasis
hers).
The idea that the basic elements of communication
vary
in
degree
of definiteness
is
important
with
respect
to its heuristic value
(Ng
& Bradac 1993:
124).
Methodologically
it was central to focus on the
way
the four elements were
defined for the
kanga.
As will be shown
below,
a further element must be
considered in the
process
of
defining
'who is
saying
what to whom in which
situation': the medium
kanga
itself which is
perceived
to
'say' (or speak).
4.3. Politeness
While Bavelas' model
may give
answers how to
explain
the 'how' of
equivocation
in a communicative
framework,
the Brown & Levonsonian
theory
of
politeness
(1987)
was
especially important
to
explain
the
'why'
of this use of the
kanga.16
Fundamental to their
theory
is the notion of
face,
i.e. that
part
of one's self that
is
displayed
in
public,
and face
work,
i.e. communicative acts in which we
attend to face
by creating, supporting
or
threatening
it. In
conversation,
according
to Brown &
Levinson,
we attend to the faces of one's self and the other. But this
attention is marked
by
a dilemma. On the one hand we wish to act on our free
will,
on the other we have the need to associate. If we
speak,
we have
to
take
care not to
impose
on the other
(or
threaten
her/his negative face)
and not to dis-
sociate from each other
(or
threaten
her/his positive face).
In some situations these
needs
may
be
endangered,
for instance
by requesting, by arguing, by admonishing,
or
by making compliments.
Such communicative acts are face
threatening
and
subsequently
an interlocutor would
engage
in
strategies
to attend to the face
wants of the other and
her/himself.
Politeness,
as Brown & Levinson call
it,
is
the outcome of this face-work.
The kind of
politeness strategy
chosen
(Brown
& Levinson 1987:
69) again
depends
on three
interpersonal
variables: the dimensions of
power
and of
distance,
and the absolute value of an
imposition
in a
given
culture. The notion
of
power
refers to the
potential asymmetry
in the
relationship
between the two
interlocutors,
which
may
be marked
by
differences of
status,
age,
and
gender,
which
again
are connected to control over material and
metaphysical potential
(Brown
& Levinson 1987:
77).
The notion of distance is one of
symmetry
between the interlocutors and refers to the
frequency
and kinds of their interactions
(Brown
& Levinson 1987:
76).
The last
interpersonal
variable,
the absolute value
of an
imposition
in a
given
culture focuses on the
degree
a
request,
a
compliment,
etc. is seen as 'sensitive'
(or face-threatening)
in a
society
in
general (Brown
&
Levinson 1987: 77).
16
Brown & Levinson also give answers as to the 'how' of politeness, but is concentrated
on
language
use. In the Brown & Levinsonian framework, kanga-communication
would fall under the
category
'off-record'. Because of the
language
focus with Brown
& Levinson and, on the other hand, the minimal verbal material in the context of
kanga use I will not
pursue
this
part
of
politeness theory
in detail.
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142 Rose Marie Beck
The combination of the models of Brown & Levinson -
supplying
the
parameters
to
explain
the
why
- and Bavelas et al. -
supplying
the
parameters
to
explain
the how-forms the
background
to
my study
of the
proverbial
character
of
kanga
communication.
5.
Proverbiality
as characteristic
of
communication
5.1.
Strategies of equivocation
In this section I will focus on the how of
equivocation. Using
Bavelas' four
elements as a
starting point, namely
the
addressing person,
the
addressee,
the
contents,
and the context
(see above),
and
adding
the medium
kanga
as a
fifth,
I will discuss how these five elements
structurally
form and are
part
of a
strategy
of
equivocation. By doing
so I
reinterpret
a number of
topics prevalent
in
paremiology:
The notion of 'out-of-context'
(Seitel 1981;
Arora
1984)
will be
applied
to the situation in which
kangas
are
used;
the notion of the
proverb
as
citation
(Penfield 1983)
and the
style
of the
proverb (Taylor
1931;
Kirshenblatt-
Gimblett
1973;
Matta
1988)
as a means of
traditionalizing
a text with
respect
to
the user of the
kanga,
the
addressing person;
and
metaphor
as a means of
lending
an
inscription
a
proverbial
character.
5.2. The medium
kanga
The
kanga
as a
sign-and
here I use a
very simple
semiotic
model of
signification
-
consists of a
pattern
and an
inscription.
With the
exception
of
very
few
(mostly
historical) examples
this
relationship
is
arbitrary,
i.e. is not based on
similarity.17
The
conventionality
of the
sign kanga
is
weak,
for several reasons.
In order to understand this weakness or
instability,
or,
from the
point
of view
taken
up
here:
equivocation,
I must
briefly explain
the
production
of
kanga.
From
very early
on the trade was taken over
by
Indian
merchants,
who acted as
mediators between the customers and the
(European)
textile
printers.
The Indian
merchants sketched a
design using
old as well as new
patterns
and forms.
For the
inscriptions they
often relied on local
informants, mostly poets
and
scholars,
but
they
also took
up
the
suggestions
of women whom
they
met as
customers. Then
they
would order a certain standardized amount of
kanga
with
the
printers, giving
them a sketch that contained the
design,
the
inscription
and
the combination of colors
(usually
2-3
shades).
Part of the
kangas
are sold
by
these
merchants,
another
part
is
given
to other merchants on commission. This
pattern
has remained so until
today (Linnebuhr 1992, 1994;
Beck
2000a, 2000b,
17 In the tradition of de Saussure's semiotics, I
assume that a sign consists of two
aspects,
whereby
the
dichotomy
of
form/content
is
enlarged
here in the sense of
general
semio-
tics so that
any
connection of a
signifier
and a
signified may
form a
sign. Depending
on
the
relationship
between the
signifier
and the
signified
we
speak
of 'icon' in the case of a
resemblance, 'symbol'
in the cases where no resemblance can be found between the
aspects
and the
sign
is based on convention, and 'index' if the
relationship
is one of con-
tiguity.
The notion of resemblance is
culture-specific
and not universal. For a
general
introduction see Ndth (1985).
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equivocal
communication on the Swahili coast 143
2003b). During
the boom-times of
kanga production, every
15th and 30th of each
month two to four new
designs appeared
on the market. Since ca.
1992,
when the
market broke down
completely
under the
opening
of the local market to inter-
national trade and
subsequent restructuring,
new
kangas
come onto the market
constantly.
The
kanga
as a
symbol
is
quite
short-lived.
Firstly,
because new
kangas
con-
tinually appear
on the
market, and,
secondly,
because the cloth itself is not
very
durable. In addition both
designs
and
inscriptions
are
recurrent,
i.e. there is an
inventory
of motifs and
patterns
as well as
inscriptions
which
appear regularly
on the
kanga, although
with innumerable variations. Often we find
kangas
with the same or similar
designs
but with different
inscriptions,
or vice versa.
The allocation of
inscription
and
pattern
or motifs is therefore
quite
short-lived.
Because of the
great variety
of
potential
motifs,
patterns
and
inscriptions,
the arbi-
trariness of the
sign
and the
dynamics
of its
existence,
the
kanga
as a
sign
is
very
unstable,
weakly
codified and
inherently ambiguous.
An additional
problem
is the
readability
of the
inscription.
The
inscription
is
visible
only
a short moment. The cloth is
wrapped
around the
hips
or
draped
over the head. In the first
case,
the text is visible around the back of the
knee,
in the second at the
height
of one's
hips. Apart
from a
strong
cultural
inhibition
against staring
at
people (and especially
at women's
bottoms),
the text
is in constant motion. The text is therefore not
only
absent as
spoken,
but also as
read
language.
Women
compensate
this
by memorizing
an
inscription
as allocated
to a
design.
Not
only
do women thus know
many
'names' of
kangas (after
6
months I knew about
150),
but also illiterate women
may
know and com-
municate with
kangas. People
must therefore
rely
on the unstable and
highly
ambiguous sign kanga. Equivocation
is thus not a
coincidence,
but
structurally
determined.
5.3.
Defining
the context
An
important aspect
of
proverb
use is the
phenomenon
of 'out-of-context'
(Seitel
1981:
124),
i.e. the
discontinuity
between
proverb
and context. The
discontinuity
is
mainly brought
about
by
the
poetic
structure of the
proverb compared
to the sur-
rounding
discourse
(Arora
1984:
4),
and a more or less radical
change
of
topic
spoken
about. The latter
may
be held accountable for one kind of
metaphorization
of
proverbs (see below).
The
aspect
of 'out-of-context'
may
be
interpreted
within
the framework of
strategic ambiguity.
Decisive for the
production
of 'out-of-context' with
respect
to the
kanga
is
the fact that the text is
printed
on
cloth.18
Spoken language
is
replaced by
written
language (which
in
turn
is
replaced by signification processes
as described
above).
The text is thus
radically
detached from
any spoken surrounding.
For the
18 The poetic structure of the inscriptions and their metaphors will be discussed below.
Though
the
metaphoric
content of the
inscriptions may
also be the result of the
discontinuity
between cloth and conversation, in the context of the kanga I
interpret
both
poetics
and
metaphor
as a means to
produce traditionality
and authoritativeness.
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144 Rose Marie Beck
kanga,
women
might speak
to a
shopkeeper,
her
family
or
anybody present.
But
this conversation is
parallel
to the communicative interaction
by kanga
which
may
take
place simultaneously (as
in the third case
study,
see 3.3
above).
There
may
be an interaction between the
parallel
conversation and the communi-
cative act of the
kanga,
for instance
by speaking
in an
exalted,
conspicuous
way
to a
friend,
when the addressee
'just happens'
to be around. In
any
case,
communication on the level of the
kanga
is
extremely
limited and indicates
solely
whether there is a communicative intention or not. At
best,
we find
remarks such as usitizame
j ina,
haina maana 'Don't look at the
inscrip-
tion,
it has no
meaning',
or umeshaona
kanga yangu mpya?
'Have
you
seen
my
new
kanga?'.
From the
point
of view of the addressee the contexts to which a
kanga-
communication
may
refer are in unknown
temporal, spatial
and
personal
distance.
She has to be in
very
close contact and have substantial
knowledge
of the circum-
stances of a
person
to be able to
recognize
a communicative intention and
reconstruct
possible meanings.
5.4.
Defining
the
addressing person
The
question
addressed here is how the
addressing person
is
being
defined in the
communicative interaction and
especially
how this is made visible in the
inscrip-
tions. For a detailed account see Beck
(2001).
The three main
aspects
are the
ambiguating
use of the
kanga,
the
perception
of the
inscriptions
as
citations,
and the use of the 1st
person singular
in the
inscriptions.
5.4.1. The use
of
the cloth:
script
and
ambiguation
The definition of the
addressing person
is dominated
by
the
way she/he
uses
the cloth. It is more
complicated
or difficult to
identify
the
addressing person
as
the source of a
message
than in a
spoken
discourse,
where
she/he
can be inferred
on the
grounds
of
visibility
and
audibility.
In
spoken
discourse,
even if the word 'I'
is not
explicitly
uttered,
the
person
is marked as the source. With the
kanga,
or more
correctly
the
script
on the
cloth,
it is
possible
even to veil or
deny
the
source.
It is common to wear a
kanga
inside out or
upside-down,
if one wants to
signal
that one does not want to communicate. The
writing
is thus hidden in the
folds of the cloth or is
presented
in mirror
writing.
At this
point writing
and text
are disconnected. Since the text is memorized with a
pattern
and the
pattern
takes over to refer to the
text,
and since the text is
scarcely
readable
(see above),
it is no
longer necessary
to have the
inscription
as referent for the text or
proverb. Rather, script
is
reinterpreted
as an indicator for the communicative
frame, which establishes a contract of communicative
intentionality
between two
interactants
(Anderson
&
Meyer 1988; Burkart 1995:
25-29): The
way
an
inscription
is shown - which can be seen even if the
inscription
is not readable -
solely
indicates whether the wearer
potentially communicates, wants to
communicate or not.
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Texts on textiles:
equivocal
communication on the Swahili coast 145
This disconnection of text and
script
has the effect that it is no
longer possible
to remove oneself from the communicative
process
to a level of metacommuni-
cation,
because the communicative frame has become
part
of the communicative
interaction and is no
longer preliminary
to it. Women
argue
that
they
know the
sign kanga
as a
conglomerate
of
pattern
and
text,
know the
inscription,
even if
it is not readable. If a woman considers it to be
necessary
to wear a cloth inside
out,
she will have a reason to do so. In the best case she wants to
prevent
a con-
flict,
which she
anticipates
if the other interactant sees the cloth. But
many
women assume that the
strategy
of
wearing
a
kanga
inside out
only
serves
to
protect
a woman from the accusation of
having
communicated: another
means to
hedge.
If she
really
didn't want to communicate - in the
opinion
of
many
informants - she could wear another
kanga altogether. According
to
this
argumentation,
it is
impossible
not to communicate.19 This
paradoxical
structure is further
exploited offensively
as in the case
study
above
(see
the
case
study
Ataka
yote
hukosa
yote
in section
3.2),
when
illiteracy
or
the
beauty
of a
kanga
are
put
forward as
pretexts.
In
summary,
the
signification
processes
enable and
prepare
the disconnection of
script
and
proverb.
At the
same time this structural
equivocation
is
again
used in the
processes
of
kanga-communication
to veil and
ambiguate
and thus
protect
the
addressing
person.
5.4.2. The texts as citations
Proverbs have been
interpreted
as citations: As citations of unnamed but
culturally
accepted
authorities.
By doing
so a distance is built
up
between the
addressing
person
and her utterance. At the same time
she/he appropriates
this
authority
and thus
legitimates
or
gives weight
to
her/his
words
(Penfield 1983). Formally,
in
my opinion,
this authoritativeness is reflected in the structure of the
proverb
and
interpreted
as
traditionality.
The
kanga inscriptions
do so
by adhering quite
strictly
to Swahili
poetics.
The texts often show
bipartite
structures
by
means of
metrics,
internal
rhyme, syntactical bipartition, rhythm,
and
parallelisms.
The fol-
lowing example
shows a
rhythmical bipartition (two
accents in each
part),
metri-
cally
the first
part
contains 7
syllables,
the second
8,
and the two
parts
are
interrupted by
a caesura. The
rhyme
is
there,
but with a small flaw
(chote
rhymes
with
choke). Syntactically
there are two coordinate
clauses,
of which
the second is
exceptional
for its word order.
19
The parallel to Watzlawick's first axiom 'One cannot not communicate' is obvious
(Watzlawick
et al. 1967, p. 53). This axiom has been often criticized, since not all
behaviour is communicative behaviour.
According
to Burkart (1995, p. 453, fn. 356)
it is a
question
of
interpretation: Any
behaviour
may
be
interpreted by
the
observer/
interlocutor as communicative. The
parallel
to
ambiguous
communication is that the
listener/addressee
focuses on the unsaid (Bavelas et al. 1990, p. 57).
The more
ambig-
uous a
message,
the
higher
the
degree
of
interpretation
or even
speculation.
Just as it
then is no
longer possible
not to
interpret
it is no
longer possible
not to communicate.
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146 Rose Marie Beck
Zawadi ni
choch6te/kupokea
usich6ke
zawadi ni ch.o.ch.ote
ku.pokea
u.si.chok.e
9present
COP 7Rel.7.all 15.receive
2sg.NOPT.tire20
Anything
can be a
present,
don't
get
tired to receive.
Stylistically
the
inscriptions adapt
Swahili
poetics
too,
for instance with the use of
assonances,
the
frequency
of nominalized and
'condensed'
forms
(such
as rela-
tives),
etc.:
Ndege apendapo ndipo akulapo
Ndege a.penda.po ndi.po a.ku.la.po
9bird 1.like. 16Rel COP. 16Rel 1.INF.eat. 16Rel
The bird eats where it likes to be.
While the latter
example
draws on word-final
assonances,
the next
examples
uses
the elaborate
system
of markers that are needed to indicate the
agreement
of a
dependent
word with its
controlling
noun. The assonance is
perfected by
the
play
on the word
pema [pat+ma]
'to
stop
there' and -ema
'good':
Pema usijapo pema ukipema
si
pema
tena
P.ema
u.si.ja.po p.ema u.ki.p.ema si p.ema
tena
16.good 2sg.N.go.16Rel 16good 2sg.SIT. 160bj.stay
NCOP
16.good again
A
good place
where
you
haven't been
[is]
nice. Once
you
have been
there,
it is no
longer
nice.
The use of lexical
material,
especially
archaisms and
specialized vocabulary
is
part
of
traditionality
as well. For the
inscriptions
on the
kanga
we find both the ten-
dency
to use archaisms and
specialized vocabulary,
as well as the use of
neologisms
and
colloquial expressions.
In the
following example
the
proverbial
structure and
style (rhyme,
metric,
syntactic bipartition)
is contrasted
by
the use of the
expression
pancha ya paj
ero 'a
puncture
of the
Pajero (Nissan Pajero)':
Heri pancha ya paj
ero kuliko rafiki
mwenye
kero
heri pancha y.a pajero
kuliko rafiki
mw.enye
kero
better
9puncture
9.Poss
9Pajero
than 5friend
1.having 9fight
Preferably
a
puncture
of the
Pajero
than a
quarrel
with a friend.
The adherence to
poetics
in the context of the
kanga inscriptions
also has the
function of
referring
to the cultural
competence
and
general knowledge
of
poetry
of its users. The
legitimizing aspect
of
traditionality
in the
inscriptions
is used to
legitimize
or bestow
authority
on the women.
Apart
from these more structural and
stylistic
features,
the
inscriptions
are
truly
citations. The texts are not the user's own words, but
they
had been
integrated
into a
design by
the Indian merchants and sent to a textile
printer factory
from where it
came back on the market where it could be
purchased.
A woman
wearing
a
20
The terms used in the interlinear translation are based on Schadeberg (1992). The numbers
before a noun refer to its nominal class, and are taken
up again
as
agreement
markers on all
elements
dependent
on the noun.
Morphemes
are
segmented by
means of dots (.).
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Texts on textiles:
equivocal
communication on the Swahili coast 147
certain
kanga usually
has no influence on the
inscription,21 only
on the choice of
which one she would wear on a certain occasion.
Many inscriptions
are citations from
taarab,
popular contemporary
Swahili
music
(Graebner 1991;
Fair
1998b,
Askew
2002,
Ntarangwi 2003).
Taarab and
muziki wa
dansi,
in
turn,
thematize
many proverbs
- or
inscriptions.
The
themes of taarab and
kanga
are similar:
love,
the
everyday
lives of
people
living together, poverty
and
wealth,
jealousy
and
gossip.
Since the
song
texts are
mostly
written in the shairi or wimbo
metre,
which show
parallels
to the
poetics
of
proverbs (e.g.
metric and
rhythmic
structure,
rhyme, bipartition) single
lines of a
song may easily
be used as
inscription
and vice versa. Often the corre-
spondence
between
inscription
and
song
is with the refrain of the
latter,
where
the theme of a
song
is
pointedly
reformulated
(p.c.
Werner
Greener).
One such
kanga-song-text
was the
(in)famous Wape wape vidonge vyao 'give
them,
give
them their medicine' which
goes
on as wakitema wakimeza shauri
yao
'whether
they spit
it
out,
whether
they
swallow
it,
that's their business'.
The texts
speaks
about
(dumb)
men who are
cleverly duped by
their wives:
whether
they
swallow the
explanation
or excuses
given,
or
not,
that's their
problem.
The
song
was a veritable hit in the 1990s and lead to a heated debate.
The
song appeared
in at least five different
versions,
each of which discussed the
previous
ones.22
Another
kanga inscription
refers to a Brazilian
soap opera
that was broadcast in
the
early
1990s on
Kenyan
TV: No one but
you.
The
soap
was
very popular,
as was
the
subsequent kanga (with
an
English inscription!).
Such interrelations between
popular
media are
very frequent
but remain to be
investigated.
5.4.3.
Indicating
the 1st
person singular
From a
general perception
of
proverbiality
as well as theoretical
assumptions
on
equivocation (Bavelas
et al. 1990:
73)
one would
expect
that the 1st
person singular
would be
avoided,
i.e. be left as undefined as
possible.
A
corresponding analysis
with AINI
(Schadeberg
& Elias
1989)
shows that ca. 20% of all
predications
in
the
corpus
of
inscriptions
contain the 1st
person singular.
In addition the 1st
person singular
is referred to in 138
pronominal
forms. The
possessive -angu
'my'
is on rank 9 of the word
frequency
list. Such a
high
amount of 1st
person
men-
tions is
untypical
for
proverbs,
and it does not conform to Bavelas'
findings.
One
reason
may
be,
that the main
strategies
of
equivocation may
be found with the
printing
of texts on textiles and its
consequences (see above).
Depending
on the thematic
group
the use of 1st
person singular
varies. We find
the least references in the
group
'luck and well
being',
while it is
interesting
to note
that in the
group 'fighting'
we find a
high
amount of
predicates containing
the 1st
person singular,
often in the
negative.
21 In some
cases women have boasted that a certain
inscription
was
printed
on their
initiative.
22 I am grateful to Werner Graebner for information on taarab and specifically on this
song.
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148 Rose Marie Beck
Sijasema, wanisema, jenikisema
Si.ja.sema
wa.ni.sema
je
ni.ki.sema
N.UNPER.speak 2sgGP.
I
sgObj.speak,
INTERR
lsg.SIT.speak
I have not
spoken yet, [and] you
slander
me,
what if I
[start] speak[ing]?
The
image
of
proverbiality,
which
implies
an avoidance of
1st
person
mentions,
and the discourse
pragmatic
functions of such mentions
may
interfere here.
5.5.
Defining
the content
of inscriptions
The central focus here is on the
questions:
How clear or unclear is the content of the
inscriptions
rendered? Two kinds of reference from the
inscription
to the 'world
outside' will be discussed here:
Metaphor,
which is seen as
inherently ambiguous,
and deixis in a wide sense.
5.5.1.
Metaphor
Metaphor
is seen as one of the most
important
traits of
proverb
and
proverbiality
(Seitel
1981:
124,
Arora 1984:
12,
Penfield 1983:
6). Usually metaphor
is
defined as an
analogous
construction
(Huilzer-Vogt 1995:190),
which mediates
between the elements of two different
cognitive
domains. In other
words,
one
prop-
osition from one semantic domain is used to
conceptualize
- or describe - another
proposition
from another semantic domain
(Heine
et al. 1991:
45-49).
Generally metaphor
is also seen as a source of
equivocation.
As a construction of
analogy
it does not name the
complete process
of
comparison,
but the tertium
comparationis
must be inferred from the interlocutor's
interpretation
of a situation
(Hiilzer-Vogt
1995:
193).
Because of the
comparison
of two different
conceptual
or
cognitive
domains there are
always
several
possible analogical relationships
(Lieber
1984:
424). Metaphor
is in itself
ambiguous.
This structure of
analogy
explains,
on the one
hand,
why proverbs
can be
applied
in various and
varying
situations
(Yankah 1994).
On the other hand it indicates that the
proverb
is
preferentially
used in
ambiguous
communication,
as the abundant literature tells
us
(e.g. Obeng
1996,
Yankah 1986: 199
1989;
Penfield
1983;
Hasan-Rokem
1982:
172;
Mihlig
1994:
255;
Monye
1987,
1990:
5;
Nero 1986:
7;
Finnegan
1970:
407-408;
Arewa & Dundes 1964:
70,
Seitel 1972:
68-82,
Jang
1999:
86;
Gossen 1994:
380).
I
differentiate two kinds of
metaphors.
One contains a
comparison
or
analogy
within the sentence
itself,
as the
following example
illustrates:
Heri nyuki
kuliko chuki
heri nyuki
kuliko chuki
better 9bee than 9hate
Better
[to
be
pursued by]
bees than
[by]
hate.
The other kind of
metaphor
is the result of a
discontinuity
between the text and the
surrounding
discourse.
Many proverbs,
if looked at in isolation, do not differ from
'normal' sentences. The German
proverb
Jeder Hund hat Flihe
'Every dog
has
fleas' can be
imagined
to be
absolutely
unobtrusive in the context of a discussion
in a
dog-breeding
centre. If uttered in the situation of
gossip
about other
people,
we
find an
abrupt change
of
topic
and
subsequent metaphorization.
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Texts on textiles:
equivocal
communication on the Swahili coast 149
With
respect
to the
inscriptions (the corpus
of 2200
texts),
because of
missing
context,
I can
only give
an
impressionistic opinion.
I estimate that ca 10% of the
inscriptions
contain internal
metaphors.
External
metaphors
are much much
more
frequent,
but the transition between
metaphorical
and
non-metaphorical
inscriptions
is fluent. Because of the
high degree
of
interpretation generally preva-
lent in this communicative
genre,
it is not
surprising
to find that the
inscriptions
lend themselves to a
great range
of
meanings (e.g.
the
kanga
Nani kama
mama 'who is like a
mother',
in Beck 2001:
109ff.).
There
are, however,
quite
a
number of
kangas
that can be excluded from the domain of
metaphor,
such as
Je iko namna?
'Hey,
how is
it?',
or
Tusigombane
'Let us not
quarrel'.
In a
way,
all
inscriptions
refer to a
'world
outside' that must be reconstructed.
The difference from the
(discursive) surrounding
leads to a
increasing degree
of
cognitive activity,
which Penfield claims to be characteristic for
proverbs
(Penfield
1983:
7):
This
pertains
to the
inscriptions
as well.
Metaphorical
or
not,
proverbiality
thus extends to all
inscriptions.
5.5.2. Other structures
of reference:
deixis
The
inscriptions generally
show a
tendency
not to name
things
and situations
directly,
but to indicate them
only.
Deixis - or indexical
expressions
- are a
typical way
to do
so,
because
they
are relational and receive their value within a
pragmatic
field
(Zeigefeld, Biihler 1934).
Deixis is a means of communication
that
presupposes
the
knowledge
of the
respective
situation in order to understand
the indicated
(Lenke
et al. 1995:
149f).
We discern
spatial, temporal, pragmatic
and social deixis
(ibid: 150).23
Spatial
deixis is not
frequent
with the
inscriptions
and is not
expressed
with
pronominal
forms,
but
usually by
means of relatives of the locative classes. In the
following example place
is
expressed by
the
agreements
of class 16
(definite place):
Palipo
na furaha
hapakosi
neema
Pa.li.po
na furaha
ha.pa.kos.i
neema
16.COPli.
16Rel
and
9happiness
NPRS.16.fail
9blessing
Where there is
happiness blessing
is not missed.
I assume that
temporal
deixis is not
frequent
with
proverbs
in
general,
because
they
are
supposed
to be
'atemporal', referring
to
general
truths and so on. The same
pertains
to absolute time references.24
In the
corpus
of
inscriptions, temporal
deixis is
largely
avoided.
Temporal
adverbs are rare. As for
predication,
we find
a
high
amount of
copulae,
which are not
specified
for
tense,
aspect
or
modality.
23
Social deixis, i.e. the verbal expression of social status, as in honorifics, plays a minor
role with the
inscriptions
and is not
explored
here.
24
Specific
or definite indications of time and place are solely found with commemorative
kangas, e.g.
Furaha ya coronation of
King George
VI 12th
May
1937
'Happiness
at
the coronation of
King George
VI 12th
May
1937' (Made in Helmond, Vlisco).
The defi-
niteness of such
inscriptions
violates the
pattern
of indexical reference. Commemorative
cloths can thus not be used for
interpersonal
communication of the kind described here.
For this reason
they
don't feature in
my
thesis.
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150 Rose Marie Beck
Other verbal forms are not
specified
for
tense, either,
in over 90% of all cases. In
Swahili a number of tenses contain
temporal, aspectual
or modal information at the
same time. The
temporal
information
may,
however,
be
secondary
or
depend
on a
preceding temporal
tense. These tenses
prevail
in the
inscriptions: general present
(-a-, aorist), optative
(-O-e),
infinitive
(ku-), imperative (0),
habitual
(hu-),
and
situative
(-ki-).
The
present progressive (-na-)
and future
(-ta-)
markers
contain both
temporal
and
modality aspects.
In the context of the
inscriptions,
the
modality aspect
is in the
foreground.
This is
absolutely
consistent with
my
find-
ings
in the control
group
of 650
'approved
of' Swahili
proverbs (Farsi 1958).
The
pragmatic
deixis refers
pronominally
to the
speakers (I
and
you).
These
roles
may change
with
every change
of
speaker (turn).
The
expectation
was
that this deixis is avoided for
proverbs,
the more so since Bavelas' results
show that these roles are
preferably
left unclear
(Bavelas
et al. 1990:
73).
The
inscriptions
do not meet this
expectation.
1st and 2nd
person singular (and
plural) appear surprisingly
often.
(As
is the case with a control
group
of Swahili
proverbs
taken from Farsi
1958,
though
not to the same
degree).
I hold the
opinion
here,
that since the basic
ambiguative processes
are
possible
with the
kanga
as a
sign,
the character of
out-of-context,
and the
specific ambiguation
effected with the use of the
kanga,
there is no need to avoid references to 1st
and 2nd
persons.
At the same time it is
probably
even
necessary
to indicate a
potential
interlocutor.
5.6.
Defining
the addressee
This is
probably
the most
difficult,
most
ambiguous aspect
of
kanga-communi-
cation. As we have seen in the first case
study
above,
the
person given
a
kanga,
or shown a
kanga,
is not
necessarily
the addressee.
Furthermore,
the addressee
is left to her- or himself in
realizing
whether a
kanga
was addressed to
her/
him. The
frequent
mention of the 2nd
person
does
only
indicate a
possibility.
Disambiguating strategies
that indicate the
addressee,
such as
conspicuous
behaviour from the
addressing person,
remain
largely
indefinite. More
important
is the social
proximity
and the status of the interactants
(see 6.1)
which
may
induce a
potential
addressee to start
her/his inferencing.
Whether there are other
means of
indicating
the
addressee,
and how clear such indications
are,
must
remain
open
here.
6. The motivations
of using kanga:
social and cultural
background
After
having
described the 'how' of
equivocation by
means of
kanga,
the
question
remains
why
women communicate in this
way.
With
respect
to the use of
kanga
the three
interpersonal
variables of the Brown & Levinsonian model are reformu-
lated as follows:
(1)
How close or distant are the
relationships
of the interactants?
(social distance)
(2)
How can we describe their
relationships
in terms of
power
and
hierarchy?
(relative power).
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Texts on textiles:
equivocal
communication on the Swahili coast 151
(3)
How are the
topics
that
appear
on the
kanga
assessed in Swahili Coastal
society? (absolute ranking
of an
imposition
in a
given culture)
In order to understand these
interpersonal
or
sociological
variables as embedded in
a culture
specific background,
it will be
necessary
to discuss cultural notions of
speech
in
general.
6.1.
The actors: social distance and relative
power
The variable 'social distance' addresses the
history
of the interactants with each
other,
and more
pointedly inquires
about the
question
of the
frequency
of inter-
actions and the
exchange
of material and immaterial
(e.g. face) goods
between
the
participants.
From 33 case
studies,25
in 25 instances the
participants
were related:
by
birth
(daughter
and
mother,
brother and
sister, cousins,
niece and
aunt,
grandmother
and
granddaughter,
12
cases),
married
(9 cases),
in-laws
(a
woman and her
sisters-in-law,
a woman and her
family-in-law,
2
cases),
related
by marriage
(parent
and
stepdaughter,
2
cases).
In three cases the actors were
neighbours,
in
four cases an
employee
communicated with her
employers.
In one case we
found that a woman communicated with the best friend of her husband.
The
tendency
is to communicate with
persons
with
very
little social
distance, or,
in other
words,
this communicative
genre
is marked
by
social closeness. The
theory's prediction
is that the less familiar the interlocutors
are,
the more
polite
they
tend to be
(Holtgraves
1998:
76f).
Taken that
kanga-communication
constitutes an off-record
strategy,
and that this ranks in the Brown & Levinosonian
model as
highly polite (Holtgraves
1998:
76),
this is at first
sight surprising.
The
reason for this
high degree
of closeness is to be found in the
degree
and kind of
equivocation
used with
kanga-communication.
At a certain
point equivocation
(or
an
off-record-strategy)
reaches such a
level,
that in order to understand what
was meant it does not suffice to refer to conventions of
interpretation
and
subsequent meanings.
Rather,
the interactants must know each other
very
well to
be able to draw on their common
history
etc. to be able to 'make sense' of what
they
see.26
The variable 'relative
power'
refers to the material and
metaphysical
control of
one interactant
party
over the other. In the context of the East African Coast these
factors are:
age (older-younger, parent-child), gender (men-women),
and descent
('Arabic'
or freeborn versus 'African' or
slave-connoted).
These three factors
have been
presented
in the literature as a source of
status27 (El
Zein
1974;
25
From the 43 case studies that form the basis of my study, I was involved in 10 cases.
Since as a researcher I was in a
special
situation
vis-h-vis
the
communicating women,
these cases are left out here in order not to distort the results of the
analysis.
26
According
to Samuel
Gyasi Obeng
avoidance-communication is
always
marked
by
social closeness
(p.c., April 2001, Madison).
27 The term status is used here in the sense Marc Swartz defines it: 'Status is the action arm
of culture.
They bring
culture's elements to bear on actual situations and
problems
through characterizing
the actor and his associates in the actor's mind and
indicating
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152 Rose Marie Beck
Strobel
1975;
Swartz
1991;
Middleton
1992). High
status
comprises relatively high
power
and
authority.
21 out of 33 cases show a
bottom-up
direction in
kanga-communication. Age
is
the most
important
factor,
if we find
contradictory
factors
present
between the
interactants. In the case of the son who
gave
his mother the
kanga
Nani kama
mama 'who is like a
mother',
and thus showed his
appreciation
for her efforts
with
him,
gender
is a
secondary
factor.
Age
is
probably
also the most
important
factor,
because it is
culturally
almost
impossible
to voice
disagreement
across the boundaries of
age.
To do so
implies
to
question
the
authority
of the older
person. Although
descent is relevant
among
women,
too
(Strobel 1975), groups
of mixed descent are limited to official or insti-
tutionalized events
(like lelemama,
Strobel
1976,
or
makungwi
- initiation-
rites,
Strobel
1975)
or at work.
Privately
such
mixing
is not
very
common. The
most
important
social contacts of women take
place
within the extended
family,
i.e. within a
group
of the same or at least similar descent. This is at least
my
own
every-day experience
in Mombasa.
Descent
played
a role
among neighbours (as
in 2
cases) or,
as in 4
cases,
between
employee
and
employer.
Gender
played
a role in one case from the
bottom-up
sample.
Here a woman communicated with her husband in a situation of marital
conflict.
Generally
communication from below is
negatively
connotated.
In 6 cases I found a
top-bottom
communication,
in five of these cases a husband
gave
a
kanga
to his wife. In three cases love and warm
feelings
toward the wife
were thematized. In one case a brother
provoked
the sister to move out of his house-
hold. She was
probably
a burden to him. In another case a husband
gave
his wife a
kanga
that was directed toward his
stepdaughter
and was meant as a
critique
about
her behaviour. The sixth case was between an old
lady
and her
granddaughter.
Top-down
communication is
usually positively
connoted and can be seen as
instances of
positive politeness.
In the
remaining
six cases the
relationship
between the interactants is unclear for
lack of information on
my part.
6.2. The
topics
The main
topics
the
inscriptions
on the
kanga
dwell on are
love,
luck and well
being,
and conflict. Conflict
comprises
the themes
saying/speaking, quarreling,
intrigue, envy/jealousy,
and dissatisfaction. This enumeration of themes is
based on a word
frequency
list that was drawn
up
from a
sample
of ca. 1800
inscriptions.28
The
analysis
was done with
AINI,
a
morphological parser
for
Swahili
(Schadeberg
& Elias
1989).
The
assumption
here is that
important
themes have their lexical correlates that
appear
at the
top
of a
frequency
not
only
who does (and does
not) belong
to the
categories
relevant at a
given
time or
situation but also what is
expected
of
category
members and those who assoicate with
them' (Swartz 1991: 145).
28 From the 2200
inscriptions
some were collected after 1999 and were thus not
system-
atically
included in the
analysis.
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equivocal
communication on the Swahili coast 153
list.29
Starting
from such
lexemes,
other
semantically
related lexemes were
looked
up
on the
list,
and the
respective inscriptions
checked to find out
whether their
meanings corresponded
as well. From the 1800
inscriptions
about half of them
(900)
were thus recorded. These
groups
of
inscriptions
can
be seen as indicative for thematic
clusters,
but no more. Discussions with infor-
mants, however,
confirmed these thematic clusters.
An
important topic
can be
grouped
around the verb
-penda 'love',
which is the
most
frequent
verb.
Moyo
'heart'and
penzi 'love' are the
only
nouns
among
the
first 20 entries of the word
frequency
list.30
Another
group
revolves around -sema
'say, quarrel'
and neno
'word,
quarrel'.
To this
group
we can add
curiosity
and
gossip (-jua 'know',
umbea
'gossip'),
quarreling (ugomvi), intrigue (fitina), envy
and
jealousy (hasidi
'envious
person',
wivu
'jealousy', j
icho
'(evil) eye').
Most of these terms can be
found on the first 30 ranks of the word
frequency
list.
Finally
there is a thematic
group
around the
topic
of luck and well
being (her i).
6.3. The cultural assessment
of speech
The central ideal in Swahili coastal culture is the freeborn
man,
the
mwungwana.
He is the
civilized,
religious,
even
pious, law-abiding
citizen of the stone
towns,
of
purely
Arab
descent,
well
educated,
an able
poet, widely
read. He values
highly
the
notions of honour
(heshima, fakhri)
and
privacy (sitara).
He is the embo-
diment of dini
'religion',
the dominant cultural ideal.
Although
the
pedigree
of
purely
Arab ancestors is
important, 'Properly
it is the moral behaviour associated
with
great pedigree
that
matters,
not the
pedigree
in itself'
(Middleton
1992:
90).
Noble behaviour
may
be
generally
described as
upole 'gentleness'
as an
expression
of
being
civilized.
Speech plays
an
important
role in the maintenance
of
ungwana (the
state of
being
a
mwungwana):
It is restrained
speech
- or
silence - that
gives proof
of one's aloofness and
power
and
protects
one's
honour and
privacy
best
(Hirsch
1998:
40).
Restrained
speech
does not
only
imply
low voice and
taciturnity,
but also discretion:
A
person
who is
knowledgeable
about clandestine
affairs,
the
complexities
of other
people's
most intimate lives, is potentially threatening. To know secrets is to have
29
It is clear that the value of this procedure is
limited,
because the search relies
solely
on the
literal
meanings
of a lexeme or
inscription. Inscriptions
with a
metaphorical
content could
not be
registered,
on the other hand there were
inscriptions
that could fall into two cate-
gories.
The
inscription Bembeya
mtoto
'baby swing'
which refers to a wife
asking
for the constant attention of her husband is a
good example
here. One of the themes is
love, another dissatisfaction, none of which
appears
in a lexical form in the
inscription.
30
Among
the 10 most
frequent
lexemes (which also contain invariable
elements), we find
only
two verbs, -penda 'love' and -sema
'say, quarrel'.
Other verbs from the first 20
ranks are -jua 'know', -pata 'get',
-wa 'be', -taka 'want', -ona 'see', and -pa
'give'.
With the
exception
of the
very general
verb -wa 'be', and -ona 'see', which is
more difficult to
interpret
and has a wide
range
of
meanings,
all of these verbs are
part
of
the thematic
groups
mentioned above.
(For
a more detailed discussion of the thematic
groups
see Beck 2001, ch.
6.2).
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154 Rose Marie Beck
power;
unmasked
knowledge
introduces
uncertainty
into
everyday
life. This
may
be
a reason
why
Swahili
people speak
in
metaphors,
with double
meaning (Fuglesang
1994:
26).
To
speak
in 'double
meanings'
- or to
equivocate
- is a
highly
valued and ideal-
ized
speech style:
Katika
tungo
zinazowafurahisha sana
Waswahili,
hakuna zina-
zoshinda zile za
maj
ibizano na
malumbano,
katika
nyimbo hizo,
zile zenye
kutumia mafumbo au maneno
yenye
kuweza kufasiriwa
namna tafauti
kulingana
na mawazo
ya msikilizaj i,
huwa zina-
pendwa
sana. Katika
tungo
za aina hii
hupatikana
kila namna
ya
ufundi - uhodari wa kunena maneno
yaliopangika, ubingwa
wa
kujadili
na
kuhoji
na ulumbi wa
kupanga yenye
kuvutia shauku
za
wengine
-
ndipo
Waswahili wakavutiwa sana na
tungo
za
aina
hii.
(Shariff
1988.
pp. 99-100).
Of the
poetry highly
esteemed
among
the Swahili
people,
there is none that would
excel that of
'question-and-answer' [majibizano]
or of
poets'
contests
[malumbano].
And
among
these
songs
the ones are liked best that use veiled
speech [mafumbo]
or words
allowing multiple
translations
according
to the
thoughts
of the listeners. This kind of
poetry
uses different skills - the
ability
to
utter words of
poetic expression,
the
proficiency
of
logical thought
and
argument,
and the
poetic creativity
that draws
[upon
the
poet]
the
praise
of the others - this
is the attraction of such
poetry
for the Swahili
people (my translation).
In contrast to such male
high
culture we find a realm of low culture or mila
'customs'
which is
mainly
associated with
femininity,
submission,
low
status,
the
private
domain,
and African or slave descent. Women and slaves
represent
the
negative aspects
of
speaking,
too:
The beliefs about
speech [
...
] suggest
that the
prototype
devalued
speaker
in
Swahili culture is a
woman,
specifically
a woman who tells tales. ...
Emphasis
on the trivial and
potentially
fictional
quality
of women's
speech merges
with
emphasis
on its
dangerous
and
disruptive qualities
to create the
impression
that
women's
speech
is
suspect,
not to be counted
on,
and to be
suppressed
when it
gets
too close to
home,
literally (Hirsch
1998:
67).
Speech
in
general
is seen as
problematic
because it
implies gossip
and
nosiness,
insult and
slander,
even worse are
only fighting
and
quarreling. Especially
the
danger
of loss of
privacy
and thus loss of social
position
and
consequently power-
lessness is
fearfully
avoided
(Swartz
1991:
171,
Hirsch 1998:
64).
Powerlessness in
turn is associated with
bad-talk,
and bad-talk
again especially
with
young people
and women
(cf.
Swartz
1988-1989).
Female
speech
is
subject
to further
restrictions,
as sometimes formulated
expli-
citly,
for instance in the
following passage
from the famous
poem
of Mwana
Kupona (see
also Biersteker
1991).
The
poem,
in
which the mother admonishes
her
daughter
about
good manners, reflects
speech
behaviour as seen
appropriate
for
(young)
women in Swahili Muslim coastal
society:
Neno nao kwa
mazaha/yaweteao furaha/iwapo ya ikraha/
kheri kuinyamalia.
Talk with them
[people] cheerfully/of things
which
give
them
pleasure/but
when
words
might give offence/it
is better to hold oneself silent
(Harries 1962: 74).
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equivocal
communication on the Swahili coast 155
That the voice of the woman shall not be heard above the room where she
speaks
is
of Islamic
background (Knappert
1967:
32). Generally
the
pressure
on women to
conform to
socially adequate
communicative behaviour is
high:
Silence and forbearance on her
[the woman's] part
is assumed to maintain her
dignity
and
respect
within the
community.
She is thus
placed
in a
powerless
situation,
not
only
in terms of her action but also in terms of what she can
say. Composure
will
win her
praise
from most other women in the
community; fights
in
public
will
invite censure and
blame,
quite apart
from the
possibility
of sanctions from her
husband as well
(Yahya-Othman
1997:
145).
In this context the
kanga,
or rather the communicative use of the
kanga
fits in at
least
partially:
the women do not
say anything; they
maintain 'silence and forbear-
ance',
at least
superficially. By using
the
kanga they
do not
regain
their
voices,
but
they regain
their
ability
to
express
themselves.
They
do so without
violating
either
inhibitions or ideals and norms of
speech.
Rather
they
take
advantage
of the exist-
ing gaps
between ideals and norms in a
way
favorable to
them,
by using
and
expanding
on
culturally
defined uses of
writing
and
speaking.
Nevertheless,
communication
by
means of
kanga
is
lowly
esteemed
by
Swahili
Muslim coastal
society.
Letters to the editor of
Mambo Leo,
a
newspaper
in
Swahili,
in the 1920s
already
show in
unison,
that the writers
(men)
did not at
all
approve
of the
kanga
and the
messages printed
on them. The
argument
is
that the
writing
draws the attention of men toward the
physical appearance
of
women,
which
is,
of
course,
not
adequate
at all. Women are not
supposed
to be
seen or
heard,
because
they belong
to the
privacy
of their husband. To be seen
and even remarked
upon by
men other than the husband
equals
a violation of his
privacy.
Furthermore,
the
topics
on the
kangas may
well indicate what is
going
on at
home,
another violation of familial
(patriarchal) privacy.
Despite
all
efforts, however,
to discredit and even to ban the
inscriptions
or their
communicative
use,
it was never
effectively implemented.
Even
today
women use
kangas,
as
everyday
cloths,
as means of communication. The
many disputes
that
were and still are
being
heard about the
appropriateness
of the
kanga
are
proof
of
its
importance
in Swahili Muslim coastal
society.
7. Conclusion
From the
perspective
of communication
analysis,
the
kanga
is a
complex
communi-
cative
genre.
Its main feature is
equivocation,
which is
structurally
embedded in the
signification process,
the
discontinuity
of text and
context,
the definition of the addres-
sing person
and
addressee,
and the referential character of the contents. The use of the
kanga
is
socially
motivated:
Speech
inhibitions and
prevalent
norms of
speaking
are
subverted
by
it. The
equivocation
can be
explained
as a
strategy
to
prevent being
held
accountable and
being
accused of
socially inappropriate
behaviour.
My understanding
of the
kanga is that it is a
highly ambiguous
communicative
genre
that uses
proverbial
structures
mainly
because
proverbs
lend themselves
easily
to
ambiguation,
but also because
proverbiality
is bestowed with authorita-
tiveness in
(Swahili) society.
The
genre kanga, though
born from a
socially
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156 Rose Marie Beck
subordinate
position,
is a
very powerful
means of communication.
Proverbiality,
equivocation,
and
power
meet here in a
unique
fashion.31
This
brings
us to the notion of communicative
genre. According
to
Bergmann
&
Luckmann
(1995)
communicative
genres
are used to offer routinized solutions for
recurring
communicative
problems
in order to
organize
and maintain a
society.
The
communicative
genre equivocation,
of which
proverbial
communication with
means of
kanga may
be seen as a
sub-genre,
serves to avoid and
manage
conflicts.
With
respect
to the
kanga
this
implies:
(1) Requirements
to be
silent,
speech prohibitions,
which are in accordance with
adequate
female
behaviour,
are not
violated,
but
may merely
be subverted.
At the same
time,
women are able to
express
their concerns.
(2)
With
respect
to
conflict,
which is
culturally very negatively
assessed,
we find
that the social status
quo
is
preserved:
conflicts are not resolved
openly.
However,
the
price
is a climate of
insecurity,
of
gossip
and slander.
(This per-
tains
especially
to women of low social
esteem).
(3)
In the East African coastal
society power
seems to be a sensitive
topic
where
the
tendency
is to
keep
it under the covers. I conclude this from the result of
my
study
that
kanga-communication
preferably
crosses hierarchical relation-
ships.
In the
bottom-up
direction,
which is more
frequent
than
top-bottom,
it
is
negatively
connotated. In this cases we often find a reversal of
power
relations: the more
powerful
woman is allocated a
position
of social inade-
quacy,
while the less
powerful
woman shows her
knowledge
and
mastery
of
social rules and
is,
in the situation
superior. (See
the case Ataka
yote
hukosa
yote).
(4)
The role of women is
confirmed,
or at least not
questioned.
She does not
openly
formulate her
concerns,
her
alleged
inclination toward
fighting, gossip
and
slander,
which
implies
that she offends her
(husband's) privacy,
is asserted.
Probably,
it is
culturally
relevant that conflict
(and innovation)
is and is
supposed
to remain the domain of women.
Beyond
the
hypothesis
that
proverbiality
and
equivocation
are
structurally
connected,
the
inscriptions
that
display
both
traditionality
and innovation show
similarities with the cloth itself that stands between
integration
and
exclusion,
and the communication that oscillates between
conformity
and resistance. It is
all about a cultural
practice:
the creation and use of a room to
move,
and the
arrangement
of women within a
patriarchal society.
For
paremiology,
this
(functional)
view
enlarges
the notion of
proverbiality
considerably.
The textual unit
'proverb'
is but one
aspect
in which
proverbiality
finds
expression.
Because other
aspects
are also seen
as
contributing
to
proverbial-
ity
-
equivocation, authoritativeness, and
negotiation
of
power
relations - a text
may
be
proverbial
to various
degrees.
In
any case, proverbiality
is not
only
con-
structed
through
a text. This has theoretical
implications
for
paremiology.
We
31
Such proverbial-ambiguous communication in hierarchical contexts are known
through-
out the African continent (Beck 2000a, 2000b, 2004).
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Texts on textiles:
equivocal
communication on the Swahili coast 157
may,
for
instance,
be able to
explain why
it has been so far
impossible
to define and
clearly
delineate what a
proverb
is. It
may
also
help
us to
explain processes
of
proverb
innovation. We
may
have studies on
proverbiality
that allow for the com-
parison
of
proverb-cultures
on another
level,
not
merely
on a textual level as before.
Finally,
the notion of communicative
genre
as
applied
to
proverbial
communication
may explain why
in some cultures
proverbs
are more
important
than in
others,
and
maybe, why
in some cultures
proverbial
communication is on the decline.
ROSE
MARIE BECK can be contacted at Institut
fiir Afrikanische Sprachwissen-
schaften, Universitdit Frankfurt,
Dantestr.
4-6,
60054
Frankfurt
am
Main,
Germany;
email: r.m.beck@em.
uni-frankfurt.de.
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