Patriarchal symbolic order: the syllables of power as accentuated in Waswahili poetry.

Author:Momanyi, Clara


For a long time gender relations have continued to draw both national and international debates because they involve social relationships between men and women. Hence, patriarchy has continued to offer us gender subject positions that are socially constructed that direct our thoughts and actions, and clearly portraying our femininity or masculinity. In this article, I will discuss how masculinity is depicted in works of poetry from the 19th century to the second half of the 20th-century. And as a consequence, masculinity is socially constructed and is usually created through a historical process that sustains gender practices controlled by a hegemonic symbolic order sanctioned by male ideologies.

For the purposes herein, the Waswahili will be taken to mean a particular East African coastal community that comprises of different groups of people who share a common culture (Prins 1967; Salim 1973). Thus, the community uses Kiswahili as its first language that belongs to the Bantu linguistic family and is spoken widely in East Africa, and also the national language of the republics of Kenya and Tanzania. Hence, Kiswahili has 15 or so dialects and is more varied compared to other local languages spoken in the region.

While discussing the identity of the Waswahili as a community, Mazrui and Shariff (1994:53) states that group identities are not determined by who we are genetically but through 'dynamic perceptions of the collective self constructed in history. Likewise, the Waswahili as a community also comprise of Muslim and non-Muslim, thus the poetry discussed here was written by members of the Muslim community which enables us to distinguish between the poetry of the Muslim Swahili and those written by other East Africans in the region, using the Kiswahili language.

Therefore, I have used poetry to elucidate the patriarchy structures and cultural aesthetics, and through this use of poetry review how patriarchal ideologies of a given society are perpetuated, and how hegemonic forms of masculinities can be critically analyzed within historical periods. Accordingly, in a society like the Waswahili, there exist ideologies that justify men's supremacy on the basis of cultural traditions, religious ideologies and sexual differences, as evident through analysis of literary genres like poetry.

From time immemorial, men in this community have been the cultural managers of the existing patriarchal symbolic order where language, for example, is used to define sexuality as a binary opposition that registers differences between men and women wherein these differences have been manipulated socially and culturally by a patriarchal system that involves male-constructed stereotypes of sexual difference.

On the other hand, women have been playing the role of custodians of male ideologies they have internalized and interesting enough it has become a part of their daily lives. And not unlike other communities, this community has for a long time used literary art forms to advocate masculinity to maintain the status quo. Hence it is within this understanding that I critically analyze some of the poetical compositions in this community as vehicles of transmitting, preserving and perpetuating masculinity in specific historical periods via the selection of specific poems to expound the various manifestations of masculinity existing in the community discussed.

Three poems have been discussed at length although a few examples from other poetical materials have been used only to augment discussion. First, the poem of Al-Inkishafi written by Sayyid Abdalla bin Ali bin Nassir (1720-1820) is a soliloquy based on 'mortal defection' (Hichens 1972). Written immediately after the fall of the sultanate of Pate in the 19th century, the poem is highly didactic. According to Hichens (1972:8), copies of this poem have continued to be treasured by many Swahili households, and have often been quoted in theological discussions among the Muslim Swahili, and early researchers and scholars like Rev. W.E. Taylor and C.H. Stigand viewed the poem as the greatest religious classic of the race (Hichens 1972:9).

Several literary scholars and researchers have studied and analyzed Al-Inkishafi, and have indicated that it is the most widely read poem from this community, which include Gibbe (1995), Momanyi (1991), Mlamali (1980) and Mulokozi (1971), among others. I have chosen this poem because not only does it depict an outstanding historical period in the history of the Waswahili, but it also underlines a male oriented feudal system, a highly stratified socially ruled by feudal lords who controlled the cultural, economic, political and literary life of the community that introduced a patriarchal ideology designed and maintained to set specific gender roles while entrenching the principles of masculinity. Thus, societal organization, the segregated lifestyle of the patriarchs and the subordinate feminine roles are clearly elaborated in the poem.

Second, the poem of Mwanakupona (1790-1860) has elicited scholarly arguments and explanations from literary researchers and critics, among them Momanyi (1998), Njozi (1990), Senkoro (1988), Khatib (1989) and Mulokozi (1982). Some scholars have viewed the poem as a disgrace to humanity and to women in particular because it encourages submissiveness and subordination of women. Khatib (1985), for example, says it is a poisonous poem that encourages women enslavement. However, others have observed that the poem should be analyzed within the historical and cultural contexts it was composed, because while others lacked Islamic sources to competently analyze it, others had no ideological knowledge to base their arguments, and therefore ended up analyzing the poem using contemporary situations and ignoring the time it was composed.

Nonetheless, in observing its cultural and historical contexts it will enable us to understand the patriarchal ideologies at play, and the hegemonic masculinity that controlled the life of people at the time. According to Njozi (1990:63), the continued popularity of the poem among the Muslim Swahili is due to its proven effectiveness in promoting and maintaining peace and harmony in marital life. This peace, of course, was subject to strict adherence to the patriarchal symbolic order, and I believe the poem is not in total disregard for women in the Waswahili community because Mwanakupona lived in a period when male ideologies were not questioned, and conversely the patriarchal order had to be maintained and thus women had to conform to it through obedience which is also a religious virtue.

The last poem that I have analyzed in relation to male ideology and existing masculinity is written by a contemporary poet and a prolific Kiswahili literary writer, Said Ahmed Mohammed in relationship to the period after independence in East Africa (after 1960s) that saw the emergence of literary works written by the African elite in which most of the works challenged colonial inheritance, and also seen the depiction of societal problems as a result of the establishments of cities and flow of cash economy wherein rural-urban migrations resulted in high rates of unemployment leading to the emergence of commercial sex workers in most of the major towns. In this context, Said Ahmed Mohammed (1983) wrote an anthology of poems entitled, 'Sikate Tamaa where he discusses contemporary socio-economic and political issues facing Africa after independence, and discusses male ideologies and their impact on women, especially in relation to the effects of urbanization and cash economy.

In this anthology, I only discussed one poem entitled, 'Wananambia Mchafu' which literally means 'They tell me I am dirty' because of the masculinity it depicted and the hostilities directed to femininity due to nonconformity set by societal norms. Meanwhile, the author has written a number of other literary works including novels, plays and poetry that have been researched by Kiswahili scholars like Muindi (1990), Sirucha (1986), and Mlacha (1984) and others. Thus I examine how poetic language is used in the poem as a way of interpreting the feminine image that question the patriarchal social structure where masculinity and male ego tend to dominate.

The Waswahili and Literary Tradition

The Waswahili is a community that occupies the East African coastal strip from the southern coast of Somalia in the north to the north coast of Mozambique, including the adjacent islands. The Swahili as a distinct group have evolved as a distinct culture after many centuries of economic and social interactions. According to Middleton (1992), the Waswahili have lived along the East coast of Africa for more than two thousand years.

Historically, due to flourishing maritime trade, there was the emergence of city-states, including Pate, Lamu, Mombasa, Zanzibar, Sofala and Kilwa, among others. These citystates were ruled by patriarchs known as sultans drawn from the ruling upper class. Thus it is believed that the period from 1100 to 1500 is the golden age of the Waswahili civilization where patriarchal states controlled trade, politics, culture and literature. And by the 18th to 19th centuries, families ruled the city-states and it is precisely during this time that great works of literature were written wherein the realities of important historical epochs were depicted by well known classical poets like Sayyid bin Abdalla bin Ali bin Nassir (1720-1820) who wrote the poem of Al-Inkishafi (Hichens 1972:86), Mwanakupona binti Mshamu (1790-1860) who wrote the poem Utendi wa Mwanakupona (Nabhany and Abubakar 1972), and Muyaka bin Hajji (1776-1849) who wrote popular poems in the 19th century (Abdulaziz 1979), among many others.

It can therefore be argued that Kiswahili language has the longest literary history in comparison to other African languages in the region. And like in many other patriarchal societies, the age old patriarchal system of the...

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