Uncovering the Links, Part 1

My interest in recent months has been localized in Tanzania and Zanzibar, where I am trying to understand how Indians think about themselves in relation to Africans, and vice versa, given the history of privileged Indian migration to the Swahili coast in the colonial era. It's no secret that the Indian communities in the coastal cities of South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zanzibar periodically experience crises of identity and security in relation to the majority; such crises come to the fore during times of heightened political awareness (such as election campaigns) and are at times marked by anti-Indian violence. But identity and security concerns are also present in street-level and market place encounters that highlight race-based differences of class, religion and the like. A recurring source of tension is the fact that Indians generally dominate urban retail trade. No matter how long Gujarati, Sindhi and Konkani merchants have been living in Dar es Salaam, Maputo or Mombasa, nor how objectively necessary their commercial roles are for modern economies, the Swahili language has pinned on them a vulgar epithet: they are bwanyuyaki or "suckers," as in bloodsuckers. I've heard amazingly frank statements from Indians in Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar about their political marginality and social isolation -- and about their working behind the scenes with African politicians and power brokers to ensure professional success and personal security. Yet for every Indian story about a politician who plays scary games with citizenship, human rights and economic privileges, there's an African story about the Asian merchants' uncertain loyalty, unselfconscious arrogance and unrelenting rapacity. Ethnographers (such as Richa Nagar) have done a better job than historians in balancing these dueling narratives, in part by demonstrating that "African" and "Asian" are internally complex categories, in part by finding examples of accommodation, cooperation and socialization in everyday life. Nonetheless, the relationship of Indians in coastal east Africa to Africans -- and to African nation-states -- is still an active zone of construction, marked by mixed motifs of love and hate, absorption and rejection, attachment and unmooring.

Approaching questions of race and ethnicity head-on in present-day East Africa does not really work. Most people are uncomfortable with such topics and evade giving frank responses when asked about cross-racial and cross-ethnic commercial exploitation, sexual relations, preferences and exclusions in government service, and so forth. Let me offer an example of a more productive indirect approach, which relies instead on tracking people's own ways of discussing difficult issues, such as the narrative strategy of talking about human relationships through the medium of animal behavior. The fables concerning the Indian house crow in coastal Tanzania and Zanzibar are very revealing when viewed in this light.

Inter-racial commentary, as the crow flies

The Swahili word for crow is kunguru, and there are several crow species in coastal Tanzania and Zanzibar. One of them, known in ornithology as Corvus splendens or the "house crow", is referred to in Swahili as the "Indian crow" (kunguru wa walozi). This bird is a cynosure: everybody I spoke with in Dar es Salaam and Stonetown in Zanzibar has crow stories to tell. The bird is ubiquitous in these urban areas and invariably makes a nuisance of itself. My suggestion is simple: in complaining about "Indian house crows" Tanzanians and Zanzibaris are also complaining about Indians.

What gets said about house crows?

  • They are filthy in their habits and litter garbage and waste everywhere, especially in city streets and on urban terraces.
  • They are cunning and study ways to steal from people and other birds and yet escape without retribution.
  • They are aggressive and fly into kitchens, where they crack open raw eggs and pull the lids off cook-pots to get at food.
  • They cause arguments between husbands and wives and between parents and children by entering through windows to steal small valuables: the defrauded owners then turn on family members to demand who has taken their missing coins or other pocketables.
  • They threaten other birds and even humans, and they carry off and eat small animals including pets.
  • In rural areas great flocks of them ruin standing cereal plants.

An important subtext to these stories is the common knowledge in East African cities that house crows were introduced into the region by Europeans around the beginning of the century. (European commercial agents and British officials were responsible for the naturalization of the Indian house crow into East and South Africa, Egypt, Arabia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Laccadives, Mauritius, and the Seychelles between 1890 and 1950). In the Natural History Museum in Zanzibar there is a glass case exhibiting a mounted house crow. The crow stands at least a foot tall and has black feet and feathers (except for a gray ruff) and a yellow-tipped beak. Inside the vitrine an English-language placard runs as follows (the text is also given in Swahili):

This bird was introduced into Zanzibar from Bombay about 1890 and since then has established itself very firmly as a resident. It was thought that it would act as a scavenger, but any beneficial activity it may have in this direction is far outweighed by its other habits. It carries up scraps and rubbish on to the roofs and drops them into the rainwater gutters [which] become blocked and afford breeding places for mosquitoes. It is a great egg-thief, destroying the nests of small birds and eating their eggs and young; it also destroys many chickens. Up to 1930 this crow was essentially a town bird and was rarely seen in the country districts, but since then it has spread far and wide throughout the shambas [farms]. It does a great deal of damage to the country by eating maize and groundnuts, pulses, paw-paw, mangoes, etc. It digs up newly planted germinating maize and groundnuts as well as eating the maize in the cob. . . .

As can be seen, the foraging habits of the house crow lend themselves, point by allusive point, to the construction of a stereotype for Indians in commerce in East Africa: like house crows, Indian dukawallas (shop-owners) are non-natives introduced by colonialism; they are rapacious and clannish scavengers; they harm the country by crowding out non-Asian competitors, and they gang up to raid non-Asian enterprises when the time is ripe, etc. etc. Harsh as the stereotype is, it persists, and easily observed crow behavior as well as widely repeated crow stories subtly underwrite and endorse it. Ornithological studies make it clear that, unlike other members of the Corvidae family (which includes other crow species, rooks and ravens), house crows have no wild refuge to which they return at night; they have co-evolved with us and cannot exist apart from us. Once again, analogies can be made with the place of the Indian businessman in the economic landscape of East Africa, and easily fabulized as lessons in morality for humans.

In contrast to the uniformly negative view of the crow which prevails in Africa, there is a perceptibly more sympathetic portrayal of its motives, amusements and domestic psychology in the writings of India's best known ornithologist. Salim Ali's famous Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan contains the following entry:

A confirmed commensal of man, almost an element in his social system.... Intelligent, inquisitive and impudently familiar, yet excessively wary and alert at all times, possessing an uncanny capacity for scenting and avoiding danger and distinguishing a harmless human from one not to be trusted. Gregarious, sociable, clannish, cunning, and omnivorous -- other essential qualifications for successful coexistence with man.... Besides intelligence and a limited capacity for seeming ratiocination, [the crow] possesses a distinct sense of humour. Revels in puckish antics such as playfully tweaking the tails of other birds, or ears of sleeping cow or dog, or toes of flying foxes hanging on their diurnal roosting trees, with no apparent object other than to enjoy their annoyance and discomfiture! Monogamous and evidently pairing for life; even in non-breeding season pairs will often sit on a shady branch during daytime snuggled lovingly together...

Since the 1970s Dar es Salaam officials have been trying to eradicate or at least drive out the house crows, which not only create nuisance but steal electrical wires from the electrical system to build their nests. In the December 7, 1999 issue of Nipashe (a Swahili-language tabloid), a journalist describes an urban environmental program that offers cash bounties for the destruction of the crow's nests, eggs and chicks: the bounty is 50 Tanzanian shillings for each of these. Up to the date of publication, 42,700 crows had already been killed. The article carefully repeats the information that Dar es Salaam's house crows came originally from India and that they were deliberately introduced into Zanzibar in 1891 by colonial authorities. Subsequently an eradication campaign in Stonetown of Zanzibar succeeded in killing off 95 percent of that city's crows. There is an unspoken irony hanging over this account: nearly all Tanzanians know the history of racial violence in Zanzibar in the mid-1960s which led to hundreds of Indians' deaths and a flight of many Indian residents of the island.

I'm sure by now you take my point about the establishment and reinforcement of stereotype: house crows in Tanzania and Zanzibar offer Africans a steady, low-level spectacle of species-specific behaviors that serve as a natural matrix onto which unpleasant and unequal encounters with some Indians can be tacked. At the same time the introduction of Indian house crows into Africa under colonial rule suggests one concrete example of a trans-oceanic linkage between the two continents that is one focus of the University of Iowa's "Crossing Borders" research project. By itself the crow story is a mere illustration, but when combined with related studies of other material objects (e.g. textiles, technologies) and cultural practices (e.g. rituals, healing arts) that cross the India Ocean in both directions, we expect to build up a sizeable structure of exchanges and influences that will allow us to re-read the past and present of this region.

Studying India and Africa in a single glance

A team drawn from the University of Iowa has recently begun a research project that spans the Indian Ocean. Ambitiously, the project aims to define, contextualize and interpret the movement of persons, objects and abstract elements of culture between coastal Gujarat-Konkan-Goa in India and the Swahili coast (i.e. from Kenya to Mozambique). These movements are being explored within an interpretive frame that acknowledges colonialism, racism, imperialism, nationalism and globalization as defining features in the history of the Indian Ocean basin after 1800. I've visited Tanzania and Zanzibar (as well as Morocco, Mozambique and South Africa) in connection with this project, and I intend to keep going back. Although not trained in African studies nor languages, I've come to believe that South Asianists such as myself are well able to investigate certain issues in East Africa, especially those which concern the multi-stranded ties in the region between a diasporic Indian community and their communities of origin in South Asia. In the meantime my Africanist colleagues are departing for, or have already gone to, western India, where they will be investigating similar issues linked to our collective research project.

Our research around the Indian Ocean starts with the assumption that coastal east Africa and coastal west India have never been isolated. Far back into history the movement of travelers and sailors on dhows across the Indian Ocean provided a steady, if slim, stream of communication and trade. Amitav Ghosh's brilliant study, In an Antique Land, makes the point by demonstrating how closely an 11th-century Jewish merchant based in Egypt could monitor and affect commercial and personal affairs in Mangalore on the Karnataka coast. While the dhow is no longer a frequent means of transportation, having given way for the most part to steamers and jet craft, connections in trade and feeling between India and Africa have only intensified since the beginning of the last century.

What has been insular is a university-based scholarship that divides the world into discrete, often arbitrary geographic units and carefully polices the boundaries. To give an obvious example, in South Asian "area studies" Burma has arbitrarily been ruled out while Sri Lanka has been ruled in. Similarly Africa and India have been defined as somehow fundamentally different, with the result that Africanists and South Asianists stay off each others' turfs, out of each other's classrooms, and invisible in each other's thinking and writing. Hopefully, this insular behavior is coming to an end. This project also involves crossing yet another sort of academic boundary, that which exists between different disciplines. Realizing that only a multi-disciplinary group effort can ever begin to reach conclusions about the complex connections and exchanges around the Indian Ocean, our team includes scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds. Also, research in "field" settings makes it necessary for us to consult with Indian and African collaborators; they are the absolutely indispensable informants, heralds, critics and hosts. Without local expertise, local contacts and a sense of local realities, even the most meticulously planned group research effort is bound to fail.

The actual objects that the Iowa-India-Africa team has begun to study are material objects, and this has permitted us to make a straightforward initial inventory on the African side of the Indian Ocean. For example, William Dewey, an art historian, is an expert on African ironsmiths and iron making; he has documented the presence of a distinctively Indian type of bellows used by Africans on the Swahili coast for heating and shaping iron. The "Indian" bellows co-exists with an equally distinctive "African" bellows, and both types can be seen working side by side in Zanzibar. Given the inputs required for successful metal working -- sources of fuels and ores, the knowledge and skills needed for the heating, forging and tempering of metals and alloys, and the universe of myths and rituals that authorize smiths to do their dangerous work, among others -- the presence of an Indian technology worked by Africans raises a host of questions. When was it transmitted to Zanzibar and who was the agent of its introduction? Does it penetrate further inland in Africa? What needs does it satisfy and under what circumstances is it preferred to perfectly good African technology? (There is a similar set of questions to be asked about the presence in India of African iron-working methods. We will be investigating these in an exploratory transit this summer from Gujarat to Goa).

In addition to Dewey's interest in iron-working, others in our group are focusing on different flows across the Indian Ocean -- the movements of woven textiles, healing techniques, song rhythm repertories, and the introduction of exotic plants and animals. Inseparably connected to each of these items are the similarly mobile experts -- technicians, vendors and compound practitioners -- who weave the cloth, perform the music, prescribe the medicines, etc. Needless to say, our attention to specialized flows of artificers and artifacts does not overlook the much larger human movement of many thousands of Africans sent to India as slaves and soldiers after 1800 and many thousands of Indians pushed toward Africa as indentured workers and commercial operatives after 1860. An important part of our work is to consider how world historical forces have affected the trajectories of these mobile and detached peoples. Beyond that, there is the issue of how the piling up of migrants and innovations in foreign places (i.e. places of reception) produces some kind of transformation at their places of origin.

It is evident that the centripetal mechanisms that succeed in broadcasting ideas, people and practices across long distances must also function as receiving devices that can detect the return of exotic persons and practices from similarly distant sources. So we aren't just looking at singular, one-way transits but at the echoes, ricochets and splittings that make up and accompany circuits of sending and receiving. Arjun Appadurai, whose recent work has been an intellectual stimulus for our project, uses the term "process geography" to describe this world of flows. To put it metaphorically, think of the Indian Ocean as a deep, wide pool whose surface is constantly agitated by human-made irruptions -- trade, wars, pilgrimage, migration -- and whose ensuing ripples travel more or less distinctly forward and backward everywhere as they reach and rebound from opposite shores. The "Crossing Borders" research project is a detailed examination of these currents and ripples in an effort to understand the relationship between Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

(Faculty participants include William Dewey, James Giblin, Allen Roberts, Mary Nooter Roberts, Victoria Rovine, Jael Silliman; the two Roberts have recently shifted to the University of California at Los Angeles. Student participants include Ned Bertz, Prita Meier, Eileen Moyer, Beatriz Rodriquez-Feo, and Barbara Thompson.)

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http://tillmannlaw.com/ The bird is all-over in these burghal areas and consistently makes a nuisance of itself. My advancement is simple: in accusatory about "Indian abode crows" Tanzanians and Zanzibaris are aswell accusatory about Indians.

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