Reading Khanga, Exploring Academia
With excitement I picked a topic on “Reading Khanga as a Historical Source”. History, whom I have met a few times, seen here and there is becoming a familiar figure. I can listen, laugh or even ask him when he permits. But when I want to talk, he wants evidence. He says if he had let everybody talk he would have died in infancy. He survives on evidence. It has to be his story.
I said “Mwanamke hupigwa kwa upande wa khanga” (A woman is beaten by a piece of khanga). He replied: “Can it be verified or revisited?” It is not just evidence, terms and conditions apply as well. The evidence has to be weaved into arguments and may be then he will listen, depending also on this patron’s mood.
I am struggling, not just with evidence and argument, but also with Objectivity. He works in the discipline office, he trains you to distance yourself from yourself. And if you try to bypass your non-academic memory and thus become a big time professor, then people can listen to the memory of that young woman. He assures you they will love how you turned frustration into inspiration. You will be a living monument, book after book, and conference after conference, until you shake hands with the Marx, Hobbes and any of your favorites men of letters and historians, in print. If you want to have a conversation with yourself, don’t be loud – and use holidays, not school time.
Yet I thought I was writing about my womanhood and the femininity and masculinity around me. Of that khanga we used as a curtain in the village house, I may not be able to speak about it now. It is the gap I have found in the studies on khanga that I am supposed to focus on even if the literature confines it to embodiment. As a friend recently reminded me, I claim to come to the Academy have come to write stories my mother can read. Stories are for verandas, he insists; if trends allow, they will be archived, it is the new truth I found. Objectivity says I should grow out of my mother’s khanga.
After navigating Postmodernism, Long Durée, Marxism and all their cousins, holidays are coming. How am I going to tell my mother the story of khanga? Of my grandmother whom I know partly from her photos and somehow connected to through the khanga? She did not feel as distant until I read that I am not also connected to other women’s struggles here but also to the whole of the Swahili coast, the Indian Ocean World and even the Dutch who produced early khanga. I am now connected to people from the late 19th century who will never reconnect with me.
Academics are busy reading people as problems and reading each other as debates. I am on that path now of reading, historicizing and trying to ask the right questions about khanga. My memory is not even of the native informant; it is that of the research assistant. Now I am not sure whose essay this is, those who have felt something for khanga and written about it or I who claim to be the legitimate heir apparent of khanga stories. It is funny that we read Machiavelli’s hopes as concrete program and I cannot even share a bit of my memory. Or when I do, I declare almost with embarrassment that it is my own voice.
After that we say: “subaltern this, marginalized that!” Bear with me, I am learning; I am not the ‘minority’. That term comes with political and economic or even social marginalization. I feel like to raise my voice for the sake of my memories is attempting to sail alone while others have big vessels and have accumulated the knowledge to challenge the sea. No wonder during my holidays a year ago my aunt told me:
“You should be grateful, when you finished high school while some of your colleagues were dropping out pregnant. Truly, many of your peers from University are married, but don’t you know how men can get when you are educated? You go and read at peace while thanking God for all he has done to you. But bring us good news before you finish. The way I see you, it will be a Muzungu.”
These readings are probably adding to my frustrations. This will not reach a psychiatry level because it is not under ‘nervous conditions’. The Swahili are cosmopolitan people, so the books read. When I tried speaking my parents’ language, they said I am Mswahili because of the heavy accent. There is a man who was looking for some degree of belonging in relation to my parents’ ‘tribe’– and supposedly mine too – to propose. The ‘interview’ included these prerequisites: if I could speak the Haya language, cook matoke and knew my clan name given that I was born and raised in Dar es Salaam. Once a young man from my neighborhood whistled to me, one dada told him (for me too to hear) “Her caliber are men from Masaki/Oysterbay” i.e. Uzunguni. But Keko for me is Uswahilini. Our parents may speak ‘vernacular’ to us, but we played in Kiswahili with friends, listened to Radio Tanzania and English was the ‘Math’ of primary school where all subjects were in Kiswahili.
What rubs salt to my wounds is that the scholars I choose to blend in with in the humanistic traditions don’t have me in mind when they write about the Swahili. It is as if they have turned the binoculars upside down. For them, Swahili is Muslim and patriarchal; Zanzibar and Mombasa.
So, here I am, hanging out with besties in Dar and following a bit of trends on Insta. I am just trying to see how I slot in the ‘grey areas’ I found about khanga while Nita is swearing at her mother that Ambindwile is not the father of Chimwemwe’s baby. Yet all along, I was reading so as to connect with my friends and our mothers; and the few times we have bought each other khanga in turns.
And here I am claiming to be in a humanities college. Have we imagined these humans too much that they reflect theory? Are humans are in the same direction but in different lanes which command different road safety instructions? Or what is social about this science that will deprive me of the social life that I have longed for the whole year?