Swahili Names and Poem-Maps of the Ocean



The text that follows is a transcription we made of an episode of Conversation with Neighbors, the podcast of the beautiful Archives of Forgetfulness curated by Huda Tayob and Bongani Kona. In it, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor alternates her questions about the Swahili names of the Ocean with the words of Zanzibari poet Haji Gora Haji and his “poem-maps” of the Ocean (read by Halima Ali), as well as excerpts of Yvonne’s novel The Dragonfly Sea (2019). We attempted to cultivate the oceanic dialogue further by associating the text with artworks by Mauritian artist Shiraz Bayjoo.

Bayjoo Funambulist 5
Port Hole (Triptych). Acrylic and resin on board, with reclaimed wooden frame. / Artwork by Shiraz Bayjoo (2017).

BONGANI KONA: In this conversation, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor laments the neglect of the African oceanic imaginary and argues that the Swahili seas have shaped lives for generations, yet the wealth and depth of this history is often neglected

YVONNE ADHIAMBO OWUOR: The lie that was being put out was that the African relationship with the Ocean — if there was a relationship — was that of cargo on somebody else’s boat, or as an artisanal fisherman frolicking in the shallows. Much of this type of nonsense informed what people call “the colonial period” thinking, — I call it “the age of atrocities” — pretensions of according agency to everybody else, but to the African person. So much was violently written over, including the names of our seas, that the names of things that our cultures and peoples already had, writing over the long relationships with other nations that the oceanic cultures had already established, laying claim to the artifacts of this maritime imagination, the boats, the emblems, the tools of navigation, and attributing even the language, and culture and habits of the Swahili to anyone else, but the African person.
And the tragedy is that our post-colonial governments have perpetuated this terrible, terrible amputation, by mostly turning their backs to the sea. I think we’ve committed a grave injustice to history, to our ancestors, to ourselves and the succeeding generations.

When I was doing part of the research for the book, especially in Zanzibar, I asked the question “What do you call the Sea?” The most common offerings were “Bahari” or “Bahari Hindi,” but those are contemporary variations. But I think the most moving moment for me was asking one of the older boatmen, one of my interlocutors. I said, “What is the older name of the Sea?” And this man told me “Bahari Hindi.” And then he said, “Ziwa Kuu,” which means the deep waters. I said, “No, but that doesn’t sound right. If everything else has a name, what is the name?” I remember he just sat down in silence. We had this long silence. And tears were in his eyes. I remember him turning to me and looking startled, completely surprised, he said: “But who are these people who have even forgotten even the names of their seas?” And that struck me hard. That was one of those moments that informed what this story quest became. And it was one of those moments where I could have gone in further and got completely lost in the research process. So much that was compelling emerged. But needless to add, there are over 16 other names for the Ocean that we now call “Indian.”