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.

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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.”

BK: Yvonne speaks of Haji Gora Haji as an important figure in her life. She writes:

“His texts are not abstractions. They come from the sedimentation of history, merging with his eighty years of living. The materiality of his words become crucial resources in figuring out the Swahili Ocean imaginary in a space where the primary repository of knowledge and archiving remains the human body and memories.” (“In Search of Poem-Maps of the Swahili Seas,” 2018).

YAO: My very first meeting with Haji Gora Haji was when I had taken up my assignment as executive director of the Zanzibar Film Festival. And this beautiful man, absolutely beautiful, with his hat and his basket, you know, this kind of reed basket shows up. Eyes twinkling, an easy familiarity, he looked like a poet, a scholar and a rogue… He walked in to introduce himself with this exquisite Swahili that I had never heard before: it was Kitumbatu. And he had this joyful, joyful kind of welcoming way. He immediately called me his daughter. And he had all these ideas about what was going to happen with what the festival would be and do. But importantly, he became one of the pillars and voices of both the Ocean and of the environment of the island for me. He introduced me to his poetry and I also learned from other people. The Tanzanian government regarded Haji Gora Haji as a sort of gadfly. He hated the governmental disorders. His words were exquisite so he would be invited to national events… But somebody explained, that it would be hours after a Haji Gora Haji recitation that the listeners realised they had been castigated and thoroughly mocked!

The government didn’t know what to do with him. Nobody did. That was when I first met him, and he just became a part of my life, almost like a beloved uncle, but also a mentor in so many ways. Half the time we did not understand one another. He insisted on using Kitumbatu. Later on when I was asking these questions about the Sea, I realized I needed him again, because if anybody would know the original names of the Ocean, he would and his poetry would. At that time, I was looking for a thing called “poem-maps,” the navigational poetry, the idea that part of our own African imagination of the waters, some maps were turned into poetry, and were recited by sailors in order to find particular routes, which Haji Gora affirmed, of course. I hoped to include it in the novel. He teased that he could recite his way from Tumbatu to Yemen just by a play of words, that were actually maps. So he was my main interlocutor, when I was doing this thesis research. I think my only regret is that I had not traveled with a proper camera crew and recording team, just to archive this and draw on all that he said and all that he knew. Haji Gora Haji disappeared into the memories of the past and of the Sea. His body is still with us, but his mind and spirit are wandering and traveling still.

BK: Halima Ali reads one of Haji Gora Haji’s poems:

Ninaanza mtiriri                     I start this flow

Kuliadika shairi                     This narrative

La jahazi mashuhuri              About a renowned jahazi

Nilowahi safiriya                    Aboard which I travelled

Katika wangu ujana              In my youth

Ikawa sivuwi tena                  I gave up fishing

Nikahisi vyema sana             I thought it was better

Bora niwe bahariya               To become a sailor

Jahazi hilo naronga               That Jahazi

Iliyokuwa ya tanga Was from Tanga

Darisalama na tanga            Its route

Ndiko likisafiriya                    Was Dar es Salaam –Tanga

Ndani yake hilo kundi            Within the crew

Katika hicho kipindi               In that season

Nilikuwa ni maindi                 I was an apprentice

Vizuri nazingatiya                  The better to remember

Tanga kwa wakati huo           We headed out to Tanga

Tukizipakiya mbao To collect timber

Na kuzipeleka kwao              To transport it to those

Mwenyewe kukabidhiya        Who had commissioned this trip

Huko tukizifikisha                  We reached our destination

Darisalama hushusha           Disembarked in Dar es Salaam

Na chombo kukizungusha    Then we turned the vessel around

Nyengine kwenda pakiya     With other freight on board

Hiyo misafara yetu These journeys

Kitimiya mitatatu                   Were in threes

Hurudi unguja kwetu             Before we could return to our Unguja

Mishahara hupokeya            To receive our salaries

Baada husisha hayo             These were the things

Yalokuwa tutendayo              We did

Kuna machache ambayo     But there are others

Mwishoni yatafatiya               That remain unstated

Kwa vile Zanzibar                 Because Zanzibar

Imo kati ya bahari                 Is embedded in the sea

Wengi wetu kusafiri               Most of us travel

Na ndipo tukazoweya           As a matter of course

Sababu kwa zama zile          In that age

Tuliozaliwa kale                     The time of our birth

Wengi hatu kusoma shule     We did not go to school

Kazi tukikamatiya                  We started work early

Uvuvi na ukulima                   Fishing and farming

Na malodi kututuma             And at the beck of the Lordly

Ikawa ndizo hekima              Those were the options

Za uchumi kupatiya              To gain wealth

Baada ya niliyoronga            Now that I have reached

Na hapa nilipogonga            This place that I have hit

Shairi hili kufunga                  It is time

Muda umefikiliya                   To close this poem

Isipokuwa nanena                 If my words

Kama lilokosekana               Have caused any offence

Iwe samahani sana               I ask forgiveness

Kwani siyo kusudia               For that is unintended.

BK: Ayaana, the protagonist of Yvonne’s most recent novel, The Dragonfly Sea, was inspired by the story of Dr. Mwamaka Sharifu, a young woman from Pate Island in 2005, who was given a scholarship to study in China based on DNA tests that indicated she was a distant descendant of Chinese mariners who traveled to the Swahili Coast more than 600 years ago. Yvonne reads to us from the novel Dragonfly Sea a coming of age tale set on the island of Pate, off the coast of Kenya

YAO: “To cross the vast ocean to their south, water-chasing dragonflies with forebears in Northern India had hitched a ride on a sedate “in-between seasons” morning wind, one of the monsoon’s introits, the matlai. One day in 1992, four generations later, under dark-purplish-blue clouds, these fleeting beings settled on the mangrove-fringed southwest coast of a little girl’s island. The matlai conspired with a shimmering full moon to charge the island, its fishermen, prophets, traders, seamen, seawomen, healers, shipbuilders, dreamers, tailors, madmen, teachers, mothers, and fathers with a fretfulness that mirrored the slow-churning turquoise sea.

Dusk stalked the Lamu Archipelago’s largest and sullenest island, trudging from Siyu on the north coast, upending Kizingitini’s fishing fleets before swooping southwest to brood over a Pate Town that was already moldering in the malaise of unrequited yearnings. Bruised by endless deeds of guile, siege, war, and seduction, like the island that contained it, Pate Town marked melancholic time. A leaden sky poured dull-red light over a crowd of petulant ghosts, dormant feuds, forfeited glories, invisible roads, and congealing millennia-old conspiracies. Weaker light leached into ancient crevices, tombs, and ruins, and signaled to a people who were willing to cohabit with tragedy, trusting that time transformed even cataclysms into echoes.

Deep inside Pate, a cock crowed, and from the depths of space a summons, the Adhan, crescendoed. Sea winds tugged at a little girl’s lemon-green headscarf, revealing dense, black curly hair that blew into her eyes. From within her mangrove hideout, the scrawny seven-year-old, wearing an oversized floral dress that she was supposed to grow into, watched dense storm clouds hobble inland. She decided that these were a monster’s footsteps, a monster whose strides left streaks of pink light on the sky. Seawater lapped at her knees, and her bare feet sank into the black sand as she clutched another scrawny being, a purring dirty-white kitten. She was betting that the storm – her monster – would reach land before a passenger-laden dau now muddling its way toward the cracked wharf to the right of her. She held her breath. “Home-comers,” she called all passengers. Wajio. The child could rely on such home-comers to be jolted like marionettes whenever there was a hint of rain. She giggled in anticipation as the midsized dau, with Bi Kidude painted in flaking yellow, eased into the creek.

BK: Yvonne speaks to us about the visit to the Congo River that sparked the writing of the novel and of the deep historical connections between China and Africa.

YAO: I think the first part is that when I was telling my second born sister Vivian all the stories of Zanzibar when I was there, she said “Please, one day write that book! Write it!”, she asked me, and I kind of left it and it’s one of those things that kind of lingered in the back of one’s mind. But strangely enough, that was gone and I actually started a different book: the one I’m working on now called The Coffee Mistress, I was just thinking around it. But at that time, Binyavanga Wainaina had sent me off to the DRC to do a different project. But I remember standing in front of the Congo River and it is awesome. It’s awesome. Strangely enough, the story that sparked Dragonfly Sea was the Congo River. I was with a group of new friends, and then heard this commotion. We were eavesdropping, I said, “But what’s going on there?” And my guide told me: “Look, what happened just now is that the last steamboat captain, who can take the boats from Matadi, has just retired.” “What’s so special about that?” And then I heard the story of the Matadi people.

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Missionary 4. Acrylic and resin on wood, jesmonite. / Artworks by Shiraz Bayjoo (2017).

Historically, they were a people who were renowned for sailing boats from the Congo to the Atlantic. At the time when European explorers were seeing the Congo River as unnavigable, these guys would, and could. I thought of some of the old anthropological texts, unfortunately in French, because my French is not very good… the implication is that the narrative of the so-called anthropologists was that these people were steeped in superstition, and were singing and dancing to their gods in order to appease their rage to move the boats. It is hearing this that took me back to an experience in the Indian Ocean. A few years back I’d gone out with a group of friends, we were caught up in the doldrums; everything was still. I remember our Nakhoda, the boat captain, after moving from site to site, started to recite something. At that time, I thought it was prayer. And then I understood, ah! It was at this moment that like the boatmen of Matadi naviand the Ocean came together. It’s like satellite navigation, right? You correlate your places using the memory of maps that are instilled in you…

At that time, it was just speculation. But when I go back to ask questions, I find that it was real. Inside the maritime guilds, part of the training involves the training of routes you memorize through incredible lyrical poetry, what sounds like poetry to the rest of us. So I started to look around for what had been written around this. Very very little and the one person who had a whole archive of that was the late Sheikh Nabahany, also from Pate. It is part of the grief, the terrible grief. I’ve always felt like I started this kind of five years too late, because he would die the following year, just before we fulfilled our appointment, but he had a whole list of poem-map options. I asked and he said “Of course, absolutely,” as if it was not even a question. So many examples exist. I also discovered that there was a Frenchman, I never met him, I think he was attached to UNESCO, who had been collecting some of this poetry. And I never followed up on this, but I was told that his collection of poetry introduced another element to this quest: it was Swahili, but written in Devanagari, in Sanskrit.

The idea of Swahili carrying itself through the different language forms: not just Arabic, that Swahili writes itself through whichever convenient linguistic vessel offers itself is a whole other study. This really opens up all sorts of possibilities of connections, doesn’t it? At that time, when all these questions start rushing at you like this, you have to follow the story. I started dreaming about it. Then a lot of things come together. For example, I remember, sometimes when I do my intensive teaching, I always ask the class. “What pisses you off?” At that moment what was pissing me off was the bombardment of the narrative of what China’s return to Africa meant. The clamor was led, not by African or Chinese, but always representatives of the West, and their proxies among us. And it was a single genre of story: the sky is falling on helpless Africa’s head. China has come, as a new colonizer. Poor Africa; China is evil.

Even if they may be an iota of truth within that, I was only interested in our African perspective. What does Africa say? What is Africa’s position? What is Africa’s opinion? And when I asked Haji Gora Haji — this is also very important — “China’s coming here? And what do you think of that?” He had this look of “And so…? And your point is…?” By the way, let me clarify this: by then I was not thinking of China’s presence in Africa as a return. The narrative was that it was a new intrusion by outsiders. So I’m asking that and let me be blunt about this: it was stupidity, because when I was in Zanzibar as well, there were two restaurants there that were owned by Zanzibaris of Chinese origin. One of them is a fourth generation Zanzibari, the other a fifth generation Zanzibari. The presence of history is there, blatantly, in front of my eyes. I’m not even talking about the 14th and 15th century ceramics that are still in some people’s houses, which are usually passed down from mother to daughter.

So I said, “But you know, people are worried…” and he said, “People have come, people have gone, people will come again, what’s new?” That was a liberating moment for me, that was so liberating: “What’s new?” Then also when I found the story of Mwamaka Sharifu. And I realized that is a very significant turning point in our relationship with China. The young girl who because of her bloodline, affirms a story that the Pate islanders have told themselves for centuries, which historians and anthropologists willfully ignored, right? When you go to Pate island, there is no big deal about the blend of peoples and they’ve lived it, and which is part of the daily conversation, and it is nothing startling. And yet historians, anthropologists and geographers end up in that place and do not hear. I think what also struck me was also, despite this evidence and Pate island itself, for example, historians, and especially the Western ilk still insist that all of this is speculation. I wanted to know, what are our own people saying? It’s a story of marginal people, right? That’s what it becomes rather than this great geopolitical issue. What is geopolitics to the small ordinary person who’s caught up in the push and pull of all these extraneous forces? So Mwamaka’s adventure inspires the story of Ayaana. It’s not a Mwamaka story, it’s just inspired by her life story, her life elements inform the story of this little girl. Moreover, when you go to Pate island, every single aspect is a source of inspiration and narrative. possibility. So my main struggle became that of leaving out things .

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Archipelago No. 2. Acrylic and resin on wood. / Artwork by Shiraz Bayjoo (2017).

BK: To end the conversation, Yvonne reads to us again from Dragonfly Sea.

YAO: “Watching ships make their ways to various harbors, Muhidin told Ayaana, “A boat is a bridge.”

Ayaana considered this for days.

But, though she started to insist, Muhidin would not show her how to hunt deepwater fish with night lanterns.

“If your mother heard…”

“She never know.”

“Not yet, Abeerah.”

She sulked.

He shrugged.

“Fundi Mehdi will show me,” she threatened.

“No, he won’t,” countered Muhidin.

Ayaana knew he was right. “Can you make a boat?”


“Fundi Mehdi can.”

“Go to Fundi Mehdi, then.”

“No!” she yelped.

But, later that afternoon, with Ayaana’s kitten following them, they wandered over to the part of the island where the vestiges of its shipbuilding memory still lingered. In the decrepitude caused by time and fate lurked Fundi Almazi Mehdi’s cover and the wood scent of boats built and boats to be built from templates resting in old memories. Hammer-on-wood echoes bounced in the air. Mangrove poles lay scattered on the ground, scorched in preparation for their destiny. A radio announcer offered the tide reports. Ayaana saw a solitary man. She dashed forward toward Fundi Mehdi as he worked on the hollowed prow of a mtungwi, pouring into it coconut oil followed by fire.

Muhidin caught up with her. Before he could greet the craftsman, Ayaana announced, “A boat is a bridge.” She watched the flames scorch the prow. “Why fire?” She leaned over.

Mehdi tried to flap her away.

Muhidin lifted Ayaana into the remains of a nearby sand-stranded, barnacled formerly seagoing boat. The kitten jumped into the boat with her. From inside the vessel, Ayaana squawked to Mehdi, “Why oil? Why fire?”

Fundi Mehdi sighed.

“Why oil? Why fire?” Ayaana sang.

Muhidin then told Mehdi, as he settled himself on a stump, “Greetings, brother. Forgive this imposition. I have no problem extending my torment to you. Now she’ll hound you. She’ll interrogate you. If you have an answer, deliver it to her, lest you babble out deeper secrets in desperate surrender.”

Mehdi glowered at Muhidin. Muhiding shrugged. Mehdi turned to look at Ayaana, who was resting on her belly to dangle off the edges of the jettisoned boat. She then lifted up her hands as if she were about to soar and intoned, “Why fire? Why oil?”

He returned to his firework with the smallest of smiles sitting at the edge of his mouth. Almazi Mehdi started. “So listen. When … this boat meets fire … on water … one day … ‘twill know … what to do.”


Ayaana’s voice, shrill with awe: “I seened you drowned boats. Many, many, many time.” She had spied on Mehdi as he seasoned boats by submerging them in the sea, keeping them underwater for weeks. Ayaana continued. “And so … and so, when the boats they drown, and afterward when the water comes inside” — she shook her head — ”even them now they don’t drown, isentitit?”

Mehdi’s exasperated breath came through his hairy nostrils. With an audible harrumphing, he turned to Muhidin, eyes frantic. Muhidin turned to face the sea and closed his eyes. He clamped his mouth shut to stop himself from cackling as Ayaana swung her body to and fro on her boat, asking, “You build a jahazi?”

“No,” Mehdi grunted after a minute.”

BK: We end today’s episode with another of Haji Gora Haji’s poems read by Halima Ali:

Ukichunguwa bahari                           Kusafiri huwafiki

Inamengi yalosiri                                 Kuona ukidiriki

Hata ukiwa hodari                                Hofu itakumiliki

Bahari ina mawimbi                             Milele hayaondoki

Kadhalika na vitimbi                            Vilo havidhihiriki

Kama si rangi na vumbi                       ingekuwa hakwendeki

Mengi yasoidadika                              Na makubwa masamaki

Pindi ukisadifika                                   Uwonapo hujishiki

Lazima hutetemeka                             Na mno kutaharuki

Ikiwa umo chomboni                           Jifanye hubabaiki

Kaa utuliye ndani                                 We la nje hutaki

Ukitazama majini                                 Hapa na hapo hufiki

Bahari usichonguwe                            Utajitia wahaka

Omba mola akuvuwe                          Ufike unapotaka

Be wary before the ocean                    It seduces you into travel

It remains cryptic                                 When you get comfortable

However intrepid you are                     Be careful

The sea contains waves                       Ceaseless waves

Other mysteries and riddles                 Not evident to untrained eyes

Were it not for the colour and dust       You would not leave

Unaccountable things there are           And giant fish

When it approaches                            Too great to understand

You must tremble                                With a sense of urgency

When you are in the vessel                  Fake fearlessness

Concentrate on your confines              Ignore what’s beyond your ken

For should you glimpse the djinns       There and then your journey ends

Don’t delve too deeply into the sea      You will worry

Beseech God’s help                            To reach your destination