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2. Dar es Salaam

Making Peace with an Abandoned “Field”

It all began in Dar es Salaam. The place I learned to love through stories of countless journeys. The place that entangled me forever with questions of expertise and knowledge making; of positionality and responsibility; of memories that haunt; and of promises that remained unfulfilled. Dar is the place where I first set foot in 1991 and to which I could not physically return after the completion of my dissertation fieldwork in 1993.

The reasons behind my initial immersion in Dar es Salaam had as much to do with the excitement generated by debates in postcolonial theory, African studies, and women’s and oral history in the early 1990s as they had to do with my desire to resist a racialized system of creating “experts” where, as an immigrant from India, I was often expected to become a “South Asianist” in the U.S. academy. Little did I know that despite all the exciting rhetoric about the need to promote south–south research and postcolonial scholarship in postcolonial sites, the same academy would try to label me as an “Africanist” a few years later, while also frequently assuming that I studied Tanzanian Asians because I must be “one of them.” At the same time, academics who were authorized as “one of them” in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada repeatedly asked: “How did you as an ‘outsider’ get people in Dar to talk about all those things they would never tell us?”

Yet, these were not the assumptions or questions that deterred me from continuing my relationship with Dar es Salaam. My decision to not continue research in Dar emerged more from a combination of warnings and suggestions, ranging from “this research will land you in serious trouble with the rich East African Asians” to “why don’t you develop this study as a comparative analysis of South Asians in Hong Kong and Tanzania so that you can diffuse the race and class politics while gaining access to an international market for your book?”

Despite the distance and agony that resulted, it is the relationships and promises that I made in Dar es Salaam that set everything in motion. Dar is where I began to understand scholarship as an intense creative and political journey that comes with certain responsibilities. I grappled, for the first time, with what it might mean to carry out those responsibilities when intellectual work hinges on getting entangled with people who share with the researcher their everyday lives and spaces, their festivities and mourning, their disappointments and longings. My “abandonment” of Dar as a research site resulted from the harsh truth that I did not have the tools at the time to adequately wrestle with the commitments that could do justice to such entanglements. And the inevitable and lingering restlessness that came from this abandonment put me on the path of searching for languages, translations, and representations that can be more ethical; that can try to better internalize the poetry of coauthored dreams and fires; and the critical analyses and visions that this ever-evolving search can make possible.

The following discussion of the research methodology that I adopted in Dar is derived from a longer essay that aimed to inject into the feminist geography of the early 1990s the vibrancy of the debates on positionality and location that were happening in African Studies, women’s history, and critical ethnography (Nagar 1997). As such, this chapter is inserted in the terminologies and discussions of the 1990s. While much of my research in Dar came out in the form of academic articles in journals that the majority of my subjects or “life historians” were never likely to read, one research topic that was close to my heart—but that remained confined to the dissertation pages—concerned the everyday politics of language in the Asian communities. The sidebar accompanying this chapter is excerpted from a more detailed chapter of my dissertation on this topic (Nagar 1995).

Exploring Methodological Borderlands through Oral Narratives

What does it mean to situate fieldwork in the multiple contexts in which we, as politically engaged beings, operate? How are research and researcher both constituted in and through the “spaces of betweenness” that unfold in the process of making knowledge in the field? Can fieldwork be a form of resistance to dominant ways of acquiring and codifying knowledge? Feminist geographers have become increasingly immersed in these difficult conversations about the politics of fieldwork and representation (see Katz 1994, Nast 1994). Here, I contribute to this discussion on the basis of my own fieldwork experience in Dar es Salaam. Specifically, I explore how critical feminist ethnography has enabled me to explore issues of multiply juxtaposed social identities and their connectedness with social places.1 I also emphasize the importance of relationality and reflexivity in my work by illuminating how my social and spatial situatedness with respect to different communities and individuals defined my relationships with them, and thereby, the knowledge that we produced. Finally, I show how my own attempts to expose power relations through my research, and to overcome them in my personal life, affected what I saw, heard, probed, and wrote.

Identities and Narratives: The Focus of My Research

The fragmented nature of subjectivity and the contingency of social experience is captured well by Stuart Hall when he compares identity to a bus ticket: “You just have to get from here to there, the whole of you can never be represented in the ticket you carry but you have to buy a ticket in order to get from here to there” (quoted in Watts 1992, 124). Racial, ethnic, gender, class, or sexual identities do not define a fixed profile of traits, but a fluctuating composition of differences, multiple intersections, and incommensurabilities that are historically, politically, culturally, and contextually constructed, and constantly transformed in continuous plays of history, culture, and power (Lowe 1991).

It is through an engagement with these complex and often contradictory constructions, expressions, and transformations of multiple and intersecting identities in people’s everyday lives that I dismantle the homogenous category of “Asian” in postcolonial Dar es Salaam. This racial category—originally constructed in a colonial context to refer to people who immigrated from what are now India and Pakistan and to position “Asians” between the “native African” and the ruling British in East Africa—has continued to define Tanzania’s social and political landscape. I explore how Tanzanian Asian men and women experienced, created, and modified their complex social identities and boundaries in the context of a rapidly changing political-economic environment and continuously shifting numbers and configurations of their communities between 1961 and 1993. In the course of this exploration, I examine essentializing descriptions based on race, gender, class, religion, sect, and language. I also highlight two other processes—namely, how individuals and organizations combined gendered discourses with discourses of race, caste, class, and religion to maintain or alter both social boundaries and gender relations; and the manner in which social places, such as community halls, clubs, beaches, mosques, and religious schools, reinforced existing identities and structures of power on the one hand, and became sites to challenge dominance on the other. Social places, communal organizations, languages, and various kinds of interracial, interreligious, and interclass relationships serve as multiple windows to reveal different facets of complexity and diversity associated with the lives of Asian women and men. Throughout my work, I intersperse my own narrative with the narratives of men and women from different classes and religious, caste, sectarian, and linguistic backgrounds, some labeled as “pure” and others as “half-castes,” some respected and others shunned by their communities. This narrative challenges the dominant image of all Tanzanian Asians as exploitative male traders, and emphasizes how those in power (whether in state, communities, or organizations) tried to shape racial and communal rhetoric, and how the less powerful internalized or troubled their ideas.

A key question that arises here is whether a focus on identity is the best way to examine the diverse experiences and the hierarchies of power among people. Margaret Somers points out why an “identity approach” is necessary to understand social action. An individual or a collectivity, Somers maintains, cannot be assumed to have any particular set of interests simply because one aspect of their identity fits into one social category such as class or race or gender. Rather than imputing interests to people on the basis of a social category, an identity approach to action focuses on how people characterize themselves. It recognizes that people are guided to act by the multiple relationships in which they are embedded, and that the patterns of their relationships continually shift over time and space (Somers 1992).

Identities are formed and challenged within numerous and multilayered narratives and social networks. As Somers writes, “narrative identities are constituted by a person’s temporally and spatially specific ‘place’ in culturally constructed stories that comprise (breakable) rules, (variable) practices, binding (and unbinding) institutions, and the multiple stories of family, nation, or economic life” (Somers 1992, 607). My research places the public and cultural narratives that inform people’s lives in relation to spatial structures, institutional practices, organizational constraints, politics, and demography, all of which combine to shape the history and geography of social action. In this manner, Asians from different backgrounds can be located as characters in their social narratives within a temporally and place-specific configuration of relationships and practices.

A great deal of emphasis has been placed on race, class, and gender in recent feminist and identity-related literature emerging in the Anglophone academy. Although this emphasis may be pertinent in some contexts, race, class, and gender can, by themselves, be inadequate to understand experiences of peoples whose identities and social experience are defined just as saliently (if not more so) by religious, caste, sectarian, and linguistic affiliations. In the following discussion of the methodology of my research on identity politics among Asians in Dar es Salaam, I show that identity theory needs to be geographically and historically contextualized, allowing the range of social multiplicities we consider as researchers to expand and alter according to the places and time periods we study.

Problematizing Categories

Identities are often defined in terms of normative categories which typically take the form of fixed binary oppositions, categorically asserting the meaning of masculine and feminine, white and black, homosexual and heterosexual, etc. (Scott 1986). My study deals with normative categories based on race (African, Asian, Arab, half-caste), religion (Hindu, Muslim, Sikh), caste/sect (Ismaili, Ithna Asheri, Brahmin, Baniya), region of origin (Goan, Gujarati, Kutchi, Punjabi), class, gender, and language. I focus on four Asian communities in Dar es Salaam—“the Hindus,” “the Ithna Asheris,” “the Sikhs,” and “the Goans.” Although these communities distinguished themselves primarily along religious lines, their labels subsumed other identities as well. The word Sikh, for example, was invoked as a simultaneously religious, linguistic, and regional category referring to followers of the Sikh faith from Punjab who spoke Punjabi. The term Goan was generally used by Tanzanians to refer to Roman Catholics from Goa, which was a Portuguese colony until 1961 and is now part of India. The label Ithna Asheri referred to Khoja Shia Muslims who traced their origins to the Kutch and Kathiawar regions of India. Tanzanian Asians used the term Hindu to refer mainly to people from Gujarat, Kathiawar, and Kutch who were born in any Hindu caste. References to Hindus from other parts of India were generally qualified by terms such as Hindu Punjabi or UP Hindu.

Thus, the labels Sikh and Hindu gave primacy to religion, although regional and linguistic affiliations were also implied. The term Ithna Asheri gave primacy to a specific Muslim sect, but its regional origins were clear. The label Goan gave primacy to a region, but it had strong religious and sectarian connotations. There was no consistency, therefore, in the way names were applied to different groups. It is to highlight the inconsistent and unproblematized nature of these frequently used designations that I use the phrase normative categories in describing these communities. I chose these four communities to complicate the too-often-made distinctions among Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and Christian as if they are internally homogeneous, self-contained, and disharmonious categories. I challenge this simple classification of communities on the basis of religious affiliation by highlighting the manner in which social experience shapes and is shaped by various layers of social identities in different geographical and historical contexts. At the same time, I explore how organizational, institutional, and societal processes as well as ontological, public, and cultural narratives operate in people’s lives over time and in different places to strengthen and reinforce their identities as members of specific categories (see Nagar 1995).

Creating a “Feminist Ethno-geography” to Explore Social Boundaries

Dominant paradigms in the social sciences have largely treated subalterns as a residual category since they are not immediately visible participants in politics, trade, and matters of state (Ngaiza and Koda 1991). Through personal narratives, oral and life historical researchers have grappled with the experiences of those who do not have access to means of publicity and whose feelings, thoughts, and actions get hidden behind the experience of dominant male middle class, which incorrectly acquires universal significance. Behar (1993), Mbilinyi (1989), and Ngaiza and Koda (1991) point out how oral narratives can make “private” oppressions more public and more shared, challenging dominant patriarchal definitions and the silencing of subalterns. Furthermore, a critical awareness of relationality is central to any study of community and identity. Personal narratives, strengthened by participant observation, provide insights into the complexities of intersecting social relationships and the manner in which these construct communities and identities in different contexts.

My research deploys feminist ethnography, with sensitivity to the role of place and space in constituting identities and communities as well as in the production of knowledge itself. Between 1991 and 1993, I spent twelve months in Dar es Salaam, collected fifty-eight life stories, and conducted 150 shorter interviews/ conversations with Goan, Sikh, Ithna Asheri, and Hindu men and women from different backgrounds.2 Shorter interviews centered on people’s family and occupational histories, experiences of and opinions about various political events since 1960, participation in community activities, daily schedules, and mental maps, as well as histories of communal institutions and organizations as narrated by both leaders and common people. Most life stories emerged from several long conversations with each informant over a period of time and involved (in addition to the topics mentioned above) discussions on family, marriage, and relationships; personal, familial, and economic issues; race and gender relations; community politics; attitudes toward individuals and groups; and reflections on informants’ multiple and contextual identities. Additionally, I collected information from historical and contemporary newspapers, community records, and family archives.

Participant observation formed the core of my research and the heart of my experience in Dar es Salaam. There was no clear line of separation between my personal life and my research. I spent most of my time in the Asian-dominated city center with friends and acquaintances from different communities in temples, mosques, clubs, halls, playgrounds, beaches, religion classes, and community houses; in weekly community gatherings; at celebrations of secular/ religious festivals and weddings; and in people’s homes, where I frequently spent time or lived as a guest, friend, researcher, or “adopted” family member. There was hardly a street in the city center that I did not know intimately. Many Asian families welcomed me as one of their own and gently insisted that if they ever found me paying for a meal, they would be offended. The deeply segregated nature of the city along racial and class lines meant that I was totally cut off from Asians when I lived away from the city center on the university campus. However, once I entered the Asian area, I ate my meals in people’s homes, participated in family and neighborhood gossip, and caught up with everyday events in the communities. Being in Asian residential and social places allowed me to experience and identify the rifts and alliances along the lines of religion, class, caste, race, and gender that defined these places.

Photo 3. Beaches became sites of lively debate about multiparty politics in Tanzania.
Dar es Salaam, 1993. (Photo: Richa Nagar)

Dar es Salaam became a kaleidoscope of social sites for me, as I traversed its segregated gendered, classed, raced, and communalized spaces in the course of my daily life. With every turn of the kaleidoscope, I was conscious of my changed position, both geographically and socially. Not only did I behave differently in each situation, but people in each place textualized me differently, and dialogical processes between me and my informants in different places continuously shaped the structure and the interpretations of the narratives that were produced in the course of my work.

My methodology attempted to infuse feminist ethnography with a geographical understanding. A combination of oral narratives, observations, shorter interviews, mental maps of informants, and newspaper and archival sources helped me construct “life-historical geographies” that combined a geographical approach with a historical sensibility, explored complexities of lived culture and subjectivity, and examined how individuals were positioned within complex social relations in time, place, and space.

Reflexivity and Intersubjectivity in a Geography of Positionality

My research topic and methodology made reflexivity and intersubjectivity central to my work.3 At the heart of both reflexivity and intersubjectivity lie issues of positionality. Understanding positionality entails an analysis of the locations of the researcher and the “researched,” and of their relationship with each other. As Visweswaran notes, “the relationship of the knower to known is constituted by the process of knowing. Conversely, the process of knowing is itself determined by the relationship of knower to known” (Visweswaran 1994, 48).

My exploration of the politics of communities and social identities is intertwined with the complex ways in which my own identities and background situated me in relation to my informants. An examination of these intricate positionings in the following pages reveals how my aim to analyze normative categories through my research did not preclude people from labeling me and putting me into categories to which they directly or indirectly related. The ways I was perceived by individuals or by a whole community, for example, shaped the degree to which they accepted me and what they shared with me. These positionings were profoundly affected by place- and space-specific phenomena and processes, an aspect often overlooked by ethnographers.

Reflexivity also necessitates that I analyze my own personal and political commitments with respect to my informants and my research project. Such an investigation on my part can be defined as “an effort at ‘accountable positioning’ . . ., an endeavor to be answerable for what I have learned to see, and for what I have learned to do” (Visweswaran 1994, 48).

How “Communities” Perceived Me

Some things about me were quite apparent to almost every Asian with whom I interacted—I was a single woman, in her early twenties, from a lower-middle-class Hindu family in India, doing doctoral research in Dar es Salaam. Other aspects of my background I revealed in diverse ways, depending on the context, and different things were perceived as important by different communities. Despite these divergences, however, I never felt that the desire to build relationships with the communities was one-sided. From the beginning, all the communities sought common ground with me on which to build a foundation for our relationship. People’s imagined and symbolic connections with geographical regions—whether it be the United States, the Indian states of Gujarat or Uttar Pradesh, or the city of Lucknow—and the manner in which they placed me with reference to those places, played an important role in defining their attitudes towards me.

Gujarati speakers, who formed an overwhelming majority of the Asian population of Dar es Salaam, easily guessed my Gujarati ethnic origins by my last name and my knowledge of the Gujarati language. My Hindi accent, however, often required me to clarify that although my family has retained a “Gujarati” identity in the state of Uttar Pradesh (where my ancestors migrated from Gujarat several centuries ago), my first language is Hindi/ Urdu, and I was born and raised in the old part of the city of Lucknow, which has been deeply influenced by a significant presence of Shia Muslims.4 My “Gujaratiness” as well as my “Hinduness” and “Brahmanness” (which the Gujarati Hindus and Muslims were able to guess by my name) were always questionable, however, and possibly considered fake when I was interacting with people in Dar es Salaam who considered themselves more Gujarati or more Hindu than myself. At the same time, the doubtful state of my Hinduness allowed me to come closer to Muslims.

Among the Hindus, I was recognized as a “Gujarati” even though my family has had no contact with Gujarat for more than a century. Although I consider Hindi/ Urdu as my mother tongue, my ability to speak and read Gujarati was appreciated as “respect toward my own mother tongue.” No one ever openly questioned my beliefs or habits—often it was assumed that I was a believer, a vegetarian, and that I felt uncomfortable eating or living with Muslims, or with lower-caste Hindus who ate meat. The upper-caste Hindus who discovered that I was not religious, ate meat, and had close relationships not only with lower-caste Hindus and Asian Muslims, but also with Africans, often called me “a young, overenthusiastic radical,” but even this assessment never seemed to have any outward effect on my personal relationships with these people. In lower-caste homes, my willingness to eat nonvegetarian food with them often evoked expressions of pleasant surprise and contributed to making me more welcome in their homes by weakening the caste barriers.

Members of the Ithna Asheri community were often impressed that my hometown was Lucknow. Although my knowledge of Gujarati made communication with informants easy, they were fascinated by the fact that I could speak Urdu, since Urdu is the language in which religious gatherings are held. Many times I was complimented for my familiarity with the Shia culture by statements like: “When I saw you in the mosque, I thought you were an Ithna Asheri,” or “I was surprised to know that you were not an Ithna Asheri—you look like one.” My Hinduness was also questioned by many Ithna Asheris on the grounds that I ate meat with them, lived with Ithna Asheri friends, and visited the mosque. I was often told that I did not “act like a Hindu” or that I would “make a good Ithna Asheri.” Thrice I was also asked whether my interest in their community meant that I intended to convert to the Ithna Asheri faith. At such points, I explained that I was similarly trying to understand the Hindu, Sikh, and Goan communities, too.

Despite my warm acceptance by both Hindu and Ithna Asheri communities, however, I was often aware of being looked upon as an oddity. In an environment where people’s religious identities mattered greatly, my informants often assumed that I was a practicing Hindu and seemed perplexed by my participation in the religious ceremonies of non-Hindus, especially of Ithna Asheris and Goans.

In the Sikh community, my being perceived as a Hindu did not raise doubts, as it is quite common for Hindus in Dar es Salaam to attend Sikh religious events, and vice versa. Most Sikh men and women I met in Dar es Salaam were fluent in Hindi/ Urdu and our conversations were, therefore, in my first language, not theirs. A large proportion of Sikhs in Dar es Salaam, especially women in their thirties and forties, had immigrated to Tanzania within the last twenty years. These women developed an affinity with me the moment they discovered that I was from North India. I was seen by the Sikh men and women as a sister or daughter “from our region” due to the physical proximity of the states of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. I was often invited to weekly gatherings and to people’s homes: “This is your home. Come over whenever you miss your own food or people.” I was also pampered by older Sikh women who fed me, gave me advice about looking after myself in Dar es Salaam, and urged me to get married before I got too old.

My connection with the “prestigious” United States seemed to matter more in the Goan community than anywhere else. I was often introduced by Goans to other Goans as “a scholar from the United States who is studying our community.” There was also an expectation that I would dress in a trendy western style and would know all about western dancing, and some people seemed disappointed when I seemed to fail on both counts. Quite a few Goans had relatives in Canada and said that they could relate to my life and environment in the United States based on what they had seen or heard about Canada. Some others were interested in migrating to the United States or Canada and were therefore eager to know about my life in the West. My familiarity with Bombay and Poona, where quite a few Goans received their education or had relatives or friends, also brought me close to them in some ways.

Except in the Goan community, I introduced myself as a scholar from a U.S. university only when I interacted with businessmen, professionals, and housewives from the upper classes, and with university students and faculty. To most others, my affiliation with the United States did not matter in the first instance and only became clear when we talked about ourselves in greater detail. Some of my working-class informants who had assumed that I was a student from India seemed to me to become more distant once I disclosed my U.S. affiliation. This made me cautious about when and how I revealed to them my connection with the United States.

Photo 4. The weekly langar preparations in the Gurdwara allowed Sikh women from all classes to combine collective labor with gossip and political analysis. Dar es Salaam, 1993. (Photo: Richa Nagar)

My living situation significantly influenced my relationship with the various communities. My attempts to build connections within each community frequently took me to those who were prominent in their communities. These included the families of a Hindu lawyer, an Ithna Asheri journalist, a Sikh dentist, a Goan businesswoman, and a Hindu architect. We quickly built good personal relationships, I often shared meals or spent my weekends with them, and in one case I lived with the family for more than a month. During this close interaction, I visited community centers, temples, and mosques with my hosts, and they introduced me to their friends, acquaintances, and leaders of community organizations as someone who was “like a family member.” Making my first entry into community spaces from the homes of well-known members of those communities proved invaluable for me, and the respective communities invited me in with their doors wide open. I often felt overwhelmed by the trust and confidence that many people placed in me unquestioningly. It was as if my trustworthiness had already been tested and they did not have to worry about me anymore. Yet, I was always aware of being looked upon as a Hindu. While this made me feel completely free to argue, disagree, or agree with Hindus in discussions around communal issues, it also made me feel burdened with being looked upon as a Hindu “other” in non-Hindu communities. No matter how close I felt to people in the Goan, Ithna Asheri, and Sikh communities, I was careful not to do or say anything that could be construed by them as overstepping my limits as someone who did not follow the same faith.

Ethnographic Research and Betrayal

For me, fieldwork in Dar es Salaam was, in many ways, like knitting a large familial net. Differences, whether religious, political, or ideological, were part of the same multi-textured, multicolored net where threads did not match perfectly. Amid my many friends, “mothers,” “aunts,” “uncles,” “sisters,” “brothers,” and “grandparents,” I never felt that Dar es Salaam was not my home. At the same time, however, some of these very individuals who trusted me with their personal stories, fed me regularly, showered affection on me, and received my affection in return, might disapprove of the manner in which I have used their words in my academic work. The dilemma this situation posed for me has been well-articulated by Lila Abu-Lughod:

Does using my knowledge of individuals for purposes beyond friendship and shared memories by fixing their words and lives for disclosure to a world beyond the one they live in constitute some sort of betrayal? As someone who moves between worlds, I feel that confronting the negative images I know to exist in the United States toward Arabs is one way to honor the kindness they have shown me. So is challenging stereotypical generalizations that ultimately make them seem more “other.” Yet how will my critical ethnography be received? This is the dilemma all those of us who move back and forth between worlds must face as we juggle speaking for, speaking to, and . . . speaking from. (Abu-Lughod 1993, 41)

The task I undertook in my research involved challenging the negative imaging and stereotyping of Asians not only in the West and among Africans, Arabs, and Europeans inside Tanzania, but also within the Asian “community” among people of differing religions, languages, classes, castes, and sects. This second challenge created a major ethical quandary. The communities that I studied were heterogeneous not only in terms of “race” and class, religious, sectarian, regional, and linguistic affiliations, but also in terms of their access to power. An understanding of power hierarchies and the struggles around them in these communities necessitated that I engage with the privileged and the deprived, the dominant and the dominated. For example, wealthy businessmen, traders, professionals, and their spouses had as much to do with my study as did taxi drivers, shoemakers, street vendors, school teachers, seamstresses, and middle-class housewives. On several occasions, I felt a real tension between my ties of affection with particular people and my commitment to certain political beliefs, and was forced to reconcile two kinds of ethical commitments—the ethics associated with my political beliefs and the ethics of respecting the trust that each life historian or informant had placed in me. I tried to maintain my commitment to people who shared their stories and thoughts with me by accurately representing their words and opinions, and by respecting the need of many of them to remain anonymous. At the same time, my political commitment to examine relations of power in communities and homes required me to use the words of several community leaders, husbands, and wealthy women and men in contexts where they might not have liked them to be used.

Reconciling Political Ethics with Cultural Ethics?

The dilemmas I confronted were not confined to the issue of betrayal, however. My biggest difficulty in the field was reconciling my antiracist commitment and my ideas about sexual intimacies with the need to accept and respect my informants’ opinions on these issues, particularly when I spent time in their homes like a family member. Having lived most of my life in a lower-middle-class joint family in a religiously mixed, old neighborhood of Lucknow, I felt perfectly at home in middle-class homes of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians. I had a good sense of what was proper or improper to talk about before elders, men, or women, when to avoid wearing jeans or tight clothes, when to cover my head, take off my shoes, sit on the floor, or help in the kitchen. But my ability to adapt myself to the homes and environment of my informants also led them to think that I fitted their definition of a “good girl,” that being unmarried I had no sexual experience, and that I “kept away from homosexuals.” In a way, this situation was no different from situations that I had often faced growing up in old Lucknow—where the need to show respect to elders superseded the need to shock them. In Dar es Salaam, therefore, I resorted to the same option that I did in Lucknow—I stayed silent except before those who I knew would understand or engage with me. With the exception of three women friends and their families, no one knew about my involvement with a white man with whom I had been living for some time in the United States.

My position as a young woman also sometimes caused me agony. There were times, especially in families that I was close to, when I was seen as too young to take care of myself in a “harsh place like Dar es Salaam.” For example, I often got advice about what I was supposed to do or not do, how it was important for me not to venture alone into “African” areas, whom I should be interviewing, and whom I should not be wasting my time with. I frequently had to address such situations by direct confrontation, or by ignoring what I was being ordered to do.

The racist attitudes of many “Asians” toward “Africans” caused me to make a bigger adjustment, however. When I first started my fieldwork, I spent almost all my time living, working, and socializing in the Asian-dominated city center, which was segregated from African residential areas. With the exception of African domestic workers in Asian homes, shops, and offices, I had no chance to interact with Africans. Although living in the Asian area allowed me to collect a wealth of information, its social environment stifled and angered me. As a result, two months after I started my fieldwork, I moved to the university campus, which was located far from the city center. Many Asians in the city center expressed fear of going to the university alone because it was “a totally African area.” I commuted back and forth between the university and town, mostly by dala-dalas. Asians, whether rich or poor, rarely used dala-dalas and perceived them as dangerous because they were “full of lower-class Africans.” Asian girls and women, supposedly because of their relative inexperience and vulnerability as compared to Asian men, were especially warned off from venturing into African areas on dala-dalas. When I did what other Asian women were not supposed to do, however, it was attributed to my being westernized, as people from the West were thought to “like to mix with the locals and do ‘exotic’ things like climbing on dala-dalas, which they can’t do in their own countries.”5

But choosing to commute to the Asian communities instead of living with them did not really take me away from racism. It showed me, sometimes through personal pain, the other side of the same coin. I tried to express my anguish in a letter to a close friend back in the United States:

At times it pains me . . . to have brown skin here. I take the bus every day to town and most of the times I am the only Asian riding in the bus. Sometimes I am greeted sarcastically, “Kem chho?” I feel angry . . . because I can hear and feel the resentment against the brown skin in the voice that is greeting me. And I feel like screaming: “I am not . . . [a] Muhindi from here. Don’t look at me like that . . .” . . . But then my position here as an Indian student from India is not quite the same as a [politicized] Muhindi from Tanzania either. My problem is that I am a foreigner here, and at times I want to be recognized as such. But anyone who does not know me thinks that I am just an arrogant . . . Muhindi who does not know enough Kiswahili in spite of having lived in Tanzania all her life. It hurts me so much to be resented here. . . . And what really frustrates me is that the nature of my research keeps me away from the Waswahili . . . because I am too busy [immersing myself in] the Asian communities.6

In Dar es Salaam, where the divide between African and Asian residential areas was sharp, the shift in my spatial location from the Asian-dominated city center to the African-dominated university significantly changed my lifestyle and the politics of fieldwork. It affected what I saw, what I considered important, and the manner in which I perceived things. The politics around multiparty elections had made the situation between Africans and Asians exceptionally tense around the time when I started living on campus. Living with African students and commuting for several hours on buses as a sole Asian made me acutely aware of the fury that many ordinary Africans felt against Asians. It also provided me opportunities to explore with several faculty members contemporary racial politics and their relationship with political and economic changes in the country.7 These discussions enabled me to grapple with how raced, classed, and gendered discourses developed in Tanzania in different political and economic contexts since independence. Members of the Women’s Research and Documentation Project at the University of Dar es Salaam gave valuable feedback on my research ideas through both group and individual discussions, and emphasized the importance of situating my study in the context of Asian African “realities,” as well. My previous research focus around Asian community politics shifted as a result of these interactions to encompass issues related to race and how they affected political discourse and social attitudes of those living in Dar es Salaam. While so far I had seen Asians simplistically lumping all Africans together, I could now understand how it was also difficult for many Africans to recognize or acknowledge the complexities of the Asian communities.

Dressing for Ethnography?

One issue that consistently posed problems for me throughout my stay in Dar es Salaam was the question of appropriate dress. In her “Sari Stories,” Kamala Visweswaran describes how a gendered body is “(ad)dressed” intimately by history, place, culture, age, and class. She observes that “nothing could be more ‘ordinary’ for many South Indian women than wearing a sari, yet the stories underscore my own confrontations with this most unremarked activity: getting dressed. Of course, the idea of ‘dressing up’ has a history in feminist ethnography, for what we female (as opposed to male) ethnographers wear has some bearing on how we are received as social actors and as anthropologists” (Visweswaran 1994, 14).

Feminists from Beauvoir to Butler have drawn attention to the body as a locus of cultural inscription (Beauvoir 1973; Butler 1987, 1990). The body is a material reality that has already been culturally located and defined within a social context, and it is also the site that receives cultural interpretations (Butler 1987, 133). Through the act of dressing, the gendered body becomes a textualized site for the construction, imposition, and reception of preexisting identities and cultural meanings on the one hand, and for challenging the dominant categories and meanings on the other.

My confrontations with dressing were continuous. Public dress codes and gendered communal identities were intimately related among Asians in Dar es Salaam. Although salwaar qameez and western-style dress were popular among the Hindu women in their young and middle ages, it was only a sari or a bindi on the forehead that automatically branded a woman as a Hindu. Most Goans saw both sari and salwaar qameez as “old fashioned” or “too Indian,” and the majority of Goan women wore western-style dress. Among Sikhs and Ithna Asheris, salwaar qameez with a dupatta was the most popular dress, although hijaab was practiced in public places by most Ithna Asheri women.

On a day-to-day basis, salwaar qameez was the most practical dress for me in the Asian neighborhoods even though it made many Goans and most Hindus of my age group think that I was “too old-fashioned.” It was a dress I had worn all my life, it was considered respectable in all the communities without making me an “insider” to a particular one, and it allowed me to interact spontaneously with Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs of all ages without fearing that my clothes would offend anyone’s sentiments. I was always aware of how easily many Ithna Asheris, Sikhs, and elderly Hindus granted me trust and respect on the basis on my being dressed “properly” in salwaar qameez. I did not want the same people to feel cheated by me if they spotted me in the streets in anything that “inappropriately” revealed my arms or legs. Thus I had to bear the distaste of being looked upon as “old-fashioned” by some in order to avoid being seen as disrespectful or phony by others. But even this balancing act did not work entirely because salwaar qameez always made me the odd one in the homes and community places of the Goans.

Wearing a salwaar qameez also made me acutely aware of my Asianness when I commuted across the racially marked social spaces between the university and town. I tried to resist everything that would encourage an African to categorize me as an Asian from Dar es Salaam. As part of my struggle to challenge assumptions, I often tried to disrupt dress codes by wearing western-style shirts with my salwaar or long skirts with loose, long-sleeved tops. This was easier for me to do when I spent most of my day in the newspaper archives rather than talking to people and walking from street to street. While this way of dressing discouraged Africans from looking at me as a “regular Muhindi,” it also made me too strange an Asian to be able to move freely in the streets of the downtown area among Asian acquaintances.

Sometimes, negotiating between these conflicting expectations and needs made things quite complicated. For example, when I initially met a Goan school teacher, he commented on my salwaar qameez, saying, “We Goans are far more westernized and progressive than most Indians. You will find no Goan woman in Dar wearing a dress like yours.” His judgmental tone troubled me so much that I wore my U.S.-bought pants, T-shirt, and tennis shoes when I visited him for our second interview. But dressing according to the codes of one community left me inappropriately attired for a gathering I was to attend in a different community and classed space. That same evening, I wanted to attend a big Hindu celebration and my upper-class hosts had told me that none of my cotton salwaar qameezes would do because it was going to be a “nice gathering.” So, I had to walk all day on the streets with a heavy bag that carried not only my tape-recording equipment and papers but also a silk sari, a matching blouse and petticoat, a bindi, and another set of footwear. Before entering the wedding hall, I had to go to the house of a Hindu woman and undergo the necessary transformation of appearance in order to become a part of the gathering.

The question of dress, therefore, intimately linked the gendered body with the everyday politics of communal, class, and race identities in social spaces. My need as a researcher to associate simultaneously with different communities, without being seen as solely identifying with only one of them, compelled me to negotiate the gendered dress codes without showing disrespect toward people and without making undesirable compromises. Such a negotiation, however, was not easy. It required me to deal with contradictions associated with my social and geographical position throughout my stay in Dar es Salaam.

Situatedness and Social Relationships in the Making of Life Stories

Far from being the creation of a single individual, a life story results from a collaboration between two individuals. From the start, a life story embodies the agendas, purposes, and interests of the narrator and the interpreter, both of whom are socially and spatially positioned subjects whose positions influence not only their perspectives but also their relationship with each other. The mutual situatedness of these positioned subjects has a profound influence on the shape of a narrative (Rosaldo 1989, Mirza and Strobel 1989, Geiger 1986 and 1990, Popular Memory Group 1982, Personal Narratives Group 1989). For instance, my study of multifaceted, contextually constructed identities is itself shaped by the complex identities of those who participated in the production of life histories. Every brief or long-term relationship that was established with each informant was characterized by the complex intersections of our personal histories and geographies, which in turn influenced whom or what we talked about and how. To explore this point further, let me discuss the process by which life stories of two individuals, Francis and Nargis (both aliases), were produced.

In terms of the normative categories described initially, Francis was a married Goan man in his forties, Tanzanian by nationality, a motor mechanic and school-bus driver by vocation, and a resident of Dar es Salaam since birth. I can describe Nargis as a divorced Ithna Asheri woman, also in her forties, who was born in Dar es Salaam into a wealthy business family but spent more than a decade in Britain, where she acquired U.K. citizenship. In the late 1980s, she returned to Dar es Salaam with her father to fight a case against the illegal acquisition of his property by his relatives. But these sketchy descriptions by themselves reveal very little about why the stories of Francis and Nargis took the particular forms they did. In order to understand that, one has to consider how I, as a positioned subject, shaped their narratives.

Although Francis and Nargis did not know each other, they were introduced to me by a friend who thought they would each be a good informant for my research.

Nargis and I had some long conversations. We often disagreed on issues pertaining to race and racism but agreed on matters related to gendered religious communalism. We soon developed affection for each other and became good friends. A few months after we were introduced, Nargis was shattered by the death of her father, who lived with her, and she invited me to stay with her. I lived with Nargis for more than two months, and her life story was the end product of many conversations that we had in a variety of social and personal contexts.

The life story of Francis, in contrast, was obtained in a single, half-hour meeting followed by a five-hour meeting the next day. For the first interview, I met Francis in the lounge of the YWCA, which I found to be a safe public space to talk with men I did not know well. The second conversation took place in Francis’s home and was more casual, although my presence as a visitor with a tape recorder and a notebook clearly established the terms of our relationship: Francis was the narrator, I was the researcher, and each of us was an “outsider” to the other person’s life.

Despite his racist and sexist ideas, I was impressed by Francis’s openness and his well-formulated perspective on many social issues that I was interested in. I was aware that his ideas and experiences would greatly enrich my study of social identities. The Goans I had interviewed prior to Francis were considered important in the community and supposedly “knew all there was to know about Goans.” Francis was different. No Goan was ever likely to send me to him, and no Goan did. In fact, when a Goan community leader found out that I had spoken to Francis, he chided me for wasting my time on a taxi driver who knew nothing. I felt that I had a lot to learn from Francis, but unfortunately, our relationship could not develop much. At the end of our long conversation, Francis directed at me what I considered to be improper sexual remarks, and we did not speak again.

Until that moment, I felt safe with Francis. His position as a married man in his mid-forties, who saw himself as a working-class person and who was introduced to me by a close friend, encouraged me to ask him sensitive questions about his family life and about issues such as sex work, interracial relations, and Asians’ involvement in underground economic activities, such as smuggling. Francis’s response to my questions was significantly influenced by my position as a twenty-three-year-old single woman who was seen as an “Asian” but who was simultaneously perceived as westernized because of her connection with the United States. The assumption that I was westernized led several men, including Francis, to think that they could openly discuss their personal, intercommunal, and interracial sexual relationships with me, a topic they would have felt uncomfortable to discuss if I had arrived directly from India to do the same research. For example, when Francis shared that he and his wife were planning to have more children, he also told me about his extramarital relationships with three women, two of whom had abortions as a result. My status as an “outsider” encouraged Francis to discuss people openly. For instance, he expressed his dislike for his neighbor, Linda (alias), because he considered her a bad influence on his wife. He mentioned Asian sex workers and their clients by name, and told me about his ex-boss, who was once engaged in smuggling. He freely discussed his love affairs and his differences with his wife because I was unlikely to meet his wife if he did not want that to happen.

In Nargis’s case, the distinctions between my status as an “insider” and “outsider” became increasingly blurred with time. In the beginning, we were outsiders to each other. While Nargis freely talked about her community and her life to me and I shared many things with her, our relationship remained formal, and both of us were aware of my position as a researcher who did not belong to Nargis’s home or community spaces. While discussing events and issues, we both avoided mentioning people by name, and I was careful to not disclose to her anything about my other interviews. When I started living with Nargis, however, the barriers of public and private and home and community that previously existed between us collapsed. As the sites of our interactions shifted from formal spaces of the living room and dinner table to informal spaces of Nargis’s kitchen, bedroom, and neighborhood streets, our conversations became too personal and sensitive to be tape recorded or jotted down verbatim. Although I continued to be a social outsider for Nargis at times when she observed religious fasts or participated in maatam, in most other spheres we became insiders to each other’s lives. We regularly discussed everything that happened in our lives. She talked about the developments of her court case, as well as her relationships with her relatives, community leaders, lawyers, and friends. I told her about the people I met and interviewed, and we spent a considerable amount of time discussing Asian-African relations in the context of multiparty politics and the social and political issues specific to the Ithna Asheri community.

As was often the case with my interviewees, my “Asianness” frequently led Francis and Nargis to consider me an insider in the context of discussions around race. Both felt free to voice their prejudices and racist sentiments against Africans in front of me because they assumed that I shared their opinions. Although such views made me angry, I reacted quite differently in each case. Beyond posing some questions to challenge Francis’s position, I did little to voice my disapproval. First, the nature of my brief relationship with him did not allow me to risk offending him. Moreover, being unfamiliar with Francis’s social milieu, I wanted to know as much as possible about his background, his work, his social relationships with Asians and Africans, his perspectives on gender, race, and class relations among Goans and non-Goans, his attitude and stereotypes about people of different communities and regions, and his perceptions of “Goanness,” “Indianness,” and “Africanness.”

With Nargis, things developed quite differently. In the initial interviews, she shared with me many personal stories that she had not previously told anyone outside her immediate family. I valued the trust she had placed in me as a researcher, and even when I disagreed with her sometimes racist and homophobic ideas, I was careful not to say anything that might make her feel uncomfortable. Later, however, my close relationship with her, particularly at the time when I was living with her, allowed me to disagree and argue openly with her. Nargis’s position as a “subject” or “informant” for my research took a back seat then. She was first and foremost a good friend, like an older sister, with whom I felt a need to communicate honestly and to make her understand my position on issues as I tried to understand hers. Once the barrier of formality between Nargis and me was broken and we became a part of each other’s daily lives, I also felt responsible to decide in each instance whether a particular piece of information about her life was shared with me as a researcher, friend, or housemate.

Earlier in this chapter, I argued that in order to understand adequately the complexities of identity politics, we must be sensitive to the diverse and multiple social and geographical contexts in which those identities are constructed. The analysis of my relationship with Francis and Nargis goes a step further. It demonstrates that not only is a contextualization of identity theory crucial to our understanding of identities, but that the narratives that researchers produce are themselves shaped by our own social and geographical positions with respect to the subjects or “informants” whose identities we study. As Prell notes, “In the life history, two stories together produce one. A hearer and a listener ask, respond, present, and edit a life . . . One must know oneself through and in light of the other. The subject-subject relationship is itself a reflexive event in which a self is presented with a full knowledge of reporting, or constructing itself” (Prell 1989, 254).

Naming and Claiming Languages: Mother Tongues, Homelands, and Community Politics in Dar es Salaam

We need in particular to pay attention to those conditions of dialogue in which the different powers, histories, limits and languages that permit the process of “othering” to occur are inscribed. This draws us into an endless journey between cultures, languages, and complex configurations of meaning and power.

—Iain Chambers, Migrancy, Culture, and Identity

Fragments of Nuzhat Abbas’s sentences written in English, Kiswahili, Gujarati, and Urdu echo in my head as I grope to find a suitable beginning for the stories and arguments I want to share. Born in Zanzibar during the revolution, she was raised in Karachi and Toronto, and then moved to Madison, Wisconsin, to pursue a doctorate in comparative literature. Disrupting and complicating myths of origin and exile, she writes:

There are multiple stories here. Multiple languages. And silences. Some that I can decipher, some that I can’t. . . . I write my words in the Colonizer’s language that I love and long to claim. The other languages drift in my mind and interrupt me as I read, as I write. Snatches of music, my mother speaking, sermons at the mosque, Swahili, Gujerati, Urdu, and differently accented Englishes crowd my mind. My own voice with its peculiar accent, intimate to my ears, speaks carefully, anxious not to drown out what I may hear from other voices. My tongue aches with the effort. Grows heavy, falters. . . . She imagines for herself a language that could mirror her constantly dividing selves, her multiplicity of national and cultural identities, without recuperating her for the needs of the centre. She longs for a language that would not automatically erase the dreadful pain of these splittings, a language that would not just celebrate hybridity as choice but would show the cultural struggle of which it is, itself, an after effect.8 (Abbas 1993)

This cultural struggle that Nuzhat mentions is also a social, political, and economic struggle. Like social places and ideologies that define the “pures” and “impures” in different communities, languages are also key sites where power is exercised and contested, and where identities are defined and challenged. As situated encounters between subjects endowed with socially structured resources and competencies, linguistic interactions—however personal or insignificant they may seem—bear the traces of the social structures that they both express and help to reproduce (Thompson 1991).

Race, Power, and Language

The class-based conflict between Asians and Africans in Dar es Salaam was compounded by the Asians’ segregated social lives. The failure of most Asians to adopt Kiswahili as their own language often added fuel to the fire, especially in times of political crisis. Just as Asian communal places became targets of African criticism during the 1960s, so also the linguistic isolation of Asians came under heavy fire during the indigenization debate of 1992–93. One newspaper article voiced a common “African” complaint against “Asians”: “One does not need to go very far to identify the difficulties proven by the Asian community[’s] attitudes, based on their extreme cultural isolation. They have completely failed to integrate . . . with the indigenous [peoples]. . . . If you enter into their business places . . . they will communicate among themselves through their Indian language knowing very well that you cannot understand their conversation, which is not the case with Europeans etc.” (Mwakitwange 1993). The criticisms spread to other spheres, too. The Dar es Salaam Merchants Chamber was blamed for excluding its non-Asian members from its proceedings through excessive use of Gujarati (Business Times, 22 January 1993). Two months later, an African reader appealed to a leading English daily to stop publishing Gujarati advertisements (Daily News, 22 and 23 March 1993). Several Asians considered these criticisms as “blind attacks” (Daily News, 22 March 1993; also, Business Times, 22 January 1993), or as evidence of closed-mindedness and arrogance on the part of Africans (Daily News, 23 March 1993).

Many Asians I interviewed in Dar es Salaam, irrespective of class, gender, or community, shared prejudices against Africans when it came to marriage, religion, and food.9 However, the issue of linguistic divides was complicated by the diverse immigration histories and social positions of Asians, which were generally not visible to “outsiders.” For example, on the streets of Dar es Salaam, African youngsters often called out at Asian passers-by in Gujarati (“Kem Chho?”) while thinking they were speaking Kihindi. Thus, Gujarati was often assumed to be Hindi, the language of Wahindi or Indians, and all Wahindi were taken to be Gujarati speakers, even though several Asian communities, for example, Sikhs, Goans, and Konkanis, did not identify with either Gujarati or Hindi. And for Asians like Farida, who felt close to Zanzibar and Kiswahili, such assumptions became painful:

Since my childhood there was no language I knew more intimately than Kiswahili. Coming to Dar es Salaam was painful . . . I remember going to the market [once and] . . . telling the seller that I wanted potatoes and onions. And he just listened to me without giving me anything. . . . Then he said, “Mama, you are speaking excellent Kiswahili, you must be from Zanzibar.” The seller was surprised that an Indian-looking woman was speaking fluent Kiswahili and I was surprised that this man was surprised! . . . You would never see this scene in Zanzibar. Whether you are Indian looking, or Chinese looking, or Arab looking, . . . everybody spoke Kiswahili. . . . Encounters like this made me feel uncomfortable in Dar es Salaam. Sometimes someone would say, “Wewe Muhindi, nenda kufa India!” [You Muhindi, go die in India!] Initially, I used to remain quiet, but then I started returning such remarks by swearing in a very Swahili way. And I say, “Whether you like it or not, I will die here and you will come to my funeral.” And they get very shocked. . . . They can’t comprehend how these words are coming out of the mouth of an Asian-looking woman.10

Within Asian communities, racialized discourses marked attitudes toward people who spoke Kiswahili. This issue acquired special relevance among the Ithna Asheris, where a significant proportion of the community identified strongly with Zanzibar and spoke Kiswahili at home. Nargis, who grew up in Dar es Salaam, recalled the linguistic tensions in her community when Zanzibari Ithna Asheris arrived:

In 1965, something like two and a half thousand [Ithna Asheris] came from Zanzibar to Dar and we would say, “Look at them, they are talking Swahili.” And we would call them “Golas” [derogatory label for Africans] . . . because they . . . never spoke in their mother tongue—Kutchi or Gujarati, and I really hated them because they used to talk in Swahili all the time. . . . I used to tell them, “ . . . you come from India and you must know your mother tongue. I don’t expect you to know French or English, but at least you must know Gujarati . . . I know, you are proud of your Swahili—it is a sweet language . . ., but at least when you are inside your home . . . you should preserve your culture. . . . [If you migrate to London, are you going to say,] ‘Oh, I am in London now, so I should start speaking English and forget Gujarati and Kutchi?’”11

This tension between Kiswahili-speaking Ithna Asheris on the one hand and Gujarati- and Kutchi-speaking Ithna Asheris on the other persisted across class and gender lines. Farida (quoted earlier) remarked: “When we came to the mainland, one of the first things we faced was that . . . if you come from Zanzibar you are a Gola, an African, because you speak Kiswahili. The Zanzibaris were treated very badly by the Dar es Salaam Ithna Asheris. We were ‘uncultured’ because. . . . when we [Zanzibari Ithna Asheris] met each other, we spoke in Kiswahili. We still do that today, and they [mainland Ithna Asheris] still look down upon us.”12 However, these tensions between the Zanzibari and mainland Ithna Asheris were largely contained within the community. For many, Ithna Asheris exemplified “the highest degree of integration with Africans,” in sharp contrast to the Hindus who were seen as the “least integrated” of all Asians. Maria, a middle-class Goan woman, remarked:

About the Ithna Asheris, I would say that only their skins and hair are different but [from inside,] they are very African. . . . Most of them talk in Kiswahili at home, and even when they talk in Gujarati or English they use a few Kiswahili words in each sentence. I think that’s because of the Zanzibar influence. . . . I think [Hindus] are very aloof people, especially when it comes to Africans. Maybe it is racism—because you hardly see a Hindu lady even talking to an African lady. And if I am talking to an African lady, or [worse still,] an African man, they look at me so [suspiciously].13

The aloofness of Hindus from Africans described by Maria was especially noticeable among the upper- and upper-middle classes. A Mnyakusa friend who had worked for Asian businessmen from different communities remarked: “Of all Wahindi, Ithna Asheris speak the best Kiswahili, and Banyanis [Hindus] undoubtedly speak the worst Kiswahili. They say ‘Bana’ instead of ‘Bwana.’ They say ‘Kuja Hapa’ for ‘Njoo Hapa.’ They insert a lot of Kihindi [Gujarati] words in their Kiswahili. . . . Banyani women are worse off than Banyani men.”14 Sujata, an upper-class Hindu woman, reaffirmed the popular notion that Ithna Asheris are closer than Hindus to Africans, while rationalizing the distanced behavior of Hindus in cultural terms: “Africans call us Banyanis, and non-Hindu Asians call us Gujarati, . . . because they know us from our attire, our chandlo, and our language. So, we have a more distinct culture. We speak very clear Gujarati, but Ithna Asheris mainly speak Swahili, and they mix Swahili in with their Gujarati. Among Ismailis those who come from Kathiawar speak very good Gujarati, but most of them either speak Kutchi, or broken Gujarati.”15 Several Hindu leaders accepted the charge of aloofness while defending themselves on the grounds that their distance from Africans was based less on racism and more on religious and cultural difference. Damji Rathod, the former general secretary of the Hindu Mandal, remarked: “Being Muslims, Ithna Asheris are not as different from Africans as Hindus are. [In our case,] the most distinct difference is the religion because mostly Africans are either Muslims or Christians. Then, there is also food. We are very strict vegetarians and Africans are meat eaters. That does not allow us to mingle with them as freely as Ithna Asheris can. That’s why Ithna Asheris are linguistically and socially more integrated with Africans than we Gujaratis are.”16

While constructing a singular Hindu and Gujarati identity and explaining Hindus’ distanced relationship with Africans on the basis of cultural difference, both Sujata and Damji Bhai failed to consider how linguistic affinities are complicated simultaneously by class, caste, region, and gender. Jasu, a poor vendor from Rana caste, came to Dar es Salaam from Zanzibar in 1965 at the age of twelve. She noted linguistic differences not only between Hindus and Ithna Asheris, but also between upper-caste Hindus from Dar es Salaam and lower-caste Hindus from Zanzibar, and between women and men of her own caste:

I can immediately tell a Zanzibari Asian by their language. . . . The Gujarati of Zanzibari laboring castes is quite different from the Gujarati of Dar es Salaam Hindus. We use many Swahili words, but they [Hindus from Dar] don’t. . . . Also, most Zanzibari Asians speak perfect Swahili. But if you have remained inside the homes in Zanzibar, then you wouldn’t know good Swahili. We Zanzibari Ranas do not know as much Swahili as Zanzibari Ithna Asheris or Sunnis do. People say, “You are from Zanzibar, then how come you don’t speak good Swahili?” How could we know good Swahili? We [women] mostly worked in Hindu homes, and our men went to the soko [market] and did the outside work. All the people around us were Indians—who could I speak Swahili with? My children know everything in Swahili because they have grown up with Africans and Arabs here in Kariakoo [mixed lower-class neighborhood]. But . . . when I speak Swahili with the Golas [Africans], they laugh at me. But Zanzibari Ithna Asheris speak a lot of Swahili because they [spend a great deal] of time with Golas.17

Upper-caste Hindus often equated the lifestyles of lower-caste Hindus with that of Africans. Although I did not meet any Hindus who spoke Kiswahili as their first language, poor Zanzibari Hindus from Rana, Bhoi, and Divecha communities were frequently referred to as Golas. A wealthy, upper-caste Hindu woman echoed the sentiments of many upper-caste Hindus when she opined: “Koris [Divechas], Bhois, and Ranas are like Golas. Their Gujarati is very impure, and sometimes it is difficult for us to understand them. . . . You see, they have lived with Africans for a long time and so their talking, eating, drinking, and spending habits are similar to Africans. They eat meat, fish, all kinds of nonvegetarian food . . . they spend their money on chicken and liquor rather than on their children’s education, or on improving their standard of living.”18 A similar process of othering also operated among Goans where

Photo 5. A barbershop in Jasu’s working-class neighborhood of Kariakoo.
Dar es Salaam, 1993. (Photo: Richa Nagar)

“Goans with Seychelloise blood” as well as working-class Goans who have moved from upcountry were frequently looked down upon as more Swahili than Goan. For example, Julie grew up in Tabora, where there were few Goans. Her friends were Hindus, Ismailis, Africans, and Arabs. Julie’s mother ran a canteen to supplement her father’s meager income, and this further exposed Julie to people of all backgrounds. She grew up speaking English at home, and Kiswahili, Gujarati, and Kutchi with her friends. After coming to Dar es Salaam, Julie married an Arab man from Pemba, converted to Islam, and had three children. She worked as a secretary in a computer firm and lived away from the Asian area in Ilala in an extended family that included her husband’s parents and siblings. Julie felt too “odd” to be called a Goan.19

I guess I am a lot more Swahili than most Goans. Since childhood, I haven’t had much to do with either Goa or Konkani. But my Kiswahili was always excellent—that’s why I had no problems adjusting with my parents-in-law. In the office, I talk on the phone in Kiswahili and people assume that I am African. . . . They don’t believe that an Asian can speak that kind of Kiswahili. Before I joined my office as a secretary, none of the Asians got along with the African workers. When I came, I instantly won their love and respect. Asians asked me teasingly, “Do you bribe them to do your work?” I said, “No, I talk to them.” . . . Then an African worker said, “She knows how to speak respectfully, while you all just give commands even if you don’t mean to. That makes all the difference.”20

Zanzibari Asians such as Farida may have been considered “impure” and “inferior” by upper-class Ithna Asheris or by the elite Hindus of Dar es Salaam, and Goans such as Julie may have been seen as more “Swahili” than “Goan,” but it was precisely such othering that allowed the Faridas and Julies to dislodge dominant assumptions about who and what a Gujarati, Swahili, Ithna Asheri, or Goan was supposed to be. Gujarati, the language of the rich and upper castes, was spoken by the Zanzibari Hindus such as Jasu, but with a difference—it was taken apart, and then put back together with a new inflection, accent, and a new Swahilized vocabulary. And the Julies and Faridas transcended the imposed languages and identities altogether—by reinventing mother tongues, by creating new communities, and by unsettling the very premises that were necessary to box them as Asian or African.

The Desire for Unified Identities:
The Case of Ithna Asheris

The politics of community and identity among Asians in Dar es Salaam was entangled with the ways that community organizations affected people’s access to particular languages, and placed those languages within specific religious and social discursive practices. The religious institutions of the Ithna Asheri community, for example, were essential in promoting the use of Urdu and Arabic. Arabic was taught with Gujarati in the madrassas, while most of the majilises in Dar es Salaam were held in Urdu even though the majority of people, including local preachers, were able to speak only a little Urdu and could read Urdu only in the Gujarati or Roman script. The introduction of Urdu as one of the main religious languages in the Gujarati- and Kutchi-speaking Ithna Asheri community dated back to the late nineteenth century, when the Ithna Asheris broke away from the Ismaili community. After the split, the new Ithna Asheris in East Africa invited Urdu-speaking Shia scholars from India to teach them the basics of Shia Ithna Asherism, and the Ithna Asheris in Zanzibar and Tanganyika were initiated into the faith through the Urdu language.21 In the early 1990s, however, many young Ithna Asheris in Dar es Salaam found it hard to follow Urdu majilises, and the rate of attendance in the religious gatherings was dropping. Muhsin Alidina expressed the shared agony of the community leaders:22 “If you send an Urdu preacher to Zanzibar, people don’t come—they just can’t understand Urdu. If you send a Swahili preacher, they come. Here [in Dar es Salaam], English is favored [over Urdu] in the majlises by the youngsters . . . if you have a majlis in English, the older people get upset . . . [but to the youngsters], Urdu is as foreign as Chinese.”23

However, the relationship of the youngsters with Urdu was not so easy to summarize. While many Goans seemed to prefer western movies and music, other Asian communities in Dar es Salaam were hooked on Indian and Pakistani cinema, television serials, and music. Musicians and film stars were invited by wealthy Asian organizations, and their performances were attended by large Asian audiences.24 No wonder, then, that when a preacher talked like a Pakistani actor, the Ithna Asheri youngsters came happily to the majlis. Mulla Asher, the only Urdu preacher who was reputed to draw youngsters in large numbers to his majlises, told Alidina: “One day I asked a boy, ‘ . . . whenever I preach, I see you inside the mosque. But why [don’t I see you there] when someone else preaches?’ He said, ‘ . . . You speak like those Pakistani actors. [That’s why].’”25 The generational politics of linguistic affiliations threw the Ithna Asheri community leaders into a serious dilemma. As Alidina pointed out,

You see, a young Ithna Asheri boy probably speaks Gujarati at home. But the moment he leaves home [for] school, . . . he speaks Swahili. . . . Then he comes to the mosque and it’s Urdu. Now, all these languages . . . he has picked up from his environment. They are not taught Gujarati . . . [as] we were. . . . [If] you speak to him in Gujarati, he will reply to you but if you ask him to write or read a letter, he can’t. . . . The same is true of his Swahili. It’s like this lady [preacher] you heard in the Mehfil—she can [only recite memorized sermons in Urdu]. So naturally, when you try to speak to her in Urdu, she can’t. This is the dilemma of the community—our children are exposed to various languages, but they are not perfect in any of them [except English]. . . . But you also have the older generation who must be catered for. . . . So, what [should] the community do? [Should] it have a bilingual policy? [Should] we . . . have what they have in London—[where] . . . during Moharram there [is] half an hour of preaching in English and then one hour of Urdu?26

The leaders of the Ithna Asheri Jamaats had constantly to deal with this dilemma of language in their effort to provide “appropriate” religious instruction and socialization to its younger members. In 1968, the first edition of Elements of Islamic Studies was published by the Bilal Muslim Mission of Tanzania in English for the Ithna Asheri community in Africa because it was felt that, with the radical changes in the East African educational system, the East African Ithna Asheri community was steadily losing contact with the Gujarati language and the new generation was unable to benefit from the religious literature written in Gujarati (Meghji 1968).27 Soon, however, it was felt that the Ithna Asheri children in Dar es Salaam required additional religious textbooks in Gujarati that were written in Roman script. Razia Tejani explained, “Most children speak Gujarati at home, and so they automatically pick up religious instruction in Gujarati, but they do not know the Gujarati script. So, if Gujarati language is written in Roman script, there is no problem because all of them know the Roman alphabet.”28

But writing Gujarati in Roman script could not solve the more serious problem that Ithna Asheri leaders faced: The continuing emigration of Ithna Asheris from East Africa and their ever-expanding numbers in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. While this trend necessitated increasing adoption of English, it also raised fears about the uncontrolled Anglicization of the community. In 1988, the international organizations of the Ithna Asheris introduced a common syllabus for religious instruction in English in the Khoja Shia Ithna Asheri madrassas all over the world so that their youngsters would not have to face language barriers in religious education.29 Preachers from Tanzania, who had never delivered sermons in English, were also encouraged to travel to several U.K. and North American cities in order to preach to Ithna Asheris in English (Sheriff 1991). At the same time, the Ithna Asheri Supreme Council attempted to guard against over-Anglicization and westernization of the community by adopting a Common Language Preservation Programme and by resolving to make Gujarati a compulsory subject in all madrassas. Ithna Asheri leaders felt that the religious and cultural identity of the community could only be sustained through a common language, spoken and understood by all.30 As Mohamed Khalfan, a sixty-two-year-old Zanzibari Ithna Asheri man who led the movement for the revival of Gujarati in the community, expressed, “the community . . . continues to grow still further in size [with] each succeeding generation while the memory of the origin, struggle and vicissitudes of the predecessors get fainter and fainter as it continues to spread and settle in other parts of the world under the stress and strain of alien influences and unfamiliar and frustrating environments” (Khalfan 1989). Westward emigration was a real fear, and even the most “ordinary” people in the Ithna Asheri community were acutely aware of the anti-Islamic sentiment in the West. The thought of “Anglo-Khojas,” “Canadian-Khojas,” and “American-Khojas” had alarmed the community leaders.31 Khalfan warned the Ithna Asheris,

There is a gradual increase . . . in the numbers of [Ithna Asheri] families . . . in some parts of the world including Africa, where the children are made to lose their mother tongue. . . . The close common identity will be eroded, communication will be hampered, the fraternity will weaken, the concern for each other at the global level will diminish and the community and its Federations will become vulnerable to divisive forces and pressures if this trend, innocent as it may seem, is allowed to catch up or continue to the danger point of no-return. (Khalfan 1989)

The same warning was repeated several times by the Ithna Asheri Jamaat in its effort to maintain Gujarati as the “carrier of culture and tradition” (Khoja Shia Ithna Asheri Jamaat 1989, 2). Nevertheless, this push from above to promote Gujarati as the “mother tongue” and “common language” was not supported by all segments of the Ithna Asheri leadership. Muhsin Alidina, who was on the opposite side of those who were promoting Gujarati, commented,

If we need a common language . . . we must not be insular. We must look for a language that [embraces] a wider section of the [Shia] community—not just the Khojas [but also] the Iranians, the Lebanese, or whatever it is. You see, the idea is to preserve not only your traditional ethnic identity, but . . . [also] your religious identity. So, . . . why don’t we adopt Arabic as a means of communication, particularly when we have to use this language to teach religion. . . . [The other alternative is to] adopt English. It is a universal language. People, whether they like it or not, learn the language . . . But this [view] does not seem to cut much ice. They [other leaders] say, “No, we are from the Indian subcontinent . . . our whole history [is rooted] in this particular language and region, so we must have a common language that also shows our common ethnic identity. This is why [we need] Gujarati.” . . . But most of the youngsters don’t even care about Gujarati.

The struggle over the use of Gujarati in the Ithna Asheri community was primarily an intergenerational struggle. The older generation agreed with the leaders of the Ithna Asheri Federation that a common language needed to be preserved, while the younger generation saw Gujarati as an artificially imposed common language. The leaders, through their powerful international organizations, tried to fight their community’s “fragmentation.” However, the younger generation—raised with English, Gujarati, Kutchi, Kiswahili, and Urdu—found it difficult to show allegiance to any one language. Linguistic mingling was part of its existence, and no single or pure form of language could take care of its need to express itself in plural ways. As Faizal, a nineteen-year-old Ithna Asheri man, born in Dar es Salaam of Zanzibari parents, remarked, “I am a chautara when it comes to languages—can’t do without Kiswahili, or English, or Gujarati, or Kutchi. I need all of them, all the time. I have grown up thinking that all these languages are mine. So, now suddenly, it is hard to relate to the idea of mastering Gujarati—learning how to read and write it—because we are told that it is superior to the rest. My mother tongue is not Gujarati. My mother tongue is a mixture of many tongues, and I have already mastered it.”32

The struggles over naming and claiming multiple mother tongues and homelands in Dar es Salaam were inseparable from contested histories of those who constituted a “community,” as well as the changing interpretations of those histories, as they were invoked and challenged in multiple contexts. As Chambers puts it, “History is harvested and collected, to be assembled, made to speak, re-membered, re-read and re-written, and language comes alive in transit, in interpretation” (Chambers 1994, 3).


Theoretical engagements with identity and positionality, with their overwhelming focus on the politics of race, class, gender, and sexuality, prove inadequate when we look beyond U.S. and British contexts. My discussion here underscores the point that in order to be of greater social relevance, such engagements must be geographically and historically contextualized. This chapter also argues that a keen understanding of the geography of positionality is crucial to feminist ethnography. Reflexivity and relationality enable us to understand more fully the ways in which the politics of social identities play out in our everyday lives and spaces, and the manner in which they influence the knowledge we produce. The preceding analysis reveals me as positioned subject, situated in specific ways, with respect to the communities and people that I studied. Francis and Nargis, like all other members of Asian communities who participated in my research, were positioned subjects, and their positions must be analyzed with respect to my own in order to grasp how their life stories came into being and how I have created academic knowledge on the basis of their stories.

Finally, the sidebar here, “Naming and Claiming Languages: The Politics of Mother Tongues and Homelands in Dar es Salaam,” further illustrates my point about the need to grapple with identity and difference through lenses that do not rigidly adhere to race, class, gender, and sexuality. It also suggests that it is only through a self-reflexive and critical feminist ethno-geographical engagement that we can produce a multilayered and nuanced analysis of social identities and struggles around meanings of community.





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