Words by Julia Verne | 25 Sep 2021

At the 2011 World Economic Forum in Davos, the government of Tanzania, together with a number of partners—including farmers, agri-businesses, investment banks, private companies such as Nestlé, Monsanto and Unilever, and development agencies like AGRA, USAID, IUCN, UNDP and the World Bank—launched the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT), an agricultural enterprise designed to improve agrarian productivity, food security and livelihoods in Tanzania. In 2008 the United Nations proposed the concept of African Agricultural Growth Corridors, which was subsequently adopted at the World Economic Forums in 2009 and 2010. Tanzania is not the only country to introduce high-profile initiatives aimed at converting millions of hectares of land to industrial agriculture and contracting private companies to build related new infrastructure like roads, railways, irrigation, storage, processing and ports.

Rather than focus on current debates about the potential impact and variable outcomes of SAGCOT, this essay will pay attention to the long-standing mobilities that have occurred along this corridor for many decades, in particular the small-scale trading relations that have existed between Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam and Sumbawanga. Long before SAGCOT, Arab merchants formed trade routes linking this region’s coast and hinterland. These trade routes form a crucial foundation to what archaeologist Mark Horton, in a 1987 article for Scientific American, described as the “Swahili corridor”. This corridor refers to a coastal stretch of roughly 3000km that extends from Somalia to Mozambique along the east coast of Africa. In so doing, he situated “the Swahili” neither in Africa nor in Arabia, but between, in a distinct corridor characterised by a specific mixture of influences from both regions.

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In Swahili scholarship, the questions who the Swahili are and where to situate them in relation to the conventional regions has occupied a great deal of twentieth-century academic writing. More recently, however, a number of scholars have turned towards the Indian Ocean. In 2002, Erik Gilbert stated, “one can better understand the history of the coast by dropping the traditional Africa/Arabia and Africa /Asia dichotomies and instead view the coast and islands of the western Indian Ocean as a region”. The majority of work following this thesis has focussed on the inclusive nature of the Indian Ocean, a space that is generally considered to unite through following actual relations instead of separating according to artificial colonial or continental boundaries. The bordering effects of the Indian Ocean, its exclusions and limits, however, have been neglected. While a focus on oceanic linkages indeed unites regions that have been regarded separately before, it still creates boundaries. Such maritime thinking, particularly in respect to the East African coastline, creates a rather homogeneous Indian Ocean space on the one hand, while at the same time leading to a conceptual separation between coast and hinterland.

During my research on the trans-local mobilities of contemporary Swahili traders, I have spent considerable time with Swahili families of Arab descent in Tabora, Sumbawanga and Mpanda. The on-going mobilities of these families, between coast and hinterland, emphasis their strong connection to the Indian Ocean—an ocean that doesn’t end at the coastline, but that is based on relations that might stretch far inland. The family I want to concentrate on to illustrate this point lives in Sumbawanga, a town of approximately 200,000 inhabitants situated in Ufipa, a plateau between Lake Tanganyika and Lake Rukwa. Although not on the main caravan route from Ujiji to Bagamoyo, it still lies on the route from Katanga to the coast along the southern end of Lake Tanganyika.

In the early twentieth century, as Arab traders struggled with increasing competition from Asian traders, they moved further into the peripheries. Sumbawanga was one of the places that appeared to offer good business opportunities to Arab traders. The city still has a small Arab community, most of who are involved in trading. One such businessman is Mzee Mohamed. He is considered to be the first Arab who settled in Sumbawanga. Although born in Kigoma, he was raised in Oman and returned to Tanzania in the 1940s looking for business opportunities. In the early 1950s he headed for Sumbawanga, first taking the boat from Kigoma and then walking from Kasanga, a fishing village on the southern shore of Lake Tanganyika.

The collaboration between Arab traders ...who have settled in one of the stop-over spots on the old trade routes, and itinerant traders who continue to move back and forth along the trade routes that link the interior of Africa to the coast remain as vital as they were 200 years ago

Sumbawanga didn’t offer much when he arrived: the market was little more than a few shanties and huts. Mohamed built his large house close to the market and included space for shops in front. Apart from opening a shop, he also started a transport business with several trucks and jeeps running between Sumbawanga and the surrounding villages. Mohamed spent most of his time sitting in front of his house, supervising the shop as well as the transport arrangements that had to be made. With more and more Arabs coming to live in Sumbawanga, all regularly passing by to greet him and exchange some news, the space in front of his house soon developed into a lively meeting place. To make these visits more comfortable, he decided to open the first mkahawa (coffee house) in town. The coffee house, says Mohamed, considerably strengthened the Arab community and made him famous.

Very little of this lively, future-oriented atmosphere evoked by Mohamed in his narratives is left today. The mkahawa is often closed, and many of his old companions have left town, mostly for the Arabian Peninsula. But those still around regularly meet to tell stories about the past and their family histories, and jointly imagine the Indian Ocean. This performance of what is considered to be an Arab lifestyle, including the shared stories and memories, form an important way of maintaining and strengthening their imaginative links to the Indian Ocean. The stories and memories shared have been passed on to Mohamed’s sons, who have also taken over his trading company and often join the older men in the mkahawa.

Mohamed’ wife wife also participates in the transfer of stories when she gathers in her sixteen grandchildren in the courtyard and tells them about her childhood on Zanzibar’s islands, and how, after her wedding, she had to take the train to Kigoma and then a boat to Kasanga, from where she was picked up and taken to what seemed to her as “the end of the world”. Marriage is certainly another way of emphasizing one’s association with the coast. All of Mohamed’s sons have married women from Zanzibar.

In the town of Zanzibar especially, many women put considerable effort into looking Arab. This is represented by the style of their buibui (the long black overcoat worn by Arab women in the Gulf States) and the particular ways in which they arrange their headscarves, generally imitating the latest styles in Dubai and Oman. In Sumbawanga these affectations are not necessary. Due to lighter skin colour, different looks and speaking Kiswahili or even Arabic as their vernacular, most women of Arabic descent can easily be distinguished from the majority of Sumbawanga’s population—they are immediately identified as so-called waarabu.

The Arab women in Sumbawanga nonetheless place great store in Arab goods. They will regularly visit the coast, or receive guests from the coast in order to fill their supplies of “Arab” items. They include udi (frankincense), as well as cream and oils made of it—they are considered essential items for most Arab women to perform their sense of belonging and thus usually fill the bags of the travellers. Moreover, culinary delicacies, such as spices, octopus, dried anchovies (dagaa) and nazi (coconut), are prized so that dishes cooked in the hinterland have a proper coastal taste.

The collaboration between Arab traders like Mohamed, who have settled in one of the stop-over spots on the old trade routes, and itinerant traders who continue to move back and forth along the trade routes that link the interior of Africa to the coast remain as vital as they were 200 years ago. As in the past, Arabs in the hinterland generally stay in constant touch with their relatives at the coast (and beyond), who provide them with supplies of necessary items of Arab culture. The recent infrastructure investments in the development of SAGCOT has intensified this mobility. Not only has it become much more convenient to travel on the new tar roads, actual and expected investments associated with SAGCOT has drawn young Swahili to Sumbawanga as a place “to search for a living” (kutafuta maisha) and find new business opportunities. These mobilities should not only be seen as the result of new investment policies and national business strategies along the new corridors but as a continuation of a dynamic Indian Ocean space that transgresses “corridorial” thinking.

The increasing attention given to the Indian Ocean as a useful unit of study generally entails a rethinking of space as it distinguishes itself clearly from the conventional separation of the world into different world regions or areas. Instead of relying on set boundaries of continents, national borders or corridors, conceptions of maritime spaces demand the careful consideration and pursuit of a multitude of relations when trying to define their ends. To this end, the life of the family of Mzee Mohamed shows the extent to which culture associated with the Indian Ocean reaches far into the hinterland—through imaginative, social and material connections.

In Sumbawanga and other places in the hinterland with similar “Arab” communities there is noticeable connection with this maritime region. Even though “Arabs” living in the Tanzanian hinterland clearly make an effort to maintain these Indian Ocean connections, they do not withdraw from their local surrounding in any radical way. They still form part of Sumbawanga, as it is currently included in national development visions. Therefore, it is the study of the entanglements and transgressions of old and new corridors, and how they might relate to and re-enliven the Indian Ocean that encourages us to think of spaces in less clear-cut and fixed terms, as oceanic, meandering, fluid and, thus, always in movement.


Julia Verne is a professor of development geography in the Department of Geography at the University of Bonn