Sur city, where many dhows set sail to destinations such as the East African Coast

Courtesy: John Njenga Karugia

Aural Inheritances of the Swahili Seas

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and John Njenga Karugia in conversation with Natasha Ginwala

Addressing the Swahili Ocean and Afrasian coastlines as repositories of transcultural memory and ancestral belonging, author Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and John Njenga Karugia, researcher and documentary filmmaker, delve into literary, acoustic and scholarly practices of chronicling maritime cosmopolitanisms and communal histories while also remaining alert to more-than-human custodians of the sea.

The conversation took place as part of the exhibition Indigo Waves and Other Stories: Re-Navigating the Afrasian Sea and Notions of Diaspora (6.4.–13.8.2023), curated by Natasha Ginwala und Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung with Michelangelo Corsaro. The exhibition consisted of two parts that had been composed in resonance, showing concurrently at the Gropius Bau and SAVVYContemporary in Berlin. The conversation was introduced and moderated by Natasha Ginwala. It has been edited for the Gropius Bau Journal.

Natasha Ginwala: It’s such a huge pleasure to have with us today people who have been crucial to the shaping of our endeavour here at the Gropius Bau, at SAVVY Contemporary and at Zeitz MOCAA: Indigo Waves and Other Stories: Re-Navigating the Afrasian Sea and Notions of Diaspora. This project wouldn’t be what it is without the voices and the work of people like Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and John Njenga Karugia

I see both of you as inhabitants and travelers – “Jahazis” as poet Haji Gora Haji would put it – of the Swahili seas connecting us to the multitudinous past but also complicating the idea of Kenya today through the intrinsic notion of diasporic cultures and Afro-Asian imaginaries. The politics of naming is something that we must all wrestle with. You both have done it in academic work, in literary work and you’ve spoken about it extensively. I wonder at this time where there is this push towards a certain currency around the Indian Ocean World or it as a sort of subset of study and categorisation: How do we escape the traps that come with a certain regionalism? What does the politics of naming have to do with it?

John Njenga Karugia: There is everything cosmopolitan about the Indian Ocean. I think cosmopolitanism is about dialogue, cosmopolitanism is about taking responsibility, the idea of taking your responsibility towards others seriously. So, in the sense of the politics of naming then to call a shared space, a shared waters, “Indian” is already very problematic because it transports the Indian subcontinent and the Indian nation and excludes many others.

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: I think it’s even more serious than that and linked to the history of what I call the evacuation of all African agency. There was a malice that came from those who invaded that space, that cosmopolitan, that global space and decided that the narrative of especially African agency of the waters does not fit the taxonomy created with that pigmentation hierarchy by some of those idiots, including Carl Linnaeus [1]. The offence that the latter Portuguese and the English felt when they had to confront the reality that there was a navigational history; navigational methods; a history of trade that did not centre or involve the West at all. Life had been going on, especially in this global monsoon complex, where the West was peripheral. The African person, the person whose skin was dark, had played a very pivotal role. It wasn’t about dominance but involvement and agency around trade, around history, around education, technology and around the ocean. There were all these stupid mythologies that the African was terrified of the ocean. The Africans’ engagement with the ocean was limited to the shoreline as artisanal fishermen or they were cargo on somebody else’s ship going off to be sold as slaves. There were over 300 types of ships and a lot of them were being built in places along the East African coast, like Pate Island. The vestiges are still there. Yet, there was this need to evacuate – and it was quite successful – and remove all sense of the African imaginary. Even within the Indian subcontinent you have the Siddis. They are basically former East Africans who settled in Gujarat in the same way that former Indians settled in parts of East Africa. The Siddis to this day, even in contemporary Indian literature, are referred to as former slaves. I had the privilege of hosting a performance group from Gujarat in East Africa when I was with the Zanzibar Film Festival. They told their own stories of who they are and how they ended up there as sailors, teachers, merchants, adventurers. Not slaves. It’s that same narrative that’s repeated where you find the African diaspora in Persia, or other places. One becomes extremely conscious of what it actually meant to evacuate, erase and remove all African agency and to also deny the historical rootedness of our oceanic imaginary. It’s not just the politics of naming. It’s about the politics of erasure, dehumanisation and evacuation.

Njenga Karugia: At the section in the exhibition where my work is shown, there is a photo that I took at the Museum Bahari in Jakarta. Bahr means “ocean” in Arabic, in Indonesian and in Kiswahili it is bahari. In the museum there were about seven rooms trying to recapture the history of arrival of the various ethnic communities into Indonesia and voyagers. The rooms were called “The Room of the Portuguese Sailor”, “The Room of the Japanese Sailor” and so on. Especially disturbing for me was that Vasco da Gama was exhibited there in the form of a huge human cut-out out of cardboard [2]. We know from history and from his own diary that he never would have made it all the way to India and other places along the Indian Ocean, be it Kilwa Kisiwani or Malindi, without “pilots”. These pilots were known across the Indian Ocean, across the Afro-Asian Sea, across the Swahili seas. They knew how to read the stars. If you did not know how to read the stars in these geographies and topographies, you would not sail. So, what do I do in such spaces? I arrive there and I realise: “What is going on with the Blackness in this space?” So, I install myself within it and I have somebody take a photo of me just for a moment to say: “Yes, I am the ancestor of those pilots. And although you erase me – well for a moment, I’m here.” And maybe that image will travel around.

Indigo Waves and Other Stories: Re-Navigating the Afrasian Sea and Notions of Diaspora, Installation view, Dr. John Njenga Karugia and Khamis Ramadhan, Afrasian Memories in East Africa, Gropius Bau (2023)

© Gropius Bau, Photo: Luca Girardini

Ginwala: Thinking about orality since we’re addressing erasures, systemic erasures – we’ve also been referencing music and sonic practices in the exhibition. Of course, in my orbit a lot of that also came through Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, who is the co-conspirator of this project, but also through you, Yvonne. One of the places that we all have now been to is the Dhow CountriesMusic Academy in Zanzibar, which is a major centre to preserve the knowledge of Taarab music, of Kidumbak, of Ngoma and so forth. There is a special mix that was created with students and teachers of the Dhow Countries Music Academy of a track called ‘Pakistan’. It was recorded in Bombay for the first time, but this particular mix was sung in Zanzibar, in Stone Town. So, it is really messing with the geopolitical pressures, it does this incredible sonic circuit – the song ruptures the notion of the nation as a singular space and turns it into lyric. It is also sung in a way that it is passed on in a matrilineal way. Originally, it was composed by Siti binti Saad [3]. When I heard it, it was sung by Siti Muharam, who is her great granddaughter. It would be great to discuss the sonic legacy that really is bleed into your work, whether it’s your documentary, dear John, or your writing or the atmosphere in which you breathe in Stone Town while you are imagining the writing that is to come, dear Yvonne.

Njenga Karugia: When I listen to the song, I hear the drums of my grandmother in Naivasha. I would call these sounds that I have heard before and that relate to this music “Swahili Sea Music”. I heard these sounds before I ever saw the sea because as a child, I was living about 700 kilometres away from the ocean. The song also takes me to Indonesia. To a time after I had met the ocean and I was studying the ocean. I’m walking in Bandung, which is, for me, the most musical city anywhere in the world – there is music playing everywhere. As I walk down the street, I hear Taarab sounds. This music penetrates my soul – it was probably the most connected music that I’ve felt. Finally, I’ll take you somewhere else: I am somewhere in Ahmedabad in Gujarat at what they call “Siddi compounds”. We are spending an evening in their home, we are in their grandmother’s bedroom, which also serves as a sitting room, and we are exchanging music. The grandmother sings. My ears are trying to listen to her very carefully, but I can’t comprehend what she’s saying. So, I write down the phonetics of what she’s singing – she is actually singing in her Gujarat language; she is singing in Swahili. This is Swahili that has been spoken amongst the African Indians for centuries. She’s singing: “This boy does not have a father and does not have a mother.” The grandmother then realises: “This man says he knows the words of the song and he can tell us what it means.” I said: “I can only tell you a bit of what it means, but I do not know what it means in your context.”

Indigo Waves and Other Stories: Re-Navigating the Afrasian Sea and Notions of Diaspora, Installation view, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, The Dragonfly Sea, 2019, Gropius Bau (2023)

© Gropius Bau, Photo: Luca Girardini

Adhiambo Owuor: The song took me back to Zanzibar when I was immersed in the landscape of this incredible music. There are so many varieties of Taarab. Taarab is part of the gift of those seas to this world, to the worlds of the Indian Ocean. You will run into its varieties and variations all along these waters of ours. There’s something more than universal, something fundamental and mysterious about the music. It’s almost as if through song you have a kind of cartography of worlds. The song travels in this incredible way. When you enter into the experience of Taarab, wherever it is you do, it almost opens a door and you enter into it. It’s not music that hits you in the face. It draws you into itself and you are suddenly wandering into its places and spaces, even if you do not understand the words. They say Taarab is an Arabic loanword which I doubt. The scholars that come in later attribute everything to the Arabs or to the Persians, never to the people of the coast. Just because I can and I’m an artist, I’m going to say that Taarab is a Swahili word. I can! Argue with me! It’s the same concept linked to what a lot of you know as the 1001 Nights, which within the Swahili space is known as Alfu Lela Ulela. The Swahili will not say it belongs to them. They’ll say it belongs to all. It belongs to everyone. It’s not attributed to one particular culture or race. It is the very same thing with Taarab.

Ginwala: It is fascinating to me how it leaks into the space of writing for you. It is something that is very particular. There is that embodied sense of rhythm.

Adhiambo Owuor: I use a particular version of Taarab in The Dragonfly Sea that is very well known and has so many variations. Before I begin a story, I have to hear its music. And its music finds me. I don’t look for it. When it comes to me, it’s almost as if I have been given permission now to find the story. The music is like a stream and on the back of the stream of music, the characters then show up.

Ginwala: This would be a good moment to think beyond the human protagonists as guardians, also of the sea. It’s something that feels so disruptive to continue to navigate only using the human subject’s perspective. What’s been really incredible is that we have several works in the exhibition that have been pivotal to this project that shift from the human to the beyond human, for example when it comes to the works by the artist Clara Jo. They go to the mineral, they go to the bird, they go to different life forces, which are narrating the stories back to us, reminding us of how this belonging has taken shape.

Adhiambo Owuor: As a contemporary world, as a modern world, we are only learning again to be humble enough to hear from the others. The idea of the agencies of other beings. Certainly, when you end up in this world of the Indian Ocean, it’s absolutely fascinating how the lines between worlds are very thin. You will hear of Djinns spoken of as normal in a conversation: “Nadia saw a Djinn last night” – and it’s not a strange conversation at all. Living in Zanzibar, coming back from work late at night you had the idea of presences or long shadows around you that are moving. It is the idea of the capacious self, the idea that there is a place for mystery and for wonder and for strangeness. I hope to pay a lot more tribute to that aspect of our being. I think we need it anyway as part of our humanity.

Njenga Karugia: As a young man coming from the hinterland from Naivasha, hundreds of kilometres away from the ocean, I remember we heard stories about Djinns, spirits in the water, and we were warned about them without having ever been to the ocean. These were stories of mermaids and their shadows and their in-betweens. When I was about twenty-one, we went on a university trip to the ocean. My eyes met the eyes of a woman and I thought: “I was told about you. I know who you are.” But she looked so fine. So, I stole another glance and I thought to myself: “Should I risk it all? Do I want to attend the ritual? Do I want to disappear?”

Ginwala: Another protagonist who’s been crucial to you, and it’s important to me to pay homage to him, is Haji Gora Haji. Individuals like him, who are poet navigators, conjoin the many things we’ve been speaking about.

Adhiambo Owuor: Haji Gora Haji died two years ago. He was the unofficial poet laureate of Tanzania. His work was more than sublime. He’d be called in for national celebrations to do the kind of Utendi, the recitals, in any one of the versions of poetic forms that he knew. But he was also regarded as a gadfly, a kind of a subversive figure. The state would never give him an award for the simple reason that he would show up at a national celebration, do his incredible poetry, leave and two days later the state government and officials would realise that they had been insulted and abused and made mockery of completely. They couldn’t summon him because he would be very innocent. He would say: “No, I was talking about a butterfly!” Haji Gora Haji proceeded to become one of the finest mentors that a human being could ever ask for. He started life off as a fisherman; he was a minstrel. He came from one of the marginalised islands of Zanzibar called Tumbatu that has a long history with Persia, what we now know of as Iran. He had this way of reading the waters. He’s the character that inspires the character of Muhidin in The Dragonfly Sea. If you could say that there was a figure in the world that wrote the sea, that gave a biography of the sea, that named the waters, that delivered its metaphors in the most unexpected and beautiful ways – it was this man of Tumbatu but yet a man of worlds of the Indian Ocean. He had this way of speaking the world. One time when I went to meet him for an interview, I had been infected by the alleged anxieties about the Chinese returning to East Africa. But he asked: “Tell me exactly what your anxiety is about. People come. People go. People leave. The water ebbs, the water flows, the water ebbs. What’s so unusual about this?” He was my old man of the sea. A very precious human being, a mischievous man with a sense of humour – a naughty man, but a most delightful human being.

Indigo Waves and Other Stories: Re-Navigating the Afrasian Sea and Notions of Diaspora, Installation view, Haji Gora Haji, Gropius Bau (2023)

© Gropius Bau, Photo: Luca Girardini

Ginwala: Since China has been mentioned in this way, also as an ebb and flow – there is a lot of anxiety in this part of the world and a lot of ignorance around China and Chinese presences in the plural sense in the Afro-Asian seas, in the Swahili seas. There are different striking ways in which you have both also chronicled Chinese presences.

Njenga Karugia: There has been a heated debate in Germany about China and Chinese interests at the Hamburg port. Cosco, one of the largest harbour operators, has been allowed by the German government to take over 24.9% of the Hamburg harbour – this is nothing new, but we have seen a new jurisprudence coming up within the European Union and it is the idea of screening Chinese investments, especially now that China has interests across the ports in Europe. Why do I start with that? China of course is investing in Germany. And we know that Germany trades heavily with China: 30% of goods that are processed at the Hamburg harbour are either coming in from China or leaving for China. One of the greatest gifts that I would say as a Kenyan German global citizen is the fact that we have been gifted by scientists who demilitarised the Internet as a military technology and made it available for everyone. It is the idea of democratisation of knowledge and the idea that I can sit in my little office in Berlin and look at data from across the world. I’m able to watch the trade between Germany and China. Im able to watch the trade between the US and China. There is no American economy and there is no Chinese economy. There is the Amerochina economy. When Africa trades with China everybody has something to say about that trade. The continent of Africa has opportunity for everybody to trade with Africa. What people are looking for, at least the farmers and those who are producing, is a political economy of dignity: People want to sell and they want to receive fair prices for their goods. They do not want gifts. It is ignorant that people don’t take a moment to reflect. Western media will frame Africa-China relations using the term “colonialism”. There is no African who wakes up in the morning and sits under a tree and looks at the fluctuating colonialisms. People want to do business. People are busy producing, selling, looking for markets and so on. Those societies that are reflecting Africa in terms of colonialism are not reflecting themselves. And the media in terms of colonialism? They call their relation “trade”.

Adhiambo Owuor: At the heart of it is the whining. The whining comes from the West. There are incredible new spaces of opportunities that have emerged because of the return of old relationships – and I emphasise the fact that it’s old relationships. At the heart of “The China sky is falling on African heads” is another issue. There’s something deeper beneath that surface.

Ginwala: Maybe this is a good moment to turn this more conversational. Is there anything someone in the audience would like to share or bring up?

Audience member 1: I have a question regarding what we are doing with these stories. I come from southern India, mostly the coastal regions, and I’ve been living here for the last ten years or so. What I’m very curious about is how are we engaging with these stories and with such discourses on our shores.

Adhiambo Owuor: We were doing this already thirty years ago. It’s only that the world has caught up with us right now. So much of the work had already been done by some of the incredible scholars like Professor Abdul Sheriff or the late Taqī ad-Dīn an-Nabhānī. That’s part of the reason why people like me don’t consider themselves an academic. I’ve moved into this area so long ago the West had receded from my imagination when the ocean found me. I understood that I too, am a descendant of immense ancient legacies and I was very embarrassed that I had not been aware of it yet.

Ginwala: I think the question is very crucial. As we sit in Berlin, a place that’s saturated with artistic presence and contributions, it was really important to Bonaventure and me that the project didn’t start in Germany. We are doing a residency in Pakistan, in Lyari, where there is an Afro-Asian community. The Siddis are there and the Baloch people and their own inheritances of the sea. It was also important to us for the project to land in South Africa. I’ve also done work in Sri Lanka connecting to maritime histories and histories of war. It seems it’s up to us to recirculate and to index the scholarship that has already taken place in the past.

Adhiambo Owuor: And to take the steps to visiting and entering into these worlds, even just by showing up. It’s such an incredible time with the whole world moving, turning its gaze into those oceans that some people call “Indian” right now. In so many ways it is in the centre of the future – these immense opportunities for everyone. No one is left out. I just want everyone else to know that. These immense opportunities for recovery, for discovery and for imagining new ways.

Njenga Karugia: I’m coming from memory studies and I am looking at how memories are produced and what these memories are used for but also asking a third and important question: How can we do memory better? When I’m in these spaces and I visit museums and memory spaces, and especially when I was doing the documentary film Afrasian Memories in East Africa together with Ramadhan Khamis, we engaged the people who are responsible in doing the memory. I am very interested in the idea of cosmopolitanism and representation of cosmopolitan within cosmopolitan spaces. What kind of stories are we then telling? What kind of representation are we doing? These spaces and places have their heroes and their poetry and music – what local stories can we connect within all these translocalities?

Audience member 2: Yvonne, I was thinking of what you said about the evacuation of agency and what must be then done to imagine a kind of counterforce to it. Ocean currents today are a measure of time. Some last a few seconds and then some are thousands of years old as well. There is a suboceanic force. What is a way to rewild instead of replace agency? Can the idea of brutality of the ocean itself be thought of as some mode of sensing that agency as well? I am thinking about the implosion of the submersible Titan in June 2023 for example.

Adhiambo Owuor: Beyond brutality, I would imagine reading it as a reminder of the forces that despite our human hubris, actually take precedent over our illusions and delusions of dominance. As much as we imagine we can, we will not dominate the oceans. I hope that we will be there to receive the waves, to open our senses, to pick up the stories that are there. There are enough of us to pick a story strand to tell, to paint, to sing, to restore. There is an act of recovery, of rebuilding the ruins of our imagination of stories. And in a way, it’s also restoring and restorying the ocean. I’m curious – those who are of German origin: Do you consider yourself a Hanseatic civilisation? Are you also an oceanic civilisation? What’s the relationship with the sea?

Audience member 3: There is a huge limestone quarry close to Berlin. That limestone quarry consists of calcium, of shells – it’s the sea that was here millions and millions of years ago. We are walking on it and are surrounded by it every day. We can tune into the stories of that old sea that was here. I personally have no relationship with the Hanseatic history of the sea but learning about that limestone quarry touched me a lot.

Audience member 4: When we’re talking about restoring, I feel that we need to have more conversations and acknowledge the commonality. I think there’s been a lot of dividing – the after effect of colonialism. We are not aware of what is common between us. We are more aware of the differences and I think we can decolonise in a way, if we bring out what is common.

Ginwala: I just can’t help but come back to this question of complicating the idea of Kenya, especially also Swahili, Kiswahili politics in relation to language politics. I am thinking about somebody like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and the question whether the language you write in can put you into prison or not [4]. What are the complexities and complications also in the language legacy as you see it today?

Njenga Karugia: In “Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing, Ngũgĩ talks about globalectical imagination. It is the idea that a story from Pakistan, if it is translated, can speak to you.

Adhiambo Owuor: Beyond Ngũgĩ there is a contemporary space – and it does not take away from Ngũgĩ – that some of us call the promiscuity of languages. Swahili itself is not just a language. It becomes a world and an absorbent substance that takes whatever it needs to be what it wants to be. Locating ourselves in the water and looking at the land, there is this fluidity: The water is fluid, it is informed by the winds and the winds bring whatever they need to bring into the space. A new song is always born when the winds show up. I think of language as an entity, an organic form, a container of words. We cannot be limited by the constraints of what we think language is. Language to live must evolve. Language to live must be able to change.

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is an author, essayist, public thinker, traveller and creative content developer. Owuor has an MPhil in Creative Writing from the University of Queensland, Brisbane. She won the 2003 Caine Prize for African Writing for her story Weight of Whispers. Her first novel, Dust (2007) was translated into several languages. Her next book, The Dragonfly Sea (2019) explores the long historical entanglement of East Africa and China mediated by the seas and a dared oceanic imaginary. She has written for numerous publications worldwide, including National Geographic. She was writer-in-resident for the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin.

Natasha Ginwala was an Associate Curator at Large at the Gropius Bau. She has curated survey exhibitions of Bani Abidi, Akinbode Akinbiyi and Zanele Muholi as well as the multi-chapter exhibition and research project Indigo Waves and Other Stories: Re-Navigating the Afrasian Sea and Notions of Diaspora (with Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung and Michelangelo Corsaro). Her co-directorship of the Gwangju Biennale in 2021 with Defne Ayas focused on an active turn towards matriarchal approaches and augmented intelligence for restitution of ancestral knowledge and legacies of resistance. Ginwala is the co-curator of the Sharjah Biennial 16.

Dr. John Njenga Karugia is a researcher, lecturer and documentary filmmaker based at the Institute for Asian and African Studies at Humboldt University Berlin. He researched and lectured at the University of Leipzig and Goethe University Frankfurt. He has intensively researched on China-Africa relations, Afrasian interactions, transregional Indian Ocean memory politics and transregional memory ethics. He was a visiting scholar at Duke University and Shanghai Maritime University. His current research focuses on transregional politics, memory politics and memory ethics of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with, amongst other aims, to contribute to Area Studies and Transregional Studies scholarship.


1 Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) was a Swedish naturalist who developed definitions for genera and species of organisms in order to create a set system for naming them

2 Vasco da Gama (ca. 1460-1524) sailed from Portugal to the India to find a direct sea route from Europe to Asia

3 Siti binti Saad (ca. 1880–1950) was a Tanzanian musician in the Taarab genre and Swahili cultural icon

4 Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, born in 1938 in Kamirithu is an author and academic who mainly writes in in Gikuyu today