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Jasmin Mahazi (Alumna BGSMCS)

An Anthropolgy of the verbal text and context of Vave - a Bajuni Farmer's Ritual on the Swahili Coast.

An Anthropolgy of the verbal text and context of Vave - a Bajuni Farmer's Ritual on the Swahili Coast.

Based on the assumption that texts are social facts, and that social relations, ideas and values shape and are given shape by oral art forms, I investigate the textual and contextual features of the Vave, which is both a genre of Swahili poetry and an agricultural ritual, through an anthropological lense.
The Bajuni, an ethnic sub-group of the East-African Swahili people, are among the longest-settled Muslim groups on the East-African Coast. They are a fishing/farming community, depending on the season of the year.
Annually, during the driest months of March and April, preceeding the arrival of the southeast monsoon, the farmers shift from their island habitat to the mainland. Here they will communally render the Vave ritual which takes place on the eve of burning scrubland for the purpose of attaining new grounds for cultivation. The Vave ritual includes the recitation of a corpus of songs which deal with specific steps in the slash-and-burn cultivation method of Bajuni farmers.
This cyclical occasion provides, on the one hand, grounds for the reaffirmation and regeneration of community sentiment and solidarity. On the other hand, it is seen as a ritual to call upon higher forces to assist in the farmers` hazardous endeavor of burning a vast tract of land. Although Vave is a Muslim ritual, in the sense that all participants are Muslims and certain parts of the ritual performance are conducted exclusively by Muslim scholars (walimu), the ritual incorporates several practices that are disapproved of by other local groups of Muslims as un-Islamic. Thus these practices, considered by some to be irreconcilable with the fundamental monotheistic principles of Islam, are contested within the local Muslim community. Related debates in the discursive negotiation of Islam have become a common aspect of daily life in this Muslim community.

This dissertation primarily aims at documenting Bajuni social relations, and their ideas and values, by investigating the Bajuni farmers understanding of the Vave literary genre. Furthermore, I seek to gain a deeper understanding of the production and interpretation of verbal texts and their social significance among the Bajuni.
My approach is twofold: one, based on a stylistic analysis of Vave oral literature and, two, an analysis of the Bajuni genre of exegesis and interpretation of the Vave text. These two fields of examination will make up the core of my research, while the synthesis of both shall attempt to offer a sense of how the Bajuni farming community understands itself more widely in terms of a worldview.

As verbal textual genres are often set up hand-in-glove with genres of exegesis and interpretation, the second field of inquiry includes the communicative devices which are used not only within the Vave genre, but also in day-to-day interaction among the Bajuni farming communities. Particular focus will be put on discourses between professional Vave master singers, Islamic scholars who conduct Vave ceremonies, and their disciples. Moreover, I want to examine the lines of argumentation used by those who defend the ritual in contrast with those who contest it, within the debates. The main aim here is not only to explore what is told, but rather, how it is told.
Therefore, the Anthropology of Islam, which emphasizes the importance of the concept of an Islamic discursive tradition, as advocated by Talal Asad, (a tradition of Muslim discourse that seeks to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice, and which includes and relates itself to the founding texts of the Qur`an and the Hadith) seems to be a suitable complementary approach to the Anthropology of texts when investigating the social context and text of the Vave ritual.

The first and second fields of inquiry are connected by their common focus on the relationship between agricultural knowledge and religion. It is my aim to find out in what way agricultural knowledge and religion fuse, and how this fusion is verbally expressed in discourses on agriculture and religion among the Bajuni farming community.      

Finally, one implicit aim of this dissertation project is to record and preserve an oral tradition which is presently in danger of being lost, but which for long remained an important reference point within the Bajuni community.

First Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Kai Kresse