Place and Humanistic African Cultural Geography: A Tanzanian Case

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ABSTRACT. Humanistic cultural geography studies of the experience and meaning of place in sub-Saharan Africa are fairly rare. The narration of senses of place has occupied a crucial niche in Anglo-American cultural geography for several decades. Yet edited volumes in humanistic cultural geography seldom have Africa-related chapters, and relatively few Africa-based research outcomes in cultural geography are forthrightly concerned with place meaning from a perspective influenced by humanistic thinking. I suggest in this essay possible means by which to construct humanistic cultural geographies of African places, using Jongowe, a small settlement in Tanzania, as an empirical referent. My two emphases are on building from African forms of humanism and on developing a politically and historically grounded yet global sense of African places out of a political ecology lens.


In July 2003, I attended a vibrant ceremony in Jongowe, a small settlement on Tumbatu Island in Zanzibar. The ceremony was a celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the creation of the village primary school. Representatives of every graduating class over those three decades had chosen and made for themselves distinctive class uniforms, with each one reflecting an important element of Tumbatu Island's culture and history. The classes lined up in two rows, males on one side, females on the other, to form a walkway for visiting dignitaries from the settlement's tiny beach all the way to the school. Virtually all of the more than 3,000 people who live in Jongowe watched as the main invited guest, Zanzibar's Chief Minister Shamsi Vaui Nahodha, stepped awkwardly onto the shore and walked the extraordinary gauntlet up to the school. After Nahodha and his entourage inspected the rather modest school grounds, the whole celebration shifted to the village football pitch. Each class made a brief cultural performance for the visitors, each designed to remind the visitors of Jongowe's 900 years of importance to East African coastal history, Islam, poetry, dance, music, and politics.

The distinguished guests then made speeches. Chief Minister Nahodha, notably, spoke at length about the importance of education for Zanzibari development. He thoroughly missed his cues, though. He seemingly did not get it that he was speaking to people who think of themselves as the descendants of the medieval royal creators of the culture hearth of Zanzibari Swahili civilization. Moreover, the elaborate display of Jongowe's piety, historical importance, community solidarity, and cultural vitality was carefully designed to earn an explicit commitment from the Chief Minister for a substantial fund to maintain, complete, and expand the school. The newly painted central room of the old wing of the school proudly displayed for Nahodha as the "computer room"--on an island with no electricity or indoor plumbing--would, in all likelihood, remain the nearly bare store room it had been for thirty years.

Jongowe is like no other place I have ever been in my life. Its uniqueness and character, in appearance and performance, are compelling to me in ways I have only begun to sift through after a decade of visits and extended stays. The narration of senses of place for wonderful and unsettling places like Jongowe has occupied a crucial niche in Anglo-American cultural geography for several decades. Yet sub-Saharan Africa seems to figure little into the imagination of humanistic cultural geographies. The numerous recent edited volumes that have signaled a renewed significance for humanist inquiry into place meaning in geography are consistently absent of sub-Saharan African authors or sub-Saharan Africa-related articles (Adams et al. 2001). (1) In a few cases, a chapter about place in sub-Saharan Africa sneaks into the mix (Duncan and Ley 1993; Keith and Pile 1993). The "post-humanist" Handbook of Cultural Geography does have a section written by authors known for their Africa-related cultural studies (Anderson et al. …


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