Academic journal article Africa

Sticks and Stones: Colonialism and Zanzibari Housing

Academic journal article Africa

Sticks and Stones: Colonialism and Zanzibari Housing

Article excerpt

[The] shibboleth of this little island [is] the word, dasturi(1) [custom]. It is dasturi to do this and not dasturi to do that, and between the two the finicking path of conduct and action is mapped out with the extreme of accuracy. Experience having failed to show the African that any appeal lies to the softer side of the mzungu [white person], he employs as the only weapon in his armoury, this accursed dasturi. . . . And yet the mzungu has only himself to thank for this, since he . . . venerates dasturi as he does nothing else. . . . At once the origin of all his actions, the bound of his mental vision and the star by which he steers his tedious course, dasturi to the Englishman assumes almost the attributes of the Deity, and it is not surprising . . . that the African elects to meet him on his own ground and with his own weapon. [Zanzibar Gazette, 1928: 51, emphasis mine]

Weapons of custom were central to wars of position in colonial Zanzibar, weapons which found expression in the city's built environment. Together with public reverence for the sultanate, British officials sought to introduce European customs of housing and neighbourhood form through planning and building controls. Held tightly by the `bounds of their mental vision', colonialists continually misunderstood both Zanzibari customs and the contradictory dynamics within them as practised. Their lack of success in printing a landscape of hegemony also stemmed from elite Zanzibari manipulation of British `Deities' like private property rights and the rule of law. But neither dominative group appeared to comprehend the emergence of a `rebellious consciousness' in the `plebeian crowd' (Glassman, 1995: 17).

Urban planning and building control became pivotal sites for the clash of colonial and elite mental visions with Zanzibar city's largely African Swahili majority. Much published analysis to date on the rise of anti-colonial feeling in Zanzibar has centred on rural areas and the peasantry, or on port worker activism (Babu, 1991; Bowles, 1991; Clayton, 1976, 1981; Lofchie, 1965; Marina and Mattoke, 1980; Sheriff and Ferguson, 1991). Actually, the revolution itself was largely an urban event, and many processes leading up o it were tied to urban issues beyond the port. Housing and building control politics were key arenas for generating anti-colonial and anti-elite feeling at the household level, and African urban areas provided the landscape in which and on which these politics were played. The conflict-ridden relationship between colonial administrators, landlords and tenants over rents, property rights and building rules in the city underscores how colonialists and local elites alike transgressed the crowd's community consensus in spatial strategies aimed at social control. When all `appeals to he softer side' by Africans failed, then rent strikes, squatter actions, rallies and ultimately rebellion ensued.

This article analyses the colonial state's history of building control in Zanzibar, leading up to the 1964 revolution, following a discussion of popular customs of residential development into which the state intervened. It is based on fieldwork, interviews and archival research conducted in 1991-2 and 1995. I highlight the responses and the counter-measures the state's tactics generated among the popular majority in neighbourhoods collectively called Ng'ambo, or the Other Side. I seek to demonstrate how popular consciousness escaped the authority to plan claimed by colonialists and elites alike, leaving them ineffective in shaping space to control their subjects. The spatial form of houses and neighbourhoods in Ng'ambo, and efforts to remake that spatiality, became a contested terrain of colonialism's attempted hegemony. The failure of the colonial state and of local elites to `understand and conceive of' the customary practices of Ng'ambo's majority in their `originality and uniqueness' made attempts to `dominate and direct them' nigh on impossible (Gramsci, 1971: 240). …

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