Digging for history in the sands of time

Saturday September 05 2009

Prof Kusimba’s team digging at the Mtwapa ruins, in Mombasa. Pictures: By Rupi Mangat

THERE IS NO DENYING THE fact that the eastern seaboard of Africa is a melting pot of cultures dating back centuries.

From Mozambique to Somalia, the coast is dotted with historical settlements marked by a variety of language, culture, food, customs, religion and lifestyle that sums up Africa as not just the cradle of civilisation but the meeting point of civilisations.

For Prof Chapurukha Kusimba, this is more than just a historical anecdote, it is a passion.

As an anthropological archaeologist and research scientist, Prof Dr Kusimba is a man with a mission. He is digging through layers of history —literally — to unravel the story of Africa and the historical South-South links, between Africa and Asia, which he says goes way back at least 3,000 years based on evidence buried in the sands of time.

Prof Kusimba is the vice-chair and curator at the Illinois University department of anthropology’s field museum of natural history in Chicago — where Kenya’s infamous maneless Man Eaters of Tsavo are preserved. He counts US President Barack Obama as one of his colleagues.

Dr Kusimba’s field of specialisation is Swahili culture, which he has been researching since 1986, with interesting results. “I am studying past human behaviour and culture through material remains left behind by past people as witness of their daily lives,” he explains.


“If you were to ask Dr Leakey how far back we can trace human history, he would say six million years. But l’m looking at more specific evidence. In the East Coast of Africa, we can trace human history back to 10,000 years ago, which was the beginning of domesticated life and landscapes. It is also the time credited with the beginning of agriculture, pastoralism and trade.

“This era sees the bi-directional flow of cultural objects and foods through trade over wide regions of the world. l’m particularly interested in how domestic rice, coconuts, chickens and the Indian cow (Bos indicus) reached Africa from Asia and how African domestic foods like sorghum and millet reached Asia and became staples in countries there.”

This list of trade items shows that many of these exchanges of crops between Africa and South East Asia through trade happened as early as 4,000 years ago.

For Prof Kusimba, this hard evidence of trade items led him down another path, branching into the world of history and politics of the day.

“We are accustomed to thinking that the relationship between Africa and Asia goes back only 200 years, but archaeology says otherwise,” he says. Prof Kusimba is fascinated by the thousand year-link between the two continents, as evidenced by the foods and cultures found in Mombasa’s Old Town.
When talking about trade in ancient Africa, the history of slavery cannot be avoided.

“The Slave trade always existed on the South-South route, but it was domestic slavery,” says Dr Kusimba. “It was very different from the chattel slavery of the transatlantic trade.”

He is quick to say that he does not condone any form of slavery but that it is important to know the different natures of slavery. “In the Middle East, only the aristocrats owned slaves and once these slaves embraced Islam, they were treated better than the ones who were captured to work on the plantations in the New World.

Among Prof Kusimba’s recent achievements as an anthropologist are his archaeological findings on the Kenya Coast.

Just north of Mombasa, before the Mtwapa Creek, lie the ancient Mtwapa ruins. The ruins are less known than the nearby Jumba ruins. Recently, however, Prof Kusimba and his team confirmed the Mtwapa ruins to be one of the oldest cities in sub-Saharan Africa, dating back to 1732 BC, as proved by carbon-dating foundations of the stone foundations and walls still standing.

He says of the Mtwapa ruins, “We are digging for evidence to prove who we are. There may be other cities that are older or the same age as Mtwapa that we do not know of because there has been no investigation.”

Since 1986, Prof Kusimba has been digging through layers of the Mtwapa ruins to unravel the secrets of ancient African civilisation.

“We have dug through seven occupational levels. We have evidence that Islam came to this part of the east coast about AD 800, but it took about 400 years for local people to take it up as one of the major religions and not everyone became a Muslim.”

One of these groups was the coastal Mijikenda people, who until recently followed the ways of their ancestors and established secret sacred villages in forest groves called Kayas, to avoid persecution from invaders.

There are structures in the Mtwapa ruins that predate any outside influence, giving credence to Prof Kusimba’s statement that Africans had a civilisation predating Islam or Christianity.

On historical misperceptions, Prof Kusimba blames Africa’s early education systems. He says that Kenya’s founding president Jomo Kenyatta’s dilemma was education. He wanted progress and development to happen quickly so Kenyatta settled on the British curriculum.

Kenyans were taught more or less like students back in England and the result was that educated Kenyans were more or less British in outlook.

All the viewpoints of the curriculum were British, with no African or Kenyan input, so lacked a Kenyan identity.

But Prof Kusimba says, “Africans need to know that their ancestors were history makers, like ancestors in other parts of the world, that they had a better civilisation than that of other regions, that Africa was never isolated and that it was never the ‘Dark Continent.’

“It was dark from the European perspective,” he says. “Africa was porous, Africans moved a lot and traded with each other.”

The one thing that did not work in African’s favour though were the rivers. They were not easily negotiable, so that even the Egyptians until the 19th century had no clue of the revered Nile’s origins despite many attempts to sail upstream.

“The British used routes that were already being used by African merchants to move up and down the continent. And Kiswahili was a lingua franca by the 17th century in East and Central Africa.”

Talking of Kiswahili, together with History, these were Prof Kusimba’s favourite subjects in school. A voracious reader, he bought and read Kisawhili books.
“I read Shabaan bin Robert, a Kiswahili writer from Tanzania whose ancestors were enslaved. He wrote beautiful Kiswahili.

Then there was Mbotela [father of Kenya’s famous broadcaster Leonard Mambo Mbotela of Freetown, Mombasa], who wrote about the struggles of liberation.

“Mbotela’s book had a huge influence on how we related with each other in school growing up in immediate post-independence Kenya.” This was the period of desegregation in Kenya.

“I attended a predominately Indian school in Nakuru and we teased the Arab kids mercilessly,” he says putting it in historical context. “This was how blame was being passed around.”

The “blame game” had its origins in the country’s education curriculum, where history books were written by the British. “The Arabs were portrayed as the slave traders and the Banyanis [Indians] were the greedy traders.”

Prof Kusimba’s first visit to Mombasa was after he completed his university education and he says, “l just fell in love with the place. It was pure deja vu.” All from the reading of Kiswahili literature.

The language is another of Prof Kusimba’s passions. It is widely believed that Kiswahili is a mixture of Arabic and Bantu languages, which Prof Kusimba refutes.
“Kiswahili has evolved much like English. It has borrowed words from other languages like Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese and English. English too has borrowed words from Latin, French and other languages. Kiswahili has grown and enriched itself to stay current like other languages,” he says.

Armed with a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Education from Kenyatta University in 1986, Dr Kusimba was offered a choice of jobs by Dr Leakey — it was either Koobi Fora on the shores of Lake Turkana or the Coast. He chose the latter and began working under the tutelage of archaeologist Richard Wilding.

“I lived in Old Town [Mji wa Kale] in Mombasa for one year and that is when l became aware of how old Mombasa was. It is one of the world’s oldest cities that has been continuously inhabited for 1,500 years, putting it in the same league as Delhi, Baghdad, Cairo, Rome and London.

“I saw the light,” recalls Prof Kusimba.

“I became aware of the incredible diversity of Mombasa people and admired the way people from different backgrounds lived side-by-side in what was at that time in the 1980s, perfect harmony. There were Muslims, Christians and Hindus and the intermarriages were incredible. This was a truly an integrated society that predated the Indians who came with the building of the railway.”

It was while living in Mombasa that the question of African influence began to haunt Prof Kusimba.

“We were taught that everything good came from somewhere else. That Africa had contributed nothing to the world and that our forefathers were not innovators, that we were created to serve and to follow.”
This to him was not a reflection of what he was seeing in Mombasa.

He says, “These are claims based on dishonest research by Europeans. The African contribution to human civilisation predates that of the Asian and European.”
The stone tool technology, which is so far the beginning of the human technical era, began in Africa and from Africa our ancestors moved to Asia and Europe. Africa gave the world its first domesticated foods like millet, sorghum and coffee.

Africa, he says, had a civilisation that was destroyed during the slave trade. Slavery lasted 400 years from the 15th century onwards during which time Africa lost its memory, knowledge, architecture, building technology and its indigenous foods and agriculture.

“Africa moved from feast to famine in those 400 years. The Europeans took the young and the strong to work on plantations in the Americas, where they killed an entire population of indigenous peoples. For 400 years, Africa was producing for other people.”

During this time, Africans built nothing and everything else fell into ruin from the great stone kingdom of Zimbabwe to the pyramids of Egypt. However, Prof Kusimba believes that Africa’s hour lies ahead because of its natural resources and perfect weather. And once rid of corruption, the continent will match Europe and Asia.

“Kenyans should really care about the history of their country,” he says. “Their civilisation is the beginning of humanity. There is no other place on earth where the earliest origins of humankind have been found except in East Africa.

“The beauty of what it means to be Kenyan is that you are celebrating six million years of human origin and that everyone is indeed Kenyan irrespective of where their ancestors came from.”

“That is why we need to keep digging to find evidence of our civilisation,” he says.

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