Despite its inaccessibility (it remains untranslated and copies are hard to obtain), Vinigi Grottanelli’s Pescatori dell’Oceano indiano (1955) is generally agreed to be one of the best studies of a rural Swahili-speaking community. It’s our principal ethnographic source on the Bajuni (aka Gunya, aka Tikuu), whose traditional territory comprised a long string of coastal settlements and islands between Kismayu (Somalia) in the north and the Lamu archipelago (Kenya) in the south. And the political turmoil of recent decades in Somalia has turned it into a valuable historical document, a record of a way of life that for thousands of Bajuni has been shattered by persecution and conflict.
Conducting research with Swahili-speaking refugees in Kenya might have been tricky at that time, politically and research-permission-wise at least. The subsequent emigration of large numbers of Bajuni and others to Europe and North America has perhaps made it easier, though a generation has now grown up in a very different linguistic and cultural environment from that of their original homeland. Asylum-seekers’ histories of displacement, including their knowledge of language and place, are of special interest to the immigration authorities processing their claims and the civil society organisations and lawyers defending their rights. Since 2004 linguist Derek Nurse has engaged with numerous cases of refugees claiming to Bajuni from Somalia, and this work has seen him return to research that he began in northern Kenya in 1978 (Nurse 1980).
The academic fruits of this are now online in his Bajuni Database. This comprises a general overview of ‘Bajuni: people, society, geography, history, language’, a Bajuni lexicon, a grammatical sketch (that updates Nurse 1982), and three maps (one of the whole Bajuni coast, plus sketch maps of Chovae and Chula islands). These aren’t polished documents, but are very useful nonetheless. The overview – part of which is a gazetteer of Bajuni villages down to the Kenya border – is of particular interest. Very few Bajuni remain in Somalia, and their world is clearly not what it was in the days before the dictatorship of Siad Barre and the Somali Civil War. Current prospects for research on the south Somali coast and Bajuni islands don’t look good, and recording what we know of this lost world and its former inhabitants is the best we can do. It is also important for the Bajuni diaspora, and a poignant reminder of the widespread suffering that the Somali conflict has caused.
(This is an abridged version of an original post, 'The Lost World of the Bajuni', on the East African Notes and Records blog.)
Grottanelli, Vinigi L. 1955. Pescatori dell’Oceano indiano: saggio etnologico preliminare sui Bagiuni, Bantu costieri dell’Oltregiuba. Rome: Cremonese.
Nurse, Derek 1980. Bajuni historical linguistics. Kenya Past and Present 12: 34-43.
Nurse, Derek 1982. The Swahili dialects of Somalia and the northern Kenya coast. In M.-F. Rombi (ed.) Etudes sur le Bantu Oriental (Comores, Tanzanie, Somalie, et Kenya. Paris: SELAF. 73-l46.
Nurse, Derek 2010. Bajuni Database. Online at http://www.ucs.mun.ca/~dnurse/bajuni_db.html.