Tag: Tanzania

Music, spirituality and Islam in Africa

Zanzibar City, Tanzania

A crowd of young women in burkas and some men gather outside a café in Zanzibar, bewildered by the sight: an African woman, in a West African mumu (kaftan) and covered head, playing Ghazal poetry as an Islamic call to prayer.

Sitting on the café terrace and accompanied by an acoustic guitar, Nawal’s clear voice captivates the audience – until it is broken by the cry of a visibly upset street vendor. “How dare you use the name of Allah in a song?” he shouts.

“You use keyboards in your praise of Allah,” Nawal retorts calmly.

Striking a chord with the community: from sandy Zanzibar to sunny Sudan

In 21st century Zanzibar, as in much of Africa and the Muslim world, music has the power to inflame as it did in ancient Persia when music, mosaics and poetry were created to be ‘nearer to Allah’. And the old divisions – between the more tolerant Sufi branches of Islam, which believe that art and music can be expressions of meditation, and the more conservative branches, which believe devotion should be silent, personal, and contemplative – continue to raise existential questions about the nature of faith and spirituality.

Although there is much disagreement over the role of music or prohibition of it in Islam, Nawal, a practising Muslim from the Comoros islands, is adamant that there is nothing in the Qur’an that forbids singing.

“I sing for my hopes, my values,” she says. “It’s like a communion. I want the public to forget I am an artist. I don’t say ‘Let’s go pray’, I just say ‘God is big, there is nothing that is not God’. So if someone kills me for saying that, they kill me for praising God. I am not here to change people – I am here to shine.”

She continues, “The Western media must show me as I am [and] show Islam as vital, spiritual, productive, subtle and positive – not just extremist.” She recounts a story at an international festival in Belgium when the predominantly Muslim crowd complained and nearly revolted. However, after the gig, she recalls, Turkish, Palestinian, Tuareg and Syrian Muslims – both men and women – came up to her with tears in their eyes, saying they had found her songs moving and profound.

These divergences also reverberate in Sudan, where the vibrant and dynamic musical group Camiraata uses music to address social issues. Far from seeing music as unreligious, the group uses music to bring together families, tribes and clans in Sudan, north to south, to sing their way through serious political and domestic challenges.

Indeed, for many Muslim Sudanese, music is integral to community dispute-resolution, initiation rituals, the unusual and the everyday. Da’Affallah, director of Sudan’s Music and Culture Academy in Khartoum and band member explains, “Music and culture is about understanding. If you know my music, my religion and my culture, you respect me.”

“We never ever stop singing!”, Da’Affallah continues, before breaking into song. “Music in Sudan is absolutely everywhere, and has been for many, many centuries. Music is life in Sudan, from birth to death. When a woman makes tea or coffee in the morning she has a special song [he starts singing]. She has a song and she grinds out the pestle in time as she grinds coffee. Then we have special ‘albaramka’ for tea – this is a group song.”

He demonstrates – and it sounds like Mongolian throat-singing – before continuing, “We sing love songs to our camels because we depend on them. We sing to the desert so it won’t kill us. If we have problems in the community, we bring together everyone to solve the problem, we consult the elders, we talk, we sing, we talk more!”

Facing the music in northern Mali

A couple of thousand miles west of Sudan in Mali, the tensions between contrasting interpretations of the role of music for Muslims was been brought into particularly sharp, and often tragic, focus following the takeover of the north by Islamist militants last year.

Khaïra Arby, looking regal in her striking head wrap and plush blue dress, her face lined and tired, just got off a plane from Mali. “Yes, it’s true, I’ve seen it myself; they will cut off your tongue if you sing,” she says. “I’ve seen friends who’ve had their hands cut off for the ringtones on their mobile phones.”

Arby, adored across Mali, is affectionately called the nightingale of the North. Born in the village of Abaradjou, north of Timbuktu, her parents came from different ethnic backgrounds – her mother Songhai, her father Berber. Arby’s music, which is more popular at home than the music of her internationally famous cousin Salif Keita, captures northern Mali’s diversity of ethnic groups, styles and poetry.

Malian musician Khaïra Arby. (Flickr/Rare Frequency)

After persistent threats and attacks from Islamists militants – including smashing up stereo systems in markets and people’s homes, confiscating radios and even SIM cards with music on them – Arby escaped to Bamako to stay with Salif Keita on his island on the river Niger just outside Mali’s capital of Bamako. Many Malian musicians are among the thousands who fled south since the crisis began.

Keita is also resigned. Before the international intervention against the Islamist rebels, he commented, “If there’s no music, no Timbuktu, it means that there is no more culture in Mali.” Indeed, Timbuktu is regarded as part of a chain of African kingdoms that had a long history of education, literature and intellectual life. It was the site of one of the largest Islamic libraries in Africa and a meeting point for scholars who debated and interpreted the Qur’an.

However, last year the Islamist rebels who took over the towns declared the shrines to be idolatrous and restricted forms of expression, such as music, that had been part of the fundamental fabric of everyday life. Like many Malians, Arby was bewildered. “There’s not a single part of the Qur’an that forbids music,” she says. “I’ve read it all, I can tell you honestly, there’s nothing in there that says don’t sing. I’ve never seen, never, that music is forbidden.”

In fact, Arby is highly sceptical as to the importance of religion at all in the motives of militants. “This war is about drug-running and arms trafficking. It’s about controlling important routes through a very long term trade area. It’s about money, politics and control. It’s not about religion,” she insists.

Cheikh Lo, a Senegalese veteran and arguably the Miles Davis of African music, is also angry about the rebels’ attempts to ban music in northern Mali. Lo is a devout Muslim of the Baye Fall Sufi tradition. “These people misuse the name of Islam,” he says. “They are nothing to do with Islam, they are terrorists and we must have the dirigence [direction or composure] to drive them out.”

Clearly, Africa’s Muslim musicians – from Senegal’s Cheikh Lo to Mali’s Khaïra Arby to Sudan’s Camiraata to Zanzibar’s Nawal – are not about to give in and succumb to pressures against their singing. In fact, to the contrary, they see music as the very means of social change.

“The real musician does not go out to nightclubs, but he stays in the community, and leads to the right way,” says Da’Affallah. “This means peace, unity, understanding, communication.”

Meanwhile Arby states defiantly, “We have an obligation to sing, to dance, to respect, and to show appreciation for the suffering and the endurance and bravery of the people who are fighting for us, for those who cannot sing. We must compose beautiful songs before the war, during the war, and after the war, to celebrate what we have.”

This piece by Thembi Mutch was first published on Think Africa Press.

Impressions of Tanzania: A nation united

I recently needed a refresh of my Kenyan visa with a trip out of the country. I didn’t have money to fly but could afford a road trip somewhere. And I like road trips. So I bussed from Nairobi to Mombasa, then Mombasa to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. From Dar es Salaam, I caught another bus all the way across the north of the country to Arusha. And then I went back to Nairobi.

I did the entire fleeting trip in a record 36 hours, over a weekend, at minimal cost. I saw the entirety of northern Tanzania, ate at many roadside diners, and gauged something about the nature of the people. I even got a new Kenyan visa thrown into the bargain as well.


The road to Dar es Salaam runs past a distant Indian Ocean with crowds of coconut palms on the shoreline. Ragtag kids are just chilling out near the road, or playing ball in the yard of a village, surrounded by banana palms. Mothers are hanging up their washing, dads perhaps meeting with friends in the shade outside. A few small grocery shops and makuti (palm frond) bars punctuate the smooth journey on good roads.

Arriving in Dar es Salaam in the late afternoon, and having already been on the road for the entire day, I quickly enlisted a guy to help me find a local place to stay. In what was probably a half hour of walking Dar, we decided on a hotel overlooking a small sandy village that seemed undisturbed, living at the edge of the city.

I walked around a bit as dusk fell. It was obviously safe in the village as well as in the small part of the city at its fringe. No one even looked at me except to greet. I bought some dates at a fruit market, drank soda at a sidewalk cafe and ate an early dinner as dark descended.

I had pilau rice and masala fish at a family restaurant run from the covered veranda of their flat-roofed family home, where I drank bottled water in the absence of any beer on the menu. It made sense to be sitting outside in the humid night.

Through the evening, all around me, people sat outside, under cover from the drizzle, on benches, chatting in the damp darkness. Others passed, seeming always on some mission or other: men in Muslim headgear, women in multicoloured, patterned veils. There was constant activity as people crossed in angular paths, avoiding errant boda-bodas (motorbike taxis) on the road.

Urban East African Islam, peaceful and serene.

I slept early and checked out early to catch a bus direct to Arusha. A well-powered luxury bus took twenty of us the huge distance to Arusha, travelling comfortably quickly on the broad clean tarmac.

On the way, the vegetation changed to African savannah. Thorn trees and a carpet of green grass in the rain. Copses of hills with a backdrop of distant mountains. A few zebras and giraffes on the plain aside Maasai herders and morans (warriors) loping in the bush. And Maasai-style conservation all the way: thousands of newly planted trees.

The bus arrived in Arusha in the dark, and in the rain. I was expecting cash in the morning, to get me out the country and through the border so the boda-boda guy dropped me at a three-star place in the centre of town where, unusually, I was able to negotiate to stay the night and only pay in the morning.

By 10am, the cash I’d been promised from Kenya hadn’t arrived, so with not much else to do but wait, I wandered around Arusha a bit. And the experience of Arusha in the rain was enchanting.

One street down from the hotel, an informal market of banged-together split-pole stalls and homespun wooden trailers ran all day. The sellers, some of them older mamas, but some of them mothers with young kids, sat sheltered in the constant drizzle, busying themselves amidst spirited chatting and vigorous laughter. They were trading fruit and vegetables between themselves more than with anyone else, eating avocados and pineapples in the rain.

Everyone was in wonderment that I spoke some Swahili and most engaged me in brief conversation, usually asking where I was from.

Mimi ni Muafrika kutoka kusini,” (I’m an African from the south) I’d say, and they would usually laugh with a nod when I assented to the recurrent question of “Mandela?”.

They giggled at my Nairobi Swahili, a language that contrasts with the soft, lyrical style of theirs. But I was at least able to converse with them a bit in the notable absence of English. We were all at ease.

I was greeted warmly, sometimes quizzically, when asking for directions to the bank ATMs, and then to the only money transfer place still open. Both times I asked, the guys walked with me to the place, just so that we could chat.

The entire experience of Tanzania was without incident and salama sana (very peaceful). I saw no one begging and no one asked me for a thing. Only a Maasai mama selling jewellery at the Namanga border post wouldn’t let me go.

There’s a lot going on in Tanzania that’s promising and the country is recovering from its socialist slump. The roads are good and Dar es Salaam is obviously growing rapidly. Arusha is also the permanent headquarters of the African Court on Human and People’s Rights.

There were no images of African disease and famine to take home, and despite the simplicity of many Tanzanians’ lives, the people I spoke to were happy. And even if Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa (African socialism) wasn’t the greatest economic success, that he produced a tribeless society is remarkable. Tanzanians no longer learn a mother-tongue language first. Swahili is their common language, giving them a singular identity. And what I experienced during this visit – and the two before it – was a joyous people, a people at peace with themselves. It’s not like that in Kenya at all.

Brian Rath was born and raised in Cape Town. He now lives and writes in Kenya, and has a novel due to be published shortly.

I’m getting married, please send money

It’s eight in the morning when I enter the office gate just after dropping out of the minibus taxis – famously known as daladala – and my cellphone rings. I take it out of my jeans pocket only to find that it is one of my college mates, an old friend who I have not seen for months.

“Hey Erick, how are you?” he asks by way of greeting. “You are not seen – I just find your name in the papers.”

I give him an excuse about a busy life at the newspaper in Dar es Salaam that doesn’t seem to allow me to meet regularly with old friends, but I tell him that I’m doing fine. After some small talk the real reason for his call comes out.

“My friend, I am getting married in the next two months and I really need your support,” he says. I can’t possibly reject his request outright so out comes my standard response: “Hey, congratulations, man, count me in.”

But, really, all I can think of is the small table in my bedroom where, just next to my computer, there are about five cards from close and not-so-close friends with the same request – an appeal for a contribution to a wedding.

The texts in the cards are almost the same. “The family of so-and-so is happy to inform you that their beloved son/daughter is getting married in October. We have a pleasure to ask you for your participation by contributing some money and moral support. Please give the money to the one who gave you this card or contact the phone numbers below.”

This wedding “contribution” has become part of Tanzanian culture.

Weddings are a big thing – not just a family function as in some other countries but, rather, a community event. Relatives, friends, neighbours and colleagues are invited to be part of it, but not just by attending but also by giving generous financial assistance.

Like most things, it starts at the family level, where all the traditional processes such as dowry payments take place. It is the family that sets the wedding date – and the budget.

After that’s decided the family helps to make up special “contribution cards” for the bride and groom, which are delivered to relatives and friends of the family. Contributors are given at least three months to make sure they have ample time to get it together.

But the collection starts as soon as the cards go out. Every weekend, relatives and close friends who form the wedding committee meet to see how much they have collected and how the preparations are proceeding – what is going on with the wedding hall, the decorator and the caterer, and how much else they can pack into the budget.

As the wedding day gets closer, the committee reminds contributors of their promises by sending SMSes, or visiting them in their offices and homes, to make sure they cough up.

“As a close dear friend and relative, you are reminded to submit your contribution to fulfil the preparation of my wedding. God bless you!” is the sort of text message that arrives on my phone almost every weekend.

But it’s not just for the wedding that contributions are expected. For the bride, there is also the kitchen party, organised by the bride’s mother and aunts, and it is women only affair. Of course, guests do not get into the kitchen party for free either. They must contribute money for drinks and snacks, and arrive with a kitchen gift to help stock the bride and groom’s new home.

A week after the kitchen party the bride’s family also organises a prewedding party, famously known as a send-off party, which includes all invited guests.

At this party guests eat, drink and dance and at the end of it everyone , even those who attended the kitchen party, congratulates the bride to be – and bestows yet another gift on the happy couple.

The big event is normally hosted by the groom’s family. After the religious ceremony, either in church or in a mosque, the party moves to a hall for the reception. More food, drinks and dancing, with, of course, a present for the newly married couple.

Guys like me with many young friends shell out more than R400 every month for weddings or sendoff parties. And, as men, we’re lucky – we don’t have to include the kitchen party in our budget.

I am still recovering from what I gave out last month when two close friends got married.

I had to contribute about Tsh50 000 (about R220) to Rose’s send-off party and the same amount to Alex’s wedding. But, it didn’t end there. Alex was my roommate at university and he asked me to be one of the groomsmen so I had to buy a new suit, white shirt, a pair of shoes and a tie.

I sank about another Tsh300 000 (R1 300) – the equivalent of a secondary school teacher’s monthly salary – on just one wedding. I suppose we can blame Julius Nyerere’s “communalism” theories.

In Tanzania, the “contribution” is more about sharing than anything else. Even if the family is wealthy people still contribute in a show of “sharing”. And even though people complain about it they still have to contribute. It’s a kind of “if you do me, I do you” game. When my time comes, I’ll approach all those who I contributed to – a sort of money back guarantee.

But even if it’s all in the spirit of sharing don’t even think of going to anyone’s wedding if you didn’t contribute. Wedding invitations per se are sent out only a few days before the wedding and whether you make the guest list always comes down to how much you contributed. But never mind about how much you gave, it all goes towards making the couple’s big day.

Erick Mchome was the Mail & Guardian’s David Astor fellow in 2011. This post was first published in the M&G newspaper.