Experiencing Islam in East Africa

In this post, I want to combine responses to Professor Asani’s stress on the cultural context crucial to the study of religion and to the J. Knappert reading, Myths and Legends of the Swahili regarding devotional practices and myths from East Africa. I have spent the past two summers in Tanzania working for a small NGO. I was fortunate enough to stay with an incredibly loving and generous  homestay family in the tiny Muslim subvillage of Urangini within Bwawani ward. Because I lived with this family of devout Muslims for nearly two months, and especially because my time with this family coincided with Ramadan, I hope to speak to the manner in which this particular family practiced Islam in the cultural context of a small East African village. I also hope to speak to my experiential understanding of Islam within this context.

In most Tanzanian villages, there is a “mwenyekiti,” or village leader, with whom our NGO would consult and defer to regarding all decisions that would affect his village. In Urangini, the mwenyekiti worked closely with the imam of the small mosque, and because the constituents of the village were predominantly Muslim, having the respect of the imam was as important as gaining the trust of the mwenyekiti. I established a strong relationship with the imam, and he was enormously helpful in directing especially young Muslim men to our health education teachings. My homestay family had five children: Zulfa, Hajerah, Fauzia, Omari, and Shania. The girls and the boy left their heads uncovered except when going to the mosque or going to school, in which case the girls wore white, pressed hijabs. The boy and his father, Juma, went to the mosque several times a day in between tending the fields behind the house, while the mother went less frequently as she was busy taking care of the household. The call to prayer, as I recall, was mostly audible for the night prayers and the morning prayers. During Ramadan, the family fasted and broke the fast with porridge, “uji,” and a small iftar meal, usually composed of beans, corn, and kassava. They would then eat dinner, and would also wake up and eat a meal before sunrise at about 4:00 am. During the holiest days of Ramadan, I remember hearing congregations of people parading down the small dirt roads of the village singing and chanting in a mix of Swahili and Arabic to various drums and other instruments. I was back in Arusha Town by the time of Eid, during which a huge celebrations and dancing occurred, accompanied by massive amounts of delicious street food, sweets, and “Eid Mubaraks.”

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