One of my favorite things that we do at ADEA’s MaKuYa Museum is interviewing local elders. Much of the history that can be read about the Mtwara region of Tanzania centers around political issues and historic events often involving colonial engagement with the Arabs, Germans, and British. But from the elders we learn about local life; the traditions, customs, and social constructs under which communities functioned; and also local perspectives on national events. Additionally, there are wonderful personal stories that give richness and depth to our understanding of the intricacies, in both the past and present, of life in rural southeastern Tanzania.
In our museum collections we focus on the traditional life and artifacts of the Makonde, Makua, and Yoa people (tribes). In order for us to get a much richer and accurate understanding of the objects in our collections, and to learn about object we are missing, we ask the elders to discuss whether and how the objects in our museum played a part in their lives. The Makonde people live in an expanse of area that stretches from the Indian Ocean westward to the Makonde Plateau. This means that though they share a language and tribal name, the way Makonde individual communities operate can be quite different. This past week we interviewed two Makonde women from the coast town of Kianga. As part of the museum tour we showed them our collection of hunting and fishing tools. They explained that because they live on the coast they live on fish. The only time they use hunting tools (such as bows and arrows and spears) is as props in dancing. We must now ask why are they used in local dances, if they are not a part of their everyday lives? This will be future research. Another difference we learned from previous interviews is that inland people were much more likely to have worn textiles made from tree bark where as cotton cloth was more common for the coastal Makonde. This was because people on the coast had access to products from the Indian Ocean trade, which included textiles that arrived in the Arab town of Mikidani. Also, people on the coast are more likely to be Muslim, and people inland to be Christian, thus influencing their traditional cultures. I have learned from our interviews over the past several years that it is not always accurate to say, “the Makonde do things this way, and the Makua do things another way.” We have discovered that traditions related to many things – for example marriage, celebrating birth, coming of age, and honoring the dead – can vary from village to village and not merely from tribe to tribe. My hypothesis on this is that, if communities are subsistent – meaning they grow, raise or hunt just what they need – and neighboring people are doing the same, there is little need to interact or engage in cross-community trade.
Other than group interviews, this week’s interview was our first with women. This is possible now that Mama Patakula has joined our MaKuYa team. Her presence as a woman makes it a more comfortable experience for the guest women in a society where men and women generally socialize separately.
Hearing the elders share of their past lives and traditions is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job. I will be sharing some of their stories in future blogs. The men and women are happy to talk, and they feel very honored that someone wants to hear their stories. It is important work in a place where there is only oral tradition. It is the hope of the MaKuYa team to conduct extensive interviews with elders across the Mtwara region as soon as possible. Each day that we wait, elders die. We interviewed a 98-year-old man for three days one month before he passed. We discovered some wonderful histories that will now not be lost forever.
If you know of any donor organizations that supports this sort of documentation effort (or you would like to support it) please let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org) – and thanks.