Heritage, Tourism, and Slavery at Shimoni: Narrative and Metanarrative on the East African Coast
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Heritage, Tourism, and Slavery at Shimoni:
Narrative and Metanarrative on the East African Coast

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There's a hole in the side of Africa, where the walls will speak if you only listen Walls that tell a tale so sad, that the tears on the cheeks of Africa glisten Stand and hear a million slaves, tell you how they walked so far That many died in misery, while the rest were sold in Zanzibar Shimoni, oh Shimoni, You have to find the answer and the answer has been written down in Shimoni

When Kenya-born singer-songwriter Roger Whittaker sang these doleful words in 1983,2 the village of Shimoni was a relatively quiet [End Page 247] backwater on the southern Kenya coast, known primarily for its deep-sea fishing club. It is now a much larger and busier place, where tourists come to see the 'slave cave' that gives Shimoni its name (Swahili shimo-ni, "at the cave"), and embark on boat trips to Wasini Island and the nearby Kisite-Mpunguti Marine National Park (see Figure 1). Whittaker's song played a significant role in this development, by bringing Shimoni and its caves to wider attention, and focusing on one of a number of narratives about the caves' past usage. The lyrics of 'Shimoni' did not simply embellish a local tale, but (re)created it in the image of metanarratives about the history of slavery on the East African coast. As we will argue in this paper, these metarratives now dominate reconstructions of the past in Shimoni, and are reinforced by the activities and institutions that constitute and promote the caves as an important site of cultural heritage.

Slavery has long played an important part in the external definition of Africa and the formation of attitudes and actions towards it.3 In Eastern Africa the prominent role played by Omani and other Arabs in the development of the historical slave trade through Zanzibar has added the spice of 'Orientalism' to discursive constructions of slavery.4 Memories of slavery were kept alive in the twentieth century by the Christian churches and their literature, and, on Zanzibar itself, by persistent racial and political divisions that culminated in the bloody Revolution of 1964 and its repressive aftermath.5 These and other regional discourses about slavery have since been joined (if [End Page 248]

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Map of the Shimoni area (copyright: the authors)

not entirely subsumed) by the global antislavery metanarratives that have emerged from the African American civil rights movement and the radical politics of post-colonialism. Whittaker sang his schmaltzy song in a world in which Alex Haley's 'Roots' had already introduced his (typically middle-class, white) audience to the injustices of slavery.6 And Shimoni's subsequent conversion into a heritage site has occurred in a context in which international institutions, foremost among them UNESCO, now provide important support for a global vision of the memorialisation of slavery, a subject we discuss in greater detail below. [End Page 249]

Our paper traces the impact of these intertwined metanarratives on the development of oral traditions in and around Shimoni. Oral traditions have a crucial role to play in the reconstruction of histories of Africa and have long been part of the data-collection methodologies of historians, archaeologists and anthropologists seeking a local voice. Nonetheless, the interpretation of oral accounts remains controversial; it is far from clear whether they can be considered relevant to periods beyond the living memory of the informant, or whether they refer only to the circumstances of their creation.7 Certainly, it is recognised that oral accounts are particularly sensitive to manipulation based on contemporary concerns, as well as to the effects of collective memory distortions and change over time. Careful comparative research often picks up dissonance and similarity among accounts, allowing for the compilation of synthetic narratives which explore not only past events, preserved as a series of echoes across the different explications of the story, but also the implications of the ways that people have chosen to represent and remember the past of their families and communities.

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The authors of this paper...