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On language, ritualisation and gender

Researcher: Agnes Brühwiler
Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Anne Storch

Unyago was a pre-colonial form of education in many societies in Tanzania. This form of education was and still is considered a very important tool for initiating young men and women into adulthood. This is rite de passage that is conducted when boys and girls reach the age of puberty. It is performed in isolated settings where they are provided with knowledge about morality, sexuality, sexual behavior and reproduction as well as their responsibilities in society. Like many other practices with roots in pre-colonial times, various actors in the name of religion and civilization have been discouraging it. With time, this ritual has taken various forms and it is performed differently depending on where the family stands on faith. However, certain values as well as the general intentions guiding unyago have remained unchanged. As a result, there are many places in Tanzania where people practice some form of unyago. In present day society in Tanzania, families perform ‘Christian unyago’, ‘Islamic unyago’ or combine the traditional unyago with a modern ones such as kitchen party.

My project focuses on unyago wa ndoa (the marriage unyago), which initiates young women to be wives and mothers as practiced by Swahili women of Zanzibar town and Dar es Salaam. The two cities are home to cosmopolitan Swahili societies, which have been practicing and developing unyago rites of various backgrounds. Unyago wa ndoa (marriage unyago) is a space for women only. Married women and brides exclusively are allowed to take part in these rites and they are to keep the teachings as ‘secret’, not to be shared with people whom it does not concern. The teachings are performed orally as well as through singing and dancing. The instructors, who are called kungwi, somo or nyakanga, often use special language techniques, symbols, songs and dances to communicate their message.

Unyago is a crucial aspect of Swahili oral literature but it has not been the subject of an in-depth scholarly study. Scholars of Kiswahili studies have written on oral literatures but none of them have looked at unyago, where the symbols, poetry and songs play substantive roles in its performance. Cultural anthropologists and historians have contributed to the research on unyago but they have mainly focused on its social function. Undoubtedly, there exists a gap of knowledge on the stylistic features in unyago, which are part of oral literature that deserves investigating. My study aims to contribute to the existing literature on Swahilioral literature by analyzing the oral aspect of unyago as a kind of everyday life knowledge. I intend to explore how various stylistic features are used in delivering the message in unyago and actors creativity use style as a literary feature. Furthermore, I examine how various stylistic features such as similes, metaphors and repetition are used to express emotions, meaning and nuances during unyago sessions. Specifically, the study will provide a detailed literary explanation of the stylistic features of unyago language by;

  • determining the effectiveness of stylistic features of unyago language in conveying messages to the audience,
  • establishing the relationship between performances, words and symbols in unyago practices, and

providing detailed data of unyago language through all of its aspects and transitions.