Short Teaching Module: Precolonial Kenya, a Small-Scale History

David Bresnahan
Photo shows strips of red cloth hanging from a cave ceiling


World historians like to focus on large-scale interactions between different regions of the globe. But smaller societies, including some that barely make a dent in most narratives of global interaction, also played an important role in shaping global networks. This essay follows one such story, tracing local valuations of imported textiles among the Mijikenda-speaking communities that lived inland from the port city of Mombasa (in modern Kenya). These small-scale communities do not fit typical categorizations of “global actors” and are largely absent from studies of the pre-modern Indian Ocean world. Yet they influenced Mombasa’s connections to the world, in part through the meanings they attached to imported cloth. 


The Indian Ocean has been a central space for trade and cultural exchanges for millennia. From the considerable historical scholarship on the Indian Ocean, we know that a vast network of port cities stretching from Eastern Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, and South and Southeast Asia connected the region while seasonal fluctuations of the Indian Ocean’s monsoon winds facilitated easy travel between far flung ports. Global demands for commodities like South Asian pepper and cotton and East African ivory kept the wheels of commerce spinning for centuries. Shared cultural and religious practices, especially Islam, enabled disparate communities to develop social ties, supporting commercial partnerships across wide expanses of ocean. The scales from which scholars study the Indian Ocean’s place in world history are BIG. What can the historical experience of smaller societies that do not fully cohere to grand narratives of Islamic maritime networks teach us about interactions across this global macro-region?      


The Mijikenda-speaking communities that live adjacent to the Swahili port city of Mombasa do not fit the rubrics that scholars typically use to understand Indian Ocean interconnections. Indian Ocean trade took place in port cities, but Mijikenda speakers mostly resided in smaller villages inland from the coast. Muslim merchants dominated commercial interactions in Mombasa. Yet, Mijikenda communities preferred their own ritual practices over Islam. When Portuguese ships reached Mombasa in the late-15th century, the city was already well-integrated into the Indian Ocean’s commercial landscape. Swahili merchants supplied visiting Arab and Indian traders with ivory, resins, and other trade goods. The city’s planned streets, lime-mortared stone mosques, and houses with terraced roofs and arched windows prompted Portuguese writers to make favorable comparisons between Mombasa and contemporary cities in Europe. In writing about the Swahili coast’s role in world history, it would be easy to focus only on these signifiers of global cosmopolitanism: foreign trade, Islam, impressive architecture. But humble villages on the city’s mainland, some located only a few miles away from the ocean, also shaped connections between Mombasa and the world. 


Historical sources give a general sense that Mijikenda communities were important provisioning agents for Mombasa. They supplied the city’s merchants with ivory, foodstuffs, gum copal, and beeswax. In return, they received valued imported goods, most notably, cotton cloth. A report from the 1630s (when Mombasa was occupied by the Portuguese) shows that about a tenth of the city’s budget was allocated for payments in cotton cloth which they provided to neighboring Mijikenda communities. According to the report’s author, the Mijikenda were supposed to be “vassals” of Mombasa, but really, the city’s merchants were more “like prisoners” since they had to pay their inland neighbors “a large tribute in cloth” to maintain functional relations. 


Most of the cloth in question came from Cambay, a port city in Gujarat (in western India) which was the world’s leading center for cotton cloth production prior to the Industrial Revolution. Gujarati merchants had supplied the Swahili coast with cloth coast since at least the 13th century, visiting annually with a variety of dyed textiles which were important fashion items in coastal towns. Swahili merchants also used imported cotton cloth as a “currency” for obtaining valued goods from communities in the interior. The cloth payments that Mombasa budgeted for inland communities, therefore, alert us to Mijikenda speakers’ participation in Indian Ocean trade networks: as suppliers of export goods, such as ivory and resins and consumers of imported textiles from faraway Gujarati factories.     


It would be easy to end the story at this point and simply insert Mijikenda communities into a larger historical narrative of Indian Ocean trade. But such small communities have a much richer story to tell us about the contingencies of global interactions. From one perspective, the connections that developed between Mijikenda communities, Mombasa, and other Indian Ocean locales may look inevitable. Gujarati textiles were desired commodities across the eastern hemisphere, so of course, Mijikenda speakers, like many others in the Indian Ocean world and beyond sought out opportunities to obtain these foreign cloths. However, by studying local valuations of these textiles, we see that Mombasa’s connections to these larger networks formed because Mijikenda communities turned an imported commodity into a locally meaningful object. 


To trace the values that the members of Mijikenda communities attached to imported cloth, it is necessary to turn from written texts to evidence from language. We’ll focus on one of the most common words for cotton cloth in coastal East Africa: kitambi, a Swahili word which itself is cognate with a Mijikenda word, chitsambi. Swahili and Mijikenda are both members of the Sabaki family of Bantu languages. To use the Romance family of languages as an example, we can think of Sabaki as being like Vulgar Latin while Mijikenda and Swahili’s relatedness is akin to Spanish and French. Much like we can trace modern words in Romance language back to older roots, studying the derivation of kitambi and chitsambi enables us to discern what this cloth meant to the people that lived in historically distant communities in the Kenya coast. 


Speakers of Bantu languages encode information into the morphological units of nouns by adding prefixes and suffixes to a root. In the case of kitambi and chitsambi, both are derived from an older root word, *-camb-, which meant “to wash oneself after excreting.” The noun’s construction, with a ki- prefix and -i suffix, indicates that its earliest meaning was something like “an instrument that washed one after excreting”, essentially a pre-modern equivalent of toilet paper. The available evidence indicates that this word likely originated among speakers of Mombasa-area dialects and their Mijikenda-speaking neighbors around the early-second millennium when it was pronounced *kicambi. From these humble beginnings, the term’s meaning evolved over time. In Mombasa Swahili dialects, kitambi connoted a long piece of colorful cloth, about 5- or 6-arm’s length, a meaning which stressed kitambi as a unit of measure and a commodity. Over time, the word spread to other parts of the Swahili coast (due to Mombasa’s role as a major cloth distribution center) ultimately becoming a catch-all for a wide range of imported textiles. [See the “Primary Source” example for further details on this “Word History”]


Mijikenda speakers also reworked the term’s meaning from its earliest roots, but their own form of the word, chitsambi, represented much more than a simple commodity. Historical records show that people considered these textiles to have a variety of protective qualities. A chitsambi was typically worn during pregnancy, initiation rituals, or if a person was afflicted by malevolent spirits. People also wrapped pieces of the textile around wooden grave posts which represented near-departed ancestors. When they tied the colorful cloth around the neck and waist of the wooden posts, it metaphorically “dressed” their ancestors and attested to their enduring importance to the lives of their descendants. 


How should practices like tying cloth to a grave post or the protective adornments worn during pregnancy fit into narratives of world history? Typically, they don’t. But we only need to look to the countless historical sources which describe Mijikenda speakers procuring cloth from merchants in Mombasa to discern the critical interplay between inland material practices and the rhythms of oceanic trade. Through their material practices, people living inland from Mombasa transformed a commoditized cloth into an object with immense local value. Notably, they never used imported textiles to signify their commonalities with other “cosmopolitan” centers in far-flung Indian Ocean locales. Instead, they imbued the textiles with their own meanings, ultimately envisioning the imported goods as objects which could protect and support the wellbeing of their communities. 


World historians frequently trace the movement of trade goods across large spatial scales. When following big global connections, however, we can easily lose track of smaller developments that sustained large-scale networks and interactions. Mombasa’s connections to the Indian Ocean world thrived for a variety of reasons. The port city’s location, with a deep harbor and an abundance of goods available from its immediate interior, made it a premium stopping point for visiting merchants. Its thoroughly Islamic character, meanwhile, would have made the city feel familiar to visiting merchants from any number of Indian Ocean ports. These are the obvious answers. But looking more closely at the historical experiences of Mijikenda communities invites us to scan along the edges of the most familiar global narratives; to ask how small communities influenced larger scales of interaction simply by pursuing their own goals and ends.


Primary Sources

Mijikenda textiles

Photo shows strips of red cloth hanging from a cave ceiling

Words are historical artifacts which can be analyzed as evidence much like written documents or material records. The words and meanings below all come from historical dictionaries, mostly from the nineteenth century. But they reveal much more ancient historical developments.

In Mijikenda dialects:

Rabai: chitsambi “the open cloth put round the body and tucked in at the bosom according to the fashion of Swahili women. This costume is always adopted by Mijikenda women during the first pregnancy and in such cases of sickness as are ascribed to evil spirits” 

Duruma: chitsambi “type of cloth put around waist of woman or burial or for evil spirits”

In Swahili dialects: 

Mvita (Mombasa): kitambi “a piece of cloth measuring 5 or 6 mikono [arm’s lengths]…with the people of the interior 4 mikono make a kitambi…Thus the Swahili gain 2 mikono in the interior from every kitambi” 

Unjugja (Zanzibar): kitambi “a length or a piece of cloth, usually the kind used for head-wear, as a kind of turban…also worn round the waist and as a loincloth” 

*kicambi is the older form of all of the words above, but none of these modern dialects pronounce the word this way. The phonetic shape of the word (or how it sounds) in different languages informs us of this history. In Mijikenda and Mvita (a Mombasa dialect of Swahili), the inherited sound *c will always be attested as ts and t respectively while *ki becomes chi in Mijikenda dialects and remains ki in Swahili. The Mijikenda and Mombasa forms are therefore both derived from the word’s older form, *kicambi. However, in southern Swahili dialects, such as Unguja (spoken in Zanzibar), the word is clearly a loanword from northern Swahili. We know this because in Unjuga, the older sound *c should be pronounced ch. By studying how the word sounds in each of these languages, we can determine that people living in the northern part of the Swahili coast invented this word after northern and southern Swahili dialects had diverged but early enough that it also underwent regular sound changes in Mijikenda dialects. Based on what is known about the history of these dialects, it is likely that the word spread between Mombasa Swahili and Mijikenda in the early-second millennium. 

Studying the word’s derivation, meanwhile, informs us of how people living around Mombasa thought about this type of textile. *kicambi is derived from an older root word, *-camb-, which meant “to wash oneself after excreting.” The prefix ki- signifies that the word referred to an object associated with the root while the suffix -i indicates that it is an agent noun. This tells us that etymologically the word’s meaning originally equated to something like an object or instrument that washed one after excreting. By studying the entries above, we can see that both Mijikenda- and Swahili-speaking communities applied this word—which originally referred to a washing instrument—to valued textiles. We can also see how both reworked *kicambi’s meaning over time to suit their own distinctive goals and needs: in the case of Swahili speakers, a trade commodity; and among Mijikenda speakers, cloth with considerable ritual and protective qualities.

The images to the left feature modern textile styles but they offer a good illustration of some of the ritual uses of textiles in Mijikenda communities. The top displays koma memorial posts which are adorned with colorful strips of cloth. The second image shows a muzimu, a natural space where spirits resided which were often located in caves, hollowed tree stumps, or small forest groves. Notice that the cave features strips of colorful cloth along with offerings for the spirits known to inhabit these spaces.

This source is part of the Precolonial Kenya, a Small-Scale History teaching module.


Published Primary Sources used in this essay:

G.S.P. Freeman Grenville, The East African Coast: Select Documents from the First to the Earlier Nineteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 1962).

Friedrich Hirth and William Rockhill, trans., Chau Ju-kua: His Work On The Chinese And Arab Trade In The Twelfth And Thirteenth Centuries (St. Petersburg: Imperial Academy of Sciences, 1911).

Secondary Sources for further exploration:


Manoharlal Mavji Gohil, “The Historical Background of Textiles in Kenya,” MA thesis, University of Nairobi (1983).

Pedro Machado, Ocean of Trade: South Asian Merchants, Africa and the Indian Ocean, c.1750–1850 (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

Elizabeth Orchardson-Mazrui, “Expressing Power through Aesthetics in Mijikenda Society,” Journal of African Cultural Studies 11, no. 1 (1998): 85-102. 

Jeremy Prestholdt, Domesticating the World: African Consumerism and the Genealogies of Globalization (University of California Press, 2008).  

Yaari Felber Seligman [published under the author’s former legal name], “Lip Ornaments and the Domestication of Trade Goods: Fashion in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Central East Africa,” History in Africa 42 (2015): 357-373.

Idem., “Wealth Not by Any Other Name: Inland African Material Aesthetics in Expanding Commercial Times, ca. 16th –20th Centuries,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 48, no. 3 (2015): 449-469. 

Donald Wright, The World and a Very Small Place in Africa: A History of Globalization in Niumi, the Gambia, 3rd edition (Routledge, 2010).


David Bresnahan is an assistant professor of history at the University of Utah. He is currently writing a book on Mombasa’s connections to the Indian Ocean world from an inland-facing perspective. His work has appeared in the Journal of World History, the Journal of Eastern African Studies, and Edge Effects

How to Cite This Source

"Short Teaching Module: Precolonial Kenya, a Small-Scale History," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/short-teaching-module-precolonial-kenya-small-scale-history [accessed January 29, 2023]