S4-A: Indian Ocean Imaginaries in East African Literature and Oral Culture

The project addresses the transformation of Indian Ocean imaginaries in East African literature and oral culture. The central research question focusses on the connections between the imaginaries of the Indian Ocean region generated by historical African-Asian interactions on the one hand and the representation of today’s African-Asian interactions in contemporary East African literature on the other. With its focus on Indian Ocean imaginaries, the project targets a key issue with regard to the historical emergence and contemporary constitution of new transregional concepts of space (AFRASO Key Area 4); with its historical focus, the project contributes to lending historical depth to the analysis of African-Asian interactions within the AFRASO research programme as a whole.

The project is based on the assumption that Indian Ocean imaginaries differ widely throughout East Africa and that in historical terms coastal regions and landlocked regions distant from the sea have generated particularly divergent cultural constructions of the Indian Ocean. To utilize these differences for an analysis of the transformation of Indian Ocean imaginaries, exemplary field research on images of the Indian Ocean in oral culture will be conducted in rural Uganda and in Zanzibar. An analysis of literary representations of the probably best-known Indian Ocean icon – the dhow – will establish which Indian Ocean imaginaries are generated by the specific experience of travelling on the Indian Ocean by dhow. Representations of the lived experience of dhow voyages on the Indian Ocean will be analyzed in historical perspective in reports, travelogues and biographies in English and Swahili and will be contrasted to current literary renderings of the dhow topos. Finally, the corpus of East African literature in East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda) from 1960 to the present day will be analyzed with a special focus on concepts and images of the Indian Ocean area as a transregional cultural contact zone, representations of Asians, Asian culture and Asian countries and different versions of Indian Ocean imaginaries in coastal regions and the East African hinterland. The combined analysis of oral culture, dhow literature in English and Swahili and the corpus of anglophone East African writing is designed to produce new insights into the complex genesis and transformation of Indian Ocean imaginaries and to provide differentiated answers to the question if and how contemporary images and concepts of the Indian Ocean as transregional contact zone build on earlier Indian Ocean imaginaries, or whether representations of current  African-Asian interactions are characterized by a break with these historically generated imaginaries.

A dhow on the Indian Ocean waters next to Zanzibar in 2013. © Karugia, John Njenga