African Studies Quarterly

Pastimes and Politics: Culture, Community, and Identity in Post-Colonial Zanzibar, 1890-1945. Laura Fair. Eastern African Series. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2001. Pp. 370.


This book is a masterpiece. Historian Laura Fair has woven a multifaceted series of studies on music, housing, sport, and dress into a single narrative that explores the fluid and multifaceted communities of ordinary townspeople in Zanzibar from the abolition of slavery in 1890 through the end of the Second World War. Creatively using an array of sources drawn from interviews, archives, and popular culture, the author demonstrates the strengths of contemporary research on gender, identity, and colonial authority in deft prose that rivals some of the finest stylists in the field. It holds insights for regional specialists as well as those unfamiliar with Zanzibar. If ever a work was tailor-made for graduate seminars to introduce recent trends in African cultural and colonial history, this is it.

Fair sets up her study by exploring the career and lyrics of singer Siti binti Saad. Saad, a descendant of slaves brought to work in clove plantations, performed with a popular taarab band in the 1920s and 1930s. Her songs express hopes and anxieties of poor townspeople. In Pastimes and Politics, leisure and culture activities became arenas of community building and “sites” of struggle over status and rights between British administrators, wealthy landowners of Omani descent, and urban people who were disenfranchised and marginalized from formal political power. Fair rightly notes that pastimes and politics “were intimately connected” rather than separate categories of experience (9). The book builds upon and contributes to earlier scholarship, for example by Frederick Cooper and Jonathon Glassman (Cooper 1979; Glassman 1995) which discuss contests over “Arab,” “Swahili,” and urban identities during the initial European occupation of the East African coast. When British officials tried to bolster the fading importance of Arab-identified leaders through rigid ethnic classifications and laws favoring their continued control over land, working-class people contested European labels of local identities and made claims to be as “authentically free” and “Zanzibari” as the members of established and wealthy families.

Music, dress, dance, and football all were cherished in Zanzibar as expressions of popular ideals and because they were fun. To her credit, the author never loses sight of the entertainment value of her topics as she explores their ties to political action. After discussing the economic and political changes in island life that posed obstacles to the aspirations of ordinary people, particularly the numerous attempts to fix rigid demarcations between “African” and “Arab” groups, the author moves into a rich discussion of dress.

In the late nineteenth century, masters and slaves were easily distinguished by the quality and style of their clothing. Poor people wore simple and unadorned cloth while the wealthy wore elaborate outfits heavily influenced by consumption patterns popular on the Arabian Peninsula. With the collapse of legal slavery, townspeople began to appropriate and reshape European and Omani dress styles for their own. Men looked to London and Paris, but women embroidered new forms of expression by adopting the veils and garments worn previously by wives of slave-owners. Veils are often presented in Western media as the marker of Islamic religious oppression, but some Zanzibari women of African descent used this seemingly confining dress to claim respectable social status and to mask their heritage of servitude. However, women were not afraid to voice their opinions in public forums. Dance competitions and collective initiation ceremonies open to poor and well-off townswomen were ways women gained respect and recognition.

Poetry and singing also allowed women to express their views and gain fame in town. Siti binti Saad, a contemporary of American blues legends Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, became the most famous member of the Zanzibari music community before World War II. Her band, made up of both relatively poor and affluent families, shows the diversity of urban experiences in the town. Saad began her career reciting Qu’ranic verses in nineteenth-century fashion before forming her own group and writing her own songs. Her performances reflected concerns of women and men about romance, mistreatment by the rich, sexual harassment, and daily troubles with colonial police and judges.

Fair also considers formal legal protests and the politics of football. Land rights became a central feature of popular protests. British commissioners rewrote older Islamic legal and taxation practices to deny former slaves land rights. Former slaves and their descendents, however, refused to meekly accept the favoritism the British bestowed on the landlords. Townspeople risked jail and fines to make their demands for land known by formal petitions, marches, and rent strikes. In a less openly oppositional manner, men challenged English attempts to control football games by setting up boards and using sports as a medium to create and enforce ethnic identities. Membership in a football club also created social connections that lasted a lifetime and marked borders of political groups.

Perhaps Zanzibari specialists might find minor flaws with this work. They certainly escaped this reviewer, although one wishes more background were provided on formal politics on the island for those unfamiliar with the area and time period. Other than this point, this book is excellent. Dazzling and joyful writing conveys the author’s love and enthusiasm for her subjects. Many photographs and maps illustrate the academic discussion. This accessible work exposes the complications and the creativity of urban Africans and deserves a wide readership among Africanists. You can show this book to those unfamiliar with colonial Africa and they will be captivated rather than daunted.

Jeremy Rich