Mombasa based collector, Muhaimin Khamisa is an authority on the antiques of the coast. He has got my attention through a collection of World War One stamps on an antiques website to which he contributes. In his family’s possession, is a rare and special Chano from Lamu which dates 1355 in Hijri (Islamic) Era, about 1934 of the Common Era.
Chanos are carved, round wooden trays for washing clothes, serving food and for making offerings to appease evil spirits. The intricate artistry is disappearing in favour of simpler designs sold in the narrow streets of the old stone towns of Lamu & Zanzibar that tourists frequent.
From the 7th century onwards Arabs dominated trade in Asia Minor, also known as Anatolia (Rising Sun in Greek) present day Turkey. By the time of Ibn Batuta, Moroccon explorer and writer of the 1300s, one such as him, was able to travel from Arabia, along the Swahili coast to Central Europe, Asia & as far east as China. Which illustrates the level of trade and cultural exchange via the ancient Silk routes. The Zanj from where Zanjibar or Zanzibar hails was the land of the black people where Arabs traded but also raided for slaves. Hence Swahili culture is a mix of all the peoples who have raided, traded or visited the coast.
The Chano’s wood carving style, explains Khamisa, is adopted from Gujarat, when trade and migrations from Persia, India and China to East Africa was rampant. Long before the coming of Europeans, traders from Arabia, Persia and Gujarat sailed dhows using the monsoon winds – coming into East Africa on the south westerly kuzi from April to September and out on the north easterly kaskazi from December to March.
The Swahili loved Chinese porcelain, storing it in their vidakas or wall niches. Much of the original and important porcelain has since left East Africa. Some remnants are still being crafted into jewellery by Lamu’s silver smiths. According to Murhaimin, the Gujarati Dandia dance using sticks, influenced the dances of the Swahili.
The Kirumbizi is a competitive male dance using sticks whilst the all female Chakacha uses an African rhythm, hip movements and unmistakeable belly dance of north Africa or middle east. Most are danced in wedding rituals. The Vugo is accompanied by a horn struck by a stick and is danced in a procession from the groom to the bride’s house, the dancers bearing gifts atop their heads, some carried most likely on Chanos.
Murhaimin Kahmisa’s Chano is black and from Lamu. The sayings are scripted in Swahili Arabic and emotive of their sea faring legacy. Whilst the African Hardwood Chano is extremely rare, Swahili Arabic script is even more so, listed as heritage by UNESCO. Apart from this Chano, Muhaimin tells me there is only one other inscription he knows of – a Zanzibar church door – which is carved in Swahili Arabic. In Lamu, there is a door that people say uses the Swahili Arabic script, but to him, he says with some reserve; it looks like just Arabic. The Swahili’s love and passion for proverbs – passing on wisdom not only in a literary but also in an oral, everyday manner is well known. In their speech and integral to the prints of their lessos or kanga clothing are meaningful sayings. The incorporation of beautiful writing in artefacts, is in line with the Islamic tradition of calligraphy taken to new heights.
Written in the unique Swahili Arabic script, the first proverb reads in spoken Swahili and the other three in the Lamu dialect. Muhaimin Khamisa has written to scholars in Hamburg, Germany and has set up meetings with a professor to decipher their correct meaning and whilst he claims not to be a scholar, he has translated their elaborate meanings to the best of his vast knowledge.
Kwanda futa hari kisha ule Tamu.
You need to work very hard and sweat in order to reap sweet.
Yaenda omo na tezi marejeo ngamani.
This a famous Swahili saying. Omo is the front of the dhow and Tezi, the back of the dhow. When the dhow is on a journey, sea water enters from the front and back of the dhow and settles in the middle which is Ngamani. Interpreted as: Go wherever you want but you come back to where you belong.
Sipowe shubiri ukaenda pima.
If you are given little or something, accept and don’t ask for more. For instance, If I tell you to take five mangoes from the box. When you start taking the mangoes from the box you ask if you could take 10 instead of 5. If you are given something, take it, don’t ask for more.
Mtungia bahari huyu si msafiri.
Someone who fears the sea – Should I travel or not? Will I reach or not? At the end of the day the person does not travel. Learn about East African Antiques via www.antiqueglobal.world
The forward thinking merchants of Zanzibar and Mombasa also imported glass bottles from England and filled them with their own fizzy drinks. Muhaimin found one with it’s neck broken. On it, is an emblem of a maned lion carrying a double edged, curved sword, the sun’s rays behind it and the inscription Allarkhia Vallee, Mombasa & Zanzibar. The lion emblem is some 3000 years old and predates Islam – the lion is Persia, modern day Iran and the sun represents the goddesses of water & rain, Anahita and her daughter Mitra. Allarkhia Vallee was in the 1890s, a soda manufacturer in Zanzibar & Mombasa probably a Shia Muslim, maybe of Shirazi (Persian), descent.
In 1872, Hirma Codd of Islington, England, patented the Codd bottle glass bottle for carbonated drinks. The bottle had a narrow neck with two depressions that would hold a small glass ball or marble at the top of the drink, with a rubber ring, glass or cork stopper, to seal in the bubbles. These were in use until the 20th century even when the new, metal bottle tops became widespread. In Japan Ramune soda is still sold in a recycled Codd glass bottle. Many old bottles were broken at the neck to get at the marble and very few remain intact today.