Pitt Rivers Museum – or more specifically Marina de Alarcon, Meghan O’Brien Backhouse and the education team- in Oxford has very kindly allowed us to make copies of figurines that they have in their store rooms, gathering dust, for over 60 years. It’s hard to over-stress what a fantastic opportunity this is. They were collected by an unnamed English colonial offical from Pangani, Tanga, in 1953.
(This is a few kilometres down the road from where our project takes place). But we have no idea what they are. What they’re for. Why they were even collected. So we’re (me, Aida Mulokozi, research associates George Mkwaya, Sophia Ngalapy), are taking photos back to Tanga to ask people if they know what these are about.
It provides a good conversation starter. But who knows what the reaction in Tanga will be.
I mean, maybe people will be understandably a bit annoyed that they were taken? Also, what was going on with the colonial official when he took them? Did he have all sorts of peculiar mis-placed fantasies about voodoo and primitive magic? There are just so many unanswered questions…..
It seems extraordinary (rude?) that literally nobody Tanzanian was recorded as being consulted/asked what these figures are, who made them, and why. They could be high abstract art, or basic children’s models….? We have literally no idea. But this is the wonderful thing about of this type of work: it requires asking many questions to the right people… and this is what’s also so amazing about Pitt Rivers Museum- they open themselves up to this sort of project.
Aida Mulokozi – a co-partner on this project, from DARCH, and I chatted about these small figures (they’re only about 12 cms high, and made of unfired clay/sand mix) and wonder if they’re part of the ‘Kongwe’ rituals. Effectively sexual/moral/personal education for aspirant brides/grooms that a shangazi (auntie) or mama ndogo (little mama) would take on in the Swahili coastal regions.
These practices are a way of talking about behaviours and codes for people preparing for marriage. ‘Tabia nzuri’ (good behaviour in Swahili) is a very broad term covering all elements of marital life, including how to keep a relationship going, what to cook, how to deal with extended family, as well as the more physical sides. But they are largely dying out, and people now often consider them old fashioned.