New Book Fills Major Gap in Kenyan History
October 23, 2013
BLOOMINGTON, Ill.— A new book edited by Illinois Wesleyan University anthropologists
with contributions from scholars on three continents fills a major gap in the history
of Kenya’s coastal history by including the voices of the Mijikenda, a people whose
experiences and perspectives have received less attention than the better known Swahili
The book is Contesting Identities: The Mijikenda and Their Neighbors in Kenyan Coastal Society (Africa World Press, 2013). It is co-edited by Rebecca Gearhart, associate professor
of anthropology at Illinois Wesleyan, and Linda Giles, retired member of the anthropology
department at Illinois State University and an adjunct faculty instructor at Illinois
Gearhart first visited East Africa in 1987 as an undergraduate student. She returned
to coastal Kenya almost every subsequent summer to conduct research as she pursued
a master’s degree in African history and a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University
of Florida. Since then she has traveled to Kenya every few years to continue her research
on Swahili expressive arts. Gearhart joined the faculty at Illinois Wesleyan in 1999.
Giles holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin. Her research
interests focus on the East African coast, where she has conducted extensive research
on spirit possession and, more recently, collaborative research on the theft, global
trade and reparation of Mijikenda ancestor memorial posts.
The project has been nearly a decade in the making. In 2004, Gearhart and a panel
of other scholars sought to de-center the Swahili in Kenyan coastal history and highlight
the contributions and interactions of other coastal Kenyan peoples, particularly the
Mijikenda. A confederation of nine culturally, linguistically and historically related
peoples, the Mijikenda make up the largest ethnic group in the region though relatively
little has been written about them.
In contrast, the Swahili people have long enjoyed scholarly interest, due to their
history as middlemen in long-distance trade, their urban settlements, their adoption
of Islam and other Middle Eastern influences, and their cosmopolitan culture and artistic
expressions, according to Gearhart and Giles.
Gearhart and other colleagues invited several Mijikenda scholar-activists working
at the National Museums of Kenya to submit chapters to the volume. The project embraced
engaged research rather than insisting on the detached stance often favored by older
traditions of academic research, Gearhart said.
“By inviting Mijikenda to contribute to the volume, we initiated the first collaborative
production of Mijikenda history that places Mijikenda at the center of action rather
than on the periphery,” said Gearhart. “We were resolute about including Mijikenda
scholars currently documenting Mijikenda history and culture, and working to revitalize
The resulting 13-chapter volume, with contributions from American, British and Kenyan
scholars, is divided into four sections. The first presents groundbreaking archaeological
and linguistic evidence that sheds light on the kinds of interactions coastal populations
had with hinterland and interior peoples, and the degree to which these interactions
influenced and shaped the Mijikenda and their neighbors, according to Gearhart. Later
sections of the book examine social identity and the symbols and activities that represent
ethnicity in various Kenyan coastal communities, and structures of inequality among
The final section calls attention to ways in which contemporary campaigns for cultural
preservation and environmental protection are interlinked on the Kenyan coast, according
to Gearhart. She noted the book’s initial impact has been to invigorate the work of
the Mijikenda contributors.
“These scholar-activists have been galvanized by the larger academic community’s acknowledgement
that Mijikenda perspectives are valid, and have a place in intellectual discourse
on Kenyan coastal history as well as on contemporary coastal society,” said Gearhart.
The editors believe wide readership of the book among Kenyan scholars will lead to
enhanced understanding of the Mijikenda and how their identity has been shaped by
a unique set of social, economic, cultural and political pressures over time.
Contact: Kim Hill, (309) 556-3960