Nimeona kisutu, mwenye kisutu sijamwona

Saturday, 7 November 2015


Here's the abstract of our presentation to Baraza: Swahili Conference at SOAS, in the University of London on Saturday 31 October 2015:

Swahili scams: felids and fakes in Zanzibar

Martin Walsh, University of Cambridge
Helle Goldman, Norwegian Polar Institute

In addition to its usual cultural referents, the label ‘Swahili’ has become a byword for sharp practice (cf. ‘mswahili ... a crafty, tricky person’, TUKI 2001: 222). It is not unusual for economically successful groups to be stereotyped in this way, and Zanzibaris are apt to think similarly about the mainlanders of different ethnic origins who come to do business on their islands. At the same time it is not difficult to find real cases of deception that appear to confirm such stereotypes. In this presentation we will examine contemporary confidence tricks involving felids, focusing on cases that have apparently resulted in their illegal translocation from mainland Tanzania to Unguja (Zanzibar) island. These scams are made possible by and take advantage of a particular set of cultural ideas about the domestication of leopards and their use for nefarious purposes, ideas that we have already examined in detail elsewhere (e.g. Goldman and Walsh 1997; Walsh and Goldman 2012). These imagined practices are described by rural Zanzibaris as ‘Swahili’ in the traditional, cultural sense (Walsh and Goldman 2007: 1142), and we will consider the extent to which this belief in the reality of leopard-keeping is in turn founded upon and supported by intentional acts of deceit. This argument is premised on a position of scientific realism, and we will conclude by discussing its implications for relativistic approaches to understanding local knowledge and practice, as well as its application to the study of swindling and scams in the wider Swahili-speaking world and beyond.

Our presentation is online here: