The Swahili House revisited.
The Swahili House is a key institution in our understandings of coastal societies. The stone houses of the coast have been understood as the setting for and the guarantee of trade and commercial success, and explored as symbolic spaces that construct and reinforce social categories and practices. Both of these understandings draw on an idealized model of the house as composed of public and private areas along an ‘intimacy gradient’, and are particularly drawn from recent ethnographies in Lamu, northern Kenya. Exploration of the houses of Songo Mnara adds to these understandings in important ways. First, as a key case study of Swahili domestic architecture during the fifteenth century, the site can provide information as to the chronological depth of contemporary models. Second, the site provides an important example of practices on the southern coast and allows a consideration of potential regional diversity. Finally, the exploration of Songo Mnara’s domestic spaces opens up our understandings of Swahili houses more generally. Rather than reproducing a reified model of social space, this study takes on the dynamic perspective offered by Donley-Reid’s study of Lamu houses, and the association she drew between practice and ascribed meaning. This dynamism is lost in the construction of an idealized spatial model, but is reinstituted through the detailed investigation of practices across a selection of stonehouses. This paper presents the results of initial exploration of two stonehouses, highlighting ways that this challenged or confirmed accepted models.
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