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Conjuring Mikoba. Research Undone, Materiality, Lively Words, Inheritance, and Time

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Decolonial Aesthetics II


This chapter offers a series of reflections on Swahili mikoba ya ukili—hand-woven bags understood in Zanzibar as ‘traditional’ and deeply ‘local’—and their participation in social life as well as in visions of the person and of legacy. It begins by introducing Maua, a woman who finds belonging in her marital village by weaving beautiful mikoba that everybody wants. Acknowledging the challenges of conducting traditional ethnographic research in pandemic times, it considers the potential contribution of scholarship concerned with ‘new materialisms’ and the materiality of language in particular to the work of imagining from a distance, when a longed-for object is unreachable. Seeking an understanding of mikoba as visible objects, but also highlighting the weight materially borne by the powerful word ‘mikoba’ itself, this chapter proposes that mikoba crystallize ideas about knowledge, personhood, and learning, as well as about inheritance and re(-)membering—that is, about connections between the past and future.

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  1. 1.

    Throughout these pages, in contrast to the usual convention of giving Bantu words an English-language plural (adding ‘s’), I retain the Swahili singular and plural when speaking of a mkoba or of several mikoba.

  2. 2.

    18,000 TSh, at time of writing the equivalent of 7 EUR, per mkoba.

  3. 3.

    Not having mikoba near me, or pictures of them, I turned to friends for help and learned again the value of community and of collaboration. From Pemba, Omar Ahmed and Yahya Al-Sawafi, local historians in their own right, from Unguja, poet Nassor Hilal Kharusi, and from London, Senior Lector in Swahili Ida Hadjivayanis shared their own enthusiasm for mikoba and have permitted me to use their photos here.

  4. 4.

    Thanks are due to Omar Ahmed, Nassor Hilal Kharusi, and Yahya Al-Sawafi for this longer list.

  5. 5.

    The historical figure Bi Kirembo, Pemba’s most famous Nineteenth-century sorceress, is always described as ‘short, dark, small, dressed in black kaniki cotton, always carrying a plain mkoba wa ukili.’ The mkoba did more than just signal her power – it held it. Without it, she was lost.

  6. 6.

    I note here that many old and venerable coconut trees across Zanzibar today are at risk, dying in great numbers and replaced by quick-fruiting varieties that don’t last long. Economic pressures including tourism and land-grabbing have combined to dramatically commodify coconuts, putting this vital foodstuff increasingly out of reach of local people. A study of the cultural and social implications of coconuts’ looming absence in most Zanzibari lives would certainly be worthwhile.


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Correspondence to Nathalie Arnold Koenings .

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Koenings, N.A. (2023). Conjuring Mikoba. Research Undone, Materiality, Lively Words, Inheritance, and Time. In: Oloko, P., Ott, M., Simatei, P., Vierke, C. (eds) Decolonial Aesthetics II. Ästhetiken X.0 – Zeitgenössische Konturen ästhetischen Denkens. J.B. Metzler, Berlin, Heidelberg.

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