Sarah Hillewaert on her book, Morality on the Margins

Morality at the Margins

Interview by Kamala Russell

Morality at the Margins: Youth, Language, and Islam in Coastal Kenya

Morality at the Margins

Interview by Kamala Russell

Morality at the Margins: Youth, Language, and Islam in Coastal Kenya

Kamala Russell: Your book is a deep investigation of the values, practices, and ambivalences that make up the everyday experience of social change. Could you tell us a bit about the focus of the book, and its argument? I’d be interested in hearing more as well about how you settled on this framing for the book, coming out of your many years of fieldwork. As someone who is at that stage, I am interested in hearing more about the process of how you dream up a book from a dissertation.

Sarah Hillewaert:  The book is an ethnographic study of the everyday lives of Muslim youth living on the Indian Ocean island of Lamu (Kenya). A previously cosmopolitan center of trade and Islamic scholarship, Lamu is currently marginalized in both economic and political terms yet forms the focus of international campaigns against religious radicalization and is also at the center of touristic imaginings of the untouched and secluded. The book examines what happens when narratives of self-positioning change: what happens when signs of cosmopolitanism, respectability, and civility come to be read as indices of remoteness, backwardness, or religious radicalization? And what implications do these shifts in signification have for everyday interactions, self-fashionings, and conceptions of appropriate conduct? I explore these questions by documenting the discursive and embodied production of difference, and examine the seemingly mundane practices through which Lamu youth negotiate what it means to be a ‘good Lamu resident’ in contemporary Kenya. I specifically ask what happens when signification fails – when people are no longer sure how to read signs or when they differ in their reading of material forms as signs of, for example, either piety or social transgression. By documenting apparently mundane practices, and the ideologies that inform their evaluations, I show how easily-overlooked, fleeting moments represent some of the most vital points through which larger scale transformations touch down concretely in community life, and by which they receive local inflection and resonance.  Through its ethnographic detail, the book demonstrates the intersubjective and dialogic nature of meaning-making processes and illustrates how projects of personal cultivation function as political projects as well. In doing so, it offers a linguistic anthropological approach to discussions on ethical self-fashioning and the everyday lives of Muslim youth in Africa.

In terms of the framing of the book, the focus shifted from a more explicit attention to verbal interactions and language use to a broader semiotic approach. And this happened mostly through ongoing interactions with peers, through talks and people’s feedback to them, and through ongoing conversations with my interlocutors in Lamu. However, the ethnographic focus did not change significantly from the dissertation to the book. It was more the theoretical argument that became more nuanced, with more attention to the political significance of seemingly situated interactions and practices. I think talking about my research – writing talks and articles – made me think more about what I really wanted people to take away from my research, both theoretically and ethnographically.

Kamala Russell: What I appreciated most about the book is the way you take a very open-ended approach to this study of social change, not just treating social development and peripheralization in and of Lamu as well as instability in indices of value pessimistically, but also tracing opportunities for new kinds of fulfilment and relationships to oneself (for example, professionalism). What stuck out to me across these chapters, and particularly in the final chapter ‘The Morality of the Senses and the Senses of Morality’, was the importance of gaze and the audience. In your focus on people’s performances and negotiations of what kind of individual they are, I wondered who the imagined audience or public for this differentiation is and how does that relate to the sociopolitical changes you describe in Lamu?

Sarah Hillewaert: I appreciate you mentioning the careful deliberation and negotiation of new opportunities and perspectives that I tried to convey in the book. In doing so, I tried to move beyond discussions on the so-called ambivalences or inconsistencies that previously have been highlighted in discussions of Muslim or African youth. I wanted to convey that shifting perspectives on respectability are not a mere generational change or gap, informed by globalization, for example. And rather than talk about resistance to, for example, what people call tradition, I tried to highlight the agency in young people’s calculated inhabiting of certain norms and their deliberation of the proper mediation of others. For Lamu youth, the question is not whether you should be respectable or not, but rather what respectability should look like, given, on the one hand, the development Lamu desperately needs, and on the other, the significance of respectability to Lamu residents’ distinctive identity and the political load it carries.

And this gets me to your question. Most challenging in writing this book was conveying precisely the hyper-sensitivity to semiotic misconstrual that informs young Lamu residents’ moral self-fashionings. With this I mean that young people were very much aware that a range of differently situated people observe their everyday behavior – their peers or elders from different parts of town, for example, but also immigrants from Kenya’s mainland, government administrators, military police, and so on. They understand very well that their intended professional behavior can be misread as social transgression by some, or still overly conservative by others. And as your question points to, these presentations of self, while locally situated, carry a political significance as well. Now, the political stance implied in everyday practices is not always necessarily for non-locals to be noticed. It’s not about an explicit expression of political opinion that one hopes gets noticed. And in fact, mainland Kenyans are often oblivious to many of the nuances in everyday practices that I focus on in the book. Yet, Lamu residents observing situated behaviors can take those as signs of an individual’s political orientation as well – to what extent is an individual upholding a distinctive Lamu identity? Or to what extent are they forsaking their values to get ahead in an economy controlled by the Kenyan government?  So, a young woman critiquing local social divisions at a town meeting will do so while only speaking the local Swahili dialect and paying close attention to proper address forms and greetings, to thereby negotiate a need for change while evidently displaying her pride of her Lamu identity in an attempt to avoid critiques from local elders (or even her peers). Yet, her doing so does risk her getting perceived as backward or less educated by mainland government officials present at that gathering, for example.

Kamala Russell: Heshima is a key concept in the book. You translate this as ‘respectability’. A key argument I saw in the book is that though how respectability is embodied is hotly contested, heshima as a regime of value continues to structure the ways Lamu residents understand themselves and others. I was struck by the way that this concept seems to revolve around differentiation. Is this the only semiotic process (or the key one) that heshima participates in and if so, why might that be? Are there other means and ends than moral distinction in play?

Sarah Hillewaert: Heshima is an intensely moral value, and thus plays a central role in moral distinctions, but as I discuss in Chapter 1, this is very much linked to social class distinctions and genealogy as well. Claims to embodied respectability are often linked to social class identities as well. And this is precisely part of what is being renegotiated nowadays. The hegemonic ideology of former upper-classes – of what practices are viewed as respectable and thus indicative of higher status  –  is being challenged as the social hierarchy is being reshuffled in a context of economic and social change.

Kamala Russell: Can you say a bit more about the methodological challenges you worked with in doing your fieldwork, particularly around recording, as linguists would say, putative naturalistic interaction. Though clearly you were able to record some interviews, did you face other difficulties in producing recorded data? Did working this way affect the way you think about embodiment and non-verbal signs with relation to more typical approaches to text and context?

Sarah Hillewaert: In short: yes, but not entirely. I wasn’t able to record partially because women didn’t want their voices recorded, but also because people were quite suspicious of recordings, in light of anti-terrorism investigations led by the Kenyan and US governments. So, I often refrained from recording, and took detailed notes during interviews. But during everyday interactions, such detailed note-taking was equally difficult, since people wondered why I would be writing down things they said. That did force me to be more attentive during everyday interactions, trying to pay attention to nuances in language use that may otherwise pass me by (and that I couldn’t go back to in a recording). But I wouldn’t say that this led me to be more conscious of non-verbal aspects of interactions perse. It was a combination of things that made me be conscious of the seemingly mundane details of people’s everyday practices. First, people would comment on others’ behaviors all the time – the way someone wore a headscarf, what kind of abaya a young women wore, where someone walked at which time of day. Second, people instructed me quite explicitly on what conduct was proper, and how I ought to act within a particular context. I talk about this in the preface of the book. And third, in public, much couldn’t be expressed verbally, but rather had to be communicated in other ways. While mobile phones have changed much of this, when I was doing fieldwork many young men and women didn’t have much opportunity to interact in public. And much was communicated through subtle behavioral details – when you would go to a certain place, the route you took, the way you walked, how you wore your abaya. And older interlocutors would often reminisce about how they used to communicate with, for example, their girlfriend through subtle signs when she happened to walk by. So, it really was a combination of factors that led me to zoom in on these minute details.

Kamala Russell: Why do you think in this case it is Islamic life, and ethical life, that is the means through which the challenges of development and the political position of Lamu are being negotiated? The book has this great historical angle where you describe the disenfranchisement and marginalization of what was effectively an elite class as Lamu became more incorporated into Kenya, it seems like status reasserts itself through a politics centered on the choice of signifiers of pious value. Can you say more about what you think is the politics in play? How do you position your work and interventions with respect to work that foregrounds Islamic movements as well as individual self-cultivation?

Sarah Hillewaert: I suggest from the onset of the book that negotiations of respectable conduct are informed by tensions surrounding what it means to be from Lamu in contemporary Kenya – a question informed by objections to the Kenyan State, economic marginalization, impositions by mainland outsiders etc. And this is something that cannot be considered outside of a historical context in which coastal and island residents have distinguished themselves from the Kenyan mainland, reluctantly (or unwillingly) having been incorporated into an independent Kenya. While it’s partially a question of a majority Muslim coast not wanting to be governed by a Christian majority government, it also ties into the moral values I focus on throughout the book – notions of distinction centered around respectability, honor, civility, and cosmopolitanism that Lamu residents believe separate themselves from mainland Kenyans. These situated ideological meanings of cosmopolitanism and respectability, and the role they historically have played in developing a distinct Lamu identity form the background against which to understand the seemingly mundane projects of self-fashioning that form the focus of this book. Rather than be condemned for ignoring a particular notion of religious uprightness, young people can be critiqued for forsaken moral norms that are seen to be at the heart of a distinctive Lamu identity and that separate Lamu residents from mainland Kenyans. Like other scholars who have built on, but simultaneously critiqued the work of people like Saba Mahmood, I show that projects of individual self-cultivation are then not just directed inward, but are always informed by broader social political processes, and directed outward, to a range of differently situated others. What I find interesting about Lamu, however, is that these everyday negotiations of respectability and the working toward differently embodying respect is not part of some Islamic revival movement. This is not about becoming a better Muslim, and actively working toward properly embodying piety – and here I mean, having a clear idea of what it is you are striving toward, clear and shared understanding of what pious behaviour looks like, for example. The question is not whether one should or should not be pious or respectable, or what obstacles one needs to overcome to achieve piety. The question for Lamu youth is: what does piety or respectability look like in contemporary Lamu? It is about deliberations of the proper mediation of this moral value. 

Kamala Russell: If any of these questions don’t resonate with you, one of my favorite moments in the book was your explication of the proverb that someone who leaves their mila (tradition) is a slave. This is an interesting positioning of agency with respect to culture and I wonder if you can say more about the consequences of this way of thinking for the way we approach and teach dilemmas of structure and agency, or as linguistic anthropologists, type and token.

Sarah Hillewaert: I really like this question. And, to be honest, I hadn’t really thought of it this way. The way people in Lamu use the proverb really refers to a person’s desire to appropriate other’s practices. “If you forsake your traditions in favor of the appropriation of someone else’s you’re a slave.” So rather than seeing some form of liberation, if you will, in abandoning traditional or cultural practices for the appropriation of other habits, it is perceived as being enslaved to one’s desires in a way. In the book, I link this to the history of slavery in Eastern Africa, and slaves’ positions in Lamu society in the past. Former slaves worked their way up in Swahili societies by appropriating the habits of upper classes, in an attempt to display respectability. But in its current usage, the proverb does speak back at the idea of being “enslaved,” or held back, by traditions, and at the idea of modernization and secularization as being freed from the load of tradition. One of the young women in the book lays this out quite nicely, where she emphasizes that blindly following others’ practices desiring development or modernity is a type of enslavement. But she stresses that this also doesn’t mean blindly upholding local traditions. Rather, it is a careful consideration of which cultural practices are, in their eyes, outdated and which ones are part of their cultural and religious identity as residents of Lamu. And maybe that’s one of the things that I’d like people to take away from this book – what we can learn from paying attention to these seemingly small but incredibly significant negotiations that happen in politically marginalized communities like Lamu. It is not about resistance to outdated practices, nor about a clinging on to distinctive traditional or religious habits out of evident political protest. It is not necessarily about an outward rejection of religious norms nor a conservative preservation of them in the context of religious revival, but rather a working within –an ethnographic illustration of agency within structure that changes the structure, not abruptly, but over time.

  • Post
  • Block

Status & visibility

VisibilityPublicPublishMay 2, 2022 9:00 amPost FormatGalleryImageQuoteStandardStatusStick to the top of the blogPending reviewAuthorsedmitchell|Enable AMPMove to trash6 Revisions

URL Slug

The last part of the URL. Read about permalinks(opens in a new tab)

VIEW POST

https://campanthropology.org/2022/05/02/sarah-hillewaert/(opens in a new tab)

Categories

Author Interviews

Kamala Russell: Your book is a deep investigation of the values, practices, and ambivalences that make up the everyday experience of social change. Could you tell us a bit about the focus of the book, and its argument? I’d be interested in hearing more as well about how you settled on this framing for the book, coming out of your many years of fieldwork. As someone who is at that stage, I am interested in hearing more about the process of how you dream up a book from a dissertation.

Sarah Hillewaert:  The book is an ethnographic study of the everyday lives of Muslim youth living on the Indian Ocean island of Lamu (Kenya). A previously cosmopolitan center of trade and Islamic scholarship, Lamu is currently marginalized in both economic and political terms yet forms the focus of international campaigns against religious radicalization and is also at the center of touristic imaginings of the untouched and secluded. The book examines what happens when narratives of self-positioning change: what happens when signs of cosmopolitanism, respectability, and civility come to be read as indices of remoteness, backwardness, or religious radicalization? And what implications do these shifts in signification have for everyday interactions, self-fashionings, and conceptions of appropriate conduct? I explore these questions by documenting the discursive and embodied production of difference, and examine the seemingly mundane practices through which Lamu youth negotiate what it means to be a ‘good Lamu resident’ in contemporary Kenya. I specifically ask what happens when signification fails – when people are no longer sure how to read signs or when they differ in their reading of material forms as signs of, for example, either piety or social transgression. By documenting apparently mundane practices, and the ideologies that inform their evaluations, I show how easily-overlooked, fleeting moments represent some of the most vital points through which larger scale transformations touch down concretely in community life, and by which they receive local inflection and resonance.  Through its ethnographic detail, the book demonstrates the intersubjective and dialogic nature of meaning-making processes and illustrates how projects of personal cultivation function as political projects as well. In doing so, it offers a linguistic anthropological approach to discussions on ethical self-fashioning and the everyday lives of Muslim youth in Africa.

In terms of the framing of the book, the focus shifted from a more explicit attention to verbal interactions and language use to a broader semiotic approach. And this happened mostly through ongoing interactions with peers, through talks and people’s feedback to them, and through ongoing conversations with my interlocutors in Lamu. However, the ethnographic focus did not change significantly from the dissertation to the book. It was more the theoretical argument that became more nuanced, with more attention to the political significance of seemingly situated interactions and practices. I think talking about my research – writing talks and articles – made me think more about what I really wanted people to take away from my research, both theoretically and ethnographically.

Kamala Russell: What I appreciated most about the book is the way you take a very open-ended approach to this study of social change, not just treating social development and peripheralization in and of Lamu as well as instability in indices of value pessimistically, but also tracing opportunities for new kinds of fulfilment and relationships to oneself (for example, professionalism). What stuck out to me across these chapters, and particularly in the final chapter ‘The Morality of the Senses and the Senses of Morality’, was the importance of gaze and the audience. In your focus on people’s performances and negotiations of what kind of individual they are, I wondered who the imagined audience or public for this differentiation is and how does that relate to the sociopolitical changes you describe in Lamu?

Sarah Hillewaert: I appreciate you mentioning the careful deliberation and negotiation of new opportunities and perspectives that I tried to convey in the book. In doing so, I tried to move beyond discussions on the so-called ambivalences or inconsistencies that previously have been highlighted in discussions of Muslim or African youth. I wanted to convey that shifting perspectives on respectability are not a mere generational change or gap, informed by globalization, for example. And rather than talk about resistance to, for example, what people call tradition, I tried to highlight the agency in young people’s calculated inhabiting of certain norms and their deliberation of the proper mediation of others. For Lamu youth, the question is not whether you should be respectable or not, but rather what respectability should look like, given, on the one hand, the development Lamu desperately needs, and on the other, the significance of respectability to Lamu residents’ distinctive identity and the political load it carries.

And this gets me to your question. Most challenging in writing this book was conveying precisely the hyper-sensitivity to semiotic misconstrual that informs young Lamu residents’ moral self-fashionings. With this I mean that young people were very much aware that a range of differently situated people observe their everyday behavior – their peers or elders from different parts of town, for example, but also immigrants from Kenya’s mainland, government administrators, military police, and so on. They understand very well that their intended professional behavior can be misread as social transgression by some, or still overly conservative by others. And as your question points to, these presentations of self, while locally situated, carry a political significance as well. Now, the political stance implied in everyday practices is not always necessarily for non-locals to be noticed. It’s not about an explicit expression of political opinion that one hopes gets noticed. And in fact, mainland Kenyans are often oblivious to many of the nuances in everyday practices that I focus on in the book. Yet, Lamu residents observing situated behaviors can take those as signs of an individual’s political orientation as well – to what extent is an individual upholding a distinctive Lamu identity? Or to what extent are they forsaking their values to get ahead in an economy controlled by the Kenyan government?  So, a young woman critiquing local social divisions at a town meeting will do so while only speaking the local Swahili dialect and paying close attention to proper address forms and greetings, to thereby negotiate a need for change while evidently displaying her pride of her Lamu identity in an attempt to avoid critiques from local elders (or even her peers). Yet, her doing so does risk her getting perceived as backward or less educated by mainland government officials present at that gathering, for example.

Kamala Russell: Heshima is a key concept in the book. You translate this as ‘respectability’. A key argument I saw in the book is that though how respectability is embodied is hotly contested, heshima as a regime of value continues to structure the ways Lamu residents understand themselves and others. I was struck by the way that this concept seems to revolve around differentiation. Is this the only semiotic process (or the key one) that heshima participates in and if so, why might that be? Are there other means and ends than moral distinction in play?

Sarah Hillewaert: Heshima is an intensely moral value, and thus plays a central role in moral distinctions, but as I discuss in Chapter 1, this is very much linked to social class distinctions and genealogy as well. Claims to embodied respectability are often linked to social class identities as well. And this is precisely part of what is being renegotiated nowadays. The hegemonic ideology of former upper-classes – of what practices are viewed as respectable and thus indicative of higher status  –  is being challenged as the social hierarchy is being reshuffled in a context of economic and social change.

Kamala Russell: Can you say a bit more about the methodological challenges you worked with in doing your fieldwork, particularly around recording, as linguists would say, putative naturalistic interaction. Though clearly you were able to record some interviews, did you face other difficulties in producing recorded data? Did working this way affect the way you think about embodiment and non-verbal signs with relation to more typical approaches to text and context?

Sarah Hillewaert: In short: yes, but not entirely. I wasn’t able to record partially because women didn’t want their voices recorded, but also because people were quite suspicious of recordings, in light of anti-terrorism investigations led by the Kenyan and US governments. So, I often refrained from recording, and took detailed notes during interviews. But during everyday interactions, such detailed note-taking was equally difficult, since people wondered why I would be writing down things they said. That did force me to be more attentive during everyday interactions, trying to pay attention to nuances in language use that may otherwise pass me by (and that I couldn’t go back to in a recording). But I wouldn’t say that this led me to be more conscious of non-verbal aspects of interactions perse. It was a combination of things that made me be conscious of the seemingly mundane details of people’s everyday practices. First, people would comment on others’ behaviors all the time – the way someone wore a headscarf, what kind of abaya a young women wore, where someone walked at which time of day. Second, people instructed me quite explicitly on what conduct was proper, and how I ought to act within a particular context. I talk about this in the preface of the book. And third, in public, much couldn’t be expressed verbally, but rather had to be communicated in other ways. While mobile phones have changed much of this, when I was doing fieldwork many young men and women didn’t have much opportunity to interact in public. And much was communicated through subtle behavioral details – when you would go to a certain place, the route you took, the way you walked, how you wore your abaya. And older interlocutors would often reminisce about how they used to communicate with, for example, their girlfriend through subtle signs when she happened to walk by. So, it really was a combination of factors that led me to zoom in on these minute details.

Kamala Russell: Why do you think in this case it is Islamic life, and ethical life, that is the means through which the challenges of development and the political position of Lamu are being negotiated? The book has this great historical angle where you describe the disenfranchisement and marginalization of what was effectively an elite class as Lamu became more incorporated into Kenya, it seems like status reasserts itself through a politics centered on the choice of signifiers of pious value. Can you say more about what you think is the politics in play? How do you position your work and interventions with respect to work that foregrounds Islamic movements as well as individual self-cultivation?

Sarah Hillewaert: I suggest from the onset of the book that negotiations of respectable conduct are informed by tensions surrounding what it means to be from Lamu in contemporary Kenya – a question informed by objections to the Kenyan State, economic marginalization, impositions by mainland outsiders etc. And this is something that cannot be considered outside of a historical context in which coastal and island residents have distinguished themselves from the Kenyan mainland, reluctantly (or unwillingly) having been incorporated into an independent Kenya. While it’s partially a question of a majority Muslim coast not wanting to be governed by a Christian majority government, it also ties into the moral values I focus on throughout the book – notions of distinction centered around respectability, honor, civility, and cosmopolitanism that Lamu residents believe separate themselves from mainland Kenyans. These situated ideological meanings of cosmopolitanism and respectability, and the role they historically have played in developing a distinct Lamu identity form the background against which to understand the seemingly mundane projects of self-fashioning that form the focus of this book. Rather than be condemned for ignoring a particular notion of religious uprightness, young people can be critiqued for forsaken moral norms that are seen to be at the heart of a distinctive Lamu identity and that separate Lamu residents from mainland Kenyans. Like other scholars who have built on, but simultaneously critiqued the work of people like Saba Mahmood, I show that projects of individual self-cultivation are then not just directed inward, but are always informed by broader social political processes, and directed outward, to a range of differently situated others. What I find interesting about Lamu, however, is that these everyday negotiations of respectability and the working toward differently embodying respect is not part of some Islamic revival movement. This is not about becoming a better Muslim, and actively working toward properly embodying piety – and here I mean, having a clear idea of what it is you are striving toward, clear and shared understanding of what pious behaviour looks like, for example. The question is not whether one should or should not be pious or respectable, or what obstacles one needs to overcome to achieve piety. The question for Lamu youth is: what does piety or respectability look like in contemporary Lamu? It is about deliberations of the proper mediation of this moral value. 

Kamala Russell: If any of these questions don’t resonate with you, one of my favorite moments in the book was your explication of the proverb that someone who leaves their mila (tradition) is a slave. This is an interesting positioning of agency with respect to culture and I wonder if you can say more about the consequences of this way of thinking for the way we approach and teach dilemmas of structure and agency, or as linguistic anthropologists, type and token.

Sarah Hillewaert: I really like this question. And, to be honest, I hadn’t really thought of it this way. The way people in Lamu use the proverb really refers to a person’s desire to appropriate other’s practices. “If you forsake your traditions in favor of the appropriation of someone else’s you’re a slave.” So rather than seeing some form of liberation, if you will, in abandoning traditional or cultural practices for the appropriation of other habits, it is perceived as being enslaved to one’s desires in a way. In the book, I link this to the history of slavery in Eastern Africa, and slaves’ positions in Lamu society in the past. Former slaves worked their way up in Swahili societies by appropriating the habits of upper classes, in an attempt to display respectability. But in its current usage, the proverb does speak back at the idea of being “enslaved,” or held back, by traditions, and at the idea of modernization and secularization as being freed from the load of tradition. One of the young women in the book lays this out quite nicely, where she emphasizes that blindly following others’ practices desiring development or modernity is a type of enslavement. But she stresses that this also doesn’t mean blindly upholding local traditions. Rather, it is a careful consideration of which cultural practices are, in their eyes, outdated and which ones are part of their cultural and religious identity as residents of Lamu. And maybe that’s one of the things that I’d like people to take away from this book – what we can learn from paying attention to these seemingly small but incredibly significant negotiations that happen in politically marginalized communities like Lamu. It is not about resistance to outdated practices, nor about a clinging on to distinctive traditional or religious habits out of evident political protest. It is not necessarily about an outward rejection of religious norms nor a conservative preservation of them in the context of religious revival, but rather a working within –an ethnographic illustration of agency within structure that changes the structure, not abruptly, but over time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s