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Boston Globe


February 14, 1999

BRATTLEBORO, Vt. -- Lamu, an 800-year-old fishing and trading community off the coast of Kenya, opened the doors to its first secondary school in 1970. Athman Lali Omar was part of that pioneering class of 38 boys and seven girls.

Today he is the head of coastal archeology for the National Museums of Kenya and is on the verge of receiving a doctorate from the University of Florida in Gainesville. He also has ambitious plans to parlay his position as codirector of the Brattleboro-based School for International Training's Coastal Studies Program into a platform for promoting eco-cultural studies of the Swahili and other coastal peoples. His students are undergraduates from all over the United States.

The same year as the secondary school opened in Lamu, the provincial commissioner's residence, built in 1892 by the British colonial government, was transformed into a museum. Omar, now 44, recalls the curator, historian Jim Allen, encouraging students to "revive the history of the area." A club formed to collect oral histories from the wazee (a Swahili word meaning elders). Later on, Omar was able to earn 1,600 Kenyan shillings a month (about $80 at the exchange rate then) rehabilitating theTakwa ruins, which date to the 16th century, on the neighboring island of Manda. The ruins opened to the public in 1976.

After that, Omar was set to study education at the University of Nairobi but famed paleontologist Richard Leakey intervened, suggesting a course in African studies at the University of London so that Omar could come back to the national museums. There Omar met the old guard of historians, anthropologists and linguists who, linked to the political ideals of colonialism, discounted ideas that authentic culture and complex languages were an outgrowth of sub-Saharan historical processes. The late director of the British Institute for East Africa, Neville Chittick, for instance, was associated with the theory that the Swahili culture was an import brought by Arab traders.

During his coming of age as an academic, Omar got to see those theories discredited in light of linguistic research showing that Swahili is a decidedly Bantu language indigenous to the African continent. As a trade language it has no doubt been influenced by Arabic, Persian, Gujarati, Portuguese, and, more recently, English and French.

The earliest records supporting the now widely accepted view that Swahili is essentially a black African language in origin and structure go back to a Greek sailor who, in 110 AD, wrote of Arabs trading with the people of East Africa and speaking their language, said Omar. Artifacts have also been found that show highly evolved continental cultures predating encounters with other civilizations.

These days, Omar is excavating three adjacent sites dating back to the 8th, 12th, and 14th centuries in an effort to discern why they were abandoned by their original inhabitants. He will publish those findings in his dissertation.

After studying in London, Omar had an eight-year tenure as curator of the Lamu Museum before coming to New Haven to obtain a master's degree in African Studies from Yale. From there, he was recruited by the School for International Training Africa's director at that time, Costas Christ, to take charge of the Kenya Coastal Studies program. He did that for two semesters before heading to Florida with his wife and two daughters to get a PhD.

Now that he is back with the School for International Training, Omar is settling into what he hopes will be a prolonged effort to marry the resources and strengths of the School for International Training and the National Museums of Kenya. "We have a very old history on the coast," he said, and there are more than 100 archeological sites in Kenya alone, most of which have yet to be excavated. Some of the sites are up to 60 acres in size and include mosques, tombs, dwellings, wells, and sewagesystems.

His job as a civil servant entails overseeing the efforts of national and international scholars working in his region. He is responsible for historical sites such as Fort Jesus, the 16th-century bastion left by the Portuguese, and the remains of four Swahili settlements that have been excavated and are open to the public as national monuments. He also has the job of creating exhibitions in coastal museums and disseminating information about this area. Other than providing nominal salaries for him and his staff, the Kenyan government has no budget for his work. It provides money on an ad hoc basis for emergency restorations. The excavations he is doing at sites around Kipini at the mouth of the Tana River, close to where he fished with his father as a boy, are sponsored by the Ford Foundation.

As an academic director at the School of International Training, he is responsible for shaping a semester-long program that includes Swahili training, a lecture series, educational excursions along the Kenyan and Zanzibar coasts, and a four-week independent study project. During the next few years he not only wants to involve his students in his digs but also in restoring portions of the Lamu Museum's ethnographic collection that are falling into disrepair. Other students might learn woodworking from carvers leading a renaissance of a centuries-old furniture industry or study any number of topics pertaining to contemporary and ancient coastal peoples.

Full enrollment for his program is 22, but this semester he only has 15 students. He blames that on what he calls unfounded fears in the wake of last summer's embassy bombings. Though the communities his program is based in are predominantly Muslim, never, he said, have there been overt signs of Anti-Americanism. On the contrary, the homestays his students do are an opportunity to share and appreciate cultural differences as well as elements of the human experience that cut across national and religious boundaries. Omar, who speaks Kisomali, Kigiriama, Arabic, and English in addition to his native Kiswahili, went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina for the first time on his way to a January workshop in Brattleboro this year.

The Kenyan coast is a particularly fertile area for cultural studies, he said, because of the confluence there of seafaring peoples as well as pastoralists and the remnants of hunter-gatherer societies. In recent years, government settlement schemes and a quest for economic opportunity have seen large numbers of people from other parts of Kenya come to the coast as well. Mombasa, where Omar is based, was the railhead for British colonial expansion into East Africa and, before that, traders from the entire Indian Ocean perimeter and even as far away as China left their marks.

One of Omar's ambitions is to introduce modern archeological techniques, such as ground penetrating radar and satellite imaging to the area. He already has plans to acquire a $30,000 radar unit but he said questions still need to be answered as to its effectiveness in the coastal climate.

A major issue for Omar and others dedicated to preserving the Kenyan coast is figuring out how to help contemporary communities promote their aspirations and needs while preserving their environmental and cultural heritage. Mombasa, and Malindi farther to the north, have tourist industries based on beaches and nightclubs. As tourism reaches more remote areas, Omar hopes that his associations with the National Museums of Kenya and the School for International Training will put him in a positionto promote education and good work as the basis for introducing new generations of outsiders to a part of the world he loves.

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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