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  • Tabea Scharrer

Book Review published in Islamic Africa

New book review on 'Morality at the Margins: Youth, Language, and Islam in Coastal Kenya' by Sarah Hillewaert (2020), published in Islamic Africa 11(2): 261-264.

This monograph by the linguistic anthropologist Sarah Hillewaert is about young people negotiating their social position in a context of changing socio-economic structures in a Muslim society. The focus of this book is on everyday practices, such as language use, dress, or spatial movement in the town of Lamu, which until the late 19th century was an economic and political centre, while it is now situated at the margins of the Kenyan state as well as of the Islamic world. The change in the global position of Lamu also resulted in transformed social hierarchies and shifting ways of boundary making, although there is still a marked division of the population into former elites and former immigrants and slaves. Historically, these divisions were based first on genealogy, later on wealth, and with vanishing wealth on respectability (heshima). With current socio-economic transformations, these internal boundaries have become somewhat indistinct, opening niches for new ways of social positioning. The social fabric is also influenced by the more recent and increasing presence of actors coming from outside, non-Muslim Kenyans and Euro-American tourists and expatriates. Here, the reviewer wondered about the influence of other groups of immigrants, such as non-Lamu Muslims, from Kenya but also for instance from neighbouring Somalia. Likewise, the role of returnees in these transformations would have been interesting to explore. The framework of ‘semiotic ideologies’ is used as a theoretical lens to look at how young people, a category which itself is undergoing change, negotiate their social position through material and bodily practices. This relates to how words, material forms, and practices acquire signifying capacities, and to how ideologies give all these things specific meanings and moral implications ...

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