Home Institution

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Publication Date

Fall 2010

Program Name

Kenya: Islam and Swahili Cultural Identity


In the middle of a scalding hot October afternoon, I found myself waiting at the Mombasa Kadhi’s Court for the fifth time. Frustrated with my prior failure to meet the Kadhi and gain his permission to research at the court, I waited alongside a cross section of the Muslim community of Mombasa all attempting to meet with the Kadhi. Despite frustrations with the red tape surrounding the Kadhi’s court, acting as a barrier between me and all of the information I believed to be pertinent to my research, I realized that my research had already begun. A number of aggravated people around me began to strike up conversations, half due to frustrations with the Kadhi, and half due to the group curiosity surrounding the “mzungu” wearing a hijab. The court opened a standard fifteen minutes late, and the Kadhi’s staff informed me to try again in the morning. Apparently, the Kadhi had not returned to court for the afternoon. Disappointed at leaving the court yet again, unsuccessfully, my attention was drawn to a man making his way to the court. He was old and bedraggled, pushing himself upright from a makeshift wheelchair/ tricycle contraption, while simultaneously trying to prop himself on a single crutch. He struggled on to his only leg and began to make his way slowly to the large steps that ascended to the Kadhi’s court, only to be told that the Kadhi was not there and he should try again tomorrow. I wondered how many strenuous journeys this man would make up the stairs before his matter was solved with the Kadhi, or he gave up. When I reflect on an image that most clearly epitomizes my research on the Mombasa Kadhi’s Court, I continuously return to this man on his single leg and tattered clothes making the pilgrimage to court day after day. He represents my research on the Kadhi’s court, because he symbolizes the challenge and promise of the Kadhi’s court within contemporary Kenyan society. In particular, it reflects the Kadhi’s court as a site of struggle and contestation, where Kenyan Muslims attempt to maintain a court that upholds Sharia law while simultaneously participating as equal citizens in a pluralistic secular society that is often at odds with such attempts at upholding tradition.


African Studies | Law


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