The Comorians in Kenya : the establishment and loss of an economic niche
The thesis, supervised by Jean Lafontaine, focussed on migration from the Comoro Islands near Madagascar, to Zanzibar and the East African Swahili coast, between the 1830s and the 1970s. Comorians had shared a common history and culture with the Swahili for many centuries; in colonial East Africa, chance offered them a unique ‘racial’ and employment niche which evaporated abruptly after 1964 and East African independence. They had suddenly to reassess marriage, residence and self-definition strategies, and their implications for the future. The thesis addressed ethnic identity (which had focussed excessively on its immutability) and demonstrated its adaptability to changing political and economic context. The study also attempted to escape from timeless, fixed-location ethnography, and followed links which led to data-collection in several East African and Comorian locations. Finally, by following Comorian choices over 150 years, the thesis made a contribution to an understanding of broader Swahili history which demands similar light-footed mobility through time and space for the processes of change to be understood. Gill Shepherd completed her PhD at a time when university recruitment was a standstill. Instead she built a career in tropical forest policy at London’s Overseas Development Institute, and focussed on rights for forest peoples.