Siwa, Ceremonial Side Blown Horn

Where Heritage Lives On

This is the ceremonial side-blown horn, which was mainly used by the Swahili leaders in the 17th and 18th centuries during circumcision, weddings, rulers’ inaugurations and other cultural events of leading members of the Swahili community.

The Siwa measures almost two meters long and has two articulated joints. A man would hold the horn with two arms and blow through the wooden mouthpiece in the middle to create an unforgettable sound inviting people to the cultural events.

It is one of the most distinctive items of regalia from sub – Saharan Africa made by craftsmen. There are two fine examples: one from the island of Lamu made of bronze, and the ivory piece illustrated (in the picture) from nearby Pate. The latter, made in 1688, bears text, albeit rather corrupt, that appears to be copied from late Mamluk inscriptions, reflecting an earlier relationship formed during the Fatimid period (969-1171) when Egypt had played a pivotal role in the Indian Ocean Trade.

Both Siwa’s are no longer in use and are currently among some of the precious collections housed by the National Museums of Kenya for posterity. The last time the Siwa was used was in 1960 during a wedding ceremony for a prominent family in Lamu.

However, the Siwa was held in high regard among the Swahili people as it was perceived as a symbol of unity and the Swahili rulers acted as sole custodians. The Siwa came to be associated with royalty and he who held the Siwa also controlled the town. So closely was the Siwa linked to authority within the community that any mishap that might befall it was perceived to be a prelude to potential disaster for the ruler or the state. The horns were believed to have supernatural and magical powers, too; their unforgettable sound was thought to confer blessings on those who heard it.

The most important role of the Siwa was calling men to war in an attempt to ensure victory, for instance; the Siwa was blown prior to the Battle of Shela (Kuduhu in 1807 – 1812).

Article by: Juliana Ruto, PRO, National Museums of Kenya


Photography by: Steve Okoko and Jeff Mugendi, National Museums of Kenya

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