University of Wisconsin–Madison

Dave Bresnahan

Advisor: Neil Kodesh

David Bresnahan


I study the coast of East Africa and the Indian Ocean world, but I am most interested contexts where East Africans turned away from or rejected the cosmopolitan cultures of the Indian Ocean. My research focuses on the histories of Mijikenda-speaking communities in the hinterlands of Mombasa, Kenya. Mombasa is a global port city and has been a nexus in Indian Ocean exchange networks for the last millennium. But the historical decisions of communities immediately adjacent to Mombasa defy the neo-evolutionary logic that characterizes most studies of the region. Mijikenda communities intentionally shrunk their settlements at the same moments their Swahili neighbors urbanized; they were very receptive to the ritual knowledge of outsiders, but ultimately rejected Islam; and they pioneered long-distance inland trade routes that transformed East Africa’s economy, but only participated selectively in maritime commerce. All despite living just kilometers from a global port city. My dissertation explores how these dissonant actions helped created new possibilities for interconnectivity in East Africa and the western Indian Ocean. a.


M.A., Ohio University
B.A., Elizabethtown College


  • African History

MA Title

  • “Sacred Spaces, Political Authority, and the Dynamics of Tradition in Mijikenda History”

Working Dissertation Title

  • “The Contours of Community on the East African Coast: a View from the Hinterlands, ca. 100-1850 CE”