Swahili People


Swahili is both a culture and a language that emerged on the east coast of Africa and combines elements of Arab, Persian, and African cultures. The term Swahili comes from the Arabic word sahili or coastal; sawahili is the plural. The Swahili language or Kiswahili belongs to the Bantu family of the Niger-Congo phylum, but has a significant number of loanwords from Arabic, enough for some to think of it as an Arabic pidgin. Kiswa-hili has also borrowed words from Persian, Urdu, and Gujarati as well from English and Portuguese.

Nonetheless, Kiswahili is a Bantu language, with its closest cognates being the Mijikenda and Pokomo languages of the coastal area near the Tana River.Kiswahili is widely spoken in East Africa and served as a trading lingua franca well into the 20th century. German and British colonial authorities adopted Kiswahili as their administrative language in much of East Africa as far inland as Rwanda and Burundi.

Kiswahili was originally written in Arabic script, and the Swahili people have a long history of literacy in Arabic, Persian, and Kiswahili; and partially for this reason, the Germans chose it for their administrative language in their colony of Tanganyika. Rather than use Arabic script, Europeans introduced writing Swahili in Latin script, and today, Swahili speakers use both scripts to write the language. The fact that it was an official administrative language helped its spread among non-Swahili peoples of the interior.

Today, some 30 million people speak the language, of whom around 1 mil-lion speak it as the first language of the home.MostSwahilispeakersliveinKenya and Tanzania, but the language has spread into Uganda, Somalia, Djibouti, Mozam-bique, and the Comoros Islands as well as into the Lakes Region of Central Africa. Due to the recent historical connections with Oman, there are still bilingual Arabic and Kiswahili communities in Oman as well.

The origins of the Swahili community may stretch back into antiquity. The anonymous Greek text called Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, a guide to trade in the Indian Ocean, notes two main trading cen-ters on East African coast, Rhapta and Qanbalu. While there was contact with the coastal Bantu peoples in antiquity, fol-lowing the rise of the Umayyad dynasty in the seventh century, Arab contacts with the coast increased and permanent settle-ments were built.

As with the language, there is debate about whether the Swahili people are Arabized Africans or African-ized Arabs. The Swahili are a mix of Arab, Persian, and African origins; Arabs and Persians married into African families and perpetuated Islam as well as contributed to the wealth of vocabulary to the emerging Swahili language.

Arab and Persian merchants set up a number of trading centers from Somalia to the Mozambique coasts, and it seems a number of the early Arab Muslims were Zaidi Shi‘ites (called “5ers” in they follow the line of Imams from ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib five generations to Zaid) from Yemen. By the year 1000, a number of stone buildings replaced earlier wattle-and-daub struc-tures. The Swahili people are Muslims, and archeological evidence in Islamic bur-ials, monumental inscriptions in Arabic, and mosques supports the fact that local Muslim families were in evidence by the end of the 10th century.

In the 14th century, Muslim influence expanded in East Africa, perhaps as a response to the growing influence of Islam in India and Indonesia. More immigrants from especially Yemen and Oman came bringing with them both Sunni Shafi‘i and Kharaji Ibadi Islam; though the pres-ence of Ibadis may stretch back into the eighth century. When the Moroccan trav-eler ibn Battuta (1304–1369) visited the East African coast around 1332, he noted not only large mosques, but also madra-sahs (Islamic schools) and communities of shurufa’ (descendants of the Prophet Muhammad). Since the 14th century, the majority of Swahili have been Sunni of the Shafi‘i madhhab.

Swahili society and culture flourished until the arrival of the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama in 1498. In 1505, the Por-tuguese took the great trading city of Kilwa and sacked Mombassa. By 1530, the Portuguese were in control of the East African coast, and in 1542, they helped the Ethiopians defeat Ottoman expansion. However, the Portuguese were eventually defeated and forced to retreat from their conquests in Oman, Pakistan, and East Africa by the newly established Al BuSa‘idi dynasty in Oman.

They lost their forts along the Omani coast in 1630, Zan-zibar and Pemba in 1652, and finally Mombassa in 1696. East Africa’s Swahili communities generally regained their independence, with only Zanzibar remain-ing under the Sultans of Oman until Sultan Sayyid Sa‘id bin Sultan (1804–1856) expanded his authority over them between 1822 and 1837. In 1832, he moved the capital of the Sultanate from Musqat in Oman to Zanzibar.

Swahili society is divided into a number of groups, if not distinct social classes. The non-Arab farmers and fisherman of Pemba and Zanzibar Islands are called the WaHa-midu (from the Arabic word khadimin meaning servants) and WaTumbatu (the people of the island of Tumbatu) or more generally WaPemba (the people of the island of Pemba).

The WaShirazi (people of Shiraz) claim to descend from Persian immigrants who, in 1200, established seven coastal cities with Kilwa as their center. Kilwa controlled the region from Mogadishu to the Comoros, and the WaSh-irazi are credited with the conversion of much of the local population to Islam.

Arabs from the Hadramawt in Yemen established themselves early in the region, but in the 12th and 13th centuries, larger numbers came to the East African coast and are often referred to as the “Old Arabs.” Among them are the MaSharifu,the Swahili form of Shurufa’ who gained control over religious matters and provide barakah or blessings to the community of Muslims. Later Arab immigrants from Oman established themselves in the late 17th century, when Oman became a major sea power and are locally called Manga. While they have become part of the Swa-hili, they have kept their Arab identities through family genealogies.

The WaShi-hiri are the immigrants who came mainly from the Hadramawt in the 19th and 20th centuries. Their name comes from the port city of al-Shihr, from where most of them sailed when they left Yemen. Oman came to dominate the region starting in the 17th century, following their defeat of the Portuguese. The Sultanate of Oman briefly moved the capital from Oman to Zanzibar in 1832, and a number of Omani families moved not only to Zanzibar, but to Mombassa and other cities along the coast. Family names such as Mazru‘i, such as the famous historian ‘Ali Mazru‘i, are Omani in origin. Following the overthrow of the Sultan of Zanzibar in 1964, many Omani families returned to Oman.

Indians make up the final element in Swahili society. Indian merchants from mainly Gujarat were involved with trade with Arabs from the Arabian/Persian Gulf as well as with the Swahili from East Africa. Indians were Muslims and married into the Muslim Swahili families and brought with them Isma‘ili Shi‘ism (or 7ers in that they follow the line of Imams from ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib to Isma‘il), archi-tectural elements, clothes, and cuisine that have become part of Swahili culture.

Swahili society is also class divided between gentry and commoners. Called the WaUngwana, the urban gentry hold the highest position in Swahili soci-ety. The term is best translated as gentle-men and gentlewomen, as it comes from the root uungwana meaning courteous behavior. Most of these families claim to originate in Yemen or Oman. Below them are the Madada (female domestic slaves), WaZalia (locally born slaves), WaTumwa (plantation slaves), and WaShenzi (all other Africans).

Slavery was part of the Swahili economy as well as social organi-zation until the Germans banned it in Tan-ganyika and Zanzibar in 1897 and the British banned it in Kenya in 1907. Slaves were first obtained in Ethiopia, but eventu-ally slavery concentrated on the interior around Lakes Nyasa and Tanagnyika. Slave traders such as the 19th century Hamid bin Muhammad bin Juma‘ al-Marjabi, known and feared as Tippu Tip (from the sound his men’s muskets made when being cocked), established trading centers at Ujiji and Kasongo (founded by Tippu Tip) deep into the interior and helped spread Kiswahili.

Swahili has a long history of literacy in Arabic and Kiswahili. As in Arabic, poetry has an important place in Swahili society. Swahili poetry includes religious themes as well as erotic love poems. There are accounts of Swahili history or the Swahili chronicles that tell their history from their point of view. The Kilwa Chronicle or History of Kilwa tells of how the city was founded by a prince from Shiraz, his marriage to the daughter of a local king, the defeat of traditional spirit based religions by the Islam of the Persian prince, and the establishment of trade with interior peoples.

Other stories chronicle the life of the cultural hero Fumo Liongo, a prince poet and the model of a sophisti-cated urban Swahili. Swahili society pro-duced more secular poetry historically than any other type, much of which is oral in nature, while more religious themes are part of the written heritage. One of the old-est poetic patterns is called utenzi,which uses the least number of lines and makes use of the fact that Kiswahili has a large corpus of rhyming words.

The Swahili under the Omani Sultans thrived with trade in spices, mainly cloves, andinslaves.SwahiliandOmanimer-chants moved from the coast inland, set-ting up new trade centers and influencing African states around them. The Swahili merchant ‘Abdallah ibn Salim established an independent state at Nkhota Kota, and his descendants instituted both Arabic and Islam as the official language and reli-gion. In turn, the chief of the nearby Yao converted to Islam in 1870, and in 1885, Muslim missionaries persuaded the Yao that Arabic and Islam were vehicles of modernization as well as resistance to European expansion.

Swahili settlers at Tabora and Ujiji introduced Islam and Kiswahili to the Buganda (Ganda)of Uganda as well as into Congo, Burundi, and Rwanda. The Ganda Kabaka Mutesa encouraged Islam and Arabic literacy in what were called “Readers” who served as pages in his court. Arab and Swahili merchants traded arms for slaves; and those who converted to Islam had privi-leged trade positions as well as being exempted from being raided for slaves themselves. In the 1860s, 20,000 to 25,000 slaves passed through the markets of Zanzibar.

In 1856, Sultan Sayyid Sa‘id died and divided the state between two of his sons, one ruling the Omani mainland and pos-sessions along the Arab/Persian Gulf and the second ruling Zanzibar and the East African coast. Sayyid Majid ibn Sa‘id (1856–1870) and his brother Sayyid Bar-gash ibn Sa‘id (1870–1888) saw the height of the Omani Zanzibar and the spread of Islam and Swahili language and culture into the interior.

Their ability to keep European powers at bay served as an example to other African rulers. During this period, many of the Swahili urban elite took on as much Arab identity as pos-sible, including Arab genealogies, in order to compete with the newly arrived Omani Arabs who were seen as taking over much of the economy of Pemba and Zanzibar.

In the later part of the 19th century, Britain, Germany, France, and the United States made political moves to gain con-trol of the Zanzibar Sultanate. Trade from the interior in ivory, whale oil from the Indian Ocean, and cloves made it a valu-able prize. In the end, Great Britain and Germany divided the Sultanate between them as a protectorate with Germany tak-ing much of the mainland possessions in 1888 and Great Britain the island of Zanzibar in 1890. In 1918, as a result of Germany losing World War I, Great Brit-ain took Germany’s mainland possessions and renamed it Tanganyika.

Between 1961 and 1963, Kenya, Tangan-yika, and Zanzibar all became independent, but in 1964, a bloody revolution overthrew the last Sultan of Zanzibar and many of the Omani/Arab families returned to Oman. Zanzibar was united with Tanganyika as Tanzania. With incorporation into Tanzania, the Swahili lost a good deal of economic and political power. Nonetheless, centers of Swahili culture such as Pemba, Zanzibar, Dar al-Salam, and Mombassa remain vibrant producers of the culture.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Horton, Mark, and John Middleton. Peoples of Africa: The Swahili. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

Insoll, Timothy. The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa. Cambridge: Cam-bridge University Press, 2003.

Jenson-Elliot, Cynthia. Indigenous Peoples of Africa: East Africa. San Diego, CA: Gale Group, Lucent Books, Inc., 2002.

Lapidus, Ira. A History of Islamic Societies.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.