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definition - Swahili people

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Swahili people

165 × 220
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Zanzibar, Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, Comoros




Related ethnic groups

Mijikenda, Pokomo

The Swahili people are a Bantu ethnic group and culture found in East Africa. They mainly reside on the Swahili Coast, in an area encompassing Zanzibar, coastal Kenya, Tanzania and north Mozambique. The name Swahili is derived from the Arabic word Sawahil, meaning "coastal dwellers", and they speak the Swahili language. Only a small fraction of those who use Swahili are first language speakers and even fewer are ethnic Swahilis.



The Swahili are Bantu inhabitants on the coast of East Africa, in Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. They are mainly united under the mother tongue of Kiswahili, a Bantu language.[1] This also extends to Arab, Persian, and other migrants who reached the coast some believe as early as the 7th-8th c. CE, and mixed with the local people there, providing considerable cultural infusion and numerous loan words from Arabic and Persian.[2] Archaeologist, Felix Chami notes the presence of Bantu settlements straddling the East African coast as early as the beginning of the 1st millennium. They evolved gradually from the 6th century onward to accommodate for an increase in trade (mainly with Arab merchants), population growth, and further centralized urbanization; developing into what would later become known as the Swahili City-States.[3]


  An Afro-Arab Swahili woman from Zanzibar in Islamic dress

Islam established its presence in the East African coast from around the ninth century, when Bantu traders settling on the coast tapped into the Indian Ocean trade networks. Because of the interactions that ensued with the Arab and Somali proseltizers, Islam emerged as a unifying force on the coast and helped to form a unique Swahili identity.[4]

On the coastal section of East Africa, a mixed Bantu community gradually developed through contact with Muslim Arab and Persian traders. The Swahili culture that emerged from these exchanges evinces many Arab and Islamic influences not seen in traditional Bantu culture, as do the many Afro-Arab members of the Bantu Swahili people.[5][6] The Afro-Arab Swahili people in turn introduced the Islamic faith to the hinterland.[6]

The Swahili follow a very strict and orthodox form of Islam. For example, Eid-ul-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, is widely celebrated in areas where the Swahili form a majority.[7] Further, large numbers of Swahili undertake the Hajj and Umrah from Tanzania,[8] Kenya,[9] and Mozambique.[10] Traditional Islamic dress such as the jilbab and thob are also popular among the Swahili. In addition to more orthodox practices, the Swahili also are known for their use of divination, which has adopted some syncretic features from underlying traditional indigenous beliefs. In addition to orthodox beliefs in djinn, many Swahili men wear protective amulets around their necks, which contain verses from the Koran. Divination is practiced through Koranic readings. Often the diviner incorporates verses from the Qu'ran into treatments for certain diseases. On occasion, he instructs a patient to soak a piece of paper containing verses of the Qu'ran in water. With this ink infused water, literally containing the word of Allah, the patient will then wash his body or drink it to cure himself of his affliction. It is only prophets and teachers of Islam who are permitted to become medicine men among the Swahili.[1]


  Swahili Arabic script on One Pysar Coin from Zanzibar circa 1299 AH (1882 AD)
  Swahili Arabic script on a Carved wooden door (open) at Lamu in Kenya
  Swahili Arabic script on Wooden door in Fort Jesus, Mombasa in Kenya

The Swahili speak Swahili as their native tongue, which is a member of the Bantu subgroup of the Niger-Congo language family. Its closest relatives include Comorian spoken on the Comoros Islands and the Mijikenda language of the Mijikenda people in Kenya.[11]

With its original speech community centered on the coastal parts of Zanzibar, Kenya and Tanzania, a seaboard referred to as the Swahili Coast, the Bantu Swahili language contains many Arabic loan-words as a consequence of interactions with Arab migrants.[5] Swahili became the tongue of the urban class in the Great Lakes region, and eventually went on to serve as a lingua franca there during the post-colonial period.[6]


For centuries the Swahili depended greatly on trade from the Indian Ocean. The Swahili have played a vital role as middle man between east, central and South Africa, and the outside world. Trade contacts have been noted as early as 100 AD. by early Roman writers who visited the East African coast in the first century. Trade routes extended from Somalia to Tanzania into modern day Zaire, along which goods were brought to the coasts and were sold to Arab, Indian, and Portuguese traders. Historical and archaeological records attest to Swahilis being prolific maritime merchants and sailors[12][13] who sailed the East African coastline to lands as far away as Arabia[14], Persia[14], Madagascar[12], India[13][15] and even China.[16] Chinese pottery and Arabian beads have been found in the ruins of Great Zimbabwe.[17] During the apogee of the Middle Ages, ivory and slaves became a substantial source of revenue. Many slaves sold in Zanzibar ended up in Brazil, which was then a Portuguese colony. Swahili fishermen of today still rely on the ocean to supply their primary source of income. Fish is sold to their inland neighbors in exchange for products of the interior.


Previously thought by many scholars to be essentially of Arabic or Persian style and origin; archaeological, written, linguistic, and cultural evidence instead suggests a predominantly African genesis and sustainment. This would be accompanied later by an enduring Arabic and Islamic influence in the form of trade, inter-marriage, and an exchange of ideas.[18][19] Upon visiting Kilwa in 1331, the great Berber explorer Ibn Battuta was impressed by the substantial beauty that he encountered there. He describes its inhabitants as "Zanj, jet-black in colour, and with tattoo marks on their faces", and notes that "Kilwa is a very fine and substantially built town, and all its buildings are of wood" (his description of Mombasa was essentially the same).[20] Kimaryo points out that the distinctive tattoo marks are common among the Makonde. Architecture included arches, courtyards, isolated women's quarters, the mihrab, towers, and decorative elements on the buildings themselves. Many ruins may still be observed near the southern Kenyan port of Malindi in the Gede ruins (the lost city of Gede/Gedi).[21]


  1. ^ a b http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/people/Swahili.html
  2. ^ Gilbert. Coastal East Africa and the Western Indian Ocean
  3. ^ African Archaeological Review, Volume 15, Number 3, September 1998, pp. 199-218(20)
  4. ^ Christine Stephanie Nicholls, The Swahili coast: politics, diplomacy and trade on the East African littoral, 1798-1856, Africana Pub. Corp., 1971
  5. ^ a b Daniel Don Nanjira, African Foreign Policy and Diplomacy: From Antiquity to the 21st Century, ABC-CLIO, 2010, p.114
  6. ^ a b c Harvey J. Sindima, Religious and political ethics in Africa: a moral inquiry, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998, page 144
  7. ^ http://zanzibar.net/music_culture_festivals_events/religious_festivals_-_eid_ul_fitr
  8. ^ http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7140977.stm
  9. ^ http://allafrica.com/stories/200911191155.html
  10. ^ http://www.hajinformation.com/display_news.php?id=1432
  11. ^ William Frawley, International encyclopedia of linguistics, Volume 1, (Oxford University Press, 2003), page 181
  12. ^ a b African History A history of Sub-Saharan Africa. By Robert O. Collins, James McDonald Burns. pgs. 109-112, (2007) Cambridge University Press, accessed February 15, 2012.
  13. ^ a b The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History, Volume 2 By Richard Bulliet, Pamela Kyle Crossley, Daniel Headrick, Steven Hirsch, Lyman John. pg. 381, (October 2006) Wadsworth Publishing, accessed February 15, 2012.
  14. ^ a b The East African Slave Trade BBC, [[BBC, accessed February 15, 2012.
  15. ^ The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Volume 3, Part 2. By Sir H. A. R. Gibb. pg. 206, (2001), accessed February 15, 2012.
  16. ^ Swahili-Chinese interaction The Cambridge History of Africa: From c. 1050 to c. 1600. By J. D. Fage. pg. 194, (1977), Cambridge Publications, accessed February 15, 2012.
  17. ^ Garlake (2002) 184-185
  18. ^ East African Coastal Historical Towns: Asiatic or African? - by Jacob L. Kimaryo (2000)
  19. ^ Mark Horton, Shanga: a Muslim Trading Community on the East African Coast (Nairobi: 1996)
  20. ^ Ibn Battuta: Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354 - Medieval Sourcebook, Retrieved on 2007-08-28.
  21. ^ Ruins of the walled city of Gedi, Kenya

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