Baraza Conference

Swahili History, Culture and Identity Reconsidered

I attended the Baraza conference that was held at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, UK on October 29, 2016. I was scheduled to present a paper titled, “Integrating Chat in the writing of African Languages.” Papers of interesting topics were presented by scholars from different parts of the world. A theme that cut across all the presentations that were made was about who the Swahili people are. A paper that really caught my eye was the one that was presented by Farouk Topan, a Swahili scholar of many years who once taught at the University of London.

Dr. Topan started by providing us with a historical background of the Swahili people as an ethnic group. Swahili people number approximately half a million, inhabiting a string of small settlements along the East African coast in parts of Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania. They are believed to have descended from Bantu-speaking agriculturalists who lived in an area reaching roughly from Kenya’s Tana River in modern Kenya to the Webi Shebelle region of Somalia. Although they had long supplemented their farming with fishing, it is believed that around 500 A.D. these people began to trade and migrate along the coast. Over the next three centuries migrant groups moved south by ship, establishing settlements both on the coast and on adjacent islands. These independent polities were linked by trade as well as by a common culture and language. From an early date, merchants from the Arab peninsula, Persia, and India settled among and intermarried with the Swahili towns’ African founders.

By the 12th century Swahili culture exhibited Arab and Asian cultural influences. A distinctive Swahili architecture had emerged, which reflected these influences. Houses made of coral rag and coral stone had replaced the circular mud-and-wattle buildings found in parts of inland East Africa. The ruins at the Gedi in Kenya provide one example of early Swahili architecture. Islam was also well-established along the Swahili Coast by the 12th century, though elements of indigenous African religions remained.

For centuries Swahili merchants served as middlemen, exporting products from the East African interior in exchange for goods purchased from Indian Ocean merchant ships. Especially during the 19th century, Swahili caravans traveled far into the interior in search of slaves and ivory, and some of these traders established inland trading posts. One of the most renowned 19th century Swahili traders was the Zanzibari Tippu Tip, whose trading empire stretched from the East African coast to the western bank of the Lualaba River in the modern Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire).

The arrival of the Portuguese in the late 15th century began a long era of foreign rule on the Swahili Coast. The imam (religious leader) of Oman drove the Portuguese from the coast in 1698, and gradually established his authority over the coast. Omani influences on Swahili culture proved to be very significant. In addition to introducing many Arabic words into the Swahili language, the Omani cultivated the belief that the way they practiced Islam and their social status was superior to that of the Swahili. Arab ancestry thus became a marker of status.

Beginning in the late 19th century, European colonial rule brought further changes to Swahili society. Although parts of the Swahili Co coast remained under Omani control, European colonialism eventually brought an end to  a s slave trading, and more generally undermined the Swahili’s traditional role as East African middlemen. Modern shipping has taken over the long-distance ocean trade routes once traveled by dhows, the Swahili’s wooden sailing vessels. Cities such as Mogadishu and Mombasa, now major industrial ports, have attracted many migrants from the East African interior. Swahili now contains many English words and has become the lingua franca of much of East Africa, spoken by more than 130 million people.

Dr. Farouk Topan ended his presentation by providing us with information about who the Swahili people are. The question about who are the Swahili has long been controversial. Certain people in East Africa consider themselves Swahili while others not, while some of those so considered may not have that self-concept at all. With the standardization of Swahili and its growth as a national language in Tanzania and its use as a lingua franca all over East Africa, the problem of definition is about to resolve itself. Providing us with a quotation from Senkoro in a book that was translated by Mazrui and Shariff (1993), Dr. Topan was of the idea that the present day definition of the term Swahili does not mean an ethnic group of the Swahili people for such an ethnic group does not exist today. The Swahili people here are the citizens of East and Central Africa in general and not only those who live on the coastline of these countries. Swahili-speaking people are becoming Kenyans and Tanzanians, rather than Swahili or non-Swahili. The Swahili language, while indeed a lingua franca, is also the first and only language for some East Africans. These people are Swahili in a sense that others are not. For others, Swahili is a language used in order to communicate with trading partners, neighbors, and friends from diverse linguistic backgrounds.