Swahili literature

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Swahili literature is, generally speaking, literature written in the Swahili language, particularly by Swahili people of the East African coast and the neighboring islands. It may also refer to literature written by people who write in the Swahili language. It is an offshoot of the Bantu culture. [1]


The first literary works date back to the beginning of the 18th century, when all Swahili literature was written in the Arabic script. Jan Knappert considered the translation of the Arabic poem Hamziya from the year 1652 to be the earliest Swahili written text. Starting in the 19th century, missionaries and orientalists introduced the Latin script for writing the Swahili language.


Swahili literature has been an object of research by many western scholars since the 19th century. There is a debate regarding objectivity as a few scholars tried to establish a canon of Swahili writing. [2]

One of the main characteristics of Swahili literature is the relative heterogeneity of the Swahili language. One can find works written in Kiamu, Kimvita, Kipemba, Kiunguja, Kimrima, Kimtang'ata, Ki-Dar es Salaam and Ki-Nairobi which are considered varieties of Swahili. [3]

Swahili literature has been sometimes characterized as Islamic by some western scholars such as Jan Knappert. This approach was criticized by some experts such as Alamin Mazrui and Ibrahim Noor Shariff. [4] In fact, Swahili poetry has produced many secular works by such poets as Muyaka bin Ghassany and Muhammad Kijuma. [5]

Because of this orientalist exploration and interest in the Swahili culture and language, most of the theses made on the Swahili literature have been done outside of the native place. [6]


Swahili literature is classified into three genres: Riwaya (the novel), tamthilia (drama/play) and ushairi (poetry). [7] Scholars, however, cite the problem in the literary classification because the sense of orientation associated to genre does not work properly for Swahili literature. [8] The lack of clear and decisive parameters for genres can be illustrated by the convergence of oral and written literary forms. [9] Rajmund Ohly noted that the names of genres are not well defined while denominations are too vague to distinguish class divisions. [8]


Fiction in Swahili literature mainly consisted of oral narrative traditions. It was not until the 1940s that Swahili started to have a written fiction. Modern Swahili literature is a direct result of the standardization of Swahili. Previously, writers would write in a particular dialect to show their attachment to a certain dialect, such as Lamu, Tanga or Mombasa. The normalization of Swahili motivated writers, such as George Mhina and Lyndon Harries to promote the development of Swahili by creating a literary corpus. [10]


Generally, Swahili poetry is derived from Arabic poetry. Swahili poetry or "ushairi" (from Arabic : Shîir, poetry) is still written in the traditional manner. According to an account, the traditional poetry is created to be sung rather than read. [11] It began in the northern Kenya coastal towns of Lamu and Pate before spreading to Tanga Region, Zanzibar and other nearby areas. [12] The poetic tradition is still alive today as pieces are often published in local newspapers and used in taraab songs and musical theater popular in Zanzibar and the Swahili coast. [11]

However, there are a few fundamental differences between the Swahili and Arabic poetry. With much of African influence, the two poems can hardly be compared for it is sui generis . [13]

Traditional poetry can be classified into different groups according to its form and content. It can be epic, lyrical or didactic, as well as religious or secular. [14] Examples of narrative poetry, known as utenzi, include the Utendi wa Tambuka by Bwana Mwengo (dated to about 1728) and the Utenzi wa Shufaka.

Use of Swahili prose was until recently practically restricted to utilitarian purposes. However, the traditional art of oral expression in poetry has produced a number of valuable works. It is characterized by its homiletic aspects, heroic songs, folklore ballads and humorous dialogues which accurately depict Swahili life, cultural beliefs and traditions. Because of the immediate historical aspect of the Swahili literature, especially in the 19th century, it is still a hard job to interpret many of the poems due to the lack of knowledge of the context in which the poem was written.

Notable literary people

See also

Hamisi Akida Bin Said


References and notes

  1. Polome, Edgar C. Swahili Language Handbook. OCLC   911409733.
  2. Knappert, Jan (1980) - The canon of Swahili literature (B.C. Bloomfield (ed.), Middle East Studies and Libraries. London, 1980, 85-102.)
  3. "The Heterogeneity of Swahili Literature" (PDF). Nordic Journal of African Studies 9(2): 11-21 (2000). Retrieved 2006-09-26.
  4. Mazrui, Alamin; Ibrahim Noor Shariff (1996). The Swahili. Idiom and Identity of an African People. pp. 95–97.
  5. "Islam, language and ethnicity in Eastern Africa: Some literary considerations" (RTF). Harriet Tubman Seminar. Retrieved 2006-09-26.
  6. A. Ricard, (1995) Introduction à « Comment écrire pour le théâtre en suivant Aristote ? de Ebahim Hussein », in : Alternatives théâtrales n°48, p.64. (in French)
  7. Haleem, Muhammad Abdel (2017). Exploring the Qur'an: Context and Impact. London: I.B.Tauris. ISBN   9781780763651.
  8. 1 2 Tchokothe, Rémi Armand (2014). Transgression in Swahili Narrative Fiction and its Reception. Zurich: LIT Verlag. p. 25. ISBN   9783643903938.
  9. Rollins, Jack (1983). A History of Swahili Prose, Part 1: From Earliest Times to the End of the Nineteenth Century. Leiden: E.J. BRILL. p. 47. ISBN   9004068880.
  10. "The Swahili Novel - Challenging the Idea of 'Minor Literature' by Xavier Garnier
  11. 1 2 Ricard, Alain; Morgan, Naomi (2004). The Languages & Literatures of Africa: The Sands of Babel. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press. p. 69. ISBN   9780852555811.
  12. ossrea.net - The Waswahili/Swahili Culture
  13. - Poetry provides a remarkable outlet for personal expression in Swahili culture By Lyndon Harries
  14. vessella.it - Swahili

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