Swahili people

Last updated
Regions with significant populations
Tanzania (particularly Zanzibar), Kenya, Somalia, Mozambique, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Congo [1]
Swahili Coast c. 1.2 million
Flag of Tanzania.svg  Tanzania 954,000 [2]
Flag of Somalia.svg  Somalia 183,000 [3]
Flag of Kenya.svg  Kenya 56,074 [4]
Flag of Mozambique.svg  Mozambique 21,070 [5]
Flag of the Comoros.svg  Comoros 4,000 [6]
Diaspora c. 0.7 million
Flag of Saudi Arabia.svg  Saudi Arabia 414,000 [7]
Flag of Madagascar.svg  Madagascar 111,000 [6]
Flag of Oman.svg  Oman 100,000 [8]
Flag of the United States.svg  United States 90,000 [9]
Flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.svg  DRC 51,500 [10]
Flag of Burundi.svg  Burundi 24,000 [6]
Swahili, English, Portuguese, Arabic, French
Predominantly Islam ( Sunni, Shia, Sufism ), [11] Minority Christianity ( Roman Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox ) [12]
Related ethnic groups
Mijikenda, Pokomo, Comorians, Bajunis, Shirazi and Barawani

The Swahili people (Swahili language: WaSwahili) are a Bantu ethnic group inhabiting East Africa. Members of this ethnicity primarily reside on the Swahili coast, in an area encompassing the Zanzibar archipelago, littoral Kenya, the Tanzania seaboard, northern Mozambique, the Comoros Islands, and Northwest Madagascar. More recently, Swahili identity is centered around any person of African descent who speaks Swahili as their first language, is Muslim and lives in a town on the main urban centers of most of modern day Tanzania and coastal Kenya, northern Mozambique and the Comoros, through a process of swahilization. [13]


The name Swahili is an Exonym derived from Arabic : سواحل, romanized: Sawāhil, lit. 'coasts'. Swahili people speak the Swahili language. Swahili people endonym for themselves is Waungwana meaning the civilized ones. [14] Modern Standard Swahili, derived from the Kiunguja dialect of Zanzibar. despite Swahili being an Bantu language, there are a number Arabic loanwords in the language especially in administrative description. Also some loan words from Portuguese, Hindi and German. Other, older dialects like Kimrima and Kitumbatu have far fewer Arabic loanwords, indicative of the language's fundamental Bantu nature. Kiswahili served as coastal East Africa's lingua franca and trade language from the ninth century onward. Zanzibari traders' intensive push into the African interior from the late eighteenth century induced the adoption of Swahili as a common language throughout much of East Africa. Thus, Kiswahili is the most spoken African language though it is used by far more than just the Waswahili themselves. [15]


The Swahili people originate from Bantu inhabitants of the coast of Southeast Africa, in Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. These Bantu-speaking agriculturalists settled the coast at the outset of the first millennium. Archaeological finds at Fukuchani, on the north-west coast of Zanzibar, indicate a settled agricultural and fishing community from the 6th century CE at the latest. The considerable amount of daub found indicates timber buildings, and shell beads, bead grinders, and iron slag have been found at the site. There is evidence for limited engagement in long-distance trade: a small amount of imported pottery has been found, less than 1% of total pottery finds, mostly from the Gulf and dated to the 5th to 8th century. The similarity to contemporary sites such as Mkokotoni and Dar es Salaam indicate a unified group of communities that developed into the first center of coastal maritime culture. The coastal towns appear to have been engaged in Indian Ocean trade at this early period, and trade rapidly increased in importance and quantity between the mid-8th and the 11th century. [16]

Some Swahili claim a Shirazi origin. This forms the basis of the Shirazi era origin myth that proliferated along the coast at the turn of the millennium. Modern academics reject the authenticity of the primarily Persian origin claim. [17] [18] They point to the relative rarity of Persian customs and speech, lack of documentary evidence of Shia Islam in the Muslim literature on the Swahili Coast, and instead a historic abundance of Sunni Arab-related evidence. [19] The documentary evidence, like the archaeological, "for early Persian settlement is likewise completely lacking." [20] . The most likely origin for the stories about the Shirazi is from Muslim inhabitants of the Lamu archipelago who moved south in the 10th and 11th centuries. They brought with them a coinage tradition and localized form of Islam. These Africans migrants seem to have developed a concept of Shirazi origin as they moved further southwards, near Malindi and Mombasa, along the Mrima coast. The longstanding trade connections with the Persian gulf gave credence to these myths. In addition, because most Muslim societies are patrilineal, one can claim distant identities through paternal lines despite phenotypic and somatic evidence to the contrary. The so-called Shirazi tradition represents the arrival of Islam in these eras, one reason it has proven so long lasting. Extant mosques and coins demonstrate that the "Shirazi" were not Middle Eastern immigrants, but northern Swahili Muslims. They moved south, founding mosques, introducing coinage and elaborately carved inscriptions and mihrabs. They should be interpreted as indigenous African Muslims who played the politics of the Middle East to their advantage. Some still use this foundation myth a millennium later to assert their authority, even though the myth's context has long been forgotten. The Shirazi legend took on new importance in the 19th century, during the period of Omani domination. Claims of Shirazi ancestry were used to distance locals from Arab newcomers, since Persians are not viewed as Arabs but still have an exemplary Islamic pedigree. The emphasis that the Shirazi came very long ago and intermarried with indigenous locals ties this claim to the creation of convincing indigenous narratives about Swahili heritage without divorcing it from the ideals of being a maritime-centered culture. [21] [22] [23]

There are two main theories about the origins of the Shirazi subgroup of the Swahili people. One thesis based on oral tradition states that immigrants from the Shiraz region in southwestern Iran directly settled various mainland ports and islands on the eastern Africa seaboard beginning in the tenth century. [24] [25] By the time of the Persian settlement in the area, the earlier occupants had been displaced by incoming Bantu and Nilotic populations. [26] More people from different parts of the Persian Gulf also continued to migrate to the Swahili coast over several centuries thereafter, and these formed the modern Shirazi. [27] The second theory on Shirazi origins also posits that they came from Persia, but first settled in the Horn of Africa. [24] In the twelfth century, as the gold trade with the distant entrepot of Sofala on the Mozambique seaboard grew, the settlers are then said to moved southwards to various coastal towns in Kenya, Tanzania, northern Mozambique and the Indian Ocean islands. By 1200 CE, they had established local sultanates and mercantile networks on the islands of Kilwa, Mafia and Comoros along the Swahili coast, and in northwestern Madagascar. [28] [29]

The modern Swahili people speak the Swahili language as a mother tongue, which belongs to the Bantu branch of the Niger-Congo family. The language contains loan words from Arabic. [30]


Women from Comoros in traditional dress. Femmes en salouva et msizano.jpg
Women from Comoros in traditional dress.

Islam established its presence on the Southeast African coast from around the 9th century, when Bantu traders settling on the coast tapped into the Indian Ocean trade networks. The Swahili people follow the Sunni denomination of Islam.

Large numbers of Swahili undertake the Hajj and Umrah from Tanzania, [31] Kenya, [32] and Mozambique. [33] Traditional Islamic dress such as the jilbab and thob are also popular among the Swahili. The Swahili also are known for their use of divination, which has adopted some syncretic features from underlying traditional indigenous beliefs, they believe in djinn and many men wear protective amulets with verses from the Qu'ran.

Divination is practiced through Qur'anic readings. Often the diviner incorporates verses from the Qur'an into treatments for certain diseases. On occasion, he instructs a patient to soak a piece of paper containing verses of the Qur'an 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. [34]


Swahili Arabic script on a one-pysar coin from Zanzibar c. 1299 AH (1882 CE) Zanzibar-pysa-coin.jpg
Swahili Arabic script on a one-pysar coin from Zanzibar c. 1299 AH (1882 CE)
Swahili Arabic script on a carved wooden door (open) at Lamu in Kenya Lamu door.jpg
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 Fortjesusdoor.JPG
Swahili Arabic script on wooden door in Fort Jesus, Mombasa in Kenya

The Swahili speak as their native tongue the Swahili language, which is a member of the Bantu subgroup of the Niger-Congo family. Its closest relatives include Comorian spoken on the Comoros Islands, and the Mijikenda language of the Mijikenda people in Kenya. [35]

With its original speech community centered on Zanzibar and the coastal parts of Kenya and Tanzania, a seaboard referred to as the Swahili Coast, [36] Swahili became the tongue of the urban class in the African Great Lakes region, and eventually went on to serve as a lingua franca during the post-colonial period.


For centuries the Swahili depended greatly on trade from the Indian Ocean. The Swahili have played a vital role as middle man between southeast, central and South Africa, and the outside world. Trade contacts have been noted as early as 100 CE by early Roman writers who visited the Southeast African coast in the 1st century.[ citation needed ] Trade routes extended from Kenya to Tanzania into modern day Congo, 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 [37] [38] who sailed the Southeast African coastline to lands as far away as Arabia, [39] Persia, [39] Madagascar, [37] :110 India [38] [40] and even China. [41] Chinese pottery and Arabian beads have been found in the ruins of Great Zimbabwe. [42] During the apogee of the Middle Ages, ivory and slaves became a substantial source of revenue. Many captives of the Portuguese 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.

Although most Swahili live with living standards far below that of upper hierarchy of the wealthiest nations, the Swahili are generally considered a relatively economically powerful group due to their history of trade. They are comparatively well-off; According to the United Nations, Zanzibar has a 25% higher per capita GDP than the rest of Tanzania. [43] This economic influence has led to the continued spread of their culture and language throughout East Africa.


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 and an exchange of ideas. [44] [45] 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). [46] 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). [47]

See also

Related Research Articles

Swahili language Bantu language spoken mainly in East Africa

Swahili, also known by its native name Kiswahili, is a Bantu language and the native language of the Swahili people. It is a lingua franca of the African Great Lakes region and other parts of East and Southern Africa, including Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, some parts of Malawi, Somalia, Zambia, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Comorian, spoken in the Comoros Islands, is sometimes considered a dialect of Swahili, although other authorities consider it a distinct language. Sixteen to twenty percent of Swahili vocabulary is Arabic loanwords, including the word swahili, from Arabic sawāḥilī. The Arabic loanwords date from the contacts of Arabian traders with the Bantu inhabitants of the east coast of Africa over many centuries. Under Arab trade influence, Swahili emerged as a lingua franca used by Arab traders and Bantu peoples of the East African Coast.

Zanzibar autonomous part of Tanzania

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