Swahili - Sociopolitical Organization

Swahili towns have traditionally been autonomous, many at one time being ruled by kings and queens. (Lamu Town, ruled by an oligarchy, was an exception.) Country-town local government remains largely in the hands of small, indigenous government organs, known as "the Four Men" and similar titles, representing constituent wards.

The Swahili patricians kept and traded in slaves; the Country-towns did neither. Slaves, numbering between 25 percent and 50 percent of the total population, were obtained from the interior from indigenous rulers and used as trade commodities, for house- and fieldwork, and as concubines. Slavery was abolished under the British in 1897 in Zanzibar and Tanganyika and in 1907 in Kenya. Its abolition brought the traditional mercantile economy largely to an end.

Open conflict has been—and remains—unusual among the Swahili, and institutions such as the feud are not known; however, fitina, intrigue and backbiting, is a well-recognized aspect of Swahili domestic and social life. Nevertheless, the towns have frequently waged war against one another, as part of wider processes of colonial subordination. The Omani sultanate of Zanzibar extended its sway along the coast during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by attacking towns in turn, using other towns as allies; local opposition to Zanzibar hegemony was soon put down by the sultans' forces of mercenary troops from outside eastern Africa. The Swahili also revolted against German rule in Tanganyika in the early years of the twentieth century and were put down with great brutality by German-led troops. The Zanzibar Revolution of 1964 removed the Omani colonial administration, and there have since been many small clashes, often couched in religious terms, with the forces of independent Kenya.

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