ALTERNATE NAMES: Waswahili
LOCATION: Eastern Africa from southern Somalia to northern Mozambique
POPULATION: About 500,000
LANGUAGE: KiSwahili; English
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim); spirit cults
For at least a thousand years, Swahili people, who call themselves Waswahili, have occupied a narrow strip of coastal land extending from the north coast of Kenya to Dar es Salaam (the capital of Tanzania). They also occupy several nearby Indian Ocean islands, including Zanzibar, Lamu, and Pate. Over the past few hundred years, the coastal area has been conquered and colonized several times—by Portuguese in the sixteenth century, by Middle Eastern Arabs who ran a slave trade in the nineteenth century, and by the British in the twentieth century. Thus, Swahili people are accustomed to living with strangers in their midst, and they have frequently acted as middlemen in trade relations. In addition, they have incorporated many people and practices into their vibrant social world.
Swahili are all Muslims. They became Muslim through the influence of people coming from the north and also from across the Indian Ocean. They have forged extensive economic, political, and social ties with Middle Eastern Muslims.
During the colonial period and since independence in the early 1960s, Swahili people have been a minority Muslim population in the secular states of Kenya and Tanzania.
The deep harbors along the east African coast have long sustained a profitable fishing and shipping economy. The lush coastal plain provides a fertile environment for growing coconut palms, fruit trees, spices, and mangrove in swamp areas. Today, Swahili people live primarily in the urban areas of Lamu, Malindi, Mombasa, Tanga (mainland Tanzania), the island of Zanzibar, and Dar es Salaam.
Hundreds of Swahili people left for the Middle East after the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964. Over the past several decades, thousands have migrated to the Middle East, Europe, and North America largely for economic reasons. The Swahili population is about half a million.
KiSwahili, the Swahili language, is widely spoken across East Africa. For most Kenyans and Tanzanians, KiSwahili is learned as a second language. Swahili people speak KiSwahili as their "mother tongue," and it reflects their mixed origins and complex history. The language includes many words borrowed from Arabic (and other languages), yet its grammar and syntax place it in the Bantu language family, which has roots on the African continent. Like many Kenyans, Swahili people also use English in their daily interactions, particularly in schools, government offices, and the tourist industry.
Myths and heroes are generally from Islamic sources. For example, many people tell short, moralistic tales based on the Prophet Muhammad's life.
Being Swahili is inextricably connected to being Muslim. Swahili Muslims recognize the five pillars of faith that are basic to Islamic practice worldwide: 1) belief in Allah as the Supreme Being and in Muhammad as the most important prophet; 2) praying five times a day; 3) fasting from dawn to dusk during the month of Ramadan; 4) giving charity; and 5) making a pilgrimage (hajj) to the holy city of Mecca, if feasible. For Swahili people, Islam encompasses more than just spiritual beliefs and practices; Islam is a way of life.
Swahili people celebrate the nation's secular (nonreligious) public holidays. These include, in Kenya, Jamhuri Day and Madaraka Day, which mark the steps toward Kenya's Independence in the early 1960s. In Tanzania, secular holidays are Labor Day (May 1), Zanzibar Revolution Day (January 12); Nane Nane (formerly Saba Saba— Farmer's Day, in August); Independence Day (December 9); and Union Day (April 26), which commemorates the unification of Zanzibar and the mainland.
For Muslims, the most important holidays are religious. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of the month of Ramadan. Eid al-Hajj celebrates the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca. Each Eid is celebrated by praying, visiting relatives and neighbors, and eating special foods and sweets. During the month of Ramadan, Swahili (along with all other) Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. Maulidi, or the Prophet Muhammad's birthday, is widely celebrated by Muslims.
There are no specific rites of passage for children or teens. Birthday parties, increasingly popular, include eating cake, disco dancing, and opening presents. Graduation ceremonies mark a young person's educational progress.
Marriage marks the transition to adulthood. Marriages are usually arranged by parents. A young woman cannot get married without her father's permission, but she has the right to refuse someone chosen for her. Weddings can include several days of separate celebrations for men and women. Only men attend the actual marriage vows, which take place in a mosque. A male relative represents the bride.
Swahili people are as likely to greet one another with the Arabic greeting Asalaam Aleikhum as they are to say Jambo, the common KiSwahili greeting. People who know each other exchange a string of greetings inquiring about the health of family members and the latest news. Children greet an elder with respect by kissing his or her hand.
Swahili people greatly value modest behavior. Men and women are not permitted to mix freely. Dating is generally non-existent. Most people pursue their daily activities with others of the same gender. Women are encouraged to congregate at home, while men spend time in public places.
Houses vary depending on a family's means and the type of town in which they reside. "Stone towns," like Lamu and Mombasa, are characterized by large stone houses, some divided into apartments. Some Swahili people living in "country towns" still occupy houses made of hardened mud and stones, although these are less common than houses of stone or coral. Most homes have electricity, indoor plumbing, several bedrooms, and a living room furnished with a couch and chairs. Access to water is critical for Muslims who must wash before prayers. In comparison with many people in Kenya, Swahili people enjoy a relatively high standard of living.
Under Islam, husbands and fathers have authority in the home. They can make decisions for wives and daughters and compel them to behave properly to preserve the family's honor. But Swahili women also wield considerable power in the daily life of the family.
The average number of children in each family has declined from as many as fourteen children early in the twentieth century to three or four children by the late 1990s. Women who have been educated and/or work outside the home tend to limit births. Residents of an individual household might include many people beyond the immediate family, such as grandparents, nieces and nephews, and in-laws.
In the early twentieth century, women generally wore brightly colored cotton cloths ( kanga or leso ). These were wrapped around their waists and upper bodies and draped over their shoulders and heads. Men wore a striped cloth ( kikoi ) around the waist that hung to the knees. As a mark of being Muslim some men sported small white caps with elaborate tan embroidery.
Dressing well but modestly is highly valued. Women wear Western-style dresses in many colors, patterns, and fabrics. Outside the house, women wear a black, floor-length cloak with an attached veil, called a buibui. Men wear Western-style trousers and shirts. On Fridays (the Muslim day of rest), or other religious occasions, they wear long, white caftans. Shorts are worn only by children.
Swahili cuisine, which is highly spiced, has African, Middle Eastern, and Indian influences. Rice, the staple, is cooked with coconut milk and served with tomato-based meat, bean, or vegetable stews. Meals incorporate locally-available vegetables (egg-plant, okra, and spinach), fruits (mangoes, coconuts, pineapples), and spices (cloves, cardamon, hot pepper). Fish is also central to the diet. Chicken and goat meat are popular for holiday meals. Sweet tea with milk (see accompanyig recipe) is served several times a day.
Swahili, like all Muslims, are prohibited from eating pork or drinking alcohol. The members of one clan from northern Kenya observe a taboo on eating fish.
Through Islam, literacy (the ability to read and write) came to the East African coast much earlier than to most other parts of the continent. Knowing how to read the Koran (Islam's holy book) is important. Some people are literate in Arabic as well as KiSwahili. Those who have been to secular school are literate in English as well.
Young people today tend to finish primary school, and some go on to secondary school. Most parents, particularly in urban areas, recognize the value of education in preparing their children for employment. Families vary as to whether they believe that girls should be educated as extensively as boys.
Taarab music, which has distinctly Arabic origins, is performed at weddings and concerts. Band members play keyboards, flutes, brass instruments, and drums to accompany singers. Many KiSwahili lyrics are double entendres (having double meanings) that hint at romantic love.
Several women's dance groups perform at weddings for all-female audiences. They dance chakacha, which resembles belly dancing, and also lelemama, a very subtle dance with tiny hand movements.
KiSwahili oral literature includes songs, sayings, stories, and riddles. The main written form is poetry. KiSwahili poems include long epics, prayers, and meditations on many subjects.
Some Swahili still fish, farm, and trade as they did in previous generations. However, the difficult local economy has meant that many people are unemployed or dependent on the unpredictable tourist industry. Educated men and women enter the civil service (government administration) and work in offices, shops, and schools. Although husbands are obligated to provide for their families, many wives earn money through cooking food, sewing, or trading from their homes.
Few adults play sports. Many boys join soccer teams and play in hotly contested competitions. Soccer matches involving Kenyan regional teams or local boys' clubs provide rare, exciting entertainment, mostly for men. In school, girls play sports such as net-ball (similar to basketball) and track. Children are sometimes taken to swim at the ocean.
Weddings and holiday celebrations are the most important forms of entertainment. Traveling to and from weddings, people sing songs and celebrate with vigor.
Watching videos is a favorite pastime, especially for women and young people. Action films from Japan, romances from India, Islamic epics, and detective stories from the United States are popular. If a video contains love scenes, an adult might fast-forward to protect the modesty of those present. Local and foreign soap operas, news, and sports are popular on television. On the weekends, young people sometimes go to discos, and women enjoy walking on the beach or going for a picnic.
Artisans on the island of Lamu are famous for their intricately carved wooden furniture and doors. They also construct miniature, painted replicas of the boats ( dhows ) used for fishing. Young boys play with these at the shore. Women use brown colored henna to paint complex flower designs on their hands and feet (up to the knees) as preparation for attending a wedding. The color, which stains the skin and nails, lasts for several weeks.
Swahili view the declining economy and erosion of their culture by tourism as significant social problems. Tourists who walk around in immodest clothing (such as shorts and bikinis), drink alcohol in public, and encourage loose behavior among young people have threatened the proper Islamic life that many Swahili people struggle to maintain.
Swahili face some discrimination by Kenyans who have resented their connection to the slave trade and their ties to Middle Eastern wealth. Their role in Kenyan politics, though marginal, is increasing as Kenya moves forward in multiparty democracy.
A worrisome problem is the growing prevalence of marijuana use among young men, which is condemned as antisocial. However, chewing miraa , a plant grown locally that contains a mild stimulant, is regarded as an acceptable social activity.
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