Swahili Civilization

Swahili Civilization

The people known as Swahili live in a string of permanent settlements along the 2,000-km (1,000-mi) coastline of eastern from southern to central Mozambique and on the offshore islands of , Pemba, Mafia, and the Comoros. Throughout their history they have been traders, middlemen in the intercontinental commerce between the interior of , Arabia, Persia, and India, as well as fishing people and sailors. Accounts as far back as the 1st century C.E. tell of Arab traders on this coast, and excavations have shown towns built in the 8th century that were very similar to those of today. Unlike the case with most African peoples, the archaeological and written historical record here is long, and the Swahili, a Muslim and literate people, know of their past and are proud to tell of it.

The name Swahili (properly the plural form is WaSwahili) was given to them in the 18th century by the first rulers of the sultanate of Zanzibar. It is from the Arabic and means “the people of the coast,” often considered a pejorative term. The Swahili rarely use it for themselves, preferring names based on their towns: “the people of Mombasa,” “the people of Pate,” and so on. Their language, KiSwahili (often referred to simply as Swahili), has many dialects, each town having its own (the standard form used today is that of Zanzibar). It is closely related to languages spoken by many non-Swahili peoples. However, the name Swahili has been used for so long and so widely that it is generally accepted in writings about the people as a whole.

The KiSwahili language is frequently taught in the United States as a sign of pride in African American slave origins. In historical fact, however, virtually no Swahili people ever came to the Americas as slaves, and indeed the Swahili merchants were themselves owners of and traders in slaves to Arabia and to the East but not across the Atlantic Ocean.

Swahili society is multiethnic in composition, with many internal differences in social stratification, occupation, and religious conformity. Its boundaries are ill-defined, as Swahili towns are built along the coastline only and do not extend for more than about 1.5 to 3 km (about 1 to 2 mi) inland, where they become intermingled with the settlements of other neighboring peoples. There are a few Swahili towns in the far interior, but these are recent, built as part of the 19th-century trading networks controlled by the coastal towns. Today some formerly distinct Swahili towns have become merely parts of modern conurbations, such as Mombasa in Kenya and Zanzibar City and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

It is generally reckoned that the Swahili number in all somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000, but their preference to be called by names other than Swahili has led to continual confusion in censuses, and this figure is little more than an estimate.

Swahili ”identity” has always been uncertain and difficult to define in any clear-cut manner. Many of them claim to have come from Arabia or Persia rather than from Africa. This view was also held in the past by European observers but has by now been discarded in favor of an African origin, even though their civilization has certainly been strongly influenced by Asian population and trade contacts. The same is true of the KiSwahili language, which is grammatically firmly Bantu (that is, African) but with much admixture with words of Arabic origin. In brief, the Swahili are an African people and not a form of Asian Creole society, although many of their upper-ranking members persistently claim Arabian origins.

One of the basic criteria for Swahili is the adherence to Islam, which reached this area in the 9th or 10th century; before that time there were no Swahili as such. And since Bantu-speaking peoples did not reach this region until about the 5th century, it is assumed that the earlier peoples were Cushitic speakers, akin to those still living in southern Ethiopia. It is clear that this potentially wealthy coast has attracted immigrants from both Asia and Africa for many centuries, all adding to the rich civilization that is uniquely Swahili, not only in language and religion but also in architecture, cuisine, dress, and other cultural forms. To ask about clearly definable origins is to ask a narrow and ethnocentric question that cannot be answered in simple racial or ethnic terms in the case of a complex and subtly organized society such as this. But the Swahili themselves remain perfectly clear as to their own unique sense of single identity and culture.

Swahili society has never formed a single polity with clear boundaries and a centralized form of government. It has comprised clusters of towns, some mercantile and others not, and has almost always been subject to outside colonial rule. Until the end of the 15th century, the Swahili people appear to have been subject to some form of mercantile control from Yemen. From 1498 until 1729 they were subject to Portuguese overrule from Goa. The Portuguese did little except take over the rich gold trade of Zimbabwe from Swahili traders in the south, build several immense forts (the greatest being Fort Jesus in Mombasa), attempt (without success) to convert Swahili to Christianity, and make much personal profit by what can only be called forms of theft and corruption. The Portuguese were finally removed, to the relief of the local people, by the Arab rulers of Oman, in southeastern Arabia, who established the sultanate of Zanzibar. The Arab rulers took over political control and commerce from the Swahili, and over time these rulers and later immigrants from southern Arabia became “Swahili-ized” themselves. Zanzibar became wealthy and notorious from the slave and ivory trades and spread its domination far inland during the 19th century. In the later part of the century, Zanzibar’s dominions were taken over by British and German colonial powers, the latter taking Tanganyika and the former the remainder, ruling Zanzibar and the sultan’s possessions in coastal Kenya in the form of a Protectorate. The British had slavery and the slave trade abolished in Zanzibar and Tanganyika in 1897 and in Kenya in 1907, destroying much of the former economy. Independence of Tanganyika took place in 1961 and that of Kenya in 1963; and in 1964 the revolution in Zanzibar brought the sultanate to an end.

During the 20th century the coast became seriously impoverished as the centers of production and wealth moved inland, especially in Kenya. The centuries-old intercontinental commerce was taken from the Swahili by central governments and international companies, and the Swahili became largely marginal citizens in their own countries. Their adherence to Islam and the memory of the days of slavery set them apart from most of the peoples of the new countries of which they unwillingly became citizens.

Yet in the face of these events the Swahili people themselves have retained their pride, their notable abilities as merchants and entrepreneurs, and their religion. Despite the decline of commerce, wealth, and power, and in many towns the insulting subjection to the demands of the tourist industry, they regard their own unique mercantile civilization as persisting and setting them apart from the surrounding world, giving sense to their world, which they view as being at one stage, and not the final one, in their long history.

The Swahili use two words for their own way of life: ustaarabu, usually translated as “civilization” and literally “long residence in a single place,” and utamaduni, literally “urbanity.” They are both urban and urbane people.
There are some 300 or so towns of various sizes along the coast, as well as many sites of long-forsaken and ruined places. These settlements have many detailed variations in size, composition, occupation, and style, yet all may be seen as having a single theme. The Swahili word for a town is mji, and all settlements are properly miji: the defining feature is the possession of a central or congregational mosque, the “Friday” mosque that must be attended by all men five times on Fridays and, if possible, also on all other days. Women are not allowed to enter mosques but may sit outside to hear the prayers and sermons. A settlement without a mosque is not a “town” and is not even said to have been “founded” (kubuni). There are two categories of towns: both are miji, but they may be distinguished as Stone-towns and Country-towns. These may be set along a continuum, and many towns have features of both, but they are essentially distinct.

Stone-towns are built of houses made of “stone”—that is, blocks of coral—at times two or three stories high that are set in narrow streets. These houses can last for as long as two or three centuries if looked after. Most Stone-towns were once walled. Almost all are ports, typically set on the banks of estuaries and saltwater creeks or on the leeward sides of small islands and so protected from the force of the Indian Ocean. These towns are densely built-up places and appear truly urban in any sense. Country-towns appear more like rural villages, their houses built of palm-leaf matting, mud, and wattle. However, all are miji, a term with a social rather than a physical reference.

The Stone-towns have been and remain occupied by Swahili merchants, have been the entrepôts for commercial exchanges, and are the centers of traditional Swahili civilization. The Country-towns are rather fishing and gardening settlements, without merchants. Merchants kept slaves, whereas Country-towns had none. Today perhaps a third to half of the population of any Stone-town is composed of people of slave ancestry as well as of people of free merchant descent: all are Swahili. There are also in the Stone-towns many citizens of different ancestries: the descendants of 19th-century immigrants from Arabia, today generally counted as Swahili, Muslim Indians, and in the case of the larger places, recent immigrants from inland African groups who work as laborers and who are never considered Swahili. The Country-towns are far less mixed, and in some, such as in those of Zanzibar Island, people originally non-Swahili are not accepted as residents. Stone-towns were and are owned by the waungwana, the “patricians,” merchants who own plantations, sailing vessels, and the stone-built houses. However, they themselves have produced little other than grains and mangrove poles for export to Arabia, which has neither. The Country-towns were and are the homes of the producers of food, especially the staples rice and fish, for the Stone-towns and have also supplied labor for them since the abolition of slavery. Despite these differences, which are still widely found throughout the coast, although they are not as rigidly marked as these words might imply, these many towns together form a single society of interdependent local communities.

Stone-towns and some of the constituent groups, such as the Country-town dwellers of Zanzibar and Pemba islands, formerly had kings and queens. Not a great deal is known about them, and some queens might be personages of myth. They had elaborate regalia (mainly thrones of ebony and ivory, immense side-blown horns of ivory and brass, and several kinds of drums) and acted as representatives of their city-states toward outsiders more than as holders of internal authority. The last of them, the indigenous ruler of Zanzibar Island, died in 1865.

All towns are divided into two moieties. Opposition between the moieties of any particular town is typically expressed in fighting at the New Year and in competition in dancing and football; they were formerly important as organs of local government, moieties providing ruling councils for alternate periods. The last function fell into desuetude under British rule, but the others persist. Moieties are divided into territorial wards that are corporate landholding groups in the Country-towns but not in the Stone-towns, where they are mainly mere places of residential address.


Swahili ways of reckoning descent, kinship, rank, and marriage are complex and vary considerably from one area to another.

The patricians organize themselves into ranked patrilineal subclans claimed generally to be constituent units of clans in southern Arabia; subclans are divided into corporate patrilineal lineages that also act as commercial business houses. Patrilineal descent is also found among immigrant Hadhrami and Omani Arab families. The members of Country-towns and those of slave ancestry reckon cognatic descent and kinship only (except occasionally, when they acquire property such as clove trees, as in parts of Pemba Island, they may assume patrilineal descent). Families linked by patrilineal descent are exclusive units in terms of possession and inheritance of rights in land and other property, which are thus theirs alone. The patricians of the Stone-towns practice the purchase and sale of private property and use the Islamic institution of waqf. This is a form of entail by which property may not be sold or disposed of by future generations and must be passed down by Islamic rules of inheritance. It also ensures that descent groups own their property in perpetuity and without taxation. Without waqf the patrician groups of this society could not function as they have. On the other hand, families linked only by cognatic descent are broadly inclusive in terms of rights in land and property, which are shared and dispersed over wide circles of cognatically linked families. The former pattern is linked to commerce and wealth from trade, the latter is not: rights in property provide the key to chosen mode of descent and inheritance.

Closely related are differences of rank. The populations of Stone-towns are strictly divided by rank, with the patricians at the top; those of Country-towns make no such distinctions. Lineages of the MaSharifu, the direct descendants of the Prophet, stand apart; of high religious standing, their ranking position is a socially ambiguous one.

Differences of descent and rank are reflected and perpetuated by the several forms of marriage, an institution that is part of a group’s long-term strategies involving the inheritance of rights in property and wealth. All patrician marriages are arranged, clan endogamous, and must be between partners of exactly the same rank. Those of first-born patrician daughters are uxorilocal, monogamous, and in them divorce is formally prohibited. Those of other patrician daughters, usually to clan members living in other towns, are virilocal, frequently polygynous, and perhaps usually end in divorce. Formal betrothal is mainly a feature of first patrician marriages, and any later marriages after divorce are decided by the marital pair concerned. Marriages of members of Country-towns are exogamous, polygynous, often neolocal, and with very high divorce rates; these marriages are part of strategies to bestow wide inclusive rights in land over wide areas, in contrast to the exclusive marriages of patricians. Marriages between Swahili of slave ancestry are rarely arranged and are perhaps typically short-lived.

All these forms of marriage include marriage payments of several kinds. The transfer of a relatively small bridewealth, mahari, from the groom’s to the bride’s side is always made; this is obligatory under Muslim law, although the actual transfer may be delayed until long after the wedding. A donation, known as the kitu (literally, “thing”), is also made by the groom to the bride’s father. This payment may be very high, as young men may earn large amounts by working in the Gulf. The bride’s father gives a dowry to his daughter, and there are also many small payments from groom to bride during the actual wedding itself. Finally, mainly among patricians, the bride’s father gives her right of residence in either a new house built for her or in part of his own house: the house belongs to the lineage and not to her, as no right of disposal is given, only that of residence.

Marriages are virtually always between cousins (except for maternal parallel cousins). The marriage of a patrician first-born daughter should certainly be with her paternal parallel cousin, because both she and he are of the same lineage, which is thereby strengthened and perpetuated.

So-called “secret marriages,” secondary marriages between people who are typically unrelated, also take place. In these marriages there are no transfers of wealth or property; the marriages are, however, legal and children from them are legitimate offspring of the husband. In the past, concubinage with slave women was frequent; the children of these relationships were also legitimate, and the mother was usually freed. The status of concubine, suria, was a formally recognized one and quite distinct from casual unions.

The context of these forms of local organization, kinship, and marriage has been until very recently the intercontinental commerce controlled by the Swahili patricians. Although this commerce is now slight, it still provides the people themselves with the historical memory of the ways in which their society and culture have been shaped as they are today and is the basic element in the formation of Swahili civilization.

The Swahili have for centuries been at the hub, as commercial and cultural brokers between widely separated societies, of a single immense exchange system stretching from the African Great Lakes to China. Until the mid-19th century they were at the fringes of the Arabian, Persian, and above all Indian pre- or proto-capitalist systems, and since then on the periphery of European-American capitalism. Africa has exported its raw materials in exchange for manufactured commodities, whose makers have taken the profits. From East Africa for many centuries went ivory, slaves, gold, timber, grain, hides and skins, iron, gums, fragrances, and many more items. Into Africa from Asia came textiles, beads, Chinese and Japanese porcelain, metal wire, paper, arms and ammunition, bullion, and many other commodities, including religious teaching. All this commerce passed through the ports of the Swahili coast. Carriage between the African interior and the coast was by caravans; that to and from Asia was by sailing ships, mostly owned and crewed by Arabs and, until steamships came into use, dependent on the regular monsoons.

The Swahili towns have never been isolated, but all are interdependent, both among themselves and with neighboring peoples. Their trading partners have been far in the interior or far overseas, and all are of different ethnicities, languages, and cultures from those of the Swahili. The Swahili merchants organized the indirect exchanges between their partners, who did not themselves meet each other but dealt directly with only the Swahili middlemen. These provided facilities for harboring and careening ships, watering and victualling; provided financial, legal, recreational, and religious services; ensured protection of crews and storage of cargoes; and carried out the tasks of having both caravan and ship cargoes ready at the proper times. The commerce was complex and difficult.

Until the late 19th century, Swahili merchants did not venture far inland. Along the coastline the patricians of each town built up wide networks of exchange between themselves as patrons and others, their clients. These networks each comprised at the center the patricians and their slaves; beyond were other Swahili-speaking groups; and inland, non-Swahili groups. The patron-client networks have covered vast distances, as far as the eastern Congo, Arabia, and India. They exist today and are concerned with matters such as political representation, Islamic education, religious activities, especially those of the Sufi brotherhoods, and local urban employment under the aegis of Swahili patron-entrepreneurs.

The Swahili towns had no markets other than for local foodstuffs until the Zanzibar sultans established a slave market in Zanzibar City in the 19th century. Neither does it seem that they used money, at least not until the mid-19th century or so, when the British at Zanzibar introduced Indian coinage. A few of the greater towns had their own mints making gold, silver, and copper coins from the 13th to the 17th century, but their coins were ceremonial rather than commercial, used as wedding payments and of no immediate commercial use in the interior or overseas. To the indigenous objects of exchange in the interior (iron, salt, and copper), the Swahili very early added cotton and silk cloth as well as beads. Cloth in particular was imported from India in enormous quantities and was used as a medium of exchange.

Until the late 19th century, exchanges typically took the form of personal barter and gifts between kin and fictive kin. Exchange with partners in the interior was by patronage and clientship, “joking” relationships, blood-brotherhood, and concubinage between merchants and the daughters of their trading partners. Sons of concubines were legitimate and took the subclan membership of their fathers, so that there were many Swahili born and living in the interior who acted as agents of their paternal kin, the coastal merchants. Links with Asian trading partners were typically by marriage between a visiting trader and a younger daughter of the particular patrician with whom he traded regularly and in whose house he stayed as a son-in-law when in Africa.

Patricians made profit not in money but by the exchange of luxury items from Asia among themselves as a self-contained elite; they still do so. The items were decommoditized “treasures” such as the locally minted coins and Chinese and Japanese porcelain and silk. With slave labor they could run plantations and build their elaborate houses and mosques, and they gained prestige by religious devotion and learning, charity, and commercial reputation.

The Swahili inhabitants of the coastal towns have faced certain areas of contradiction and ambiguity. They have formed a Janus-society, facing toward both the African interior and Asia. The patricians have needed for commercial reasons to claim affinity with their Asian trading partners and also to show differences from their slaves and those of slave ancestry. They have done this by being Muslims, knowing Arabic, and claiming non-African origins. Virtually all Swahili patrician subclans claim origins in southern Arabia and so close ties with Mecca and Islam. Some certainly came in small groups from Arabia (although only recently). There is no evidence for others, except that under Islamic rules of succession a single Arab ancestor enables all his patrilineal descendants to claim Arabian origins. In fact it is evident that most Swahili subclans originated in the ”traditional” northern homeland known as Shungwaya, almost certainly in the region of Manda Bay and the mouth of the Tana River. The claim to Arabian origins is still commonly made, even though it goes against archaeological and linguistic findings and many oral traditions that imply local African origins.

A key defining factor of Swahili identity has always been Islam. Status and rank are determined not only by claimed origins but also by the possession of knowledge that is bestowed on the living by God. Mere belief in God is not enough to define one as a proper Muslim: one must have “knowledge,” elimu, about God and His works and laws that is acquired by studying the writings and life of the Prophet and for men by participating in mosque activities. Knowledge may also be acquired by the performance of ecstatic dance, as with the Sufi brotherhoods, and through possession by spirits.

In Swahili religion usually two strands are distinguished, referred to as dini and mila. The essential distinction is that dini comprises matters discussed in the Qu’ran (Koran), the Hadith of the Prophet, and the writings of Islamic scholars, many of whom have been Swahili. These are written in Arabic, the sacred language of Islam that is taught to Swahili children. Mila is concerned mainly with links to the many forms of local spirits. Among the Swahili, dini and mila are closely linked and complementary, and any rigid distinction is facile and misleading.

There have been continual changes and reforms in Swahili religious practice, especially in the period of radical economic and political change in the late 19th century, when influential reformers came from Arabia and took over religious leadership from the patricians. Since then religious leaders have typically been the more important and learned men of Omani and Hadhrami origin, many of whom have received higher religious education in Arabia and Egypt. In addition, women have played an increasingly important role as theologians and religious poets. Such women whom I have met—including the women scholars who are descended from the late-19th-century reformers—have high prestige, and it is doubtful whether women other than those who became poets or saints played this role before. There has also been a rise in the importance of Sufi orders or brotherhoods on the coast and inland in areas where non-Swahili Muslims are numerous. The most important in this region are the Qadiriyya, Shadiliyya, and Alawiyya, most members being nonelite and poorly educated men.

Almost all Swahili other than the most devout religious leaders recognize the existence of spirits, more widely associated with the mila than with dini. There are two main categories of spirits: the mizimu, who are linked with places where ancestors have dwelt and act as protectors of land and locality, and the majini. Majini are more directly linked to God, who created them from fire; they lived in Paradise with their leader, Iblis, were driven out because Iblis refused to obey God, and since then have roamed the earth among the living. Some majini are good, those who have learned Arabic and accepted Islam, and others are evil, who have not done so. The former are associated in popular thought with Arabia, the latter more with Africa, but too rigid a distinction should not be made.

They are said to cohabit with and marry humans and have children with them, so long as proper rules of ranking are followed. The principal majini comprise those known as pepo (“wind”), who are, in general, good, and shaitani, who are evil. They are said to possess the living, especially women of nonpatrician ancestry whose status has become increasingly insecure since the abolition of slavery. They do so by sitting on their heads or riding them; they may then be exorcised by a “teacher” or “doctor” or accepted by their victims, who typically join associations devoted to obedience of a particular spirit that is controlled for them by a male “teacher” or “doctor.” Associations are usually led by patrician women, and ordinary members are of other and slave ancestries. These associations, which are many and short-lived, are the feminine equivalent to the Sufi brotherhoods and orthodox mosque associations of men. All are devoted in the eyes of their members to the acquisition of knowledge and give them a degree of certain identity and security in the poverty of most modern coastal towns.

Knowledge is closely linked to purity. Purity, usafi, is acquired or brought out by women at marriage but to differing degrees. It is closely linked to a woman’s inner “beauty,” which is publicly displayed at the highly ritualized weddings of the Swahili. The most pure must be a firstborn patrician daughter, who, as it were, represents her lineage. Her beauty, a sign of inner purity, is brought out by her complex ritual purification before her wedding, when she must be shown to be a virgin, and her house must continually undergo ritual purification from the pollution of the town outside its door. After marriage she should live a life of seclusion and piety: her life will then endow her husband with heshima, meaning “reputation” or “honor.” Firstborn daughters marry their father’s brother’s sons, who are of the same lineage, which is thereby also given honor. Such women are highly regarded as possessing moral purity and skills in commerce, poetry, and theology. A woman who is not a virgin at marriage or fails to observe formal seclusion after it can bring disgrace to her husband and lineage, and she may even be accused of being a witch and so an outcast from proper society.

Swahili ”civilization” is ideally one of wealth and elegance, and even today, when there is little of the former remaining, the visitor can soon see the difference in this respect from most other African societies. Sumptuary conventions are a means of asserting societal rank and identity and of denying isolation by recognizing cultural links with the outside world. Subtleties of food and clothing; ritual use of fumigants, fragrances, and flowers; respect for physical and moral beauty; courtesy in speech and gesture; elegance in furnishing and decorating houses; and skill in woodcarving, in music, and in the formidably intricate forms of Swahili poetry are all highly important and are continual subjects of rivalry between and within subclans and lineages. The rules change continually with the introduction of new forms of elegant behavior from the “global” world beyond the coast; they define the elite and deny Swahili elite identity to non-Swahili nouveaux riches. Today radio, television (although limited to only a few coastal areas), videos imported from India, Japan, and the United States, and the several newspapers published in English and Swahili are all means of widening the local horizon. Also the widespread tourism on the East African coast is strongly influential—and destructive of tradition—in bringing global culture to the Swahili towns. All these factors lead to increased intergenerational conflict as to the aims of education and occupation by which younger people, at least, can better cope with the outside world, which appears to most Swahili as hostile and unwilling to accept legitimate Swahili political and cultural aspirations.

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