Coastal Swahili of Kenya

My interpreter and I drove into a Swahili town of 4,000 people living on the coast. The Coastal Swahili occupy a 30-kilometer strip of land reaching from the Tana River delta up to Lamu and on to the Somalia border. This Swahili community developed as a people group when Arab traders established business contacts and married local women on the East African coast.

We parked our vehicle at the town’s entrance where various types of transport were available. I asked some young men to watch the vehicle.

Earlier I had stopped to buy a bag of charcoal for the interpreter's wife to thank her for allowing her husband to travel with me. In loading the charcoal into the back of the SUV, I failed to lock the back door. When we returned from touring the town, I noticed the back door was slightly ajar. Evidently, the unlocked door had been discovered, but not one thing was taken. Either the Swahili have a code of ethics that prevented the boys from stealing tools and luggage, or else the boys I selected to watch the vehicle were doing a good job.

During our stroll through the market area, we entered a shop to buy a cold drink. The store owner was a Swahili of Yemen descent. He seemed to have a solid business and spoke English. He explained that the town was surrounded by three resort hotels, so the people here were used to having tourists walk through the community. He was well-versed in the history of his town and the Swahili people. He offered to close his shop for 15 minutes and help us get started on our tour.

Our first stop was a building site of a girls technical school. Our guide explained that the girls were allowed to attend secondary school, but they could not go away for further education at the university. Rather, the community was raising funds to build a postsecondary technical school to provide the girls with computer and secretarial skills. I met the chairman, a retired railway employee, and other members of the building committee at the site. I asked to take their picture in front of the large sign, and they agreed. It was a cordial introduction to the town elders.

Our guide took a great deal of pride in explaining that the primary characteristic of their society was "relationships." Apparently households exchange food with their neighbors on a daily basis and enjoy one another's fellowship. Young men tend to marry the neighbor girls or their first cousin. This community was obviously tight-knit.

We learned from the store owner that the town had seven mosques and no churches. As he sent us on our way, he informed us that about 60 percent of the people would allow us to take their pictures. However, we discovered only about 10 percent were willing to cooperate with my request to photograph them. The only photos I got were of a child and a laborer at a store. 

Returning to our guide’s place of business, I gave 1,000 Kenyan shillings toward the girls technical school project. He was careful to send for a receipt book to handle the transaction properly. I was impressed, especially since nothing had been stolen from my vehicle with the unlocked door. Honest people can be found among the Swahili.

The owner gave me a copy of a Kenya tourist book as a way of saying "thanks" for my gift to the school. True to the Swahili way, it was an expression of wanting to build a relational bridge. 



Introduction / History
The name Swahili literally means "coast," and is the name given to several people groups that share a common culture (Uswahili), language (Kiswahili), and religion (Islam).

Thousands of years ago, groups of hunters inhabited the East African coast and intermarried with the Cushite shepherds there. By the second century, Bantu-speaking people from Northern Congo came to the area and intermarried with them. Subsequent groups of people migrating from other areas such as the Persian Gulf also joined these coastal people, adopting parts of their culture and language. Later, Indonesian, Hindi, and Portuguese traders settled on the coast. Soon, they too began adopting Swahili traits and became a part of the larger group.

Since that time, groups of Swahili have migrated to different parts of the coast, forming their own dialects and cultural variations.

Today, the Swahili are scattered along Eastern Africa and the Persian Gulf, from Saudi Arabia to Zambia. Though they are called "Swahili" by others, they prefer to be named according to their local settlements.

What are their lives like?
The Swahili language has many different dialects. A number of its words were borrowed from Arabic, the second language for many Swahili.

Most of the Swahili groups now live in East Africa, many of them settling in cities and towns that are trade centers for the Persian Gulf.

For about 2,000 years, the backbone of the Swahili economy has been commerce. They worked as cross-national merchants trading spices, slaves, ivory, gold, and grain. Today, international commerce is still important to the Swahili but to a lesser degree. Many of the upper class Swahili now manage small businesses, do clerical work, and teach school. Those living in cities sometimes own plantations that provide both their income and their food supply. Most lower class Swahili are farmers. Their principal crops include rice, sorghum, millet, and maize.

Asian influences in Swahili art can be seen in such things as rugs, silk, porcelain, and jewelry. Swahili architecture includes ornately carved doors and a center beam separating male and female entrances of their homes. Also, the town of Lamu, Kenya, is famous for its square chairs inlaid with patterns of bone and ivory.

Since the Swahili are predominantly Muslim, Islamic practices play a large role in their daily activities. Dietary laws, rules of dress, social etiquette, marriage ceremonies, laws concerning divorce, and rituals at birth and death are all governed by Islamic tradition. Parents strive to have well-mannered, respectful children, since this is highly valued among Muslims. Young boys go to Islamic schools where they study the Koran. The central building in each town is the mosque. The male population can be found praying there five times a day and at special prayer meetings on Fridays.

The Swahili have recently demonstrated an interest in Western culture. For example, in addition to attending Islamic schools, most children also attend non-religious schools to acquire a Western-style education. Also, traditional Swahili folk medicines are no longer the only means of treating those with illnesses. Modern medical clinics have now been built in some areas.

Many of the people who live in large cities now own televisions through which they are constantly being exposed to Western ideas. Swahili women are more independent today than in times past and are becoming more involved in the economic and social realms of society.

Swahili culture has not only been influenced by the Islamic religion and Western ideas but also by the Northeast Bantu and Arab cultures, as well as Asian, Persian, and Indian cultures. This has made their culture quite unique, and they can easily be distinguished from their neighbors.

What are their beliefs?
Nearly all of the Swahili profess to be Muslims; however, many of their traditional pre-Islamic beliefs and practices still exist. For example, they believe that many spirits - both good and evil - exist. They also believe in the supernatural power of witches and sorcerers.

The Swahili often have superstitious explanations for natural occurrences. For example, some believe that a cow is supporting the earth and that earthquakes are caused when the cow moves its horns. They believe that thunder is the sound of God speaking with the angels and that lightning occurs when God is pleased. To the Swahili, lightning is a good sign because it means that God will send plentiful rain and food that year.

What are their needs?
Although Christian resources are available in the Swahili language, there are only a small number of Swahili Christians. Laborers who are sensitive to the Muslim culture are greatly needed to work among the Swahili.

Prayer Points
* Ask God to raise up prayer teams to break up the soil through worship and intercession.
* Ask God to raise up Christian businessmen who will boldly share Christ with the Swahili.
* Ask the Lord of the harvest to send forth many laborers into East Africa.
* Pray that the Holy Spirit will encourage the small number of Swahili believers.
* Ask God to reveal Himself to the Swahili through dreams and visions.
* Pray for a softening of their traditional Muslim culture so that the Gospel may be freely preached.
* Ask the Lord to raise up strong local churches among the Swahili.

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