The Delights of East Africa's Swahili Coast - Africa Point Blog
The Swahili Coast of East Africa is an amalgam of exotic history, ancient cultures, and white sand tropical beaches. Recreational activities are abundant and include scuba diving, windsurfing, golfing, sailing, deep-sea fishing, clubbing, time travel, souvenir shopping, fine and spicy cuisines and much more. The
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Home  >  Blog  >  The Delights of East Africa's Swahili Coast

The Delights of East Africa's Swahili Coast


1st January 2014
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Culture & People, Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar

The Swahili Coast of East Africa is an amalgam of exotic history, ancient cultures, and white sand tropical beaches. Recreational activities are abundant and include scuba diving, windsurfing, golfing, sailing, deep-sea fishing, clubbing, time travel, souvenir shopping, fine and spicy cuisines and much more.

The Swahili Coast refers to a stretch of about 2,900 km along East Africa's Indian Ocean Coast - from Mogadishu in Southern Somalia to northern Mozambique. This has been the window through which - by means of commercial and cultural exchange - East Africa's has interacted with the outside world since at least the 2nd century A.D.

In it's heyday, between the 12th and 18th centuries, the Swahili Coast was a collection of rich city-states whose prosperity was anchored on the Indian Ocean trade. The trade mainly involved Arabia, the Persian Gulf, India, and even China. East Africa was able to participate in this trade due to the blessings of the monsoon winds, which eased navigation from the Persian Gulf and the Indian subcontinent.

The principal city-states were Mogadishu in today's Somalia, Lamu, Mombasa, and Malindi in Kenya, Kilwa and Zanzibar in Tanzania, and Sofala in Mozambique. Today, the Swahili coast is almost exclusively associated with Kenya and Tanzania. For the modern day traveller, there are many excellent hotels in Mombasa as well as lodges and resorts in Zanzibar.

The original inhabitants of the East African Coast were Bantu Africans, who were fisherman, hunter-gatherers and agricultural folk. They first encountered the outside world slightly before 1st century AD. Over the centuries, an intense interaction with non-African societies saw the emergence of a unique culture and people: the Swahili.

The Arabs and Persians were the first to dock on the shores in their trademark dhows. The Arabs brought in glassware, ironware, daggers, swords, blades, pots and pans while Persia supplied the market with carpets and rugs. Mercantile Asia also ventured into the region, bringing in a variety of commodities. From India came pepper, cotton, hardware, spices, beads and cereals, and from China: jade, silk, porcelain and rice.

The visitors went back with foodstuffs, ambergris, tortoise shells, rhino horn, leopard skin, copper, gold and most importantly ivory. All wanted a piece of African ivory, and trade sieved into inland Africa where the elephants dwelt. By 2nd century AD, the trade had come to the notice of the Greeks and Romans alike, they called these shores 'Azania'.

Of all the traders, it is the Arabs who brought Islam at around 8th century AD that had the most lasting impression. Some Omani Arabs and Shirazi Persians fled south to East Africa. By the 9th century A.D, from the interaction of Africans, Arabs, and Persians who lived and traded on the East African Coast, there had emerged a language that they could all understand: Kiswahili. At the same time a distinct cosmopolitan and urban Swahili culture rose.

The language in structure and syntax is based on the Bantu language Sabaki and uses Arab, Persian and even Hindi loan words. The borrowed words have maintained heavy Bantu intonations. Swahili is distinctly a Bantu language and is linguistically closer to other coastal Bantu languages, than to Arabic or Persian. Kiswahili was adopted as the main trade language across this coastal belt and was spoken widely by the people along the shoreline. The word Swahili is a Bantu form of 'Sawahil' - an Arabic word meaning "of the coast".

Today, the Swahili language is the most widely spoken language in Sub-Saharan Africa, and has an estimated 45 million speakers spread over Tanzania, Mozambique, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, DR Congo, Somalia, and the Comoros Islands. The language has numerous local dialects, but Standard Kiswahili is based on Kiunguja, the dialect of Zanzibar town. The British and German colonists can be credited with the spread of Swahili. It is the local language they chose to facilitate administration over a region having more than 100 languages.

The end of the 15th century saw the coming of the Portuguese with the arrival of Vasco da Gama in 1498. His sailors were scurvy ridden and badly in need of food and care. The hospitable Swahili allowed the sailors to dock their shores and lavished them with food and fruit. Little did they know that the Portuguese, a substantial seafaring power, were anxious to dominate the Indian Ocean trade. The Portuguese attacked and plundered the cities, starting with Kilwa Kisimani, then Mombasa, reducing them to nothing.

The Swahili coast was engulfed in turmoil between the 15th and 19th centuries. Mombasa in particular saw plenty of war. For this reason, the city was nicknamed Mvita, which in Swahili translates as Isle of War. Fort Jesus, the permanent garrison established by the Portuguese in 1593, changed masters 9 times before 1875. By the terror of war, the Portuguese sought to control the East African coast. But as colonial overlords, the Portuguese were deficient; they were mostly interested in plunder and trade, and did not establish robust systems of administration.

The thrashing of Mombasa - the most prominent of the Swahili city sates, meant the loss of Swahili independence across the entire coast. The Portuguese were finally driven out by the emerging power of Omani Arabs in 1729, when the Sultan of Oman claimed control over the entire coastline.

The Omani's were so profitably settled in East Africa that the Sultan moved his seat to Zanzibar in 1832. Their prosperity was anchored on the slave trade- and it is estimated that by the 1860's the notorious Zanzibar slave market had a turnover exceeding 50,000 Africans each year.

Life along the coast takes on a slower pace, and the people are generally laid back. Swahili men traditionally wear kikoi wraps around the waists and white kanzu robes and kofia (small religious hats) to the mosque. The women are covered with bright and colourful cotton material known as kanga or leso, wrapped around to cover the whole body, including the hair. Sometimes, they wear the buibui -a long black veiled garb worn by Muslim women.

Swahili cooking heavily incorporates the use of spices, like Arabs and Asians do. They also use coconut and palm oil in their cooking. There is a distinctive Swahili architecture and building code; houses are built from coral stone crusted with limestone, and coral rag spread over the mud and thatch buildings. The houses are large, with huge doors elaborately curved and ornamented with showy pattern.


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