In a continent where nationalism and ethnicity often clash, the presence of the Swahili is a remarkable achievement of intermingling, tolerance and cultural adaptability. The Swahili, in fact, are not an ethnic group. They are a poly-ethnic society where the boundaries between one group and the other diluted with the passing of time. Even today, Swahili society is open to welcome anyone ready to join it; the shades of language and, indeed, colour, are such that few would stand out as foreigners. The exhibition on Swahili culture hosted at Jumba la Mtwana, the ruins of an early Swahili town near Mtwapa, north of Mombasa, precisely makes this point. Swahili is anyone who communicates in Swahili, adopts the local way of life, and interacts with others in building up the community. Ethnic origins are of lesser importance than practical life.
Until recently, Arab and Western sources described the Swahili as a half-cast population, kept together by Islam, and culturally dependent on Arab and Persian influence. In reality, oral and archaeological evidence suggests that Swahili society has been dynamic and coherent. The relationship with the peoples living along the shores of the Indian Ocean was one of mutual dependence and benefit. If there was an ‘Arab’ influence in shaping the Swahili culture, there was also a ‘Swahili’ influence in shaping the Arab culture.
The Swahili occupy the coastal strip that goes, roughly, from Mogadishu in Somalia, to Sofala in Mozambique. This land includes also the many islands and archipelagos along the coast, plus the Comoros Archipelago; a land that stretches from the Indian Ocean to the first hills in the interior. This is a land with reliable rainfall, which however depend on the monsoons and so has an element of unpredictability. The eastern Africa coastal strip has been inhabited since time immemorial. Swahili culture appeared gradually and it is only by the IX century A.D. that we can speak of the Swahili proper. There are early texts in Swahili, usually written with the Arabic alphabet, disseminated along the Kenyan and Tanzanian coast that date back to the X century.
Archaeologists unearthed the ruins of about 40 settlements along this coast. These are the towns with permanent buildings erected with coral rag, stones and mangrove rafters. Hundreds more villages dotted the area, the huts being of rectangular shape and with thatched roofs. Some of the ruins are spectacular, like Gedi and Jumba la Mtwana in Kenya, where double-story houses are the norm. Even more spectacular are the historical towns still lived in, like Lamu in Kenya and Stone City in Zanzibar.
The Swahili were part of the larger community living on the shores of the Indian Ocean. From time immemorial, merchants and travellers used the seasonal winds to move along the large arch from Mozambique to India. Trade shaped the Swahili people. They provided termite resistant mangrove poles, used in dockyards and buildings throughout the region. Sea shells found their way to India, where they were used in the ceramic industry. Slaves, ivory, gold and other minerals were also exported to Asia from the ports along the African coast. The Swahili imported ceramics and textiles. Embroidered silks and blue cotton cloth were hugely prized. Blue dye was unknown in East Africa and the colour was regarded as having special powers. Blue cloth was unpicked and the prized strands were woven into white cloth.
Arab and Persian traders settled along the coast. Several waves of migration resulted in a fusion of culture and religion. Gradually, Islam became the religion of the Swahili, while elements of traditional religions lived on to today. The integration, however, was not immediate, as there are many oral accounts of attacks from both sides.
In the XV century, the Portuguese struggled for supremacy in the Indian Ocean and the Swahili people came under their commercial and political pressure. Many Coastal kingdoms were bullied by the Portuguese into paying regular tribute and giving trading concessions to the Portuguese. The King of Malindi submitted to the Portuguese early on; the King of Mombasa by contrast, refused, and Mombasa was turned into a fortified city under Portuguese control in 1599, when they built Fort Jesus. Later, the Portuguese lost and regained control of their possessions until the Sultans of Oman reasserted their power in 1780. The Sultan moved the capital of his kingdom capital to Zanzibar in 1840. The Omanis were opposed by the Swahili rulers of the mainland and Zanzibar itself.
In the XIX century, Africa became prey of European colonialism. Britain declared Zanzibar a Protectorate seeking to rule indirectly through the Omani Arabs. Germany declared a protectorate over the mainland of Tanganyika, while the Portuguese controlled northern Mozambique and Somalia fell under Italian influence. European control was challenged by the local population, but a new political pattern was established.
With the era of independences, the Swahili people found themselves divided in five different countries. Cultural ties remain strong, yet differences are stealthy moving in. They are still linked by language and by the sea. The Indian Ocean played a central role in shaping Swahili culture and society. The sea is ever present in proverbs and in the images of their poetry and prose. The sea is integrated in the makeup of even non-maritime institutions, such as votive offerings, initiation and other rituals, myths concerning the sea, and maritime patron saints. Indeed, the term Swahili comes from the Arabic sahil, meaning coast.
Moreover, the Swahili developed through cosmopolitan relations. This civilisation was based on a system of exchange of goods, people and values between Africa and Asia. The boundaries of this culture extended along nearly a thousand miles of the East African coast; reached out across the seas to Arabia, the Persian Gulf and the western coast of India, and into the African interior to the Great Lakes region. The Swahili developed a culture that is an open system, capable to accommodate sophisticated and practical interests. The arrival of Western influence and of Christianity has not interrupted this shaping of culture and society. There are, instead, many signs that the Swahili culture is alive and well, ready to face yet another cosmopolitan encounter that will make it richer. The Swahili proper are few, but more than 130 million people now speak their language with increasing competence. It might be that the Swahili will soon melt into the new African societies, yet their influence will be felt for many years to come.