The Swahili language (Kiswahili) is enjoying renewed popularity well beyond Africa. Yet, until two centuries ago, it was spoken by a small number of people and it was confined to a tine coastal strip. Oral sources place the birth of the Swahili language before the X century A.D. There are early inscriptions in Swahili written with Arabic letters dated to the XI century. The first extensive texts written in Swahili are a series of letters composed in Kilwa in 1711, and today kept in Goa. The epic poem Utendi wa Tambuka was written in 1728 and it is beacon of the sophistication reached by Swahili poets. To many, Swahili is a mix of African languages and Arabic. This is, of course, an oversimplification with no base in history.
Swahili is a Bantu language on its own right. Like other languages in this group, it is characterized by a class system: all words belong to a class which, in turn, determines the prefixes, infixes and suffixes added to words to form coherent sentences. The structure is complicated, but extremely regular. It originated on the coastal strip of what today is Kenya. The similarities with Giriama and other Mjikenda languages testify to a common origin.
Through the centuries, Swahili has been open to loan words from other languages. This is why today it has a vocabulary larger than any other African language. The major source of loan words is Arabic. Certainly, a number of Arabic words entered Swahili through the centuries both because of contacts with traders and because of the use of the Kuran, since Islam soon became the religion of reference of most Swahili. Yet, the majority of the words now in use were absorbed after 1832, when Seyyid Said bin Sultan established full residence in Zanzibar. From Arabic, Swahili took technical words, astronomic and mathematical terms, and words expressing abstract ideas. More loan words came from Portuguese, German and English. The ability to receive loan words allows Swahili a flexibility escaping other African languages: the works of Shakespeare have been translated in Swahili, and the language is used to teach all courses at the University of Dar es Salaam.
Swahili started spreading towards the interior only in the XIX century. Traders, especially slave and ivory traders, based in East Africa moved inland following established routes to reach the Great Lakes Region. Swahili became the language of trade along these routes. Some traders established political control on vast swathes of land in what is today Eastern and Southern Congo, and Swahili became the lingua franca there.
When the Germans took control of Tanganyika, they sought to establish a class system to distance themselves from the local population. Swahili was chosen as a buffer language between their own culture and African ethnic groups over whom they were exercising dominion. The Germans believed that authority was best exercised by keeping status and cultural distance, and so they did not wish colonial subjects to attain proficiency in the ruler’s language. Swahili was chosen because it did not belong to any specific ethnic group and it was already understood by some outside the coastal strip. Swahili so became the national language of Tanzania, a language that unifies and defines Tanzanians.
The British approach was somehow different. On the one hand, they expected people to be proficient in English; on the other hand, they did not encourage domestic workers to address them in English. However, they did promote the use of the language in schools and, to a certain extent, in public administration. This dichotomy is still felt in Kenya where English is preferred in official business, while Swahili is widely spoken in everyday’s activities.
Today Swahili is spoken on a wide area in Eastern and Central Africa, and it is understood in places far afield like Botswana and Zambia. Perhaps, as many as 130 million people use it with diverse levels of fluency. Swahili is also the language of African diaspora, and an official language of the African Union. In recent years, Swahili has gained international recognition thanks to its use in Linux based software and its presence in the art world – in songs, theatres, movies and television programs. The well-celebrated Disney movie, The Lion King features several Swahili words, for example simba (lion), rafiki (friend), as the names of the characters. The Swahili phrase “hakuna matata” (No problems) has been used in various movies.
Language is not the only vehicle of culture. More should be said of arts, dress, behaviour, rituals. Regarding music, Taarab and Bango music are two genres that embody Swahili culture. Both are performed by large orchestras using African, Arab, Indian and Western instruments. Taarab is the oldest style and no Swahili feast would take place without a life performance. Bango emerged in the early 1950s when Joseph Ngala, building on traditional Swahili music, popularized it. Bango fuses Portuguese, Arabic, taarab and traditional Bantu music. Some bands were also influenced by soukouss and other West African styles.