History and cultural facts of the Swahili people

The Swahili tribe are a coastal people with a very rich historical and cultural heritage.

Some of the earliest inhabitants of the East African coast were their ancestors, Cushitic herdsmen. The Cushitic people were joined by Bantu speaking tribes, including the Mijikenda, with whom they freely inter-married. Other groups later migrated to this coastline, including Arab, Hindi, Portuguese, and Indonesian traders. They, too, intermarried with the indigenous people and the Bantu speaking tribes, giving rise to a new culture, people and language - the Swahili tribe.

Over time, groups of Swahili people spread along the entire East African coast, forming different cultural variations and dialects of the Swahili language. Today, the Swahili tribe reside in most of the coastal towns in Kenya and Tanzania, including Mombasa and Malindi, and on the Indian Ocean islands of Lamu, Pemba and Zanzibar.

Culture and religion of the Swahili people

The Arabic culture has had the greatest influence in shaping Swahili traditions. One major legacy of the Arab culture is the prevalence of the Islamic religion among the Swahili people. Islamic traditions govern nearly every aspect of the Swahili tribe's culture, including food, clothing and lifestyle. Swahili children, for example, must attend Madrassa - religious classes in which they study the Koran and learn the Arabic language - from an early age. Unlike other Kenyan tribes, there are no specific rites of passage for young Swahili men and women.

Marriage marks the transition to adulthood. Swahili marriages are usually arranged by the parents. Though the bride's parents will normally choose a groom for their daughter, she has the right to refuse her parents choice and select her own groom. Swahili weddings last several days and involve elaborate preparations, ceremonies and activities for both men and women. Only men are allowed in the mosque for the official marriage vows.

Swahili clothing and dress code

The traditional attire of a Swahili man is a long white (or beige) robe (or kaftans) known in Swahili as a kanzu and a small, white, rounded hat with elaborate embroidery. Swahili women dress in long black dresses called buibui, and cover their heads with a black cloth, known as a hijabu. It is also common to find Swahili women wearing a veil to cover their faces. Outside their traditional clothing, most Swahili men wear western-style pants and shirts, but revert to the traditional attire on Fridays, the official prayer day for Muslims, and during other important or religious occasions.

Swahili art and crafts

Swahili art is magnificently expressed in the design of carpets, rugs, porcelain, and jewelry, all of which reflect some Asian influence. The Swahili also incorporate unique architecture into the design of their homes and mosques. The town of Lamu in Kenya is perhaps the best place to see the finest Swahili architecture, art and crafts.

Swahili poetry and music

Poetic and musical expression is an important feature of the Swahili culture. Poets, the greatest of which are called malenga, are held in high esteem. Swahili music, Taarab, is poetically very rich. The traditional Taarab rhythm is a slow beat that borrows heavily from Indian and Arabic melody. Chakacha is another authentic Swahili music genre with a faster tempo than Taarab.

Language of the Swahili people

The Swahili people speak Swahili (or Kiswahili), a language adapted from the Bantu and enriched with some vocabulary from the Arabic, Portuguese and Hindi languages. Among the native Swahili speakers, there exist several Swahili dialects. The most well known Swahili dialects include: Amu, spoken by the Lamu people; Mvita, a dialect of the Mombasa Swahilis; Pemba, a dialect spoken in Pemba; and Unguja, a dialect spoken in Zanzibar. However, the standard version of the Swahili language is the national language of both Kenya and Tanzania and is also spoken widely across other Eastern and Central Africa countries.

The daily life of the Swahilis

From their earliest days, the Swahili people depended on trade for survival. They played a central role as middlemen between the inland tribes of East and Central Africa and the Indian Ocean traders (Arabs, Indians, and Portuguese).

Today, many Swahili people still engage in business enterprises of some kind. They are mainly traders, running shops throughout the coastal cities of Mombasa, Malindi, and Lamu, as well as in other towns where they live. They also engage in domestic and commercial fishing along the Indian Ocean coast.

Swahili food

By religion, Muslim Swahilis are prohibited from eating pork or drinking alcohol. The Swahili's staple food is of Arabic descent, and most of their cooking is rich in spices. Popular Swahili cuisine includes pilau and wali (rice cooked in coconut milk) served with a thick meat stew or fish. The Swahili tribe eats a lot of different grains, vegetables and fruits, including beans, peas, tomatoes, potatoes, okra, kale, spinach, mangoes, coconut and bananas. Goat meat and chicken are traditionally served during special occasions.

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