SWAHILI Information

Location: Coastal Kenya, Tanzania
Population: n/a
Language: Kiswahili (Bantu)
Neighbors: Mijikenda, Zigua, DoŽ, Kwere, Zaramo, Makonde
Types of Art: Swahili art forms are limited to architecture, furniture, and personal adornment. The great carved wooden doors of the coast are displayed as a sign of wealth.
History: The inhabitants of the coastal areas of Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique share history, language, and cultural traditions, which some Swahili scholars claim date to at least 100 A.D., when an anonymous Greek traveler and author of The Periplus of the Erytharaean Sea wrote about a place in east Africa, which Arabs frequented to trade with those living on the mainland. This history is closely tied to Indian Ocean trade routes linking India, the Arabian Peninsula, and Africa. Despite the shared history and language of the peoples of the Swahili Coast, it remains difficult to describe a discreet Swahili culture. This is not to suggest that a Swahili culture does not exist, but instead that its boundaries are amorphous, changing whenever necessary to meet the demands of everyday life.
Economy: Swahili economy today, as in the past, is intricately linked to the Indian Ocean. For approximately 2,000 years, Swahili merchants have acted as middlemen between eastern and central Africa and the outside world. They played a significant role in the trade of ivory and enslaved peoples which climaxed during the 19th centuries. Trade routes extended across Tanzania into modern day Zaire, along which goods were brought to the coasts and were sold to Arab, Indian, and Portuguese traders. Many slaves sold in Zanzibar ended up in Brazil, which was then a Portuguese colony. Swahili fishermen still rely on the ocean to supply their primary source of income. Fish is sold to their inland neighbors in exchange for products of the interior.
Political Systems: It is difficult to outline a Swahili political system, since they often incorporated the political practices of their neighbors. They are largely Islamic, and as such much of the power within the family rests in the hands of elder male members. Various Swahili empires have existed throughout history. Strongholds included communities centered in Mombassa, Lamu, and Zanzibar. Swahili traders also acted as middlemen between colonial governments and inland ethnic groups.
Religion: The Islam practiced by Swahili peoples is often very strict. Most of the requirements of the religion are practiced by most of the people. The economic success of the Swahili throughout the coastal region has encouraged many of their inland neighbors to adopt Islam as well. Most of these people, however, are somewhat less orthodox. Swahili believe in spirits (djinns). Most men wear protective amulets around their necks, which contain verses from the Koran. Divination is practiced through Koranic readings. Often the diviner incorporates writings from the Koran into treatments for certain diseases. On occasion, he instructs a patient to soak a piece of paper containing verses of the Koran in water. With this ink infused water, literally containing the word of Allah, the patient will then wash his body or drink it to cure himself of his affliction. It is only prophets and teachers of Islam who are permitted to become medicine men among the Swahili.
Credit: McIntyre, L. Lee and Christopher D. Roy. 'Art and Life in Africa Online.' 1998: The Art and Life in Africa Project,