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Swahili coastal culture

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For perhaps two thousand years, foreign ideas have been shaping the society, language, literature and architecture of the coast. Immigrants and traders from Arabia, Persia and India have been a subtle and gradual influence here. They would arrive each year in March or April on the northeast monsoon, stay for a few months, and return in September on the southerly monsoon.

Some, either by choice or mishap, would be left behind. Through intermarriage from the earliest times, a distinct ancient civilization called Swahili emerged. Swahili, a name thought to derive from the same Arabic root as sahel, meaning edge or coast, is also a Bantu language. Known to its speakers as Kiswahili (and correctly written kiSwahili), it is one of the most grammatically mainstream of the huge family of Bantu languages, and very typical of the family. Like all old languages used by trading peoples, Swahili contains strong clues about who its speakers mixed with – it’s full of Arabic-derived words and peppered with others of Indian, Portuguese and English origin.

The Swahili are not a “tribe” in any definable sense – they are the result of a mixed heritage: families who can trace their roots to foreign shores in the distant past tend to claim superior social status. And, while Swahili culture is essentially Muslim, people’s interpretation of their religion varies according to circumstance.

The towns

Like the Swahili language, it used to be thought that the towns of the coast began as Arab or even Persian trading forts. It is now known that Mombasa, Malindi, Lamu and a host of lesser-known settlements are essentially ancient African towns that have always tolerated immigration from overseas. With the odd exception, however, efforts to compromise their independence were met with violent resistance. When the Portguese arrived at the end of the fifteenth century, cultural memories of the Moorish occupation of their own country were still fresh. Accommodation to Islam was not on their agenda and, despite a long acquaintance with the coast, they never established an enduring colonial presence. They fared better in Goa on the Indian coast, further along the same monsoon trading route.

The slave inheritance

Historically, slavery on the coast was quite different from the kind of slavery associated with the Atlantic slave trade. Although refugee and convict slaves were not uncommon, pawn-slavery was a more structured version of the institution. For example, the Mijikenda peoples, who lived in the coastal hinterland, maintained close links with the coastal towns, trading their produce and providing armed forces when the towns were under threat, and receiving, in exchange, goods from overseas, especially cotton cloth and tools. As traders, the Swahili periodically accumulated surpluses of grain on the coast at times of severe drought inland. In exchange for famine relief, Mijikenda children or marginalized adults would then be taken to the towns by their relatives and fostered with Swahili families with whom they had links – to become pawns, or in effect domestic or farm slaves. Later, they married into their adoptive families, or paid off the debt and returned inland. But sometimes circumstances altered and, for various reasons, a small number of these indentured labourers were sold overseas, though the trade was always fairly insignificant.

When, in the late eighteenth century, the slave trade itself became a major aspect of commerce, and the available foreign goods (firearms, liquor and cloth) became irresistible, then any trace of trust in the old arrangements vanished. The weak and defenceless were captured and sold to slavers from the coast, often to end up on Dutch or French plantations in the Indian Ocean, or in Arabian households. And, with the domination of the Sultan of Oman on the coast in the early nineteenth century, and the large-scale migration of Arab families to East Africa, slaves from the far interior were increasingly set to work on their colonial coastal farms and plantations. When the British formally freed the slaves in 1907, they became a new social class in Swahili society.

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