Swahili Literature – Classification, Fiction, Poetry and More

The Outline of Swahili Literature – Classification, Fiction, Poetry and More

Swahili literature in general terms means writings in Swahili language especially by the Swahili people along the coast of East Africa and the nearby islands. It might also mean writings by people who use the Swahili language. It originated from the Bantu culture.

Jan Knappert
Jan Knappert

The initial literary works are traced to the start of the 18th century where all Swahili writings were in Arabic calligraphy. Jan Knappert focused on the translation of a poem in Arabic named Hamziya dated 1652 to be the first writing in Swahili. By the start of the 19th century, orientalists and missionaries imported the Latin script when writing in Swahili language.

Features of Literature in Swahili

Many scholars in the west had focused on researching Swahili literature from the 19th century. Controversy exists regarding objectivity since some scholars attempted to create a precept of Swahili writing.

Among the most significant features of Swahili writings is Swahili language’s proportionate heterogeneity. One can discover works written in Kimvita, Kiamu, Kiunguja, Kipemba, Kimtang’ata, Kimrima, Ki-Nairobi, Ki – Dar es Salaam, and all are taken to be Swahili varieties.

Some scholars in the west like Jan Knappert have sometimes considered Swahili literature as Islamic. Some experts like Ibrahim Noor Shariff and  Alamin Mazrui have criticized this approach. In fact, there has been the production of secular works in Swahili poetry by poets like Muhammad Kijuma and Muyaka bin Ghassany.

As a result of this interest and orientalist exploration of the Swahili language and culture, many theses about Swahili literature bear origin away from its native location.


Swahili literature has three classes of genres: ushairi (poetry), tamthilia (drama or play), and  Riwaya (the novel). However, scholars point out an issue in the literary categorization since the feeling of orientation relating to genre doesn’t work appropriately for Swahili writing.

The absence of decisive and clear parameters for categories can be portrayed by the union of written and oral forms of literature. Rajmund Ohly pointed out the naming of categories as not defined well and the vagueness of denominations while distinguishing class structures.


The fiction in Swahili writings primarily included oral narrative culture. It was only in the 1940s when Swahili got written fiction. Contemporary Swahili literature directly resulted from the language’s standardization.

Initially, writers used to write in a special dialect portraying their connection to a particular dialect, like Mombasa, Lamu, or Tanga. Swahili’s

Lyndon Harries - Swahili Poetry
Lyndon Harries – Swahili Poetry

standardization inspired writers, including  Lyndon Harries and George Mhina to boost Swahili’s development by forming a literary compilation.


In general, Swahili poetry originates from Arabic poetry. Ushairi ((Shîir for poetry in Arabic) or Swahili poetry is still inscribed in a conventional way. A narrative revealed that traditional poetry is made for singing instead of reading.

It originated from Kenya in the northern coastal cities of  Pate and Lamu before extending to Zanzibar, Tanga Region, and other neighboring locations. The poetic culture still exists today with pieces usually published in local newspapers including in taarab songs and operas common at the Swahili coast and Zanzibar.

Nevertheless, some fundamental differences exist between Swahili and Arabic poetry. With a lot of African influence, it’s hard to compare the two poems for uniqueness.

Classical poetry can be categorized into various groups regarding content and form. It can be lyrical, didactic, or epic, secular, or religious. Instances of narrative poetry (utenzi) include Utenzi wa Shufaka and  Bwana Mwengo’s Utendi wa Tambuka (from around 1728).

There was a practical restriction on the use of Swahili prose for utilitarian purposes until recently. Nevertheless, the classical art of oral manifestation in poetry has created various valuable works. Its features include heroic songs, homiletic aspects, humorous dialogues, and folklore ballads that accurately portray cultural beliefs, Swahili life, and traditions.

Resulting from the immediate classical facet of Swahili literature, particularly during the 19th century, interpreting most poems is hard because of lacking knowledge regarding the context for writing the poem.

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Other Important Things to Know About Swahili Literature

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