Swahili Culture – History, Arts, Crafts, Music, Literature & More

Swahili Culture – History, Arts, Crafts, Music, Literature & More

Swahili culture is the way of living of the Swahili people situated along the coast of the Indian Ocean. This seaside area includes Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, the nearby Comoros and Zanzibar islands, and some areas of Malawi. Swahili is the native language of these people who belong to the family of Bantu language speakers.

According to Graham Connah, Swahili culture is mercantile, urban, Islamic and literate. The culture is a result of Africa’s Great Lakes area’s history. Just like the language, Swahili culture has Bantu origin with some foreign influences.

Background and Identity Related to Swahili Culture

Ancient sites on the Swahili coast symbolize a cultural heritage with various native traditions dating back to the 9th century. This evolved into the contemporary Swahili culture. Today, about 173 recognized settlements flourished on the Swahili coast, including neighbouring Islands from the 9th to the 17th centuries, including Malindi, Kilwa, Comoros, Gedi, Zanzibar and Pate.

The latest excavations at those coastal sites were to research the presence of Islam in East Africa (EA) and the growth of the Swahili culture. Nevertheless, Swahili’s identity, the related people, and the development of the culture on the Swahili coast have been disputed historically and today.

Ancient use of coral for construction by the Swahili, who relied on stones to construct tombs and mosques, has been related to the rise of using coral stone in construction by the 14th century on the coast for buildings attributed with the significant importance. On the contrary, there have been reports that Persian and Arab colonists founded the sites. This is another facet of the Swahili culture.

One Pysa Coin from Zanzibar circa used around 1299 AH (1882 AD) with Swahili Arabic script on it
One Pysa Coin from Zanzibar circa used around 1299 AH (1882 AD) with Swahili Arabic script on it

Most claims say that the Swahili culture grew when Arab merchants settled at the coast with ruins referred to as Arab cities. Additionally, many Swahili identified themselves as Persian or Arab descendants. Nevertheless, the latest views believe ancient Swahili coastal locations grew locally after creating tiny fishing and agricultural communities. These led to the development of Swahili culture through trade. This increased Islamic influence in the 12th century.

Escalated connection with the Islamic world promoted the integration of Arab and indigenous African traditions, initiating a local Swahili culture. Nevertheless, both these interpretations are available with reports of local women getting married to Arab merchants, creating a distinct Afro-Arab Swahili culture. The culture seems to have developed in Tanzania and Kenya before eventually ending up in Mozambique.

Early Swahili states took up Islam and were politically autonomous and cosmopolitan. The primary exports of these cultures included ebony, salt, gold, slaves, gold, sandalwood, and ivory. These states started declining towards the 16th century, primarily resulting from the arrival of the Portuguese. Ultimately, Swahili trading posts closed, including the trade collapse between Asia and Africa along the Indian Ocean.

Features of Swahili culture are varied, resulting from its multiple influences. For instance, Swahili food has inspirations from Arabic and Indian cultures. Modifications to particular dishes exist because of religious reasons. Some foods common in Swahili’s daily living include exotic spices, fish, and tropical fruits.

Historically, the Swahili culture was intensely urban with a dominant stringent class structure.

Arts and Crafts in the Swahili Culture

The use of arts and crafts is Swahili culture’s other significant aspect. Art allows self-expression through creativity, function, and shape. Particular multicultural effects are noticed in Swahili art, Swahili architecture, and furniture. The designs do not have images of people because of their Muslim background.

Alternatively, Swahili art usually has geometric designs. Some clothes such as Kanga have significant importance in the Swahili arts and crafts. Kanga is a rectangular cloth and an artefact of Swahili culture. The clothing is made with utmost care. If the cloth fails to match the season, it can’t be a Kanga and is for use as a baby nappy or kitchen apron.

Despite Kanga being quite affordable, it remains a significant aspect of Swahili culture. This clothing is made in Tanzania and appeals to primary women compared to men. However, men can still use it. Kanga is used as a sling for carrying babies, as a kitchen apron, or for carrying melons on the head.

Women at the beach wearing Kanga
Women at the beach wearing Kanga

Music in the Swahili Culture

Taarab, also known as Tarabu, is the most significant genre of music in Swahili culture. It is in the Swahili language. Its orchestration and melodies have Indian and Arab influences (whilst Western equipment, including guitars, are used occasionally).

During the 20th century, various genres of music emerged among the Swahili, including spin-offs from popular Western music. Muziki wa dansi is a good example, the Tanzanian alternative of soukous or rumba from Congo. Towards the end of the century, a lot of Swahili music belongs to the Afropop genre. Part of these includes various local spin-offs of American hip hop, such as Bongo Flava.

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