's Ancient Civilizations of the World/East Africa and Swahili Culture

East AfricaEdit

History of East AfricaEdit


According to the theory of recent African origin of modern humans, all humans originate from East Africa. Some of the earliest fossilized hominid remains have been found in East Africa, including those found in Awash Valley of Ethiopia, Koobi Fora in Kenya and Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. The southern part of East Africa was occupied by Bushmen hunter-gatherers, whilst in the Ethiopian Highlands the donkey and such crop plants as teff allowed the beginning of agriculture around 7,000 B.C. Lowland barriers and diseases carried by the tsetse fly, however, prevented the donkey and agriculture from spreading southwards. Only in quite recent times did agriculture spread to the more humid regions south of the equator, through the spread of cattle, sheep and crops such as millet. Language distributions suggest that this most likely occurred from Sudan into modern Uganda and the African Great Lakes, since the Nilotic languages spoken by these pre-Bantu farmers have their closest relatives in the middle Nile basin.

Between 2500–3000 years ago, Bantu-speaking peoples began a millennia-long series of migrations eastward from their homeland that is (modernly known as) southern Cameroon across the Rwenzori Mountains. This Bantu expansion introduced agriculture into those parts of East Africa either not reached previously by Nilo-Saharan farmers or too wet for millet. During the following fifteen centuries, the Bantu slowly intensified farming and grazing over all suitable regions of East Africa, in the process making contact with Austronesian- and Arabic-speaking sailors on the southern coastal areas. The latter also spread Islam to the coastal belt, but most Bantu never had contact with Islam and remained animists.

Arab and Portuguese erasEdit

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to explore the region of modern Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique by sea, Vasco da Gama having visited Mombasa in 1498. Gama's voyage was successful in reaching India and this permitted the Portuguese to trade with the Far East directly by sea, thus challenging older trading networks of mixed land and sea routes, such as the spice trade routes that utilized the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and camel caravans to reach the eastern Mediterranean. The Republic of Venice had gained control over much of the trade routes between Europe and Asia. After traditional land routes to India had been closed by the Ottoman Turks, Portugal hoped to use the sea route pioneered by Gama to break the once Venetian trading monopoly. Portuguese rule in East Africa focused mainly on a coastal strip centred in Mombasa. The Portuguese presence in East Africa officially began after 1505, when flagships under the command of Don Francisco de Almeida conquered Kilwa, an island located in what is now southern Tanzania.

In March 1505, having received from Manuel I of, Portugal the appointment of viceroy of the newly conquered territory in India, he set sail from Lisbon in command of a large and powerful fleet, and arrived in July at Quiloa (Kilwa), which yielded to him almost without a struggle. A much more vigorous resistance was offered by the Moors of Mombasa, but the town was taken and destroyed, and its large treasures went to strengthen the resources of Almeida. Attacks followed on Hoja (now known as Ungwana, located at the mouth of the Tana River), Barawa, Angoche, Pate and other coastal towns until the western Indian Ocean was a safe haven for Portuguese commercial interests. At other places on his way, such as the island of Angediva, near Goa, and Cannanore, the Portuguese built forts, and adopted measures to secure the Portuguese supremacy.

Portugal's main goal in the east coast of Africa was take control of the spice trade from the Arabs. At this stage, the Portuguese presence in East Africa served the purposes of controlling trade within the Indian Ocean and securing the sea routes linking Europe to Asia. Portuguese naval vessels were very disruptive to the commerce of Portugal's enemies within the western Indian Ocean and were able to demand high tariffs on items transported through the sea due to their strategic control of ports and shipping lanes. The construction of Fort Jesus in Mombasa in 1593 was meant to solidify Portuguese hegemony in the region, but their influence was clipped by the British, Dutch and Omani Arab incursions into the region during the 17th century.[1]

Swahili cultureEdit

Range of Swahili language in Africa.

Swahili culture is the culture of the Swahili people living on the east coast of Tanzania, Kenya, and Mozambique as well as on the islands in the area, from Zanzibar to Comoros, who speak Swahili as their native language. The Swahili culture was formed in Eastern Africa when Arabic traders established ports along the coast of Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. Swahili culture is the product of the complex history of East Africa. It has been influenced by Middle Eastern, Arab, European and Asian cultures. As with the Swahili language, Swahili culture has a Bantu core that has been modified by those foreign influences.


Swahili culture and language began to take form around the 10th century, as a consequence of the highly successful Persians and even greater Arabs creating trading settlements on the East African coast and islands and mixing with the local Bantu people. The period from the 10th to the 15th century in East Africa is often referred to as the "Shirazi Era" as many trading settlements were created by Shirazi Persians. The culture that formed from the interaction between Arabic, Persian and Bantu traditions and habits was further enriched with influences from the Far East as a consequence of long-distance trading routes crossing the Indian Ocean. Beginning in Kenya and Tanzania, the Swahili culture eventually spread to Mozambique.

During the Shirazi Era, several city-states flourished along the African coast and on the islands; some examples are Kilwa, Malindi, Gedi, Pate, Comoros, and Zanzibar. These early Swahili city-states were Muslim, cosmopolitan, and politically independent of each other. They all competed against one another for the best of the African trade business. The chief exports of these cultures were slaves, ebony, gold, ivory, and sandalwood. These city-states began to decline towards the sixteenth century, mainly as a consequence of the Portuguese's advent. Eventually, Swahili trading centers went out of business and commerce between Africa and Asia on the Indian Ocean collapsed.


Swahili Arabic script on One Pysar Coin from Zanzibar circa 1299 AH (1882 AD).

Aspects of Swahili culture are diverse due to its many origins when it first developed. For example, Swahili cuisine has influences from Indian, Arabic, and European cultures. There are also alterations to certain dishes due to religious reasons. For instance pork is seldom used in food because most of the Swahili are Muslim. Some food items common in everyday lives of the Swahili are fish, tropical fruits, and exotic spices.

Another cultural aspect of the Swahili is their use of arts and crafts. When creating art they expressed themselves through creativity as well as shape and function. Some multicultural influences can be seen in Swahili art, furniture, and architecture. They did not often use designs with images of living beings due to their Muslim heritage. Instead, Swahili designs were primarily geometric.

Kanga in Tengeru Market, Arusha, Tanzania.

There were important clothes that are part of their arts and crafts such as the Kanga. The Kanga, which was used as a sling to carry babies, and sometimes fruit on their heads, is not just a rectangular piece of cloth but is an expression of the Swahili culture.

The most typical musical genre of Swahili culture was the taarab (or tarabu), sung in Swahili language with melodies and orchestration are of Arab and Indian influence.

Africanist scholar Jan Knappert considered the translation of Arabic poem Hamziya from the year 1652 to be the earliest Swahili written text. The first literary works date back to the beginning of the 18th century, when all Swahili literature was written in the Arabic script. Starting in the 19th century, missionaries and orientalists introduced the Latin script for writing the Swahili language.[2]


  1. "East African History" (Wikipedia)
  2. "Swahili Culture" (Wikipedia)