The Swahili of East Africa
A cluster of 7 swahili speaking groups in 6 countries
The Swahili of Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Zambia.
The Bajun of Kenya. The Black African of Saudi Arabia.
Thousands of years ago, the East African coast was inhabited by groups of hunters who intermarried with Cushite shepherds. By the second century, Bantu-speaking people from Northern Congo came to the area and intermarried with them. Subsequent migrations of peoples from other areas, such as the Persian Gulf, also joined these coastal people, adopting parts of their culture and language. Later, Indonesian, Hindi, and Portuguese traders settled on the coast. Soon, they too, began adopting Swahili traits and became a part of the larger group.
Since that time, groups of Swahili have migrated to different parts of the coast, forming their own dialects and cultural variations.
Today, the Swahili are scattered along Eastern Africa and the Persian Gulf, from Saudi Arabia to Zambia. Though they are called "Swahili" by others, they prefer to be named according to their local settlements.
What are their lives like?
Most of the Swahili groups now live in East Africa, many of them settling in cities and towns that are trade centers for the Persian Gulf.
For about 2,000 years, the backbone of the Swahili economy has been commerce. They worked as cross-national merchants trading spices, slaves, ivory, gold, and grain. Today, international commerce is still important to the Swahili, but to a lesser degree. Many of the upper class Swahili now manage small businesses, do clerical work, and teach school. Those living in cities sometimes own plantations that provide both their income and their food supply. Most lower class Swahili are farmers. Their principal crops include rice, sorghum, millet, and maize.
Since the Swahili are predominantly Muslim, Islamic practices play a large role in their daily activities. Dietary laws, rules of dress, social etiquette, marriage ceremonies, laws concerning divorce, and rituals at birth and death are all governed by Islamic tradition. Parents strive to have well-mannered, respectful children, since this is highly valued among Muslims. Young boys go to Islamic schools where they study the Koran. The central building in each town is the mosque. The male population can be found praying there five times a day and at special prayer meetings on Fridays.
The Swahili have recently demonstrated an interest in Western culture. For example, in addition to attending Islamic schools, most children also attend non-religious schools to acquire a Western-style education. Also, traditional Swahili folk medicines are no longer the only means of treating those with illnesses. Modern medical clinics have now been built in some areas.
Many of the people who live in large cities now own televisions, through which they are constantly being exposed to Western ideas. Swahili women are more independent today than in times past and are becoming more involved in the economic and social realms of society.
Swahili culture has not only been influenced by the Islamic religion and Western ideas, but also by the Northeast Bantu and Arab cultures, as well as Asian, Persian, and Indian cultures. This has made their culture quite unique, and they can easily be distinguished from their neighbors.
Asian influences in Swahili art can be seen in such things as rugs, silk, porcelain, and jewelry. Swahili architecture includes ornately carved doors and a center beam separating male and female entrances of their homes. Also, the town of Lamu, Kenya, is famous for its square chairs inlaid with patterns of bone and ivory.
What are their beliefs?
The Swahili often have superstitious explanations for natural occurrences. For example, some believe that a cow is supporting the earth and that earthquakes are caused when the cow moves its horns. They believe that thunder is the sound of God speaking with the angels and that lightning occurs when God is pleased. To the Swahili, lightning is a good sign because it means that God will send plentiful rain and food that year.
What are their needs?
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Bethany World Prayer Center
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