The Swahili of Kenya and Tanzania
Scripture verse: “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His lovingkindness is everlasting. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom He has redeemed from the hand of the adversary and gathered from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.” Psalm 107:1-3
Population: Population estimates vary widely. Joshua Project reports nearly seven million and Wikipedia gives a population of around 500,000. The lower figure may reflect more accurately those who would have no other tribal affiliation and speak only the Kiswahili language.
Location: The Swahili people are located on the coast and coastal islands of Kenya and Tanzania. Major centers would include (north to south) Lamu Island, Mambrui, Malindi, Mombasa, Tanga, Pemba Island, Unguja Island (Zanzibar), Mafia Island and the Kilwa area.
History: The history of the Swahili people and culture originates with the indigenous African Bantus who lived along the Kenya coast. It was only after the coming of Islam that they came to be identified as the “Swahili” by the Arab traders. The Swahili are essentially African Bantus who converted to Islam over time through trade contact and intermarriage with Arabs, who came to East Africa in their dhows. The earliest discovered settlements date back to the 9th and 10th centuries. Initially Arab immigration and settlement was sparse and limited to the islands, such as Lamu, Pate, Mombasa, and Zanzibar. But those who did settle down took wives from the women of the coast. These settlements became hubs for increased trade as Arab homelands desired African goods, such as ivory, rhino horn, turtle shells, dried fish, animal skins and slaves. As generations of marriage and mingling succeeded one another, a distinct Swahili language, culture and people group emerged. (Adapted from B. A.’s Least Reached People Groups reports of around 2005).
Culture: The Swahili engage in trading, with small shops that sell hardware, wholesale and retail food items, vehicle parts, household items, etc. Fishing is also widely practiced by the Swahili, using small to medium sized dhows. Boatbuilding is an ancient craft well practiced by the Swahili. Swahili also practice farming, with tree crops such as mangoes and coconuts widely cultivated. In the past, the Swahili demonstrated advanced architectural techniques (in comparison to the African tribal people of the East African coast, using coral stones and lime mortar to build thick walled multi-story structures. Following the practice of Islam, Swahili men can have up to four wives, if they can afford this. More commonly, wives are taken and divorced on a regular basis, with a man having a dozen or more wives during his lifetime not uncommon. With the Swahili, or at least among the Bajun sub-group, marriage dowry is given to the woman and she has the right of asking for a divorce. This example of matrilineal influence in the culture serves to protect the woman since in the event of divorce she often takes furniture, gold and other dowry items with her. The man may also divorce his wife by announcing this decision three times. Marriages are arranged by the families. On the wedding day various ceremonies are done, including having the groom march around town, accompanied by his friends and often with the playing of trumpets and drums. Celebrations are separate for the bride and groom. Only men attend the actual marriage ceremony, which takes place in a mosque.
Religion: The Swahili are almost 100% Muslim, with very few believers reported. They practice Sunni Islam with varying levels of commitment. Of note is that there are many Muslim training schools in key Swahili locations which train young men to be teachers and leaders of Islam in their communities. Mosques predominate in any Swahili settlement. A town of 12,000 can easily have twenty or more mosques, for example. The Swahili are taught from a young age to reject Christianity and the gospel.
Latest Prayer Updates:
Little 11 year old A, who plays with our daughter after school from time to time, has her ‘ngoma’ this weekend – the coming of age 2-day ceremony which culminates in her being removed from the home where she has been sequestered for teaching in the feminine arts and paraded, on shoulders, naked with just a cloth draped over her waist. Then she must dance to display her comeliness for all eyes to see (threatened with shame & a beating if she doesn’t). After this her family is free to receive marriage proposals from the highest bidder. Ironically A will don her headscarf and go back to school on Monday. I weep for the children here that lose their childhood, their innocence far too young. Pray for them to know the Savior who said, “Let the little children come unto me…” Pray that when they come to know the Savior these rites of passage would be redeemed to glorify God in their celebration of Biblical manhood and womanhood!
Praise God that Mama F accepted prayer for healing in Jesus name for her little 4 year old daughter who was convulsing and foaming at the mouth one night. Praise God that He answered immediately by bringing peace & calm over the child. Another seeker who was there, Mama S, confessed afterward she believed all that she heard spoken & prayed & is a Christian now! Another woman who was there, Mama N, now wants to join in on the weekly prayer and storying time with the other ladies! Praise God! Pray for faith in Jesus that endures for the Swahili!