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:
Praise God for the salvation of a Swahili man who came to church to seek healing. He had limped into our marriage seminar the day before and then returned the next day for our church service to ask for healing prayer for his crippled foot. After the church finished praying for him at the end of the service, he said he also wanted to give his life to Jesus – so right then and there the body led him in a prayer of repentance and acceptance of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Praise God! Please continue to pray for his physical healing and for the church to lovingly enfold our newest member into the body.
Praise God for a timely, effective marriage seminar hosted by our local church which was attended by both singles and married! At the closing of the seminar day, a young new believer and his girlfriend chose that time to confess and repent before the body of Christ for sin they had entered into. This is radically counter- cultural! The following Sunday they announced before their loving church family their desire to be married in a covenant before God and with their Church family as witnesses! Praise God for the conviction of the Holy Spirit and the body of Christ who is helping them to now plan their wedding! Pray their wedding and marriage will be a vivid witness to the Swahili of Christ’s redeeming love for the church!