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:
Mama & Baba F are our neighbors. You have been praying for almost a year now that they would respond to our witness of Christ’s salvation. They have seen healing in their young daughter, who is walking after prayer for her in Jesus name – when witchdoctors could do nothing. They have seen us cry out to Christ with other believers for our own healing and they have seen Him answer. They have come to us burdened from the broken relationships in their own family and community and we have shared with them the hope we have in Christ the restorer of our most important relationship with Father God. Finally, a few days ago, Mama F, hearing the salvation story yet again, responded for the first time that she believes that Jesus is not only her daughter’s Healer, but also the Savior of the world! REJOICE!!! Pray now for wisdom in how to enfold Mama F into the body of Christ here. Pray for the salvation of their whole family!
She & her husband sell doves from their home so that their neighbors may take them to their Islamic witchdoctors to have them sacrificed & drink the fresh blood in search of healing in mind and body. Our teammate has testified to her that we do not depend on the blood of any animal for healing, but that we depend upon Jesus’ blood – the blood of God’s sinless Son, to give us forgiveness and healing for eternal life. And she laughs. Today she heard that I have prayed for another’s healing, God has answered those prayers, and she sincerely asks me to pray for her aching knees. I tell her I can pray for her right now, today on her porch! She laughs again and says she has work to do. As I leave the sound of her laughter remains with me… reminding me of a certain Sarah who, at first, laughed – not quite believing the promise brought to her in her old age by those foreign visitors …. Please pray for all the Swahili to come to know the true healer of their souls, that they would not depend on the blood of doves, but on the blood of The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.