Swahili culture is the culture of the Swahili people inhabiting the Swahili Coast. This littoral area encompasses Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Mozambique, as well as the adjacent islands of Zanzibar and Comoros and some parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Malawi. They speak Swahili as their native language, which belongs to the Niger-Congo family.
Swahili culture is the product of the history of the coastal part of the African Great Lakes region, an area that has been influenced by Middle Eastern, Indian, Persian and Portuguese cultures. As with the Swahili language, Swahili culture has a Bantu core that has been modified by those foreign influences.
The Swahili culture and language began to take form around the 2nd-3rd century AD, as a consequence of the highly successful Persians and Arab merchants and explorers creating trading settlements on the Swahili Coast and nearby islands and mixing with the local Bantu people. The period from the 10th to the 15th century in the eastern African Great Lakes region 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 Swahili Coast and adjacent 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 Great Lakes region's 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 Portugueses' advent. Eventually, Swahili trading centers went out of business and commerce between Africa and Asia on the Indian Ocean collapsed.
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. Some food items common in everyday lives of the Swahili are fish, tropical fruits, and exotic spices.
Historic Swahili culture was intensely urban and dominated by a strict class structure, with an elite group called the Waungwana identifying themselves as Arab-African, and determined to distinguish themselves from the purely Bantu population. These preoccupations are evident in the Kilwa Chronicle, a fragmentary local history dating to before 1552.
Arts and crafts
Another cultural aspect of the Swahili is their use of arts and crafts, which they find significance in. When creating art, they express themselves through creativity as well as through shape and function. Some multicultural influences can be seen in Swahili art, furniture, and architecture. They do not often use designs with images of living beings due to their Muslim heritage. Instead, Swahili designs are primarily geometric. There are important clothes that are part of their arts and crafts such as the Kanga. The Kanga is not only a rectangular piece of cloth but is an artifact of the Swahili culture. The cloth should be made with extreme care. If the cloth doesn’t match the season then it doesn’t deserve to be a Kanga and can be used as a baby diaper or an apron for the kitchen. Even though the Kanga is quite cheap, it is still a main part of Swahili culture. The Kanga is made in Tanzania and is mostly appealing to woman rather than men but men are not restricted to using it. The cloth is used as a sling to carry babies, melons on their heads and can also be used as a kitchen apron.
The most typical musical genre of Swahili culture is taarab (or tarabu), sung in the Swahili language. Its melodies and orchestration have Arab and Indian influences (although Western instruments, such as guitars, are sometimes used).
In the 20th century several musical genres have emerged in the Swahili world, that are derivatives of Western popular music. One major example is muziki wa dansi, which is the Tanzanian counterpart of Congolese soukous (rumba). In the last decades of the century, most Swahili music has been in the afropop vein. This includes several local derivatives of American hip hop (e.g. bongo flava).
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- Garlake, Peter, Early Art and Architecture of Africa, p. 169, Oxford, 2002
- Tarabu, MusicWeb Encyclopedia of Popular Music