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Swahili Culture: Heritage and Modernity

Swahili Culture: Heritage and Modernity

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Hakuna Matata is a famous Swahili word synonymous with several parts of the East African region where the Swahili people live. Interpreted as ‘no worries,’ the phrase is mainly used to welcome foreigners visiting the region and to make them feel comfortable and at ease.

The warm welcome and relaxed environment are just some of the many incredible characteristics that define the Swahili people.

Swahili is a culture-rich society that’s hard to ignore. Chances are you have heard a thing or two about this native group, given the popularity of the Kiswahili language worldwide.

Therefore, we must explore the Swahili culture in detail to understand what makes it so unique and attractive. What’s more? It could be a chance for you to learn several Swahili words and know how best to enjoy the culture while visiting the speaking nations.

Who Are the Swahili?

The Swahili are an African ethnic group who mainly live in the coastal area of the Indian Ocean in East Africa, including Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Comoros, and Zanzibar.

They speak Kiswahili, a language borne from the interactions between Africans and early Asians on the East African coast, and 35% of Swahili words include the Arabic dialect. The Swahili way of life can be traced back to the history of the coastal portion of the African Great Lakes region.

Swahili Map

The Swahili Lifestyle

Initially, the Swahili Coast was the central hub of trade where merchants from different parts of the world met to exchange goods and services. These interactions would later significantly impact some components of the Swahili way of life.

For instance, the foreigners largely influenced them to adopt trading, which they practice to date. Other everyday economic activities among the Swahili are fishing and farming, which they inherited from their ancestors. However, some have embraced modernism and have been absorbed in the blue-collar industry.

The ethnic group generally practices Islam. They believe in a Supreme Being called Allah and Muhammad as the most important prophet. Being Muslims, the Swahili pray five times daily, fast during Ramadan, and give charity, among other things. Their religion uses divination, which has taken up some syncretic attributes from traditional indigenous beliefs.

Music is a vital component of the Swahili culture. The popular musical genre among these people is taarab. Sung in the local dialect, the taarab rhythm features a slow beat that borrows heavily from Indian and Arabic melodies.

The Swahili clothing is relatively modest. Men dress in a long cloak called a kanzu, or a stripped cloth around the waist that hangs to the knees. Sometimes, they wear small white caps with detailed tan embroidery. Generally, women wear colorful, patterned rectangular cotton cloths known as kanga. They wrap one-half of the fabric around their waist like a skirt and the other half around their shoulders and head.

The kanga has a slogan inscribed at the bottom. For instance, a woman fed up with people probing into her life could wear a kanga with a phrase like “pilipili usiyoila yakuashiani?” which warns others to mind their own business. A long, loose cloth (bui bui) is ordinary among Swahili Muslim women.

Bui Bui

Rice prepared with milk from coconut is the staple food of this community. Indian, African, and Middle Eastern cuisines have influenced their other meals. As such, they incorporate spices, local fruits, vegetables, and seafood in their dishes.

Goat meat and chicken are served at special events. The people love tea so much and drink it frequently each day. Poetry, also known as Ushahiri, is at the core of the Swahili lifestyle. Members use it to express their joy, thoughts, history, behavior, and pain. Different types of poetry, such as inkishafi, teach good behavior and instill the fear of God.

Swahili food vendor

The Kiswahili Language and Its Influence

One of the most renowned cultural aspects of the Swahili culture is their language. Referred to as Kiswahili, the dialect is a mixture of Arabic and Bantu. However, there are some influences of Persian, English, German, and French due to trade contact.

Kiswahili comes from the Arabic term Sahil, which translates to ‘coast.’ Ki-at the start means coastal language. The language was invented as a communication tool among traders along the coastline. Now the Swahili people use Kiswahili as their “mother tongue,” and it reflects their complicated history and mixed origins.

Interestingly, Kiswahili has gone global, with over 50 million speakers in the African continent alone. Some countries like Kenya, Tanzania, and Congo have even made it one of the official languages locals can use to communicate.

The application of the dialect in the international scene is apparent. Movies like the ‘Lion King’ and ‘Out of Africa’ have integrated several phrases in Kiswahili, helping to popularize it further.

The names of many characters in the Lion King Film are Swahili words. Some include SimbaRafikiPumbaa, and Nala, which mean lion, friend, foolish, and beloved.

Famous musicians like Lionel Ritchie, Michael Jackson, Miriam Makeba, and others have used Swahili in their compositions. Miriam Makeba’s Malaika song lyrics are purely in Swahili, despite her being a South African. Every time she sang the song on her international tours, this iconic woman popularized Swahili. She made people fall in love with the language.

Did you know that the ‘Kwanzaa’ holiday celebrated by African Americans derives its name from Kiswahili? It means “first” or to “begin” and symbolizes the festivities ancient Africans performed during harvests. On this holiday, participants are encouraged to take up Swahili names and address one another using Swahili titles that represent respect.

Kwanzaa’s seven pillars, or ‘Nguzo Saba,’ are also in Swahili. They are Umoja (unity), Nia (purpose), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Imani (faith), kujichagulia (self-determination), kuumba (creativity), and ujima (collective work and responsibility).

Ujamaa has attracted a lot of attention from all these doctrines. It is known as far abroad as among Australian Aborigines, Londoners, and in Papua New Guinea.

Furthermore, a majority of college campuses in the US have named their dormitories ujamaa houses, making Kwanzaa a continuous celebration.

Family celebrating Kwanzaa.

Broadcast media has embraced the Kiswahili language, contributing immensely to its spread worldwide. It is one of the most used African languages on radio stations across the globe. Moreover, it’s common to hear Swahili programs in major broadcasting houses in Japan, America, China, Germany, etc. Even some BBC news on TV and radio is in Swahili.

Schools in the Western world are also adopting the language and teaching it. Many leading academic institutions in Africa, America, Europe, and Asia, including Stanford, Yale, the University of London, and Harvard, offer Kiswahili as a subject of study. Almost a hundred institutions teach the language in the US alone.

The Dynamism of the Swahili Culture

Even though Westernization has threatened to bury some African cultures, Swahili traditions remain strong. Time and again, the Swahili culture has proven its flexibility by adapting to societal changes and blending well with modernity while maintaining its native characteristics. Here are some examples that demonstrate how the Swahili culture has merged with modernism:

Redefining the dress code

Conservatism is a significant trait of the Swahili dress code. While some African ethnic groups have fully embraced the Western wear and abandoned their own, the Swahili have taken a different approach.

The ‘modernized’ groups in the community have maintained the conservative nature of their dressing while adding a contemporary touch to it. What does this mean? You will find a Swahili woman wearing a kanga with a long, flowing dress. This design, commonly known as dera, has become a favorite among women around the region.

Others wear trendy buibuis with brightly decorated wraps to look fashionable. Although men’s clothing now consists of trousers and shirts, they still cover their heads with a cap. The men haven’t abandoned the kanzu and can wear it whenever they want or on special occasions.

Taking advantage of the media

The Swahili have welcomed technological innovations, which are now part of their everyday lives. They have even gone a step ahead and used media platforms to showcase their culture to the world.

One way the community does this is through soap operas. Maisha Magic East, a TV station that broadcasts programs in Kenya and other parts of East Africa, nurtures acting talents among the Swahilis by airing their stories. Some of the popular soap operas include Selina, Maza, and Pete.

Another strategy this cultural group uses is creating cooking programs. Here, they share their cuisines with the world and show the audience how to prepare different Swahili dishes. Viewers are welcome to ask questions and provide constructive feedback. Last but not least, tech-savvy individuals in the community use media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp to create groups to interact and educate themselves about their culture.

Refined living conditions

Traditionally, the Swahili lived in houses made of hardened mud and stones. The people used other materials, including mangrove poles and a coral rag, to elaborate the stone structures. The Swahili built different roof designs on the buildings to protect against weather elements. Many of these structures are in various regions where the natives lived, albeit amidst contemporary architecture.

The community members living in the traditionally designed homes have integrated some renovations to make them more ‘modern.’ For instance, most houses now have several bedrooms, electricity, a living room, etc.

Moneyed Swahilis prefer to live in large houses around a self-contained central courtyard. A blank wall that obscures the view of the interior courtyard is the focus of an interior porch. Some of these homes also feature indoor swimming pools for recreational purposes.

Bongo music

Are you familiar with Bongo music? Do the names Diamond Platnumz and Ali Kiba ring a bell? These are examples of modern Swahili musicians who have overtaken the world through Bongo music. This genre developed in the 1990s and is associated with people living in Tanzania and other coastal regions of East Africa.

As mentioned earlier, taarab is part and parcel of the Swahili culture. Still, introducing the Western culture among the natives led to the birth of bongo. The music combines American hip hop and taarab, with additional influences from R&B, reggae, and Afro beats. Lyrics are typically in the Kiswahili language.

Education as a cultural advancement tool

Education is one of the new customs introduced to Swahili by foreigners. The community gradually accepted to enroll in school to learn. With time, they leveraged their acquired literacy skills to read the Quran (Islam’s holy book) and learn more about their religion.

Some community members who have furthered their education to the university level have become great scholars. They continue to educate the world about the Kiswahili language and the unique aspects of the Swahili customs.

An example is Abdalla Mwasimba, a Swahili poet from Kenya who helped spread the Swahili literary culture locally and internationally. Individuals who have specialized in Kiswahili studies in college tend to work in learning institutions where they continue to teach Kiswahili and related subjects.


The Swahili culture is indeed remarkable. From having an interesting dress code to speaking a beautiful language, preparing unique meals, and creating poetry, you can never get enough of the culture. It’s no wonder that the Kiswahili language has received international recognition, with countries like the US giving a holiday a Swahili word.

The culture has survived through centuries, even in the advent of Westernization, thanks to its flexibility. Over the years, the Swahilis have integrated some Western lifestyles into their way of life, allowing the two cultures to coexist harmoniously.

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