Introduction / History The name Swahili literally means "coast," and is the name given to several people groups that share a common culture (Uswahili), language (Kiswahili), and religion (Islam).
Thousands of years ago, groups of hunters inhabited the East African coast and intermarried with the Cushite shepherds there. By the second century, Bantu-speaking people from Northern Congo came to the area and intermarried with them. Subsequent groups of people migrating from other areas such as the Persian Gulf also joined these coastal people, adopting parts of their culture and language. Later, Indonesian, Hindi, and Portuguese traders settled on the coast. Soon, they too began adopting Swahili traits and became a part of the larger group.
Since that time, groups of Swahili have migrated to different parts of the coast, forming their own dialects and cultural variations.
Today, the Swahili are scattered along Eastern Africa and the Persian Gulf, from Saudi Arabia to Zambia. Though they are called "Swahili" by others, they prefer to be named according to their local settlements.
What are their lives like? The Swahili language has many different dialects. A number of its words were borrowed from Arabic, the second language for many Swahili.
Most of the Swahili groups now live in East Africa, many of them settling in cities and towns that are trade centers for the Persian Gulf.
For about 2,000 years, the backbone of the Swahili economy has been commerce. They worked as cross-national merchants trading spices, slaves, ivory, gold, and grain. Today, international commerce is still important to the Swahili but to a lesser degree. Many of the upper class Swahili now manage small businesses, do clerical work, and teach school. Those living in cities sometimes own plantations that provide both their income and their food supply. Most lower class Swahili are farmers. Their principal crops include rice, sorghum, millet, and maize.
Asian influences in Swahili art can be seen in such things as rugs, silk, porcelain, and jewelry. Swahili architecture includes ornately carved doors and a center beam separating male and female entrances of their homes. Also, the town of Lamu, Kenya, is famous for its square chairs inlaid with patterns of bone and ivory.
Since the Swahili are predominantly Muslim, Islamic practices play a large role in their daily activities. Dietary laws, rules of dress, social etiquette, marriage ceremonies, laws concerning divorce, and rituals at birth and death are all governed by Islamic tradition. Parents strive to have well-mannered, respectful children, since this is highly valued among Muslims. Young boys go to Islamic schools where they study the Koran. The central building in each town is the mosque. The male population can be found praying there five times a day and at special prayer meetings on Fridays.
The Swahili have recently demonstrated an interest in Western culture. For example, in addition to attending Islamic schools, most children also attend non-religious schools to acquire a Western-style education. Also, traditional Swahili folk medicines are no longer the only means of treating those with illnesses. Modern medical clinics have now been built in some areas.
Many of the people who live in large cities now own televisions through which they are constantly being exposed to Western ideas. Swahili women are more independent today than in times past and are becoming more involved in the economic and social realms of society.
Swahili culture has not only been influenced by the Islamic religion and Western ideas but also by the Northeast Bantu and Arab cultures, as well as Asian, Persian, and Indian cultures. This has made their culture quite unique, and they can easily be distinguished from their neighbors.
What are their beliefs? Nearly all of the Swahili profess to be Muslims; however, many of their traditional pre-Islamic beliefs and practices still exist. For example, they believe that many spirits - both good and evil - exist. They also believe in the supernatural power of witches and sorcerers.
The Swahili often have folk explanations for natural occurrences. For example, some believe that a cow is supporting the earth and that earthquakes are caused when the cow moves its horns. They believe that thunder is the sound of God speaking with the angels and that lightning occurs when God is pleased. To the Swahili, lightning is a good sign because it means that God will send plentiful rain and food that year.
What are their needs? Although Christian resources are available in the Swahili language, there are only a small number of Swahili Christians. Laborers who are sensitive to the Muslim culture are greatly needed to work among the Swahili.
Prayer Points * Ask God to raise up prayer teams to break up the soil through worship and intercession.
* Ask God to raise up Christian businessmen who will boldly share Christ with the Swahili.
* Ask the Lord of the harvest to send forth many laborers into East Africa.
* Pray that the Holy Spirit will encourage the small number of Swahili believers.
* Pray for a softening of their traditional Muslim culture so that the Gospel may be freely preached.
* Ask the Lord to raise up strong local churches among the Swahili.